A Postcard from Timbuktu

A postcard I received from Ali

One place I would love to travel to is Timbuktu (and in case you’re one of the people—there are a lot—who didn’t think it was a real place, it is). A sand-coloured maze of streets and mud brick houses and temples, Timbuktu was the centre of the trade across the Sahara in the middle ages, and became a great centre of learning, an Islamic university town, in the sixteenth century.

Its remoteness, roughly in the centre of Mali, and being a walled city, puts it in the same enticing, mysterious league as my other longed-for destination, Lo Manthang, Nepal, which I achieved in 2015. But, long before Covid rendered us all homebound, Timbuktu became off-limits when Islamic jihadists captured the city in 2012. It was recaptured by French and Malian forces in 2013, but in 2021 the Malian military staged a successful coup and now control the government. This year they ousted the French and welcomed Russian mercenary group Wagner, and that’s going about as well as you can guess.

So Timbuktu is not going to be listed on Tripadvisor any time soon. 

However, even if you can’t visit Timbuktu, you can pretend you’ve been there. After the rebel invasion, when tourism ceased in Timbuktu, those employed in the industry were left with no income. To help them out, Phil Paoletta, along with his friend Ali, set up Postcards From Timbuktu. Phil, an American fan of West African music, first travelled to Timbuktu for the famous Festival au Désert. He fell in love and still lives there with his wife and two children. He runs a small lodge and restaurant in Bamako, and (at least before Covid and a couple of military coups) runs motorbike tours in West Africa

For $10 (US) you can choose a postcard and the message you want written on it, and have it sent anywhere in the world. Taking time off work? Confuse your colleagues by sending them a postcard: 

“Hi everyone, having a great time here in the Sahara desert. Visited this fabulous mosque in Timbuktu today.” 

Is there someone you’re avoiding? 

“Hi, sorry I haven’t been in touch. Unfortunately, I’m stuck here in Timbuktu.”

Or freak your mum out:

“Hi Mum, sorry I haven’t called for a while.”

August 21st, 2009: The Airport Building of Timbuktu with waiting and arriving people.

Unfortunately, while your postcard is almost guaranteed to reach its destination, there is no predicting how long it may take. Be patient.

After it is hand-written in Timbuktu, (and the post office hasn’t run out of stamps) it is sent by whatever means available from there to the capital, Bamako. This can be either via a United Nations flight, bus, truck, or even by boat down the Niger river. Once it gets to Bamako, it will fly to France and then on to its final destination.  

You can also send salt mined in the Sahara desert, jewellery, bags, and any word or name of your choosing rendered in Islamic calligraphy by Boubacar Sadek, Timbuktu’s last master calligrapher.

So if you’d like to go on a pretend trip to Timbuktu, quit your job in a creative way, or just mess with someone’s head, or send a truly unique gift, check out Postcards From Timbuktu and help support former tourism workers.

Sanjay Colony, Delhi

Sanjay Colony from the train station

I’m actually enjoying Covid lockdown. I have the best of both worlds; I’m still going out to work three days a week, and the other days, since I can’t really go anywhere I’ve established a vegetable garden, resurrected my much-loved fruit-bread recipe, and started playing the piano again. I’m extremely fortunate.

But I have been thinking of the people of Sanjay Colony slum in Delhi. I toured the slum back in January this year. It sounds voyeuristic, but the tours are conducted by residents, no photos are allowed, and 80% of the fee goes to Reality Gives, the organisation that runs education programs in Sanjay Colony and the much larger Dharavi in Mumbai (made famous in the movie Slumdog Millionaire). This article describes the total lockdown of Dharavi, home to a million people, but I have not heard what is happening in Sanjay Colony so I can only try to imagine.

