Posted March 13th, 2017
Alone in the desert
From the capital Khartoum, which lies at the confluence of the swift silty Blue Nile and the clear waters of the broad languorous White Nile, I would drive north - into the scrubland of acacia trees and sparse tufts of yellowed grass. Soon, the rippling dunes would rise up sharply, almost chiselled. The wind whips the sand, moving it like spirits, the stark landscape broken only by a river and the ribbon of green along its banks: date palms, and mango trees heavy with ripening fruit.
This is the Nile south of Egypt - with ancient kingdoms, sandstone pyramids and archaeological mysteries. Such as Kerma, the capital of the Kush, one of the earliest African civilisations dating back to around the 16th-century BC. Here are some of the oldest mud-brick constructions on the continent, known locally as defuffas, and as big as Norman churches. One is thought to be a royal tomb, another a palace. At the nearby museum are seven monumental black granite statues of pharaohs.I also love Jebel Barkal, the holy mountain of both Nubian and Egyptian pharaohs. At its base are the ruins of colonnaded temples with walls etched in hieroglyphs. I'd climb the mountain as the setting sun lights up the red sandstone rock. On the opposite bank are the crumbling pyramids of Nuri, tomb of the great Nubian king, Taharqa, whose empire stretched from Palestine to Khartoum.But where I want to be right now is at the pyramids of Begrawiya - with their distinctive steep-sided shapes, like mathematical symbols. This was the royal cemetery of the Meroitic pharaohs, who ruled for about 800 years, after Taharqa. Set among the dunes they seem lost in time - with sand filling chambers covered with wall engravings. This is where I want to be: alone except for a herd of black goats, and listening to the desert wind.
Posted March 6th, 2017
Swimming with marine iguanas
Finches, pah. Even ones that have been found to manipulate tools - Woodpecker finches - are no match for the marine life of the Galápagos. Charles Darwin never got to snorkel, let alone dive, the waters around this Pacific archipelago. How he missed out.
Over a thousand kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, bang on the equator, here are more than a dozen volcanic islands and many more rocky outcrops. But it's all about the wildlife, of course: tropical penguins, a Waved albatross on an awkward running start before taking off from a cliff, baby Giant tortoises hatching at the start of their very, very long lives. Plus, this is the time of year for crazy courtship rituals. The Magnificent frigate bird puffs up its throat sac into an inflated red balloon and the Blue-footed booby is similarly outlandish wobbling from one foot to the other.
Yet it is neither the quirkiness nor the diversity of the creatures here that I adore, but their fearlessness. I remember watching a Nazca booby sitting on an egg, as it looked back at me equally intently. When I almost stepped upon a basking sea lion, which I mistook for a rock, it warned me of its presence with a courteous bark. A Giant tortoise always seem to lock eyes with a confident assuredness.
But more than anything, it is the underwater life that captivates me, such as the Marine iguana which seems wholly unfazed by my artless presence, snorkel and goggles suckered to my face. It continues to munch on algae before torpedoing to the surface - to warm itself in the sunshine and raise its body temperature between dives.
Which is what I want to be doing, too. Flopped between dives on white sand beaches, before jumping back into the sea to bodysurf with sea lions, watch circling hammerhead sharks, and to swim alongside manta ray and green turtles - both entirely unskittish.
The Galápagos. This is where I want to be right now: on the eastern route for the best snorkelling, but then perhaps I'd double loop and head west for the penguins, dolphins and whales. Just to remind myself what it is like to be an animal living on planet earth unafraid.
Posted February 27th, 2017
Among the temples
I had spent months trying to get into the country. It was early 2011 soon after the general election and the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar authorities were jittery. My application for a visa was denied in London and two other European capitals. So I flew to Thailand but the same happened at the embassy in Bangkok. So I flew to Phnom Penh after hearing that a new airline was starting direct flights from there to Yangon - and immigration officials were waiving the need for a visa as a gesture of good will.
I thought I had beaten the system.
But as we rolled down the runway about to fly out of Cambodia, there was the distinct sound of engine trouble -- and the pilot abandoned take-off, turned off the runway and taxi-ed back to the terminal. We sat on the ground for half a day waiting for a spare part -- and then finally took off, but mid-flight we were mysteriously diverted to Bangkok where we overnighted.
The following morning we flew on to Yangon but of course now I was now coming from the wrong departure point and I needed a visa. It took bribes and some mettle to get past immigration.
That was a time of serious political transition for Myanmar. Yangon felt squeezed by sanctions. More than anywhere the city reminded me of Havana for its crumbling colonial buildings, potholed roads, creaking taxis, poorly-stocked supermarkets, outdated advertising and abundance of generators. At night the city was immersed in darkness with only a few lit streetlamps.
I remember standing outside National Bank No. 3 watching a man wheel inside a trolley loaded with what looked like mattresses. On closer inspection I realised they were sewn-up sacks stuffed with kyat, the local currency. Written in black marker pen on the outside was USD250,000. I estimated a sack's dimensions and compared it to the wad of kyat I had just exchanged for $100. It was about right: a 'mattress' of kyat would equate to about a quarter of a million dollars. It was more cash than I had ever seen -- on the floor of a bank in Myanmar.
I boarded a train to Bagan. We pulled out punctually. I threw open my compartment window as we left behind the gritty city sprawl. There were pagodas prominent atop hills; some spires were covered in gold-leaf, some in white plaster, some decorated in fragments of broken mirror. White Brahman cows lazed under mango trees. At station platforms women on the tracks were selling fried samosas and apples; kids called out for dollars and sweets.
Overnight the train swung, shook and shuddered as it moved north. By dawn the air was dry with a whiff of burning plastic, and outside the landscape had transformed. Lush paddy fields had made way for dusty scrubland studded with palms. Piles of rubbish lay rotting by the tracks. Through the frame of my train window Myanmar rolled past like a film about Old Asia and broken dreams.
So much has changed since then. But Bagan is one place that has stayed much the same. Here are a concentrated 4,000 temples, pagodas and stupas on the banks of the Ayeyarwady, or Irrawaddy. It was in the 11th century when rulers here commenced two hundred years of frenzied construction and created this ethereal spiritual landscape reflecting Buddhist, Hindu and animist history.
Posted February 20th, 2017
In the rainforest of Guyana
This is where Sir Walter Raleigh searched for a city of gold called El Dorado and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his fantastical Lost World. High tepuis and crashing waterfalls - and pristine rainforest as far as I can see. Trees grow here like they're rushing to save the world. The rise and fall of cicadas sound like Martians landing, then taking off again. Howler monkeys screech like the Sirens who once tantalised sailors. Then there are the birds, the birds. The tinamou's haunting whistle and the crass squawk of macaws. A cackle of caracara. Golden-winged parakeets like tiny jangling bells. A loopy screaming piha. The heavy thud of rednecked woodpecker, more axe than pecker.
And yet it's hard to see the source of all this sound. But that's the jungle for you. There might be giants living here - anaconda, jaguar, black caiman, capybara, river otter, anteater and harpy eagle - but no matter how hard one looks, they're tough to spot. These animals might be huge but they're also elusive.
Yet I love to listen in. What I would give to be in a hammock, shrouded in mosquito netting, hearing the frantic pulse of jungle life… before it's silenced for a spell by hard heavy rain. And then to wait a while and hear the sounds rising up again.
And then there's Kaieteur, the world's biggest single-drop waterfall by volume, and five times the height of Niagara. In the 1930s, Evelyn Waugh called it 'one of the finest, most inaccessible, and least advertised natural wonders of the world'. Little has changed since then. There are still no safety rails, no security guards, none of the trappings of mass tourism; one feels like the first person to stumble upon the place.
I'd lie down on my tummy, crawl towards the edge of the vertiginous cliff and peer over. To see the Potaro river suddenly flip over at right angles and plunge down, before finding its way forward again through a break in the forest; snatching sight of starlings diving in and out of the spray; to wonder at the play of light and water, watching rainbows that arch so far around they meet at the other end and become raincircles. This is where I really want to be right now: Kaieteur, like magic.
Posted February 13th, 2017
Because we must travel. Because we can.
Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. After Trump ordered a temporary ban on travellers from those countries entering the US, a federal judge barred his ruling. The US federal appeals court upheld that. Let's see what happens next.
I've been thinking a lot about those seven countries. And how, in contrast, I can be almost anywhere I want to be.
Such as Yemen: dusty, bleached, biblical. Some say the capital San'a is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, founded by Shem, son of Noah, and the origin of all truly Arabic people.
Travellers of the past would have arrived here by camel: thirsty, gritty and probably afraid, standing in front of the fortified city gates of Bab Al-Yaman. That's where I first arrived, too, a throat-like archway leading into the Old Town, where towering homes built a millennium ago rise up in glorious mud. Six or seven-storey houses, precariously leaning over narrow alleys in gingerbread tones with icing motifs in gypsum: Koranic calligraphy embossed above arched windows; alabaster friezes; abstract patterns of white triangles, arrowheads and chevrons.
The meandering lanes are flanked by market stalls cluttered with antiques. Merchants tout silverware bejewelled with lapiz and malachite and cora, dowry boxes inlaid with camel bone and sticky dates sold by the brick. I dart between men manoeuvring wheelbarrows laden with bales of wire and bolts of cloth, children playing with spinning tops and women whispering arm-in-arm, shrouded in black.
