Romancing the Tourist


I stand in a portico hung with gentian-blue ipomeas… and look out on a land of mists and mysteries; a land of trailing silver veils through which domes and minarets, mighty towers and ramparts of flushed stone, hot palm groves and Atlas snows, peer and disappear at the will of the Atlantic cloud drifts.
Edith Wharton

It was almost a hundred years ago that Edith Wharton visited Morocco and yet somehow this vision of a land, savage, enchanting, suspended in time and space, untouched by civilisation, persists today. Though Morocco, in close proximity to Europe, has always been a destination for the more adventurous Western traveller, in the last ten years mass tourism has exploded onto the scene.

Take Essaouira, a small fishing town of 50 000 which is a centre of music, art and a windsurfing hotspot. Ideally situated on the coast within a few hours’ drive from Marrakech, Essaouira has experienced an unprecedented growth of tourism since the mid-90s which has put it firmly on the tourist trail and led many young workers to move from the more traditional industries of fishing and carpentry to seek out work as guides, hotel receptionists, bartenders and souvenir-sellers.

The appeal of a country like Morocco, and of a town like Essaouira, is manifold. Western tourists come in search of the new, they seek thrills, adventure and romance. The idea of romance is already intrinsically tied up in the entire premise of tourism; travel agents and bright brochures sell an escape fantasy and a romanticised landscape whether it be the beach, the mountains or the desert. In falling in love with an exotic country, a tourist can find themself in a romantic encounter with a local from that country. Such love affairs have always been a key element of travel as the holiday experience allows people to free themselves from their day-to-day lives and explore intimacy with a lover in a context totally out of the norm.

When Erin, an Australian in her early 20s, went on a backpacking tour of Europe and Morocco, a holiday romance was something she was expecting as part of her first overseas experience. “I was backpacking… not that I’d gone looking for it… but I was just having a good time.” Free from the inhibitions of her life back home, she admits her three-day affair with Ayoub, a young surfer from Essaouira, was something she would not have embarked on in her own country.

“Morocco seems like the kind of place where you want to fall in love,” says Sharee, an Australian tourist who returned to Essaouira several times to visit her Moroccan boyfriend, describing the place as ‘surreal, dream-like and full of wonder.’ The women I met spoke of their romantic partners in mildly patronising terms, as either ‘exotic’ or ‘cute’.

As a woman being lured by the attraction of the non-Western world, Sharee is following a long history of female adventurers like Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell who through the 19th and 20th centuries crossed rugged lands exploring the Orient. “Everything that the reader of Arabian Nights expects to find is here,” Edith Wharton enthused of the country, suggesting that Morocco conforms to an image long-held of the ‘Orient’.

Professor Hsu-Ming Teo of Macquarie University explains that this romanticisation of ‘the Orient’ has always been a strand of Western culture. “Every film that has not been about Arabs as terrorists has been about the ‘Sheikh’ figure,” she says. The erotic East emanates from 19th century colonial literature which was fascinated with harems and fantasies of the virile Arab man. In comparison with the European colonial figure the Arab was highly sexualised, and in the female-focused yearnings for the East the Western woman came to replace the harem women in this fantasy. This romanticised imagining of the Eastern man waned following the end of colonialism but resurfaced in the 1960s and 1970s.

Not coincidentally, it was then that Essaouira experienced its first boom of tourism. It was the hippies that led the way, fuelled by Beat novels and folk songs. Jimmy Hendrix famously bought a house in a neighbouring village to Essaouira and created an instant tourist destination. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang:
Take the train from Casablanca going south,
blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth.
Colored cottons hang in the air,
charming cobras in the square.

Until Morocco gained its independence in 1956, it was under French control for over forty years. Even though the colonisers left half a decade ago, Moroccan culture – along with that of Algeria and Tunisia – is still deeply affected by the lasting impact of French colonialism. The language they speak is a dialect of Arabic that is not understood in the Middle East, as it is heavily derived from European languages. French is spoken in places of business and the economy relies on trade with France. French is the language of education and all literature, including Arab literature, is sold in French. Classic Arabic is reserved for speaking of religion.

The French colonising mission in West Africa extended far beyond political control; it aimed to assimilate the colonised into a French way of life, and create economic interdependency between France and its territories. French imperialist Jules Harmand declared: ‘There is a hierarchy of races and civilisations… and we belong to the superior race and civilisation.’ The French have since departed but in the mindsets of Moroccans, the hierarchy remains. It was, as Professor Ahluwalia, a specialist in post-colonial studies at the University of South Australia calls it, “a colonisation of the mind, of the imagination.” To be able to speak French in Morocco denotes education, class and cosmopolitanism. To be ‘French’ is to be connected with the Western world.

The people of Essaouira in general have not had access to the education and class privileges like those from a big city such as Casablanca. The gap left by the French is steadily being filled with the creation of a new post-colonial identity: one that is Western but not French and has some resonance for Moroccans in terms of the history of their relations with the West – this is an adoption of American hippy culture. The Essaouris dress like hippies and sport dredlocks or long hair, they idealise the American sixties and seventies era, they play folk music and reggae on the guitar. The tourism boom has coincided with the advent of cheap satellite television and Moroccans now speak English along with French. Their ability to work with tourists depends on it.