Sanjay Colony is home to around 45,000 residents. It is a bustling place with people working in different industries or running shops. Goats roam the outer roads, jumping onto carts, chewing on bits of paper or scraps of food. People seem happy enough on the surface of it, but their existence is precarious. At any time the government could decide to bulldoze their homes to build a new road or some other infrastructure. The forest that grew near the colony was cleared for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

I think of the women I saw, seated on the ground sorting through scraps of fabric from a nearby factory. The fabric is sorted for recycling. These women work out in the open in the blistering Delhi summers and freezing winters, seven days a week for round INR 200 a day. If they can’t work they get no money. I try to put myself in their position but the sheer relentlessness of it makes me feel exhausted and fearful and my mind runs from the thought.

I think of the men working in the printing factory housed in a large, dark, airless shed. We visited in the winter and even then the fumes from the ink were overpowering. Summers must be brutal. The only ventilation was from a tiny window high up on one wall, in which a fan sat still and coated in dust.

As Hema, our guide, led us through the narrow alleyways, where grey-green water ran along drains on either side, she was greeted by everyone. Barbers, bakers, clothing sellers, jewellery sellers, all waved and smiled. Children scooting out of the school gate high-fived her and, after staring curiously at us, ran off. Hema grew up in Sanjay and told us how much she loved always having family around, despite the cramped living space. There was much to envy about the community cohesion in Sanjay. Hema showed us a mosque, a church, and a Hindu temple. She said she celebrates all festivals from Christmas to Eid.

We entered one house and climbed the narrow, brick stairs to the rooftop. From here we looked out on the jumbled collection of houses, clustered together, all rough, red brick, and rusted tin roofs, some with satellite dishes attached. One house had a sink and a toilet cubicle on the roof–a rare luxury. The residents of Sanjay used to have to go to the toilet in the woods, a particularly difficult and often dangerous prospect for women. Now there are clean shower and toilet blocks.

Hema then took us to the health clinic. We pushed open a glass door and entered a room the size of my bathroom. Seating for about five people was arranged along the walls before the counter, behind which sat the doctor. He grew up in the slum and had been working there for the past twenty-two years. There was a bed on a raised bench against the far wall with a curtain that could be pulled across and a couple of cabinets full of medicine. As we sat chatting with the doctor a patient came in and the consultation commenced at once with all of us sitting there. Fortunately for the patient we didn’t understand Hindi.

If Sanjay Colony is in similar lockdown to Dharavi then all of this activity must now be silent as the inhabitants sit in their cramped spaces and wait for the virus to pass. In Dharavi, meals are being delivered to most inhabitants, so I can only assume (and hope) the same is happening in Sanjay Colony.

So when I catch myself thinking life is much easier and more serene for me in lockdown I remind myself of Hema and her family and friends and hope for their sake things return to normal as soon as possible

Three Tibets


Macleod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

What I didn’t realise when I set out for Lo Manthang was that I would be visiting Tibet. I may have read that Upper Mustang was culturally Tibetan, that they speak a dialect of Tibetan, and practice Tibetan Buddhism, but it was only visiting the monasteries day after day, hearing their low chanting from somewhere in the village, and being blasted out of bed at six am by horns and clashing cymbals that really brought home that this place was not Nepalese. But being in Nepal is what has saved this small pocket from the Chinese.

Tsarang, Upper Mustang, Nepal

I think it was when I showed my photos of Mustang to our guide in Tibet (on the side of a mountain, far from the ears and eyes of anyone else, in one of the few places not under constant surveillance by cameras) and he exclaimed, “This is Tibet!” that I fully realised.

No doubt Mustang, so close to the Tibetan border (Lo Manthang is just 20kms), is under some influence from China. People report being forced to remove pictures of the Dalai Lama in exchange for food; there are rumours of Chinese spies; the Chinese installed a (now defunct) solar plant in 2015. But these Tibetans are still free to practice their religion and to travel because they are Nepalese citizens.

So that original journey, to see the mediaeval city of Lo Manthang, has morphed into an exploration of Tibet, or “Tibetaness” and the question that keeps coming to mind is: what is the real Tibet? Is it a place or is it an ideal existing in the hearts of those who identify as Tibetan or who practice Tibetan buddhism and venerate the Dalai Lama?