Sabah al-khair, they say. Good morning.
The response is Sabah al-noor. Morning of light.
There are fruit-sellers behind pyramids of pomegranates, pink mangoes and persimmons, besides traders offering up frankincense and myrrh. A woman walks past with a Singer sewing machine balanced on her head. A water-seller chinks together two glasses, touting pure mountain water as a health cure. In the odd open basement, I spy mangy camels padding around stone mills, grinding sesame seeds into oil.
I come to buy honey and coffee, arguably the world's best. Honey sellers peddle Dan'ani honey, created by bumble bees who feast on Christ's Thorn Jujube. Flies buzz about the thick glass jars. Honey here can be the colour of molasses, or Champagne.
The coffee vendors grind beans by hand. I breathe in the specks floating in the air: a smell of late-night deadlines and chocolate. One reaches into his sack and trickles a handful of beans into my palm. "Chew it like qat," he says.
Ah, qat. The food of the saints. A mild natural amphetamine, qat has been chewed in Yemen since the 14th century. It is said to have first been used by Islamic scholars to concentrate their mind on the Koran. One San'anite artist once told me: "You can't understand our city if you haven't chewed qat."
Late afternoon, the city falls quiet. I kick back, clutching a small plastic bag full of dark green leaves, stuffing it inside my cheek. There are three qat-induced phases: light-headed and light-of-step; then, desiring serious debate, and finally slightly dazed.
The Yemenis call this hour - when dusk turns to twilight - the Hour of Solomon. This is where I want to be right now. San'a - up in a mafraj, a belvedere-like room with unhindered views of the mountain peaks. I want to be here right now because I can be.
Posted February 6th, 2017
Elle n'est pas belle, la vie
For years I wanted not to love St Barth's. I imagined it as the antithesis of what I adore about the unhurried Caribbean. Instead of steel-band beats, clapboard Wendy houses painted in sugar-almond pastels, chickens scratching about in the sand, and hummingbirds among hibiscus blooms, St Barth's was - in my imagination - a misplaced overprivileged party scene that belonged in a Mediterranean high season.
How wrong I was. From the first moment I stepped upon its sandy shores, the island started working its magic. It was like finding myself marooned in the tropics with a salty French mariner, he a little bit scuffed, frayed and faded… and unavoidable, in every way.
I love coming here. Either by wind-in-my-hair ferry, or by Twin Otter: peering through the open doorway of the cockpit to see the approach from the perspective of the pilot. The plane flies low in the V between two peaks. Through the pass, the pilot pushes the joystick forward in what feels like a dive. At the last moment he or she pulls up and flares, squeaking down the wheels and pressing hard on the brakes. The runway ends abruptly at a beach. The door is unlatched and in pours the humidity, a hint of kerosene, salt and coconut.
And that's only the first few electrifying minutes. Beyond the airport, St Barth's is nine astoundingly beautiful square miles: a rugged landscape of dry, rocky soil, iguanas on the foreshore, silhouettes of pelicans soaring above, and a beach for every day of the week. Gouverneur is my favourite place in the world to bodysurf; Flamands is dotted with perfectly positioned islands in its sweeping bay; there are the quiet little rock pools at Lorient; I do laps at St Jean; kitesurf at the reef-protected lagoon of Grand Cul-de-Sac, and there's the wild landscape of La Côte Sauvage in the southeast, which feels like proper pirate country. I also adore the curve of Colombier, which is a little trek from the road along high ridges, through forest and often in the company of giant tortoises; I always pack a picnic (a roast chicken, a baguette or two and bottle of Badoit) and my snorkel to explore the hypnotically clear water.
It almost hurts to write about St Barth's. This is absolutely where I want to be right now. Take me from London in February to St Barth's. Now, anytime.
Posted January 30th, 2017
Under blue skies in Delhi
Back in the day, not so long ago in fact, I used to pack a picnic - of fried samosas and chutneys, and masala chai in a flask - and head to this grand mausoleum of red sandstone and white marble. Humayun's Tomb is one of the earliest examples of Mughal architecture in India, said to have inspired the Taj Mahal. But the reason I come is not to see glazed ceramic tiles and inlaid marble borders, but to be among the irrigated geometric gardens of neem and sacred fig, with Eurasian hoopoes and Indian rollers up in the branches.
I came here last week and, as I entered the grounds, I could barely see the edge of the walled garden or the gold finial atop the marble dome. The air in India's capital is hanging heavy with smog, a flaccid jaundiced yellow, abrasive on the throat.
I want to be here when the air is crisp, sharp, even fresh, which it often can be at this time of year. I'd arrive early morning when there might be dew on the grass and I'd sit on a wall until the sun had risen high enough to warm up the earth. Then I'd unfurl a throw and fall upon the ground - to write or read, or both. A dozen women in saris and soft veils would be swinging at the long grass with scythes, moving forward in a rhythmic line. Gurgling water would run in channels along the edges of the lawn - representing the four rivers of Quranic paradise - spilling into ponds or slipping underground into terracotta pipes laid beneath the tomb nearly half a millennium ago, only to reemerge on the other side. Handsome date palms and ashoka trees spear up into the sky. Perhaps a hibiscus is in flower and a citrus tree.
I might take a break from the heat of the day and enter the gloom of the large octagonal chamber with its vaulted roof. Inside I'd wander between arched alcoves, feeling the breeze through the carved stone lattice screens. Above a flap of pigeons would make me start.
Then I'd climb up the steep steps to the expansive terrace to see India's capital sprawl. In the immediate vicinity are adjoining tombs, part of a sacred necropolis built over seven centuries; it is the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings in the country. Beyond, the city hums with idling traffic and the blast of horns, punctured by the reverberating clanking of metal on metal, rumbling generators. And then there is an ethereal uplifting call to prayer. In the clear skies above, broad black kites glide almost on the notes of the muezzin.
Posted January 23rd, 2017
At the top of Tortin
Friday was horrifying, worse than I could have imagined.
Saturday was uplifting, exhilarating - and an overwhelming relief.
This past weekend reminds me of skiing from the top to the bottom of Tortin. This is where I want to be right now: in the clean uncluttered air of the mountains, a chill on my cheeks, shutting out the noise for a few minutes, to take my chances down one of the toughest runs in the Alps.
At least there's snow in Verbier now, which makes this north-facing run a little less intimidating. But I'm always scared of Tortin, no matter how deep the powder is. The first time I tackled it, I was with a group of serious skiers. They were at the bottom before I'd even clicked in. I remember looking down at them looking up at me. My goggles began to steam up because I was actually crying with fear behind them.
Everyone gets down Tortin, of course. But not always intact.
Access to the run is via a traverse. Under my breath, I whisper repeatedly: turn left quickly on to the slope. It's (marginally) better than turning later. The mountain is wide but insanely steep. The oversized moguls kill the knees - and crush the spirit. Crazily, the descent gets progressively worse - and the legs increasingly wobbly. One slip and it's a big old dangerous tumble. The blood wagons and helicopters are often seen buzzing about here.
Yet this is where I want to be right now. To be filled with terror. And then to prove to myself I can overcome. In practice for the next four years.
Posted January 16th, 2017
I know where I don't want to be this week: the USA. Unless I was marching.
But there's a city that, for me, represents everything Trump doesn't. It's the New York City of the African continent; a city of dreams, pinned hopes and a place where you believe you can make it. It's modern, it's ambitious, it works; this is next-generation Africa. Everyone wants to come here, whether they're from Dakar or Dar es Salaam, Lagos or Lilongwe, Khartoum or Kinshasa.
There's so much about this city I love. There's the museum at Liliesleaf Farm, the former headquarters for the liberation movement and a safe house for leading anti-apartheid figures. The property is best known for the dramatic 1963 raid which security branch policemen called a 'jackpot' as they hauled in the resistance movement's top brass. There's also the harrowing Apartheid Museum in Soweto documenting South Africa's past from the dawn of segregation to the armed struggle to the release of Nelson Mandela.
Another heroic statesman, Mahatma Gandhi spent 20 years of his life in South Africa - and it was in Johannesburg that he brainwaved the satyagraha movement and nonviolent resistance. I could spend the whole day at his restored home The Satyagraha House, an homage to those years.
I'd hang out around Wits University - on Juta Street in Braamfontein, where artists, designers and creatives while away hours in coffee shops, pubs and the Neighbourgoods Market. There's Wits Art Museum with the finest collection of African art on the continent - housed in a dazzling converted petrol station. I also love the contemporary galleries such as Everard Read that has supported some of southern Africa's most important artists over the last 100 years; the Goodman where, under the apartheid regime, founder Linda Goodman used to dress her artists as waiters so they could attend their own shows, and Grayscale for exhibitions by graffiti artists (next door, Rashy does some of the best tattoos around). Plus, Artist Proof studio in a former bus factory of Newtown, which is a hub for street kids being put through printmaking courses.