Many young men in Essaouira live a seemingly care-free lifestyle which consists of surfing, smoking hash, playing music, chasing Western girls and dreaming of leaving Morocco. As one man told me; “I spent the last seven years doing nothing, just waiting to leave. Why didn’t I study or get a job? It didn’t seem worth it. Why get a job when I was leaving anyway? We are all doing nothing except for waiting and what’s our excuse? Jim Morrison.” Another responded with a smile, when I asked him what the Moroccan dream was, “Europe.” Instead of giving up this dream and building a life in Morocco, the ‘hippy’ image is constructed in order to make their hopelessness appear as a choice. Freedom is a word used often in Essaouira; ‘We are free like the birds in the sky, like fish in the sea.’

The desire to be rescued, to marry and be taken to Europe is obviously one motivating factor in the Moroccan pursuit of Western women. Professor Ahluwalia explains that the Moroccans feel a love-hate relationship towards their former colonisers and the West in general; even as there is an imitation of Western culture, it is also demonised and resented. Essaouris often approach the female tourist aggressively, through verbal comments or touching, and if she does not respond, they may call her racist or shout “Do you think you are princess?” The ‘stupid tourist’ attitude co-exists with a longing for inclusion in the Western world.

A study of tourism in Essaouira has revealed that locals feel a concern for the effects of tourism, blaming Western influence for introducing drugs, alcohol, promiscuity and moral decline. When Sharee describes her boyfriend Jawad, she says he “both glorified and resented the West.” He was constantly comparing himself and his country to Europe, expressing feelings of inferiority. He envied the apparent wealth and opportunity of Westerners and their ability to travel, but scorned what he considered to be their superficiality and “loose morals”, particularly of women.

Essaouiri men gain their understanding of Western women from two sources – television and tourism. Both of these fuel the perception that Western girls are promiscuous and come to their country looking for sex. In an Islamic culture where relationships with a Moroccan woman may lead to an expectation of marriage, Western women are seen as offering easy sex in the short-term and in the long-term, the hope of a visa and an escape.

While Sharee considered her relationship with Jawad to be serious, Erin’s encounter with Ayoub was short-lived and lasted only the length of her holiday. A study of Palestinian men working in the tourist market in Jerusalem has suggested that men in situations of inequality regain power through ‘dominating’ Western women. By sleeping with Western tourists, they achieve status amongst their peers and are able to compare themselves favourable to Western men in terms of their sexual prowess. In Morocco I have heard it said that the men offer the “best sex” whilst paradoxically expressing disgust at Western women for giving themselves so freely to them.

A dual power relationship is played out between the tourist and the local. On the one hand, it would seem that the Western tourist has the ultimate power, with her freedom to come and go, her ability to leave the country, her privileged economic status and her independence. On the other, the woman is dependent on the Moroccan men as he has access to the culture and language that mean even simple actions can not be achieved on her own without great difficult. Sharee says, “I was reliant on him to help me get the bus or buy food.” As a tourist, she felt a barrier to understanding the customs of the local culture and needed her boyfriend to advise her as to the appropriate behaviour in different situations.

She also found herself confronted by his very different idea of how women should act. Like the colonial women who found themselves empowered by occupying a male role in Eastern societies, Sharee was the one in the couple who had freedom and money and as such, played what in Moroccan culture would be considered the role of the male. However, her behaviour as a Western woman conflicted with Jawad’s expectations of her gender role; “He didn’t like me drinking alcohol, smoking, swearing or being seen in bars… he preferred it when I was quiet and shy.” While enjoying Sharee’s freedom to travel and have sexual relationships, Jawad often sought to impose a Moroccan idea of traditional femininity and dictated her behaviour. Compared to Western men, Sharee describes him as “chivalrous” but also over-protective and intensely jealous.

Having these relationships allows women to experience the local culture differently and provides them with a point of entry to areas normally located outside of the context of tourism. Both Sharee and Erin were allowed to meet their partner’s families and were taken to places in the countryside outside of Essaouira that they described as ‘authentic’. Professor Ming describes this longing as “the desire to find authenticity, to have that special travel experience.” The women take home a great travel story and gain status over regular tourists who have not viewed Moroccan culture with the same depth and insight that they have.

So who is exploiting whom? Some have described Western women’s involvement with local men, now a widespread phenomenon across the globe, as no different from conventional sex tourism. What distinguishes it is the notion of romance that somehow elevates the relationship above a mere business transaction. The men do not perceive themselves as gigolos or hustlers as they never receive money directly for sex; all payment comes in the form of gifts, accommodation, paid travel or meals. It would degrade their Moroccan masculinity to see themselves as being supported by a woman, even if they reaping financial benefits of these relationships. In a culture where men are the traditional breadwinner of the family, the men of Essaouira seem very aware of how they might be viewed negatively within their society. Both Sharee and Erin reported their partner’s request to be seen holding money and paying in shops and restaurants even though it was the woman’s money they were using.

The men tend to idealise the relationship and speak of it in terms of love, even if it lasts just a few days. However, this relates to the idea present in local culture that a relationship should lead to marriage anyway. The women are either seduced by this talk of love, or else view it as nothing but having a good time. While Sharee felt “a genuine connection”, Erin summed up her encounter as, “I knew exactly what was going on and it was just two days later and I was going to be gone. For me, he was good company and experience. It was just fun, exciting and different.”