Lhasa, Tibet

Having seen how Tibetan’s must live in their country after “liberation” by the Chinese, constantly under surveillance, being unable to trust anyone, even other Tibetans, with no access to the internet, unable to obtain passports, and severely restricted in their movement within Tibet, I decided I needed to see what life is like for those who have managed to escape. So two weeks ago I went to Dharamsala to witness the main Tibetan community in exile.

Unfortunately, it was a short visit; I plan to return and spend some time, but I was able to speak to some about their experience of leaving Tibet and how they felt about their country. I asked the young men working in the restaurant at my hotel whether they were born in Dharamsala or came from Tibet. All of them told me they had fled at varying times, more then ten years before, taking the treacherous journey across the mountains. I asked them if they wished they could go home. I thought they looked nervous when I asked this. Maybe it was my imagination, but having come from somewhere where anyone can dob you in to the Chinese I expect paranoia is hardwired. They said no. They were happier in Dharamsala. Some were hoping to move on to other countries. 

One man told me how he hid in his uncle’s truck. His uncle was a business man, able to cross the Nepalese border. The man was just five. He told me he was happy in Dharamsala too. I asked whether if the Chinese left Tibet whether the Tibetans would still want to return. He said that of course this was “the dream” but they aren’t naive enough to expect this to happen, certainly not in their lifetime.

Macleod Ganj

I met with a man named Yeshe Lhundup, who founded Tibet World, an organisation that provides education to Tibetans in Dharamsala in languages and various skills like computer programming and film-making. It provides a sense of purpose and community to those who have fled and helps them settle into the Tibet in exile.

Yeshe fled Tibet in the late ‘90s, walking across the Himalayas with a group. He went back to Tibet couple of years ago to visit his family (everyone I spoke to has left family behind in Tibet). I asked him if this wasn’t risky. He said the Chinese are allowing anyone who has been gone for 18 years to return in safety, but he knew there was a risk he could be detained. He kept to his village, avoiding Lhasa, but told me of his surprise at how the Chinese police constantly patrolled the village, stopping to question him and two friends talking in the street. He said he was surprised he wasn’t detained, having been part of protests before he left, and had written anti-Chinese content. I asked Yeshe if he was happy in Dharamsala. “It is an oasis,” he said. He missed his country and his family, but he too was realistic, saying, “We have lost our country. But there is hope,” which is what our Tibetan guide told me when I asked him about the future of Tibet. I asked Yeshe what he thought would happen when the Dalai Lama died. He agreed things would then become uncertain.

The walls of the hotel where I stayed in Macleodganj were covered in scenes from Tibet. They are the idyllic Tibet: the muscled nomad leading his wife across a stream as she rides a yak, surrounded by mountains; the Potala palace as it was before it became surrounded by roads and buildings and Chinese monuments. And without the Chinese flag perched aloft.

Hotel room, Chonor House, Macleod Ganj

Perhaps this is the only Tibet that will survive, an idealised version, gone forever. 


In Search of Silence

One of the most amazing things I discovered during my journey to Lo Manthang was silence. On the morning we left Tsarang, as I sat on a rock waiting for Dabendra to bring the horses, I watched a man lead his sheep out for the day to graze on the sparse and stunted greenery of the mountainous desert that makes up Upper Mustang.

The only sounds were the soft shuffling of the sheep and the man whistling to them to keep them from straying. Otherwise it was silent—an ancient silence that spread across the land, a silence that must once have covered the whole earth.

In my favourite book, Kristin Lavransdatter, the story of a woman’s life in mediaeval Norway, the sound of the river is the background to their lives.

The river gleamed behind the dun and golden trellis-work of the alder-brakes—it filled the air with its gladsome rushing sound, for here in Jörundgaard it ran swiftly over a flat bed strewn with boulders.

What must it have been to live with only the sound of a rushing river in the background?