But where I want to be right now is the Maboneng district - exploring William Kentridge's art studio, the David Krut Bookstore, Museum of African Design and Bailey's African History Archive which sells 1950s and 1960s covers of DRUM magazine which reported on township life under apartheid. There's the Bioscope cinema focusing on local talent, first-run films, art house and docs, and from the shops around Arts on Main I'd pick up coat hooks twisted into the city skyline and purses printed with handsigns used to flag cabs in Joburg: a single finger raised - to town; fingers spread - to Wanderers taxi rank; finger pointing right - Alex to Sandton.
This is where I want to be right now: downtown Johannesburg. A capsule of so much of what I love about South Africa - and the world at large. I'd stop by 'I was shot in Joburg :)' where at-risk kids are given a disposable camera to take photos of the city they know and love. I have one of their prints hanging on my wall at home: a shot of a graffitied wall sprayed with WRITE THE FUTURE. Let's keep writing - and resisting.
Posted January 9th, 2017
The coldest, driest and windiest place on earth
Tucked away on the underside of the globe is this white wilderness: great swathes of snowfields scoured by a blur of wind, pitted glaciers stealthily heading seaward and colossal tabular icebergs among a sea of glassy ice shards. But what I really love about this place at this time of year is how it teems with life: schools of whales, colonies of seals and penguins, and skies aloud with almighty seabirds.
I would begin in Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, forging east into the Beagle Channel and the dreaded Drake Passage for a thousand rough kilometres. My last crossing - with six-metre rolling waves and lashing winds - was considered an average kind of voyage.
On to the Antarctic Peninsula, a tail of land which looks on a map like the last flick of the Andes mountain range. The high peaks and deep channels make for sheltered navigation between extinct ashen volcanic cones, snow-free pebble beaches and rusting old whaling stations. At this time of year, there are populations of penguins squabbling over stones for their nests, chicks chasing parents for a feed and all of them squirting out bright pink stinky guano. Rocks are splattered in yellow and green lichens; this anaemic continent suddenly becomes a profusion of colour. Hauled out of the sea on land are snoozing Weddell seals, snorting southern elephant seals and fur seals lolloping across the land. Worried young Gentoo penguins take to the water for the first time, easy pickings for leopard seals patrolling the icebergs. The floating ice crowds the sea like mythological creatures, groaning and creaking as they break apart, collapsing under their own weight. Out in the bays humpback whales fluke their tails or bubble-feed, the technique of blowing bubbles to corral prey; they gulp down krill - their staple crustacean - emerging headfirst out of the water.
On the high seas
Posted January 2nd, 2017
With the barometer reading fair
A favourite trip was crossing the Great Australian Bight, considered to be a mighty seafaring test. And even more so on a tall ship like the HMB Endeavour, one of the world's most accurate maritime reproductions. Captain James Cook commanded the original vessel, following orders to search for the Great South Land. In 1769, he charted the east coast of Australia and took possession in the name of Britain's King George III.
Oh, to be under sail, especially square sail. With the sweeping lines, polished wood, the lattice of rigging, and finesse of ropes, knots and pulleys. But as much as I loved those 1,300 nautical miles taking me down to the Roaring Forties - the strong westerly winds usually found between 40 and 50 degrees south latitude - where I want to be right now is sailing in warmer waters. Perhaps navigating the Great Barrier Reef, up to the tropical islands of the Torres Strait.
I love muggy nights at sea - on watch, gazing into the darkness, often unsure where the sky and sea meet, scrutinising the course ahead for any piercing light. Sometimes with the sudden unexpected joy of seeing light below, rather than ahead, in the dark swirling waters: sea creatures seemingly glowing as they churn up bioluminescence. Giant squid, jellyfish and ethereal clouds of speckled fluorescent light.
But my favourite time on deck is early hours: watching the night ebb away and a new day cross the sky. There is a silence, away from the psycho-babble of usual life, and it's a perfect moment to consider last year: to wonder about what went right, what went wrong. And to muse the upcoming year, and beyond. Plans, hopes, dreams. That is where I want to be right now: up the mast, 39 metres above deck, alone, accompanied by only the sea and wind. And a brimming anticipation for 2017.
Prague in winter
Posted December 26th, 2016
The only time of year to be here
Unlike other European centres crowned with monuments to conquest and colonisation, Prague is a city that revels in its creativity. It flaunts successes with spires and domes, Mucha murals, Dvorák concerts and Baroque cherubs clinging to the corners of edifices. The city admires artists and writers and composers, rather than politicians. That is, unless their politicians happen to be poets - as in the case of former President Václav Havel. Remember, Prague is also the capital of Bohemia - and Bohemians.
But in the last 20 years Prague has become unbearably congested with tourists. The most lovely areas of the city are concentrated in a tiny area latticed with narrow cobbled lanes. In high summer, the winding lanes can become insufferable. But in winter, it's just like the old days. This is where I want to be right now. Prague in December with a dusting of snow. Before dawn, Karluv Most - one of the oldest bridges in the world, and one of the most beautiful - can be deserted. The only sound: the mighty Vltava River below.
Most don't but I rather love Wenceslas Square too with it's eclectic mix of ornate sgraffito etched on neo-Renaissance structures beside inter-war buildings and functionalist concrete Communist blocks. It shows how Prague has changed. And then there is the ground beneath your feet. In 1968 thousands came to to demonstrate against Moscow rule. Their efforts failed and Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the movement now poignantly remembered as the Prague Spring. A haunting memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, two students who set fire to themselves as acts of resistance, rises out from the pavement at the southern end of the square where they died. It is as subtle as it is powerful; the shape of a fallen human form gently curves upwards from the cobbles and a plaque commemorates the pair's fate.
Then I might buy a ticket to a concert at the National Theatre. Opposite is Café Slavia, famous for its dissident clientele during the Communist era when it was one of the few literary cafes allowed to keep its doors open. This is where I want to be right now: reading Kafka or Kundera while stirring gritty black coffee, and imagining conversation here 30 years ago just before the Velvet Revolution and the wider radical about-face for world politics.
José Ignacio and beyond
Posted December 19th, 2016
Surfing along the coast of Uruguay
At this time of year, Uruguay is where I want to be.
i drive past Punta del Este without a glance. Too conspicuous. Across the double-humped bridge is La Barra with the best boho shopping, and ice-cream gelateria outposts from Buenos Aires.
But I drive on -- to the beacon of understated loveliness José Ignacio, a petite peninsula town flanked by two 10-kilometre beaches and crashing Atlantic waves. You get both sunrise and sunset here. Mansa for dawn. Brava for dusk. It's all playful on the sand. Loved-up couples. Families of sandy sprogs. Teens you kinda wish you you were, but then don't. Everyone's playing beach tennis or heading into the surf. Body-beautiful, unconsciously.
But I also love the lattice of sandy streets between the beaches -- lined with the most gorgeous clean geometric architecture and wild guinea pigs nibbling on the lawns. I used to come to José Ignacio to write and mosey. An occcasional lunch of grilled corvina or fried calamari. Or a quick chivitos sandwich -- of churrasco beef, mozzarella, tomatoes, mayonnaise and olives -- dripping and delicious. As the light fades, I'd take long walks barefoot in the foamy shore. Climbing up the dunes with a bottle of local IPA or glass of clericó. Or if the evening chills, clutching a calabash gourd filled with yerba mate, sucking intermittently at the hot silver metal straw as the moon rises.
By night, the best restaurants are further afield, hard to find, tucked away down unmarked lanes, dangling with fairy lights and serving proper portions of sensational food. But when you have to start making reservations to snag a table, rather than turning up fancy-free, I'd take off again. Back in the car driving east. To La Paloma, La Pedrera and then Cabo Polonio, increasingly remote and windswept beaches where Argentina's top polo players come to ride bareback on the sand and where I love to come to ride the rollers. I sometimes make it as far as Punta del Diablo, a last outpost before the bulk of Brazil.
This is where I want to be right now. Running down the dunes. Feeling fresh full-face Atlantic winds. Throwing myself into the wild ocean.
Posted December 12th, 2016
In the big blue off southern Africa
It is so different without tanks and tubes and gauges - and bubbles. There's a silence, like flying a glider. Or skydiving after you pull the ripcord.
But what I love most about freediving is being able to swim in the most natural way possible alongside the world's great marine creatures. This is where I want to be right now: in the warm waters off the southern coast of Mozambique.
Travelling north from Durban, South Africa, there's a border checkpoint and then the road peters out into a sandy track leading to Ponta Malongane. It is a sensational stretch of endless golden sand without a footprint in sight.
From here, I'd head out by boat. Even if the surface of the sea is choppy, it is supremely still underwater. And I'd leave the roar of the air for subaqua silence, on the lookout for dolphins. Sometimes they are sleeping, noticeable because one eye is closed; other times they are travelling so quickly I cannot keep up. But they can also be in a playful mood, making eye contact, sharing a sprig of seaweed, dangling it over their noses, spinning around me in circles.
That said, I also love Cape Town's cold waters. Off Miller's Point, there is a fairyland of kelp beds that are home to the massive seven-gilled sharks, one of the oldest shark species on the planet. They seem slow and lethargic, and are nice to see this way.
But of course the best encounters are unplanned. And perhaps I'll see an ocean sunfish, the world's heaviest bony fish and one of my favourites. They can be seen flapping about the surface of the sea, a dorsal fin raised, as much out of the water as they are submerged. That is because they eat jellyfish which attempt to survive by stinging and paralysing the sunfish. The antidote to the sting poison is sunshine and so the sunfish loiters at the surface until it feels well again. It is weirdly beautiful: half-floating, half-doped at the surface with a huge frame and tiny mouth - and I would swim side-by-side, underneath and around, then pop my head out to see the striking silhouette backdrop of Hout Bay. This is definitely where I want to be right now.