Theorist Edward Said, who coined the term ‘Orientalism’, said that Eastern men could not escape the Oriental gaze. The men of Essaouira seem very aware that there are two stereotypes of Arab men that date all the way back from colonial literature. Essaouiris play up to the role of being ‘Eastern’ tourists see it, and present themselves as different enough from Westerners to be exotic and attractive. But on the flip side, and particularly present in recent times, is the perception of Arabs as dangerous. In order to counter this, the Moroccan must be ‘Western’ enough to not be threatening to the tourist. He creates this by citing Western literature and pop culture, singing Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, quoting T S Eliot and Albert Camus, and being well-versed in topics that are familiar to the Westerner. Yet he maintains the allure of the exotic by being overly romantic, introducing the tourist woman to his ‘traditional’ family, singing Arabic songs and speaking a
foreign language.

The young men of Essaouira must strike a careful balance between these two things if they are to be successful in attracting Western women. The Essaouiris have learnt to be chameleons, altering their form and their language to whatever appeals most to the woman they are trying to seduce.

This is the Art of Romancing the Tourist.

Take Me Back To New Orleans

New Orleans at Night. Photo by Faunggs's Photo (Copied from Flickr)
Photo by Faunggs’s Photo (Copied from Flickr)

We are seated in a circle – or more accurately a quadrangle, as there are only four of us. The wooden floorboards of the small room above a dingy café in mid-town New Orleans creak loudly every time one of us shifts awkwardly in our iron chairs. It is a Tuesday night and the writers’ meeting is in its fourth month of existence.

Not that you would know it.

“So what are we doing again, Andy?” says Greg. He is a thirty-something with straggly hair, a beard as tangled as his Southern drawl, and a penchant for zombie films.

Andy pulls a manuscript out of his bag and thumps it down heavily on the chair beside him. He is in his fifties, and presumably dresses like a college professor – with a leather jacket and yellow tie – to disguise the fact that he is actually a furniture salesman. He churns out a novel every other month.

“What?” Lynn is a rotund older woman whose loud squawk is mostly due to profound deafness in one ear. Mostly.

Greg is taking a hiatus from poetry-writing to pen a play called How Many Necrophiliac Jokes Can You Make In An Hour.

“Speak up!” Lynn’s bark competes with the groaning of the floor.

Greg speaks up. “Necrophiliacs!” he says louder. He’s wondering about the rating level of the group as everything he has is R-rated, you know, pretty much on the first page.

“I’m with you, bro.” Andy chuckles, shaking his head at a memory he thankfully keeps to himself.

“The reading level? We can all READ, Greg!” says Lynn. “Look, I’ll read what you got but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna feel comfortable with it. I mean, if someone asks me to take my clothes off, even if they’re gonna pay me a thousand bucks, I’ll say-” She pauses to consider what she’ll say in the event of such a proposition. “I’ll say – is it art?”

The floor rattles under my chair when I stifle my laughter. Lynn turns to me. “You sitting over there sniggering? I’m thinking of the children!” she says. “You’re gonna be handing around R-rated material, I wanna put out a notice so’s no kids be seeing things they shouldn’t be seeing. You know what I’m saying?”

Andy doesn’t. “Are we letting kids in this group?”

Greg’s not coming to a group with kids in it. His stuff is pretty out there – we’re talking a whole other level of ‘out there’.

“What? Can’t hear you!” Lynn says. “I’m saying I don’t wanna be excluding nobody.”

Greg’s not having it, neither is Andy. But regardless, the four childless writers in the meeting debate the logistics of opening a daycare downstairs, until it is closing time and we agree to postpone the actual discussion of our writing for another week.

But there is no other week for me. I’m in New Orleans on a scholarship for an MFA in Creative Writing. Unfortunately, having failed to read the fine print on my documents – or indeed any of the print – I don’t realise until I arrive that my scholarship falls short of my tuition by $7,000 a year. And on my first day of class, I discover the degree is three years, and not two. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever bothered to ask.

Not having the requisite funds for even the first semester, I do the only logical thing. I head down to the nearest jazz bar, drink a lot of Louisiana beer and ask a 20 year old Texan what I should do. Unfortunately, the next day I can’t remember his answer. So I assume that he said “Everybody knows creative writing degrees are an academic racket anyway,” and I withdraw from university.

An email arrives announcing that I have 15 days to leave the country. My new plan is to cross the border out of the States and re-enter on a tourist visa to return for Mardi Gras. In a series of phone calls whose narrative thread loosely resembles a Kafka novel, I find myself ensnared in the caverns of bureaucracy, being transferred endlessly from one department to another – immigration to citizenship services to homeland security to the terrorist hotline – and shouted at innumerable times. Finally an older gentleman informs me that I’ll be sorry in ten years’ time when I fall in love with an American and am forbidden to marry him, in a tone that strongly infers I’m fated to die alone and eaten by my own cats. This is what happens when you overstay your US visa, young lady.

“But I’m going to Mexico.” I explain for the umpteenth time. “I’m not overstaying my visa.”

“Ma’am, we will put you on a plane, we will ship you out of Mexico!” I wonder whether Mexico falls under the legal jurisdiction of the United States, but the phone call is abruptly terminated before I have time to ask.