I later experienced silence on the Arctic tundra in Canada, but it was a muffled silence; in spring, the landscape would wake and the sounds of life would once more fill the air. In Upper Mustang there are no trees, except in the villages where small brown sparrows twitter among the wood piles and peck up seed dropped during the harvest. The wind, the gentle tinkling of horse, donkey, and sheep bells, and human voices are the only sounds. 

Or at least they were. With the road has come machinery, mainly motorbikes, but also trucks and jeeps. And they bring other machinery: computers, radios, and electricity, albeit still patchy, enables the noise. On the two occasions I heard a truck it was playing music.

Are we humans meant to live with constant noise?

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine, Why Everything is Getting Louder, makes the alarming claim that “You may think you’ve tuned out the grumble of trucks downshifting outside, but your body has not: your adrenal glands are pumping stress hormones, your blood pressure spikes in response to clatter as low as 33 decibels—slightly louder than a purring cat”. The article claims we cannot adapt to noise. And yet most of us live with constant noise that we probably aren’t even aware of. I only realised this when it was no longer there. 

And yet there are obviously pleasant sounds. It would be weird to live in complete, constant silence, although some religious orders do. The film Into Great Silence documents the lives of Carthusian monks in France over a year. The film has no sound track, only the gentle sounds generated by daily life in the monastery. But even these venerable souls have Sunday afternoons off being silent to chat and take walks in the countryside.

And of course not all sound is noise. In The Atlantic article an acoustic consultant, Arjun Shankar, is quoted saying: “Sound is when you mow your lawn, noise is when your neighbour mows their lawn, and music is when your neighbour mows your lawn”. (I’m not sure about that last bit!)

Equally the sounds of nature are not generally considered noise which is why I recently installed a solar-powered fountain on my front verandah. Although it is artificially created it is still the sound of water falling. It doesn’t block the sound of traffic from the main road, but it does let me at least pretend for a while that I’m in some serene and exotic place, far from the noise of modern life. Alas, such silence as still covers the barren landscape of Upper Mustang becomes vanishingly rare.



Travels With Dog and Chicken?

Lately I’ve been hating my job. Yesterday I sat and stared at my computer wondering how with a Masters Degree I had ended up with a crappy call-centre job? Hell, when I was back in high school I wanted to be a sound engineer! But when I approached my mother with the idea she said flat out ‘No!’. Her idea? Come home (from boarding school) and get a job in the bank. Ugh! Studies in English and French instead. (My mother openly told people she and my father hoped I’d find a husband at university, someone to take me off their hands finally. She said this in front of me. I remember being surprised. Was I not capable of looking after myself? I hadn’t realised.)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I set off on my first travel adventure when I was three. I blame my sisters for reading and re-reading to me a book about a kitten that went off to see the world. At the age of three I clearly didn’t see a problem. If it was good enough for the kitten… The danger of books!

Now I feel a similar desire to flee. My next trip is planned for February but it’s only for two weeks then I’ll be back sitting in front of that computer feeling defeated. Why don’t I just take off? I can afford it. But there are those ties that bind: my husband, my sons, my ageing dog, even to a tiny extent my immortal chicken (Sylvia is 14 and still going strong!).

My husband is finishing up at his job soon and is planning on an Eat, Drink, Walk adventure on his own for a month. How stupid that until yesterday it had never occurred to me to do the same, minus the walking. (Do I still believe what my mother said?) Eat, Drink, Write but where? If only I could take dog and chicken with me. We could all set off to see the world.

Sylvia the immortal chicken

Maggie the geriatric dog (almost 15)



Safety is what it boils down to. Having a home, feeling at home, being in control of your environment, having a familiar place to return to; these are the things that make us humans crave home.