Posted December 5th, 2016
Lazy days in Laos
The French used to say of their old colony of Indochina: in Vietnam they plant the rice, in Cambodia they watch it grow and in Laos they listen to it grow.
Coursing through this region is the 4,350 kilometre-long waterway that is the Mekong, one of southeast Asia's great tributaries. I love how the Mekong passes through Laos.
In the north, monumental karstic peaks force the river to swing left, then right and even back on itself, and the current whips up a froth. Now is the best time to visit when high water levels make passage possible.
But there is also something remarkable about the river's passing along the banks of the ancient royal capital, Luang Prabang, where dozens of gilded temples back waterside bars serving Mekong whisky to long-lost GIs who allegedly went MIA after the Vietnam War.
And there is the sleepy capital of Vientiane. Here, I once bought a dugout canoe from a fisherman for $100, painted the name KURTZ in silver on its side, and began a journey southbound. By day I did little more than steer the nose of the boat as it was swiftly carried downstream, occasionally tying up to buy sticky rice and fresh coconuts. By night I camped in the shelters farmers construct to escape the midday sun.
But perhaps where I love the Mekong most is in the very south of Laos at the pre-Angkor ruins of Wat Phou, There has been a Khmer temple complex here since the 5th century, built at the foot of a mountain sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. Here is a graceful avenue of stonework with intricate carvings of elephants and nagas, the cobra-headed creatures said to inhabit the Mekong.
This is where I want to be right now: on the banks of this mystical pearl-grey river, pinning up my hammock and mosquito net under a stilted palm-leaf shelter as the light begins to fade. It is so beautiful, so ephemeral, that even the farmers stop their work, laying down their tools to watch the setting sun, the changing sky, and its reflections in their flooded rice fields.
It is so different without tanks and tubes and gauges - and bubbles. There's a silence, like flying a glider. Or skydiving after you pull the ripcord.
But what I love most about freediving is being able to swim in the most natural way possible alongside the world's great marine creatures. This is where I want to be right now: in the warm waters off the southern coast of Mozambique.
Travelling north from Durban, South Africa, there's a border checkpoint and then the road peters out into a sandy track leading to Ponta Malongane. It is a sensational stretch of endless golden sand without a footprint in sight.
Posted November 28th, 2016
To wish upon a star
High-altitude plateaus, clear skies and low humidity. Chile is the perfect place to gaze up at the stars. It even has laws against excessive light pollution. It also has most of the world's most powerful ground-based observatories.
South of the city of Antofagasta, Paranal is home to the Very Large Telescope Project. They might not be the greatest wordsmiths when it comes to naming their research centres but these scientists are some of the world's brainiest, who live and work like hedgehogs - alert all night, dopey all day. They think so deeply, so differently, I strain to make sense of it all. But this might just be my favourite night out: to fathom dark energy causing our Universe's expansion to accelerate, and learning about earthshine and how it might offer evidence of the existence of life on exoplanets orbiting distant stars.
But where I really want to be is Alma, which sits at more than 5,000m above sea level on the Chajnantor plateau in the heart of the Atacama Desert. Alma stands for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, but it also means soul in Spanish. And this telescope searches the darkest recesses of the universe, not pointing at the stars but at the clouds of dust and gas in between. Here are dozens of high-precision antennas which allow scientists to search the very edges of our known universe shortly after the Big Bang. Mind-blowing.
This is where I want to be right now: lying on my back on the red sand in the Atacama Desert blowing my mind looking up at the night skies. Now is the time to go - just before the new moon emerges. When the Milky Way is so bright, it can even cast a shadow in the dead of night. There I would wonder: at the concepts of time and space, watching for shooting stars, making countless wishes.
Posted November 21st, 2016
Swimming between the breaks
The lucky city. Built around one of the world's most spectacular natural harbours with rugged wild beaches facing the open ocean, as well as secluded scalloped coves.
I want to be on Bondi right now. For a morning swim at the north end between booming breaks. The surfing here is legendary. Weekday mornings are my favourite time when commuters come for a session before the office. Do they know how lucky they are?
If I had some work to do I'd head to Icebergs Club, which is open to day-paying visitors. I'd take a table overlooking the ocean-fed Olympic-sized lap pool. Everyone here swims like a fish.
Then I'd stroll along the Bondi to Bronte Ocean Walk sweeping around the sandstone cliffs. En route is Tamarama, a small beach with deep water that can be treacherous, with more rescues per thousand bathers than any other of Sydney's beaches. I like to bodysurf here - between the flags.
Hugged by headlands, Bronte is a quiet beach with a 30 metre-long ocean pool built into the rock for protected swimming. Backing the beach is a natural sandstone cave providing shade during the hottest part of the day.
Across the harbour I also love Manly, one of Sydney's longest beaches. I'd take the ferry from Circular Quay chugging between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House, past the North and South Heads, to Manly Wharf. I'd walk down the pedestrianised Corso lined with surf stores, pie shops and gelaterias - to put a towel down in front of the Manly Life Saving Club. At the end of the day I'd skip down Cabbage Tree Bay Coastal Walk to Shelly Beach, a sheltered cove protected from swell by a reef. Westerly-facing it's the place to catch the last of the day's rays. At the back of the beach there's a meandering path leading up to a lookout with boundless views north.
Any of these beaches would do but my favourite of all is the one furthest from downtown: Palm Beach, or Palmie. This is where I want to be right now. On this long wild stretch of golden sand along a peninsula with water on all sides: the Pittwater to the west, Tasman Sea to the east and Broken Bay to the north. The beach backs on to dunes and classic Australian bush, and at the far tip stands the Barrenjoey Lighthouse. I'd bring a picnic and stake out the beach's southerly end - and dream of endless summer days here.
Posted November 14th, 2016
As far away as possible
It's less than a week since the US election and I'm not ready for the headlines. I'd like to go as far away as possible.
About ten years ago I was looking at a desk crammed with writing assignments but no work commitments in a fixed location. So I spun a globe, closed my eyes and stopped it rotating with my finger. When I opened my eyes, I was pointing at the middle of the southern Indian Ocean. The nearest land was a speck called Rodrigues. I booked a flight.
This was properly isolated, just the place to get on with reams of writing. But I also explored the island, of course: the little coves of coral sand backed by coconut palms and casuarina trees, and the rough blue waters beyond. There were no tourists. On the best beach -- Trou d'Argent -- there was a mother hen and her brood of chicks, and some of the most exquisite conical shells on the shoreline.
When I wanted to rent a motorbike, I was given the name of a local man who owned two. There was no paperwork. Just a set of keys and a plastic hard-hat. A month later when I called him to find out where to return the bike, he said 'just leave it somewhere on the waterfront in Port Mathurin with the keys in the ignition'.
I found a diver - French, chain-smoking, with a slightly crazy look in his eyes, and no sense of danger - who had solely charted the marked dive sites around the coast. Although we seemed often to be exploring reefs for the first time. We swam into ocean canyons, letting our air run right down so we could extend our dive times, no safety stops, buddy-sharing regulators, sucking hard as if our life depended on it.
I found a fishing boat, too. The captain has just arrived from Reunion and I headed out with him and his crew on a few overnights. We caught frantic marlin; over a hundred bluefin and dogtooth tuna - real fighters; elegant wahoo and sailfish, and I broke the record for the heaviest dourade caught in the Indian Ocean. One day, as I was sitting on the back of the boat, waiting for that familiar high-pitched whir of the reel whizzing out, one of the crew pointed at the sky. I looked up and squinted. "C'est quoi?" I asked.
"Là, là," he replied excitedly.
I couldn't see anything unusual and shrugged.
"C'est un avion," he said, still looking at the sky.
This is where I want to be right now: a place where they still point at aeroplanes. Locals told me back then that Rodrigues wasn't on most atlases 20 years ago. I'm glad it was on my globe.
This is where I want to be right now. To avoid the news of Bannon, Palin, Conway, Guiliani, Gingrich and I could, but can't bear to go on.
Then I'd fly back to learn about the next four years of fight.
Posted November 7th, 2016
For the world's most important election
I lived in the American South during Bill Clinton's first term as President of the United States. In the run-up to the election back then in 1993, I remember speaking with a friend - a woman and an African-American - who said she believed there'd be a black president before there'd be a woman president in her country.
She was right about that.
Not that this election is about the gender or race of the candidates. But it is hugely about gender and race relations.
Where I want to be is in the thick of it - in the world's most powerful nation. Arguably it's the swing states where this contest will be hardest fought and it could go down to the wire. But short of criss-crossing the country, I want to be in DC. The District of Columbia has only three electoral college votes (and is expected to go Democrat) but it is the city where some of the most critical decisions are made that affect all of us.
Where would I spend my time wondering, worrying, waiting, wringing my hands? At the newly-opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, designed by David Adjaye, which stands on the National Mall. And then I'd walk down past the monuments to war veterans, and to Martin Luther King Jr -- and the place where he gave his I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial. I'd climb the steps for that defining view of the US Capitol, yet another institutution being bitterly divisively contested.