Photo by Fiona Wen Hui C (Copied from Flickr)
Photo by Fiona Wen Hui C (Copied from Flickr)

I don’t anticipate having problems leaving the United States when I head for the Canadian border, but Quebecois immigration holds me for an hour as they go over my documents. “What do you mean you didn’t know the degree was for three years? It’s written here!” The immigration officer points to the bit of my document that it had never occurred to me to read.

“This might sound strange,” I say, “but it never occurred to me to read that bit.”

He confers in French with his colleague. The hardest part to understand of my whole somewhat-confusing story, apparently, is that I moved to the US with a single backpack. I think it will be helpful to explain in French that everything I own fits into a single backpack, but I’m ordered to my seat. Finally, the officer stamps my passport and scrawls on a piece of paper – four days.

“Do you want to stay more than four days?” I tell him I don’t. “Because you can’t!” he says.

I leave Canada after five days – just to prove him wrong – and decide not to take my chances coming back across the US border: Instead, I drift through three continents and wash up in Australia. In several months of not studying writing, I manage to write a lot.

So I come home with no set plans, either to leave or to stay. And I do what any aspiring writer would do: I get a job as a writer. A copywriter. My days are filled with words. Unfortunately, those words are pet insurance, premiums and superannuation. I make surreptitious use of a finance dictionary, nod enthusiastically when stock prices are discussed at the watercooler, and keep quiet the fact I barely have enough in my super account to feed myself for a whole week of retirement. In a decade of travelling I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in a place as foreign as Sydney’s corporate world.

Maybe I should have taken Lynn up on her offer to hide me in her basement.



Three Minutes of Fame in New York

Photo Kevin Dooley
Photo Kevin Dooley

Hey YOU, want to be a STAR? Feeling stuck and depressed because you aren’t? Want to know how to move forward and reach your DREAMS? Are you frustrated, sad and tired of not being seen for the talent you are? Sick of WASTING YOUR TIME in a dead-end job?  Here is your chance!! Call in to the THREE MINUTES OF FAME and win instant success!

I have been in New York just a few weeks so I should be grateful to land this unpaid internship.  I spend Mondays posting these ads and calling up people who respond, assuring them that appearing on our radio show is somehow going to launch their long and prosperous careers on reality television.

“So what do you do for a living, Destiny?” I ask.

A sigh extends across the telephone line, husky from cigarettes and overuse.  “Well,” it drawls, “I don’t really have a job right now, ya know.  I mean apart from looking aftah my babies n’all.”

She has three babies and is living in a shelter after her ma kicked her out and her last job at Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t really work out because they didn’t recognise her potential.  Her true calling is to be an entertainer.

“An entertainer!”  I say.  “Do you sing?  Act?  Dance?”

“No,” she replies, “But I have a great personality.  I mean, everyone says to me, ‘Girl, you have a great personality.’  I should be on TV like Snooki.  Or maybe I could be like a life coach, ya know?  Same as Oprah.”

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I am an intern on the set of a celebrity gossip show that is devoid of actual celebrities. The set is the rooftop bar of a fancy five-star hotel.  Wendy strides into the guest dressing room, clutching a copy of The New York Post.  “Oh my gaaaaad. Have you seen this?”

It is the day after the Japanese tsunami.  She waves her newspaper wildly with its images of disaster flooding the front page.

“Sean and Scarlett are just all over each other, can you believe it?”  The makeup girls flee their positions and twitter around her, pulling the Entertainment pages back and forth.  Above us, Charlie Sheen’s face flickers across a television screen on mute and a PA sits mesmerised on a chair staring up at it.  The air girl is straightening the fringe of a reality star.  Wendy finally tears her gaze from the STAR section of the paper and flings an arm out towards him.

“David! Darling!  Loved, loved, loved your work on The Bachelorette.

Her kisses leave lipstick marks on his cheek and one of the makeup girls jumps to attention and runs for the Kleenex.  “Such a shame you were voted off, you were so fabulous!”  She breathes out her words in rapid succession the same way she covertly puffs cigarette smoke on the hotel balcony when she thinks no one is looking.

Upstairs on set, the host is sipping from a $400 bottle of wine poured by the busty actress playing the “bartender”, a girl desperately trying to prolong the three minutes of fame she enjoyed as a YouTube sensation when a song she sang in a bikini went viral.    Her function in the show is merely to serve as the butt of an endless string of the host’s breast jokes.

“I want to be taken seriously as an actress,” she confides tearfully, not to me but to a camera and a film crew.  They are using her as the subject for a new reality show they are pitching.  Their latest pilot TV Divas, focusing on a group of women who have fights and try to get on television, has not been picked up.  This is an entirely new concept, featuring just one woman who is trying to get on television while her boyfriend Crazy Johnny gets into fights.

“The YouTube thing totally upset me, like I just couldn’t deal.  Suddenly I was just the Bikini Girl and I want to be way more than that.”  The camera zooms in on her cleavage.

“Perfect!” shouts Steve the executive producer.  “I’ve got it!  Let’s call it The Adventures of Bikini Girl!”

Crazy Johnny picks himself up off the floor from where he was entangled with the cameraman in a fabricated brawl.