My trip to Tibet has made me think a lot about the notion of home. When my mother had to move out of the home which had been my family’s for 58 years and, worse, it was sold to a stranger, I didn’t cope. I ended up in my psychologists room choking back tears at the loss of what had always been home. And yet my grief was a mystery to us both. It had never been a happy home, in fact I had always felt something of an outsider. I hadn’t really lived at home since I was sent to boarding school at the age of twelve and had no connection to the town having lost contact with all my primary school friends. And anyway, I had my own home now where I lived with my own family.

In the latest edition of Creative Nonfiction magazine Emily Wortman-Wunder lists all the reasons she thinks she shouldn’t feel a sense of belonging to the place her parents live: she wasn’t born there, she left as soon as she could, she hates a lot of the hokey things about it and so on. And yet, like me, she had to face the inevitability of them leaving that home and never being able to return and it hurt. She writes: “The thought of never coming back fills me with grief”.

What does this have to do with Tibet? Its inhabitants are at home and yet so many would flee if they could (and still do when possible) because the Chinese are changing their home into China. And the Tibetans in exile in Dharamsala wish they could return, even though they would return to a place that is no longer the home they left.

This is why my next trip will be to Dharamsala. It completes the trilogy. I’ve visited Lo Manthang, a place that is Tibetan and yet in Nepal and from which so many inhabitants are moving to seek what they hope will be better, easier, more exciting lives. These are Tibetans who were spared the devastation of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, who never had to witness, and in some instances participate in the destruction of their monasteries, but who instead let their monasteries fall into disrepair and left it to foreign artisans and money to restore them for…whom?

I’ve experienced the precariousness of life in Tibet under the constant and ruthless gaze of the occupying power where its inhabitants are effectively imprisoned, and now I want to see what life is like for those who were able to flee the Chinese but have lived in a state of limbo for almost 60 years. Tenzin Rigdol’s film Bringing Tibet Home exposed the depth of longing and plain homesickness of these exiles as they walked tearfully upon the soil of their homeland and then desperately scooped it into whatever containers they had so they could take it with them back to what they regard as their temporary homes.

Even some Palestinian refugees, having fled the Nakba 70 years ago still live in the hope that they will one day be able to return to their villages despite the fact many no longer exist.

They want to feel safe and in control. And home is who you are. Where are you from? was the first thing I asked my new cleaner when he arrived. Bhutan, was his reply, and it meant I could place him, though trying not to make assumptions. Why was he here? And did he miss home? How long before he could return? Far from Australia was that focal point to which he belonged and that would draw him back as soon as it could.

I recently moved house after 14 years in the same place. I’m happy about it because I’m enjoying a new lifestyle, but I feel a bit adrift. We are renting and know we won’t be here a long time. Neither do I want to return to my previous home. I’m not stateless, or living under occupation but I feel curiously adrift. I don’t really know where home is any more and I don’t know where it will end up being, but for now I feel safe and have some control over my living space, and that’s fine.

Under Constant Surveillance

The Potala

When I first saw the Potala Palace I cried; firstly because I had long dreamed of making the high-altitude train journey to Lhasa and seeing the Potala, and secondly because it was obvious Lhasa is rapidly being turned into another Chinese city, replete with identical high-rise apartment blocks.

We were met at the station by our guide who greeted us with “Tashi Delek!” and the traditional silk katas, which he draped around our necks. Close by was a Chinese soldier armed with a large rifle. Once in the car we were told that we would see many police and soldiers on the streets of Lhasa but that we must not photograph them. Sure enough on the corner where we stopped and were led to our hotel, several police with full riot gear ready to go stood surrounded by Tibetans going about their business. In front of the stony-faced police, smiling Tibetan faces said, “Welcome to Lhasa!”

We followed our guide through the narrow winding streets of what is known as the Tibetan area, as though the whole city weren’t Tibetan. It is the original part of Lhasa and surrounds the most holy of Tibetan Buddhism’s monasteries, the Jokhang. Women in  traditional Tibetan dress–a wrap-around pinafore over a blouse and with a colourful striped apron at the front– and some men wearing the traditional Chuba–like an over-sized dressing gown worn with an arm in only one sleeve–walked in a never-ending stream fingering their prayer beads and murmuring prayers. At each corner a camera watched them.