Then I'd go and breathe before the Rothkos at the National Gallery of Art, which has just expanded its East Building. And head to Union Market for lunch to find out what the stallholders are talking about - whether they're making Asian-inspired tacos, Southern-style biscuits, dosas, Burmese noodle salads or gluten-free Venezuelan grilled corn patties. This is the America I know and love.
And as dusk falls and it's still too early to call, I'd pace up and down the banks of the Potomac. This is where I want to be right now: among the towering political figures of marble, watching the play of lamplight and shadows and silhouettes. Hoping, hoping.
The Empty Quarter
Posted October 31st, 2016
Among the dunes of southern Arabia
Coming from Muscat, the desert rises up sharply. A dirt track peters out, the scrubland suddenly morphs into 50 metre-high burnished-orange dunes.This is the Arabia of Lawrence. Where the sand moves like spirits. And where I learnt to whisper the word for water with reverence.The Bedouins of the Wahiba still live out the nomadic desert life here, albeit with a four-wheel-drive alongside their camels. Their transient homes are a tangle of makeshift wooden structures, a collection of cages of chickens and rabbits, and pens of bleating sheep and long-haired goats.Every evening I'd carry sacks of grain to feed the animals, especially the camels - each named and each loved, ranging loose around the camp with those enigmatic smiles. Some I'd help milk, and then drink the warm creamy taste from a stained yellow bucket; for the pregnant females, I'd squash together handfuls of dates, a special diet reserved for them. And some evenings I'd ride Salman. My Bedouin friend would call over the camel who'd come cantering towards us and then kneel down. He'd curve his arm around Salman's head, tug at his ear affectionately, pull him towards him, kiss his cheek, muttering soft Arabic while throwing a rope bridle around his neck and blankets on his back. I'd clamber upon Salman's back and pad off into the sunset.Late into the night, we'd eat legs of roast chicken and stacks of unleavened bread around a fire. I'd try, in broken Arabic, to discuss polygamy and local politics. And wouldn't get far. So out would come the drums. Trading songs. Their beautiful high-pitched chanting. My warbling of a Kenny Rogers' track with inappropriate lyrics about gambling, whiskey and women - but it'd be only polite to return a song. And then I'd turn in. Lying on a woven carpet on the sand, covered by a thick blanket, falling asleep as the chill enveloped me under a clear night sky big enough to reconsider the notion of heaven.Day after day. Night after night. Living among shifting horizons without any indication of where or when.fYet in truth where I really want to be is not here in the desert, but leaving the desert. Bound for the coast and an unmarked and unserviced beach called Fins. White sand, not orange. And lapped by the bluest sea, although any colour of sea would do. To hurl myself into the surf. Rinsing away the sand, feeling the wetness on my dry skin. Like a rebirth. This is where I want to be right now: after days in the dunes, diving into the Arabian Sea.
Posted October 24th, 2016
The swing state of North Carolina
Chapel Hill in the fall. There's no better place, I swear. Especially if you're 18 or 19. Those endless, free-spirited university days -- of writing, reading, even more reading, bantering, loving, arguing, hoping, of making plans to change the world.
I used to cycle across campus along the red-brick pathways between the chemistry labs and my theatre group; Franklin Street and the library; open mic at the Colombia Coffee Shop and the tennis courts; the Arboretum and the university's social hub called The Pit. I'd lie in the sunshine in Polk Place with my books strewn around staring at the Carolina blue sky and dreaming up another line for my creative writing class. Or I'd meet friends for coffee at the Daily Grind to read the latest op-eds in The New York Times, and to sketch out tomorrow's columns for the university newspaper The Daily Tar Heel. Before turning up to class to listen to brilliant professors, charging us up with ideas, reasons, propositions, theses.
There was so much time to think, to furrow the brow and go further, to find solutions, to draw conclusions. Remember that feeling? Of turning over thoughts again and again, and then being sure.
I want to be in Chapel Hill right now. For the flip-back feeling of being young, stocked with self-belief, fearless and undaunted. But also to take a breather here among the old oak trees, where the warm autumn air smells of enduring sunshine and turning leaves and library books.
But there is another reason to be here right now. North Carolina is a battlefield for Clinton versus Trump. Clinton was in Raleigh yesterday. Tomorrow Senator Elizabeth Warren will be in Chapel Hill campaigning for her. Donald Trump and Mike Pence are expected in the state the following day. One day later, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama will be in Salem, NC. I want to be there for all of this. To hear what the candidates have to say, but more to hear what North Carolina has to say. The state has been in the nation's headlines for months - for the wrong reason -- ever since the legislature passed the HB2 law preventing transgender people using government-run bathrooms of the gender with which they identify. This isn't minor stuff. It's a huge issue about discrimination of all stripes -- in a state where nearly a quarter of the population is African-American and ten percent is Hispanic or Latino.
North Carolina is a critical swing state in this upcoming election -- when more people are expected to vote than in any other in US history. That is why I want to be in Chapel Hill right now. To watch the bronzing autumn leaves, yes, but also to watch the Democrats gain ground. The stakes are huge. For the US. For the rest of the world. For the freedom of movement.
Posted October 24th, 2016
In the rain
When I first saw Angkor 20 years ago there was only a trickle of tourists. Signs at the temples instructed visitors to stick to the path. It was a serious warning: they hadn't yet cleared the area of landmines.
There had been decades of fighting -- internally with the Khmer Rouge, then with Vietnam -- as well as political plots and coups. Millions had died. Pol Pot was still hiding out in the jungle and some members of the Khmer Rouge were still active. The UN was trying to mediate elections and keep the peace.
Perhaps it should have been a surprise there were any tourists at all. But Cambodia was once at the heart of one of the most prominent, prosperous civilisations in Asia; it is home to hundreds of exquisite Khmer temples constructed between the 9th and 15th centuries.
Two decades on, two million tourists come here every year. But I have my secret temples.
Angkor Wat is the architectural pinnacle, one of the largest religious monuments in the world. But I like Banteay Samre, built on a more human scale, and which reminds me of a smaller version of its grander cousin.
Ta Phrom is probably the most photographed temple, deliberately left mostly unrestored and tangled in undergrowth. But I love the diminutive Ta Nei, deep in the forest and only accessible by walking along a track through the trees.
My favourite of the popular temples is the Bayon at Angkor Thom whose towers are etched with enlightened bodhisattva faces. But I adore even more the smaller, remote Ta Som with similar four-faced towers staring out in the cardinal directions.
This is where I want to be right now. Before the high season begins when it's still raining and the crowds are staying away. I love the changing light: of greys and slanted sunlight. The glinting wet stone covered in verdant moss. The afternoon showers and steaming forest. And the spectacular monsoon sunsets.
Most people come to Angkor for the culture and they put up with the crowds. But this is where I want to be right now for the silence, the solitude and serenity.
Posted October 12th, 2016
Just over a thousand years ago Xi'an was the largest, most cosmopolitan and cultured capital in the world. Inside the crenellated city walls that still stand today, there were merchants, missionaries and foreign diplomats passing through the lanes, at the start or end of a journey along the transcontinental Silk Road.
But when I lived there in the mid-1990s Xi'an was a modest unassuming place - with cobblers in the street resoling shoes, tailors lined up on the curb with Singer sewing machines mending clothes, and bicycle repairmen patching tyres or fixing brakes. In the bitter winters street market vendors baked sweet potatoes in rusty fuel drums filled with coal; in the scorching heat of summer, watermelon-sellers carved up cooling wedges (sleeping atop their 15 foot-high mountains of fruit overnight).
I remember how Xi'an didn't sound like a big city - with the usual noise of construction and roadworks and heavy traffic. Most people travelled by bicycle. I used to pedal everywhere back then, from the room I rented on the south side of the city walls - to share bowls of spicy noodles with my friend, named after the famine in the year he was born, who lived in the courtyards of the Great Mosque; to drink tea with another friend who worked at a backpacker hostel selling train tickets to travellers; to visit a monk in training at the Taoist Temple of the Eight Immortals; to while away whole evenings kneading dumplings and sharing stories with a university professor who longed to hear about the rest of the world, but who had never had the opportunity to travel outside her homeland.
I had more than one job back then. Primarily I was working under-the-radar for Newsweek sending regular reports to the bureau chief in Beijing. But I was also dancing in two nightclubs; teaching English, and my very average French to a young woman in love with the Paris of storybooks - in exchange for Chinese lessons. I only danced when I wasn't on assignment; I'd arrive home at dawn and head straight out to the courtyard in front of my block where I'd take a tai qi class. At the end of my lesson I'd buy raw milk yogurt from an old woman who trundled past with a trolley stacked with terracotta pots; I'd give her yesterday's cleaned pot, and she'd hand me a new one for half a yuan.
When I had to write up a story I'd head to the park at the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, a brick monument built in the 8th century, with stone benches where I could sit under the shade of the Chinese Scholar Tree. In inclement weather I'd ensconce in the teahouse at Lianhu Park which overlooked a pond dense with pink and white lotus flowers; I'd order a pot of Longjing and might spend the whole day there with my books.