Steve turns to me. “You can write the pitch,” he says.  “Think Jersey Housewives meets Jerseylicious, no wait, make that Jersey Shore.”

I write the pitch between fielding phone calls from drug addicts and alcoholics who all want their THREE MINUTES OF FAME on this week’s special addiction-themed radio show.

Heather and Johnny are passionately in love but is that enough to keep them together while everything else is tearing them apart? Is Johnny holding Heather back from being a star? Is she driving him away or just driving him nuts?

On Wednesdays and Fridays, I go to my unpaid internship at a reality TV company that has figured out the best way to get ratings is by perpetuating negative stereotypes about minority groups in America.  Unfortunately for them, the Gypsies are shaping up to be a bit more of a handful than the Amish.  Not only because they take off without notice and for indefinite periods of time on holidays in Florida but because they have a tendency to turn up at the production office unannounced, usually when a big meeting is going down with visiting executives.

The Gypsy matriarch leads the fray, roaring at the top of her voice.  Producer AJ leaps to his feet and snaps the Gypsy Wranglers into action, two young female interns whose job it is to herd the cast of the show into the conference rooms to minimise disruption to the office workings.  One of the teenage Gypsy girls retaliates by putting a curse on the unborn children of an intern, causing her to burst promptly into tears.

A 16-year-old boy lands in the chair beside me, waiting for me to pull my headphones off.  “How you doing,” he smiles, running a hand through his gelled quiff and rubbing his not-yet-existent moustache.  “I’m one of the Gypsies.  You know, off of TV.”

Meanwhile, his father is in intense discussion with AJ: “What do you mean I run a junkyard?  I don’t know nothing about cars.”

The producer slows his speech as if explaining to an infant.  “We’ve hired the junkyard.  You need to have a job on the show, we can’t have a TV show about people on a TV show, now can we?”

On evenings and weekends, I head off to my only paying job.  $7-an hour for flipping burgers and while doing it, I am required to wear a blue jumpsuit with an elasticised waist and a red cap.

A customer saunters in, his ample belly cascading over his belt.  “I’ll get the large burger with extra cheese, large fries and a Coke.  Oh wait, better make that a Diet Coke, sir.”

“Sir?”  I blink at him.  My short hair is hidden under the red cap so I make a mental note to wear earrings to avoid being mistaken for a teenage boy.  Then, I remove the cap.

My boss hisses behind me.  He is dressed in designer jeans and a tight t-shirt – no jumpsuit for him.  “Can I see you for a minute?”  I follow him down to the dank basement where the Mexican cleaner is bent over a mop.  The office is the only room where the roof is high enough to stand up.  Upstairs, more Mexicans all dressed in identical jumpsuits are chopping and shovelling beef patties.

“I don’t think you take burgers seriously,” the boss says.  “In fact, why don’t you just go home.  And make sure you return your uniform!” he calls after me, as if I might want to take it with me as a keepsake of New York.

“Hey,” I say to the kitchen crew as I head out.  “I need some callers for my radio show tomorrow, does anyone here want to be a star?”

The Mexicans don’t even look up.  They just keep on flipping burgers.

God Rides the Bus in Sudan


“When is the next bus to Dongola?”

I ask at what I assume to be the bus station, in Wadi Haifa, Sudan, although there is no sign of any buses, only some men having tea on the floor of an office. I have just rolled off a 24-hour trip from Egypt, the only way you can – packed onto the deck of a boat carrying Sudanese families returning from visits to their relatives in Egypt and traders lugging bags and boxes full of produce. I have spent a day swatting flies and sheltering from the relentless sun with torn scraps of cardboard and a night huddled in blankets in the freezing cold.

The men at the bus station tell me it will come this afternoon, inchallah. God willing. I drink tea.

Hours later, I return but there are no buses in the large square of dust that is the terminal. “Is there a bus to Dongola?” I ask.

“No, not today. Tomorrow,” they say. They are still drinking tea.

“What time?”

“Maybe morning, inchallah. Maybe evening, inchallah. If not tomorrow then the day after, inchallah. All things are written in heaven by Allah.”

“Let me get this straight,” I say. “Either the bus will come tomorrow morning, the afternoon or the evening or it won’t come at all?”

“Inchallah,” they all echo and laugh and offer me tea. “Come in the morning at five o’clock,” one advises, “and then wait.”

“But I will probably be waiting all day.”

“Inchallah, yes,” he laughs.

“I might be waiting two days.”

“Inchallah!” he laughs harder and pours more tea.

I go on waiting for the bus until the waiting seems like living and if the bus arrives, it will be entirely incidental to our tea-drinking. In the cafes by the river, carpets are laid out on the ground along the bank for the customers to squat on for a while. A while turns into hours as a group of fishermen, all dressed in identical white robes, come to have breakfast. They sit with their feet crossed over each other, dipping bread into a communal bowl of beans in the centre of the circle and sipping tea. They insist I eat with them and they laugh and laugh.