Tibetans in the Barkor

A welcome lunch was provided in the dining room after we stowed our bags and had time to catch our breath. My head was swimming after the jump from 2200m in Xining to 3800m. We were advised to rest that day and not to shower to give ourselves time to adjust. I didn’t need any encouragement to rest although I did try to shower and found the hot water refusing to arrive so gave up.

As we sat at lunch two well-dressed Chinese women came in. My first thought was that they were office workers on their lunch break; they didn’t look like tourists. But it occurred to me that it was strange that such women would come for lunch in a boutique hotel dining room, tucked away in the Tibetan area. I looked at the man behind the bar and saw him looking at them. His face was serious. There was a young couple also having lunch. They looked like backpackers. The barman didn’t stare at them. So my next unsettling thought was, were these plain-clothes police?

And so began nine days of guarded conversation and careful photography. The oppression of constant surveillance cowed my usually adventurous husband. On every other trip we’ve done he strides out early in the morning, often before I’m awake, to explore the area and get his bearings. He made one furtive foray that afternoon and afterwards was too afraid. He became sick and twitched nervously every time I took my phone out to take a picture in the street.

I, on the other hand, was not the slightest bit afraid. I was instead angry and sad that people as gentle as the Tibetans obviously were, had to live this way and that I too had to be intimidated into pretending that China isn’t systematically undermining Tibetan culture. It continues to make me angry because for fear of endangering our guide, I still can’t speak freely.

What I can say was that the Dalai Lama is conspicuous by his total absence in conversation and by being the only high lama whose picture is never seen. Photos of the previous, 13th Dalai Lama, are displayed in the monasteries, as are the Karmapa Lama and controversial, Chinese appointed 11th Panchen Lama, but the only reference to the present Dalai Lama was when we saw what were once his living quarters in the Potala.

I saw the ruins of old houses next to where new buildings were going up. People picked through the rubble. We drove past the new “education precinct” where boarding schools are being built for Tibetan children from other areas of Tibet. Here they will be educated away from their families, taught only in Mandarin from as young as grade three. An enormous portrait of Xi Jinping greets the students at the entrances.

At each entrance to the Barkor, the area that surrounds the Jokhang, police are stationed. All bags must be screened and once we had to produce our passports and were asked which hotel we were staying in. The Tibetans have to produce their ID cards and were frequently questioned. Once inside you step into the clockwise current that sweeps around the monastery, clockwise being the traditional, respectful direction. Shops and restaurants line both sides so you can break off to do some browsing. Police are stationed at regular points and in the square outside the entrance to the Jokhang are firefighters sitting ready. There have been several self-immolations by monks in protest against Chinese controls. Lighters and matches are forbidden in the Barkor.

The Tibetans ignore the police in riot gear, the armoured vehicles, the soldiers marching in formation, and continue in their clockwise pilgrimage. Some perform prostrations as they go, lying face down, getting up, walking a couple of paces, then lying face down again. They wear knee pads and blocks on their hands. The police look on, faces impassive.

As wonderful as it was to go inside the Potala and the Jokhang and wander the narrow streets of the Tibetan area, it was hard to enjoy being in Lhasa, and even as we journeyed south, where the surveillance was only marginally less (we had a camera in our car!) we could never relax and began longing for escape across the border to Nepal, like so many Tibetans who will never have that opportunity. It was like an inevitable punctuation to the end of our trip when our China Lonely Planet guide was confiscated at the border. We bought it in Australia and had used it throughout our three weeks in China but they took it at journey’s end. No books, no maps to be taken out. Paranoia and stupidity combined. 

Dashcam pointing inwards

Nevermind. As we walked across the bridge to Nepal, which can’t afford bag screening machines so instead has a quick feel of your bags outside a rough hut, and climbed into a jeep for the bone-jarring ride on the roughest road imaginable to Kathmandu, we still had our Tibet Lonely Planet guides and Pocket Maps stored in our iPads.