But my favourite place in Xi'an were the walkways atop the 14th-century city walls. Built during the Ming dynasty these fortifications have survived the wear of time and war. I used to carry my bicycle up the staircase and pedal around the 14-kilometre perimeter - sometimes entirely alone, without seeing another person. That was a different time for China, in so many ways.
This is where I want to be right now. In go-slow China - hearing only the dring-dring of bicycle bells.
Posted October 3rd, 2016
To stretch out the summer
I know a little place to stay in Naples. It's a small single bedroom with a brightly-coloured bed cover, and when you lie down you can peep through a hole in the wall into the interior of an abandoned church, looking down with the same perspective as the pigeons who coo on the rafters, and flap up and down the nave.
There are in fact three bedrooms in this members-only palazzo-appartamento, allegedly owned by Robert Kaplan, but who is a figment of the imagination. When you overnight you must leave him a book - a novel, or non-fiction, in any language - with a message written from you on the front page. There is a communal living space and if there are other guests staying, you must all hang out and share stories about your life and times with Robert Kaplan, a committed nomad who's rarely at home, and who generously gives out cut keys to people he meets on the road. 'You must stay at my place if you're ever in Naples,' he once told me. I always will.
If I had a day in this city I would spend half of it at the extraordinary National Archaeological Museum with its mosaics from Pompeii, as well as the Farnese collection's colossal Greek and Roman sculptures.
For lunch, well, I'd eat pizza. Almost every pizzeria is good in Naples but I like Lombardi's. I'd ask them to saw up my slices - topped with smoked provola cheese - and eat it with my hands sitting on the front steps of the church Gesù Nuovo. This is the church I dreamt of being married in - in the days when I had such dreams.
I'd spend a few hours of the afternoon at the Museo di Capodimonte - with its Caravaggios, Lippis, Botticelli's Madonna and Titian's Danaë. I can see why people who have millions spend them on these masters. Yet I also cannot imagine looking at such beauty every day.
Before dark I'd find myself in Piazza Bellini to take an Aperol Spritz - among the literary cafés and bars, with musicians busking on the terraces. I'd stay out late, and then skip back to Robert Kaplan's place. To fall asleep to the sound of pious pigeons.
Naples. This is where I want to be right now. Where the heat of summer still lingers.
Posted September 26th, 2016
On the way up to Mont Blanc
After crossing La Vallée Blanche I reached the Cosmiques Hut as the kitchen began serving dinner but I spent most of my time outside filming the full moon rising. A September harvest moon. I couldn't believe I'd accidentally chosen this night to attempt an ascent of Mont Blanc. A full fat moon.
I barely slept. But nobody seems to sleep before they try to climb this mountain - the highest in western Europe. That's partly because of nerves, partly because climbers must leave at around midnight to summit at sunrise. It was always going to be a quick sleep.
Down in the boot room I tied on my crampons, hauled on my pack and roped up to my team. It was so bright outside I didn't turn on my head torch. I remember looking at the snow glint in the dark, and smiling. Mont Blanc ahead.
This is where I want to be right now. Beneath a summit. Crossing glaciers, and climbing ridges and ice faces to reach the top: a brow of hill with nothing above or beyond it. It feels like the world falls away in every direction.
Of course the ascent is the easier half of the journey. On the way down there is no longer the pull of the peak. The shot of adrenaline from the summit quickly wears off. Wearing rented boots my ankles were rubbed raw. When an ice bridge collapsed from under me and I fell into a crevasse -- dangling in fresh air by my rope - I felt only relief, happy to have the weight off my feet.
Winched out and back on solid ground I remember focusing again on the banal task of planting one foot in front of the other. I stared at my boots and studied my stride, too exhausted to ask for help.
Or maybe, just maybe, it was because I was not ready to give up. My body did not want to take another step. Fortunately my mind had taken over long ago.
When we finally arrived back at Cosmiques I drank a cup of tea and threw up. I pulled off my ice boots but couldn't peel off my bloodied socks (I lost nine toenails on that trip and lost half a stone in 48 hours). I sipped a cup of tea and let my fork play with some hot food. Without question I had asked too much of myself.
Or is that the point? We ask too much of ourselves to feel more alive.
On the way up. Or on the way down. This is where I want to be right now. Truly.
Posted September 19th, 2016
Towards the Angolan border
I remember suspecting a flat tyre just before the town of Palmwag. After pulling over I walked around the vehicle. The slow puncture hissed at me like a snake. As I pulled out the jack and the wheel brace from the boot it began to rain - and this, in one of the world's driest countries. It swiftly became a full-on thunderstorm. Yet I smiled to myself. On the road in northern Namibia -- with a herd of springbok staring at me as I changed a wheel under the rain.
This is where I want to be right know. Travelling through northern Namibia in a 4WD - with a second spare tyre in the boot, a Jerry can of extra fuel and gallons of water. I could drive forever. Through this hot unmoving landscape, more like a still life. Where the animals are motionless to conserve energy. The landscape barely changes save the shadow of a cloud. Only the fuel gauge indicates progress.
At the gas station in Sesfontein I'd fill up and release some air from the tyres. Ahead is deep soft sand. There are rarely vehicles out there. When the tracks diverge or disappear I'd just point the car north - through forests of stocky mopane trees and past wind-whipped sculpted mountains.
Now and then I'd stop to stretch my legs. To smell the hot earth and dry grass. Among lonesome trees and skittish gemsbok. Through the Marienfluss Valley, framed by the Otjihipa and Hartmann mountains. This is the land of the semi-nomadic Himba. Red sand and scrubland, smattered with curious fairy circles devoid of vegetation.
At the border the terrain is rocky. On the other side of the charging Kunene River are the barren mountains of Angola. Dusty and hot, I want to be there right now. Clambering down the river bank to slide into the cool water. Not the still pools but the fast-flowing water. I remember someone telling me crocodiles don't like rapids, luckily, luckily.
Posted September 19th, 2016
Dancing with strangers
Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Winston Churchill on visiting Cuba in 1895.
This is the kind of city you end up selling everything to move to, with one suitcase, in a hurry.
One hot sticky afternoon I remember stopping by the Casa de La Cultura. Nobody was around except Luis and a couple of dance students he was teaching. We got talking in his break. And he invited me out dancing that night.
A part of me didn't want to show up. A date to go dancing in Havana with a salsa teacher. In a city that moves to some of the world's best music. Terrifying.
But I had to go, of course. To an address in the old town: an open courtyard of a crumbling colonial ruin. I could hear the music streets away. A live band with impromptu musicians playing drums or the sax or maracas. And Luis was already there on the dancefloor. With a woman old enough to be my grandmother wearing purple Lycra cycling shorts and a bra top. Her midriff spoke of a dozen pregnancies. She was a fleshy, beautiful, fertility symbol. And moved like a diva. He moved like mercury. As the beat shifted, she was grabbed by an elderly man, bare-chested, wearing denim cutoffs. Luis turned for his next partner and saw a little boy in the shadows, not much steadier on his feet than a toddler, dressed to the nines in a boxy three-piece suit. Luis grabbed the boy's small hand and the kid jumped on to the floor like he was landing in a puddle. He had rhythm and a smile. Ah, this was the Cuba I had dreamed of.
As the two danced I watched Luis glancing up at the entrance. I waved and he smiled at me. I saw him shake hands with the little boy, so tenderly, so formally. Then he came to me, kissed me, and fetched me a mojito in a plastic cup: white Havana Club rum with two halves of a cut lime and a woody twig of mint sticking out like a swizzle stick. I drank it in one, and we danced. Salsa. Son. Rumba. I drank another and danced even better. We sweated until we nearly slipped out of each other's arms.
Early hours - as the morning light began to arch across the sky -- we walked to the Malecon, the seafront boardwalk. We sat on the wall - facing the Caribbean sea breeze -- and talked about politics, about music, about hope, about packing a suitcase. I want to be in Havana right now -- a city where they know how not to sleep. Sharing the rhythm. Sharing dreams.
With the gorillas
Posted September 5th, 2016
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Leaving Kampala traffic is often heavy. It's a road shared with long-distance buses, UN trucks, open lorries crammed with morose cows, motorbikes carrying four men, and bicycles balancing silver milk churns behind the saddle and bunches of bananas from the handlebars.
Heading west the road rises and falls with the soft contours of the landscape, passing by swamps of fine papyrus and longhorn cattle on hillsides covered with stubby acacia. Around the banks of Lake Victoria fishermen hold up their catches -- tilapia, Nile perch and catfish -- hoping to make a sale to passing motorists. Marabou stork stride around picking up scraps in their clacking beaks. Women pile up tomatoes and sweet potatoes in pyramids taking shade under flame trees.
A full day on the road and Kabale is the last town before the border lined with money transfer offices and banks, seminaries and ministries. A dirt turnoff north is the way to Bwindi. The land crumples. Terraces are chopped into steep slopes growing beans, cassava and sorghum. Mist swirls like apparitions. West are Congo's green valleys and south towards Rwanda is a row of pert volcanoes including Nyiragongo that smokes by day and glows by night.
But I come here for the gorillas. All this way for one hour - and the hope of a brief encounter.
Think how we can spend an hour. A commute. Cooking a mediocre meal. Laundry.
Then think of Bwindi.
The air is thin, and the terrain steep and muddy. It can take a whole day to find the gorillas, and then again you may not find them at all.