Another group soon arrives, all in white robes, seated around a bowl of beans and they laugh and laugh and I eat with them as well. An older man tells me that Sudan never had a war, sure it may have had a few problems but so help us Allah, what country hasn’t? This makes them laugh so much that I almost believe it. More groups come and go and eat and laugh and I have beans with all of them and drink tea and by midday I am so full of beans and laughter that I can barely walk back to my hotel.

sudan2My hotel is, more precisely, a shed with an iron bed and thin mattress, so worn, it has disappeared altogether in places and there are no sheets, blankets or pillows to cushion me from the wrought-iron bars against my back. The two other iron beds occupied by Sudanese women and five children. The doors are metal barn-doors and the floor is dirt. The women drag their beds outside at night because the shed is unbearably hot. The air clings to my skin, making the Sahara sand stick to it. The barn doors are all open in a row and everyone has dragged their beds outside in clusters. Women laugh and chatter and wash their clothes in water that is black and crawling with large insects. They dare me to wash in the water and when I do, they laugh and make me tea.

Allah has more pressing things to do this week than keep an eye on Sudanese bus timetables and I only have $100 in cash and a foreign bank card that it is useless until I get back to Egypt.

In Africa, you always need a Plan B. And you should probably keep a C, D and E up your sleeve just in case. My plan F is the truck.

The temperature is already soaring above 40 degrees when we clamber aboard the first truck as dawn is swelling over the dusty horizon. It is a lorry lined with wooden seats and I buy the cheapest seat on the very back beside the spare tyre. As we set off, I understand why this is the cheapest seat.

I am thrown up and down on my bench, clinging onto the spare tyre for dear life. I have a scarf wrapped around my face, covering even my eyes, to protect me from the dust being whipped around the truck as it clatters through the desert at full-speed, flying over bumps and potholes. At times, I am certain all four wheels leave the ground. For hours we speed along, me with my eyes shut tight and my arms gripping the tyre. There is a roof on the lorry and if I let go of the tyre for a second then my head bangs against it. I touch the top of my hair and feel a few drops of blood matted underneath.

We reach a village and everyone jumps off for a break. They lie in the shade, napping until the hottest part of the day has passed. They sip tea and play cards. The shops are all closed with mattresses thrown out in front under the shade of an awing for their owners to snooze. The entire town is splayed out on the ground and only the cry of a baby and its mother shush-shushing breaks the silence.

At last, we heap onto a different truck, this one without a roof, and we drive for hours under the sun, the heat hovering around 50 degrees. I tighten the scarf on my head.

As we stop at oases dotted with palm trees and tiny villages that are nothing more than three or four houses clustered together in the dust, I take the black water from the clay urns in the centre of each town and soak myself in it. I brush off insects and my arms are coated in dirt and sweat. My mouth is parched and my lips are cracked. My truck-mates tell me not to drink the water and they laugh when I do.

I am covered in bruises and we are still hours from Dongola. The roof had at least provided a buffer when I was airborne. With this removed, I keep flying bang into the centre of the truck. I pick myself up and crawl back to my seat and hang tighter onto the spare wheel. Everyone laughs. When we stop for dinner, in a café inside a clay building at an oasis, someone buys a huge bowl of lentils and we all dig in with our hands and bread.

By mid-afternoon, the people give in to the heat, close the stores and go home. The villages are still and dark and only a few people move between houses and some men gather in the one café to sit in stools and smoke hookah pipes in front of a TV playing football on low volume.

Night falls and the moon rises in the star-struck sky as the truck rattles along an ill-defined line through the Sahara visible only to the driver. Some time shortly after midnight, it veers suddenly to the left and screeches to a halt. The driver’s door opens and he emerges with a shotgun in one hand, hitching his robes up with the other. The man seated next to me whispers, “And now they kill us,” and laughs.

The driver raises the rifle slowly to his shoulder and switches the headlights up to high-beam. A rabbit freezes in the glare.  Crack. It falls to the ground. The driver whoops with delight. “Breakfast!” he shouts back at us.

sudan1We are treated to rabbit stew for breakfast before being unloaded from the truck in Dongola some twenty hours after we boarded. In the dusty main street where tomatoes and potatoes and spatulas and frying pans are spilling out from shops in every direction, and men in white robes herd camels homewards by tapping them with sticks. The market stocks fruit and vegetables and Foulah dolls, a Muslim Barbie who is veiled and comes with a range of different-coloured hijabs.

A few drops of rain start to fall.

I look up at the sky in disbelief as it cracks open and lightning rips across it. The heavens roar with thunder and throw water down on us. It falls into the road, swirling the dust into mud and filling up the potholes. It overflows all down the main street and floods into the shops. Suddenly, the street bursts to life.

People are rushing to gather their produce and close the doors against the force of the water. A boy driving a horse and cart urges the animal to hurry home, the wheels slipping in the mud and one arm slapping the reins; the other holds a soggy piece of cardboard over his head.


I crouch under the shelter of a shop front and beside me, an old man is holding a bucket over his head. And laughing. I shout at him over the noise of the thunder, “You have a bucket on your head!”

This makes him laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh more till the tears roll from the corners of his eyes and the men around him are all wiping their eyes and laughing too.

“We haven’t had rain here for years!” he shouts back and laughs still harder. On the street, a boy in bare feet is letting the rain pour down on him. He jumps into the air with one fist pounding the space above his head:


The old man hands me a bucket. We stand in the rain with buckets on our heads laughing until I have to wipe the tears from my eyes too. They roll down my cheeks and fall to the ground where they are swirled into the mud and washed away.