Nepal: the road from the Chinese border

And we were free.

On Not Visiting the Great Wall.

Well sacrilege to many people, but after we’d booked the driver and as the day wore on, I could feel reluctance turning to regret. Look, I’m sure it’s a great wall as walls go but I’ve seen it in a million photos and I learnt my lesson last time I felt compelled to visit something one is expected to go and see.

We drove for three hours each way from Delhi to see the Taj Mahal. Like the Eiffel Tower I couldn’t care less if I never saw it, but I loathed Delhi and this would at least be a day out of it. What the million photos of the Taj Mahal don’t show is the squalor you have to wade through before you get to it. Agra is dirty and chaotic and you have to run the usual gauntlet of people hassling you to buy stuff. Was it worth it though, once we entered and saw the great mausoleum? Not really. I was tired, it was 37 degrees, and we had a tedious guide who droned on and on with his much rehearsed spiel. I took photos but they looked like the million photos I’d seen before. Like the Beatles, it just didn’t do it for me.

If I had any doubts about foregoing the obligatory trip to the Wall, my resolve was firmed by re-reading what Patrick Holland (Brisbane author and my masters supervisor) wrote about it in his book “Riding the Trains in Japan”:

I had first seen the Wall as a student in Beijing and been underwhelmed as one often is at famous and over-photographed sites that no longer have a use apart from their value as tourist draw cards…That day I could easily imagine that the Wall was fake–that it had been set up on the back of a legend to part tourists with their money.

So after farewelling my husband to do the obligatory for both of us, I made my way to a lovely cafe to do some writing and to practice my paltry Mandarin (with limited success). Then I visited the ancient Drum Tower down the road. The tower was once the official time-keeper for the city. It was originally built in 1272 but burnt down and was rebuilt in 1420.

The Subversive Travel Writer


I confess I don’t know what to think about Julian Assange. Clearly the Ecuadorians were as tired of him as anyone would be of a house guest who had overstayed their welcome by some six years. Is he just a narcissist as the judge claimed, or is he truly a martyr to free speech?

I’m only thinking about this as I am about to undertake a journey about which I plan to write but about which I am loathe to publish anything beforehand lest it jeopardise the trip. We’ve already had to engage in subterfuge to get our visas so we can then gain permits to access where we really want to go. In one of the books I have read about the place, the writer describes his experience:

As I jotted thoughts into a small black notebook, another official approached.

           “What are you writing about?” he asked.

            “It’s just my travel journal,” I explained, and smiled weakly.

            “Are you writing notes about the train?” he pressed. “It would be better if you did not write while on the train.” He stood there until I closed my book and tucked it away…

Great. So I’m wondering whether I will have to just remember everything as I’m travelling and then get it down once the coast is clear.

I would never have pictured myself as a subversive writer, but to write is often an act of subversion. Writers, particularly non-fiction writers, write to find the truth. About people, about places, about motives, about events. Dervla Murphy is not welcome in Israel because of her books about her time with the Palestinians (A Month by the Sea and Between River and Sea). She spent a month in Gaza and several months in the West Bank. She was seeking the truth about the daily lives of the Palestinians. She was so disturbed by what she experienced that for a long time after she came home to Ireland she couldn’t bring herself to write about it. Fortunately her friends encouraged her to do so and naturally it upset the Israeli government.

I have a standing invitation from a friend to visit with her husband’s family in Iran. I would love to do this, but would then have to sacrifice never being allowed into the US again. Which is hardly an enormous sacrifice, but I know some time in the future I will want to return to New York at least. 

And unfortunately Freya Stark’s (rather politically incorrect now) tactic when travelling where she knew she shouldn’t, wouldn’t work as well now as it did in the 1920s:

The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.

Oh dear. 

In her later years, Dervla would plan to blame the onset of dementia if she were caught straying into forbidden territory. I don’t think I’m quite old enough for that one.