I still remember my first glimpse: the broad shoulder of a blackback called Bahati. His fingers were darker than mine but similarly wrinkled on the knuckles with scuffed cuticles. There was the sound of shoots breaking and a deep chesty sigh.
Safari, the formidable chief silverback, was close by stripping branches. Posho, another blackback, pouted at me. And then among the thick vegetation we found Kwitonda, the mother of twins, tenderly cupping her newborns to her chest. Unbearably tender. She looked tired.
The hour passes unfairly quickly. To minimise stress on the animals visitors are allowed only sixty minutes with the gorillas. But it is the most intimate of encounters. This is where I want to be right now. To hear Bahati sigh. The same way I hear myself sigh.
Posted August 29th, 2016
Square du Vert Galant
Everyone should fall in love in Paris at least once. Say, on a bus to Montmartre. Or on a bridge. Fall in love from afar. And follow through. There's no better city.
The love here is as different as the light.
Like Monet's Impression soleil levant at the Musee Marmottan.
Or among the kicked-up dust of Tuileries, dappled wtih golden motes.
The broken reflections of the Seine.
It's a city punished. But one that deserves our love.
There's a luminescence to Paris, even in the rain (when it gleams). It's like the city has been dreamt up, rather than built.
And there's a different way of looking at the world here. Read the paper. Right the world. Sign up to those French values we all covet. Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite.
We must always go to Paris.
Few cities have such a river carved through it. And fewer yet have islands in the heart of downtown. Ile de la Cite is the best known, the site of Gothic cathedral Notre Dame and the 13th-century Sainte-Chapelle.
Yet there is a refuge here a short distance from the crowds. This is where I want to be right now: lying on the flagstones of Square du Vert Galant, which juts from beneath the Pont Neuf at the western tip of the island. In the glare of sunshine without the cover of shade. Where light and love are cast.
No matter what we'll always have Paris.
The dusty road
Posted August 22nd, 2016
From Beirut to Damascus
I love summer in Beirut. Temperatures rise. Debates hot up. In the day everyone grumbles about the war, any war: the intifadas, Syria, Daesh, the next war, all wars.
By night they party like there's no tomorrow. No surprise perhaps.
In the city it is hot and dry and the sun sears; everyone is on the lookout for a sliver of shade. Except by the sea where there's always a breeze. I used to sneak into the ATCL club in Kaslik even though I wasn't a member. I'd drink local wine, eat bowls of olives and then swim 50 lengths half-tipsy. Big lengths. It's an Olympic-sized pool. Then I'd jump off the rocks into the salty eastern Mediterranean to cool off.
But in truth what I'd most like to be doing right now is clambering into a beaten-up old car and heading east through the fertile-green Bekaa Valley, stopping at Baalbek to wonder at the monumental columns, ornate capitals and the largest stone blocks from antiquity. Who built this sanctuary to Jupiter, Venus and Mercury? Was it Cain? Nimrod? Solomon? The Queen of Sheba? Or giants?
And then I'd get back in the dusty car and drive on to the Syrian border. On the road to Damascus.
At the border, it is all trucks and traders. Immigration isn't too bad. A few fascinating hours. I love watching the deals and bribes and rubberstamping. When I am cleared, the guards step aside and I cross the great swathe of no-man's land between the two countries. The buffer zone is so big and empty you can worry you're on the right road. But then, over the crest of a hill, you see Syria spread below. Damascus awaits. Except, of course, this was another time.
Where I want to be right now is Damascus as it was before. Arriving in the old city with its quiet ways and good grace. Driving through narrow streets. Trying to find a room. Passing Ottoman houses and hidden courtyards, souks and ateliers. Stopping at a kiosk to buy a cup of mulberry or pomegranate or blood-orange juice.
Umayyad Mosque is one of the largest and oldest sites of continuous prayer since the beginnings of Islam. It is also the happiest place to be on a summer evening. Among cool marble and mosaics. Tourists and worshippers, pilgrims and picnickers. It has the atmosphere of a public park - where families and friends come to catch up, to let the children run around, to bring food to share and eat. A feel-good place where you would never think to worry about tomorrow. That is where I want to be right now.
One tomorrow I'll come back here.
Rio de Janeiro
Posted August 15th, 2016
In the Olympic Stadium
I was sitting in the stadium when Usain Bolt won the 100m Final in Beijing. He looked so different to the other athletes even when they were lining up. The long limbs. The prowling around at the start. The signature Lightning Bolt move. The seemingly total ease. And when the gun cracked he began to fly, pulling away from the pack as if he was travelling a foot above the ground. Long before the finish line I watched him slow down, thump his chest, even savour the moment. I looked at the clock: 9.69 seconds. I sensed he could have been at least a tenth of a second quicker.
That was the first of his trebles. London came next. I didn't manage to get a ticket when Bolt won his second but I was in the city. Watching the 100m Final on a TV screen I remember my heart hammering in my chest as I willed him to cross the line first.
To Rio. Where I want to be right now is down on the track. All week. Watching these women and men run, jump, fly.
And I'd like to be in the lane next to Bolt. Glancing sideways to watch the man psyching himself up: the flick of his eyes around the track, then the focus, preparing to make history again and again and again. I'd crouch down next to him, shuffling my feet into position, planting my fingertips, waiting for the gun.
I'd run as if my life depended on it, like I was being chased by a lioness. Legs burning. Lungs bursting. Just to see how slow I am. And how quick he is. To have a sense of the speed of the fastest man on earth.
And when I finally made it to the finish line - if he wasn't already half-way around the stadium with a Jamaican flag raised high above his head - I'd give him a humble high-five.
Here's to another treble. One down, two to go. I wish I was in Rio right now. And not just because it's one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Posted August 8th, 2016
Washington Square Park
I once had an apartment in New York. On the corner of Washington Square North and 5th Avenue. Sounds fancy. Actually it was a sublet off a NYU professor who was teaching abroad and the rent was dirt cheap. It was a big old space for the city and I threw parties all the time. Even in the summer when it was oven-hot, I refused to turn on the AC. Instead I used to fling open the six big sash windows facing the square and let the heat and the noise pour in. Friends would sweat and complain. But the parties were too good to leave.
My favourite time in that apartment was alone on a Friday night. Back in those days I was working at Newsweek magazine and we'd go to print very late at the end of the week. If it was this side of midnight I took the subway home and picked up enchiladas and ice-cold Coronas from Tortilla Flats. If it was later, the company would send us home in a car and I'd get the driver to stop at Corner Bistro to grab a burger. I'd take my dinner home in a brown paper bag, put the key in the lock and hear the sound of silence on the other side of the door. My own place. A place of my own. Then I'd slide up those six big creaking windows. In came the heat. In came the city. I'd fall on to the sofa, shoes still on, eating fast food with tired-from-typing fingers. It was so hot even the beer bottles would sweat. I'd listen to the buskers: the guy who played a tarnished sax; the homeless tenor who sang like Mario Lanza; the drummers who thrashed upturned plastic washing-up bowls. There was the sound of laughter, of shouting, of sirens.
That is where I want to be right now. Younger days. Working hard. Dead beat. With big dreams. Alone in the darkness. That's where I want to be, in every way.
Posted August 1st, 2016
Still awake in Ibiza
Is it really, really closing? Well, it's changing. The 80-year-old founder Pepe Rosello is stepping away, and DJ Carl Cox says he cannot play there without Rosello. So come the end of the season there will no longer be the Space we know and love. A daytime club that is surely the world's most beloved place to dance.
Ah, what I would give for one more set. I'd head there straight from the plane. Burst through the doors with a wink to the bouncers. Make my way towards the middle of the floor. To dance endlessly, timelessly, cocooned and carefree - in the bright white Ibiza light. Hearing the music rise and ebb like a tide. Until that big wave crashes over you. And it feels like a brave new perfect world. Staring at the sky. Patting my thighs to the rhythm. Hearing the planes roar overhead.
The instant I arrived in the glare of Ibiza twenty years ago I fell in love. With all the Ibizas: a little place on Cala Mastella which serves grilled fish and bullit de peix, a traditional fish stew - until the pot is empty; the hippy market at Las Dalias with its ripped hotpants, crocheted bikinis and impromptu dance parties; the secret beach Cala d'Aubarca (turn at the pine grove, drive down the rough road, walk 4km down to the deserted pebble beach); the galleries of Santa Eulalia; the DIY mud treatments at the far end of Aguas Blancas beach (the Phoenicians believed the island's red soil was magic), and sunset at Cala d'Hort looking across to Es Vedra where sirens lured Odysseus from his ship in Homer's epic.
In the 15th century, Nostradamus predicted Ibiza would become the planet's final refuge. During the Franco era the island became a safe haven for left-wingers fleeing persecution on the mainland. Ibiza stood for freedom, light and love, and still does. I used to say when the world's gone mad, there's always Space. Dance away your troubles. We need to dance more than ever.
Posted July 25th, 2016
Swimming from Asia to Europe
I remember standing on the eastern bank of the Bosphorus looking downstream. In the distance - six-and-a-half kilometres away - were the enormous white buoys marking the finish line. I took a deep breath.