Tea and Tear Gas in Turkey

Photo by Claire Harris
Photo by Claire Harris

“Don’t go to Taksim Square today,” the carpet-seller warns. “Everyone knows there will be trouble.”

I am sipping tea cross-legged on a stack of carpets. In Istanbul you drink tea everywhere; in shops, supermarkets, in people’s houses, at the bus stop. Everyone keeps a little hot water urn around them somewhere just for the purpose of offering tea to anyone they happen to bump into. If not, they run to their neighbour or the nearest tea shop and come back bearing small glasses on a tray with a handle on top.

After tea, Nazif pours out two glasses of raki, the hard Turkish liquor that tastes of aniseed and is knocked down in neat shots. “Here – you will need this,” he nods knowingly.

I’m not actually planning to go to Taksim Square, but I need a visa for Syria, the safest country in the Middle East, whose people are busy celebrating the re-election of Bashar Al-Asaad. I get a taxi to the Syrian Embassy, which is behind Taksim Square. Along the side of the road, police vans pull up and hundreds of policemen jump out, armed with batons and shields. The traffic is being stopped and turned around.

“Get out here,” the driver signals. He is not allowed any further.

So I get out and cross the wide square on foot. 30 years ago there was a peaceful workers’ demonstration here that ended in bloodshed when tanks rolled into the square, trapping thousands of demonstrators. Snipers appeared on the roof and began firing as the crowd surged in panic, killing 40. The government declared the slaughter the fault of the agitators, rounding up and arresting the leaders of the Workers’ Movement. The May Day march was banned for three decades.

Until today: May 1st, 2007.

Hundreds of Turkish people have gathered in the square to mark the occasion, some carrying posters or photos of the victims of the 1977 killings. The demonstrators are mostly young people – students, secularists and socialists. All of them are holding red roses and as they move forward slowly they are singing and waving the flowers gently above their heads. A wreath is laid at the foot of the statue in the middle of the plaza.

An old lady hurries by, her veiled head cast downward and her hands lugging the morning’s shopping in bags. Men in ragged clothing carry sticks with rings of bread for sale and young boys scurry in and out of the demonstrators selling bottles of water. A group of Korean tourists is snapping photos. A beggar sits hunched on the pavement beside a pair of scales where for a coin donation you can check your weight. In Turkey, the beggars are entrepreneurs and the carpet-sellers are philosophers.

Then, the tanks roll in. Stretching my head up to look at the tops of the buildings surrounding us, I watch the snipers move into position on the roofs, soldiers armed with semi-automatic guns. Most of them are taking photos of the protest below on their mobile phones. Riot police come pouring through the gaps between the tanks, thousands of them easily encircling and outnumbering the demonstrators.

But the people in the march only clutch their roses as though they are weapons, brandishing them above their head. They keep walking and singing.

Facing them in rows, the police advance, step by step, pushing everybody in the square towards the demonstrators; the old lady with her shopping, the bread-sellers, the water-boys, the tourists, the beggars. The singing turns to chanting.

The elections are coming up in a few weeks; the Islamist Party which currently holds power looks set to win, and the battle that has raged for almost a century between the Islamists and Secularists threatens to flare up again. Fists are now raised in the air alongside the flowers. The students are joined by older people, women and teenagers.

Photo by Claire Harris
Photo by Claire Harris

One of the police officers, a fat sergeant, is strutting up and down before the front line of protestors, barking commands. This may just be the greatest day of his life.  The police have hidden their faces behind gas masks and Fat Sergeant is having a screaming argument with an inferior officer. He ends it by reaching for the junior policeman’s mask, pulling it forward and letting it snap back. The man clutches his face and howls in pain as Fat Sergeant turns on his heel with a satisfied smirk, his pudgy hands clasped behind his back.

The demonstrators are pulling scarves over their mouths and noses but they haven’t budged. When the tear gas starts, I am not expecting it so my face is still uncovered. People start running in all directions, scattered, hurtling down the street, throwing themselves into doors. The police who don’t have masks run too. I am running blindly because I can’t see through the tears streaming down my face and I have shut my eyes anyway to stop them burning.

Police are waiting in the doorways of the nearest buildings, beating the crowd with batons, forcing them back into the gas-filled air. There are police everywhere and they are still marching forward through the smoke, swinging their batons into anything and everything before them. I crouch against a wall as the line of police moves towards me. To my right, an old woman falls when the baton hits her and a policeman kicks her on the ground.

I shout but my voice is lost in the chaos and even I can’t hear it. A policeman is in front of me and something hard slams into my side and knocks the breath right out of me so I can’t scream anymore. I turn around but there is only the wall behind me. I cover my head with my arms and lean into the wall. The baton strikes my back again and again and, once it stops, I stumble to a doorway where, inside, police and protestors are recovering together in the stairwell. Water is handed out from the apartment above and passed between them. My eyes are still weeping, my skin still burns, I am coughing and my back and stomach ache.

10 minutes later, the demonstrators are back in Taksim Square with their banners and pumping fists and there are even more of them than before. When the police reach for their tear gas they only pull their scarves over their faces and raise their voices and fists higher.

Not me, though. On my way back to the hostel, I stop off for tea with Nazif, the carpet-seller. He tuts when I show him the black bruises on my arms and back and asks if I managed to get my visa. I shake my head. “Well,” he chuckles, “at least you have a souvenir of Turkey.”