I’ll be setting off in five weeks. People ask me if I’m excited about my trip. I’m not. But I am looking forward to the challenge. And to eventually writing about it.


Here’s to the Fearless Female Explorers

?A Picnic with King Faisal? photograph of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), Traveller, spy and archaeologist on a picnic in Saudi Arabia in 1922.
“A Picnic with King Faisal”. Gertrude Bell in Saudi Arabia, 1922. Vintage Archives/Alamy Stock Photo


In honour of International Women’s Day I have decided to write something about the women I most envy: the explorers.

Remember learning about Magellan? Columbus? Sturt? Flinders? Cook? The thing they had most in common wasn’t only that they explored the world, it was that they all had penises. And having penises also gave them the means to embark on their expeditions because they had wives at home to take care of all that meaningless stuff, like raising children, cooking food, and making sure the house wasn’t coated in dust or covered in mould.

Meanwhile, some very fearless women were undertaking their own journeys.

The first female explorer I heard of was Freya Stark, and that was only because she was British and I was in London at the time of her death in 1993 at the age of 100. At the time I was surprised I’d never heard of her before and the thing I remember being most reported about her was not so much her travels, but the fact that she’d been almost completely scalped at the age of 13 when her hair was caught in a machine.

I feel some affinity for Freya because, like me, she was a sickly child and therefore, like me, did a lot of reading. After reading One Thousand and One Nights she became obsessed with the Middle East and spent her life until her retirement in the ’70s travelling in the region on and off.

I have a similar obsession with the Arctic after reading about Iceland as a teenager. But unlike Freya I have not learned Icelandic or any other Scandinavian, Russian, or Inuit language. I can however say sorry in Danish and Swedish (Unskyld and Förlåt) and now automatically reply with Tak and Ja because I watch too much Scandi Noir. (Too much? Not possible!)

Gertrude Stein similarly spent the early part of the 20th Century wandering about in the Middle East. I read on Wikipedia that “History was one of the few subjects women were allowed to study [at Oxford], due to the many restrictions imposed on them at the time” and that “she was the first woman to graduate from Modern History with first class honours”. A terrible movie was made about her, starring Nicole Kidman. Pretty sure Gertrude didn’t emerge from the desert with flawless skin and clean, matching outfits, but I do hope she spent her evenings sitting at a table writing by candle-light with a pen dipped in ink.

My great heroine, though, is the Irish explorer and writer Dervla Murphy. Dervla was pulled out of school at the age of 14 to come home and look after her mother who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. She continued to care for her, drinking a lot of whisky and chain-smoking to cope, until her mother died. By then Dervla was 31. She closed up the house, got herself a gun, and got on her bike and rode. All the way from Dublin to India. For the next 50 years she travelled by bike, on foot, on mule, with and without her daughter, and wrote 26 books. Her last Between River and Sea about her time living in the West Bank in Palestine, was published in 2015. She resigned herself, at the age of 84, to staying put. Since a hip replacement she can no longer ride a bike, she used to love swimming but now her shoulder is no good, and all those cigarettes have given her emphysema. Still, 84!

Many of the places these fearless women travelled are no longer accessible because the inhabitants are all fighting with each other. I want to go to Timbuktu. The official advice says Do Not Travel, the Lonely Planet says Mali is great but not safe to travel there at the moment, and you can’t get travel insurance (as though any of those women ever did). I actually called a guy named Phil Paoletta who runs Postcards from Timbuktu in Mali’s capital, Bamako. He told me you can’t get near Timbuktu; the soldiers will turn you around if you try. He did however suggest stowing away in a boat on the Niger river. Yeah, that’d work.

So for now I must content myself with my previous–rather pale in comparison–expeditions to Lo Manthang and the Arctic Tundra, (Inuvik! You’re welcome kids!) and look toward my next journeys into the somewhat unknown. If only, like Dervla, I could happily sleep in a puddle of freezing water!