I didn't love the start. Hundreds of us leapt off the pontoon like lemmings, each row of swimmers landing on top of the previous. Kicking feet. Churning bubbles. Flailing limbs. My breathing was instantly off. I took a knock to the head and then forged my way out of the pack.
When the current caught me midstream I began to find my rhythm. And it is there, half-way along the course, where I want to be right now. Pausing to tread water and gaze at Istanbul's domes, minarets and grand Ottoman palaces. I remember the Bosphorus so blue, and the sun warm on my face.
The course is so long and the strait so wide I couldn't see another swimmer and I nervously wondered if I was trailing in last place. (I confess there was a little part of my delusional self that hoped I was setting the pace). I scissor-kicked and spotted a few bobbing heads wearing the distinctive yellow-and-blue swim hats we had been given. "If you need to be picked up by a volunteer boat," the organisers had said, "take off your hat and wave it in the air."
This is the annual Cross-Continental Swim. Every summer the Bosphorus is shut to shipping traffic for a few hours and hundreds make the leap, leaving the Black Sea behind them, front crawling towards the Sea of Marmara. It is a journey in the wake of adventurers and romantics, flanked by one of the world's most dynamic cities where East and West churn together.
This year's race happened yesterday in spite of recent political events in Turkey. Some cancelled their participation in the wake of the failed coup when the government shut down the international airport and closed the two major bridges connecting the Asian side of Istanbul with the European side. The swim happens between these two bridges. It is good to know that even in a crisis - when governments sever transportation links and silence journalists -- that there's still a way of getting to the other side.
Posted July 18th, 2016
Among the wildebeest
They have arrived. The frontrunners of the massive muddled herd of wildebeest, zebra and antelope, which make up the Great Migration. They've just been sighted crossing into Kenya's Mara Triangle, the wedge between the sharp Oloololo Escarpment and the mazy meandering Mara which boasts the only decent permanent water in the region. Kenya's most celebrated sight is watching the animals' perilous crossing of this river. The wildebeest dither, angst-ridden, until one slips down the steep muddy bank and then they all follow in a thunderous panic. Crocodiles lurk in the shallows. Lions crouch in wait. I wonder what it must be like to be under constant threat of being eaten alive. Tough.
But what I love is less about the drama. I prefer the Masai Mara's open plains where you get the best sense of the scale of the single greatest mass movement of land mammals on the planet. Over a million ungulates march in each other's tracks from one side of the horizon to the other. This is where I want to be: smelling the dry earth, watching these animals mosey on, heads bowed, hearing the constant braying, dust kicking up, witnessing this extraordinary intuitive motion. The collective noun is an implausibility of wildebeest. Hard to believe.
Of course the Great Migration is a perpetual nomadic cycle, not a tidy clockwise route. It follows the unpredictable rains. The animals change their mind depending on weather, or maybe whim. But generally it is now that they are in the Mara, and afterwards they make the long journey south to the southern Serengeti. They head there to calve en masse, perhaps as many as half a million wildebeest are born within a few weeks. At the start of Tanzania's long rains the Migration sweeps up towards the Western Corridor, close to Lake Victoria, and another famed crossing of the Grumeti River. Then it is up to the Mara again.
So in truth you can see the migration at any time of year. It's just that I love the Mara (so much that I named my daughter Mara). I love it for the rolling open grassland and smudges of acacia. For the distant bronze of a pride of lion; the loping giraffe; topi standing sentinel; hefty snuffling buffalo (and my second favourite collective noun: an obstinacy of buffalo); a dazzle of zebra (my third favourite). Wisdoms of elephants (my invention). Gazelles pronking (there's a verb). And above raptors riding the thermals with the best views of all.
Last year I was in the Mara a little early and the wildebeest hadn't arrived yet. So I jumped into a light plane with Jan, a maker of tents, and Mark, a builder of camps (the kind of people you run into in this part of the world), and we flew south to find the Migration as excited as if it was buried treasure. We found the herds just across the border into Tanzania. We also saw rhino from the air, a flopped male lion, a rainbow and a storm.
This is where I always want to be. Having adventures on the rim of Africa's Great Rift Valley. To sleep in tents hearing lion or hippo or hyena. To awaken to a chink of sunrise. Colours emerging out of the neutrals. The chill dissipating. The heat bubbling up. And then a safari with all its glorious unpredictability and glorious possibility. This is where I want to be forever.
Posted July 11th, 2016
Crossing Victoria harbour, Hong Kong
My first ever memory was feeling the heat and humidity on the forecourt of Kai Tak Airport. I was three. What was most disorienting to me was the temperature at night time. I clearly remember this strange new mix of hot and dark.
But then there was a lot of new in those early days of life. It would have been a defiant landing - as it was back then before the new airport was built. We'd have approached between the tower blocks of Kowloon, wing tips at a level with laundry lines and kitchen sinks, before a sharp right on to finals, finding the centre line, touching down, and braking before the end of the runway fell into the sea. But that was all lost on my three-year-old self. What made the impact was the heat: the inside of my arms sticking to the sides of my body, a totally new sensation on my skin, and all around me in the darkness the piercing vertical neon (of signage in Chinese characters but, of course, I couldn't interpret that either). It was my first ever memory - and the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Hong Kong, one of my favourite cities in the world.
I have a theory that if I stand long enough at the ferry terminal at Central I will run into almost everyone I know. Anyone who comes to Hong Kong takes a Star Ferry, or should. The ferry hop from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui is the most staggering - and emotionally stirring. The distinctive green-and-white vessels have looked the same for decades but the journey is shorter. When I was three it felt like forever. Is it the swathes of reclaimed land, or is it me? It now takes but a few minutes.
And even though the terminal has moved from beside City Hall to inconveniently outside the International Finance Centre, I still make sure I catch a Star Ferry every time I am in Hong Kong, sometimes to and fro, rather than to get to the other side. I pay the extra 50 cents to sit on the upper deck. The cleverly-designed bench seats have a moveable backrest so that you can always face the direction of travel. Heading towards Tsim Sha Tsui I sit on the right. I like to travel just after dusk when the city's lights are being switched on and the water looks molten. It is not only the sensational urban smash-up with the silhouette of The Peak behind but also feeling part of this frenetic fantastic city, one of the world's great mercantile ports.
Before I can immerse in my memories we have reached the other side. Quick and wondrous. Like a childhood.
Posted July 4th, 2016
On the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides
Here are golden shifting sand dunes, machair grassland, myriad islets and rugged cliffs. I'd like to camp here on the springy moss, awaken to the trill of the curlew, and then kite-surf at high tide in the shallow waters; consistent Atlantic winds also keep away the midges at this time of year. Beyond Uig, Lewis is an island steeped in Druid and Norse mythology with its standing stones, chambered cairns and the ancient circle at Callanish, less well known than Stonehenge but built around the same time and much more dramatic up here on the banks of Loch Roag. Uig itself is the place where a local crofter discovered a buried hoard of chess pieces nearly 200 years ago, brought to the surface during a storm. The Lewis Chessmen are 93 pieces of gloriously worked walrus ivory and whale tooth in the form of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights and pawns, thought to have been carved in Scandinavia in the 12th century. Most of the chessmen are on display at the British Museum in London (the rest are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh) and I often go to the Medieval Gallery on the upper floors to wonder at the craftsmanship. But of course I'd rather be on Lewis itself, lying in the lee of a dune, running my fingers through the sand hoping I might come across the chiselled shape of a 94th piece.
Posted June 26th, 2016
Feeling the Brexit blues
My first folio of this new column was originally set to be about a little slip of a beach called Les Graniers, a short hop by boat from St Tropez yet with very few bathers and a tiny in-the-know restaurant. The ground is stony rather than sandy but that helps make the water pellucid and there are pretty Provençal villas in pale pink and ochre on the hill behind, and dinghies bobbing in the bay. The restaurant serves bowls of mussels, grilled sardines and beef tartare - as the sun beats down. And during this wet cool summer in London it is this petite patch, little wonder, that has flitted into my mind time to time. However, after Friday, my private travel daydream shifted direction. Where I really want to be now is Brussels. I want to walk the streets, exploring the boutiques of Antwerp Fashion Department graduates on rue Antoine Dansaert, and the fleamarket at Place du Jeu de Balle, all the while remembering what it was like to be part of something called the European Union. There, in this cultured continental capital, I want to hope that there is a chance we will (be allowed to) return to the city where Europe has the strength in numbers to shape international policy and influence the world order. I would stand before Magritte, Delvaux and Ensor at the Museums of Fine Arts - and see the new super-tech Breugel exhibition; I'd eat Neuhaus chocolates, and speculaus biscuits from Maison Dandoy; rummage the junk shops on Rue Blaes with its treasures from former colonies, and stand on the steps of the Palais de Justice with its sweeping views of the city. And then I'd head to L'Archiduc, the most classic of jazz joints, in some ways hardly changed since it opened as a brothel by Madame Alice in 1937, and I'd stay all night hoping to hear snatches and snippets of conversations between European politicians and journalists, also feeling the blues, and allow myself to be carried away by the rhythms and inflections of the music. Closing my eyes, I'd dare to imagine a life bound up with Europe again, a future starkly different to the one we are facing now, where we can move around freely unconcerned by borders and know we belong - whether in London or Berlin, Paris or Brussels.