Toy Guns and Pocket Knives in Beirut

Children in the Shatila Refugee Camp, Beirut
Children in the Shatila Refugee Camp, Beirut

“I am terrorist”, the teenage boy says and he laughs. His friend leans on his shoulder and flashes a beaming set of straight white teeth.

I am on my way to meet the director of the Children and Youth Centre of Shatila Refugee Camp in the suburbs of Beirut. It is just a 15 minute drive from the ultra-modern downtown where families stroll along the waterfront and 18-year-olds, more fortunate than the two I am talking to, cruise around in Peugeots pumping Arabic pop music and smoke hookah before an explosive red-and-yellow sunset.

Even though Shatila is called a refugee camp, it is actually a neighbourhood and its inhabitants are not refugees; the younger generation were born here, the older have called it home for 30 years. It is a maze of seven-storey matchbox compartments, filthy grey and draped with layers of washing, the concrete balconies towering over narrow alleys strewn with rubbish and soaked in sewage. The gap between the buildings, sometimes no more than a metre or two wide, is hung with an ugly net of thick black cables, so low you could put your hand up and touch them.

Under this mess of electrical wires, the children play. “Take photo, take photo!” they shout, posing with their two fingers raised in the international sign of peace. Snap! They scurry to grab some toys that lie scattered about the paved concrete. “Take photo, take photo!” they cry again and this time they hold plastic guns in the air, brandishing these fake weapons above their heads. Snap.

Behind them, the walls are painted thick with a jumble of Palestinian flags, images of jail bars and chains, burning American flags, a swastika staring from anti-Israeli scribblings. The bricks are plastered with peeling posters of heroes who have defied America and Israel – an unlikely combination of Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Che Guevara.

They flock around me to ask where I am from, and mishear the word Australia. “Israel! You from Israel!” and the hate glimmers across a six-year-old’s eyes, “Yahod! Yahod!” His four-foot companions take up the cry. “Jew!” There is no space for the kids to run around in the cramped alleys so they are crammed into the two cybercafes where they use virtual guns to shoot animated soldiers.

When two young men walk past strapped with bullet-proof vests and carrying huge semi-automatic guns, not one of these children bats an eyelid.

An old lady sitting in a doorway beckons me toward the single room she lives in and makes me tea over the flame of a gas stove on the floor beside her mattress. On the walls hang photos of her three sons, all killed before they reached middle age. When I ask her about the armed men, she mutters “security” and says no more.

The boy who called himself a terrorist is still watching me: “Welcome to Shatila,” he grins. “Welcome to Paradise.” They are two beautiful boys with smooth Arabian complexions and gelled hair, dressed in jeans, fitted t-shirts and hightop sneakers. You could find them in a nightclub in London. But they are here.

Mahmoud has come from a camp in North Lebanon which has been under siege by the Lebanese army for ten days. He smiles when he says that his brother was killed last week. He smiles when he describes how he ran from the camp alone when there was a break in the fighting. He tells me that his mother is still back there along with several thousand residents because she is tired of running, but now he is looking at the ground and shuffling the gravel beneath his feet.

“Who helped you escape?” I ask. The question seems to take him by surprise. He flashes a look of defiance. “Nobody.”

The Palestinians of northern Lebanon have recently fled to Shatila, refugees from a refugee camp. Hundreds of families in Shatila opened their tiny homes to welcome the strangers. A few days later, when fighting erupted at another camp in the south causing thousands more to flee, more people were packed into the massively overcrowded 40,000 square metres that already houses at least 17,000 people.

Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from owning their own homes outside of designated areas, Mahmoud explains. Confined to squalid areas like Shatila and barred from well-paid jobs, those that can find employment at all work only the most menial jobs for a pittance. They will never possess Lebanese citizenship; nor will their children or grandchildren.

He tells me that only 20 percent can afford to go to university, usually funded by militant groups. He was at college in the north but there is no chance he will finish it now. “And the other 80%?” I ask. Mahmoud shrugs.

“Rubbish“, his friend says quickly, grinning again. “We are not people, just rubbish.”

As I continue through the narrow streets of the camp, I am ushered in for cups of tea and puffs of water pipe. Crowded around a dinner table with four generations of two Palestinian families, we dig into hummus and falafel with our fingers from a communal dish among scores of children, distant relatives and neighbours. The door is always open, literally, as friends pop their heads through the window and stroll in and out.

Shatila Refugee Camp, Beirut
Shatila Refugee Camp, Beirut

After dinner, we sit in front of a television, flicking perpetual news from channel to channel. One family has come from the camp in the north, they have no homes to return to and what will happen tomorrow and the day after is unknown. A 19-year-old girl giggles and clutches my arm, speaking the only English she knows: “I love you!” and giggles again. Her fiancé sits beside her, they should have been married last week but the shelling intervened.

They all fall silent when their camp appears on the screen, projectile missiles ripping through and dissolving buildings into smoke and rubble. There are friends and family trapped inside the concrete blocks that have just vanished before our eyes. The two older women look exhausted and a younger man turns to me and with one hand he indicates around him to the children squatting on the carpet before the TV: “We are all afraid,” he says.

When I finally arrive at the Children and Youth Centre, responsible for keeping the children distracted from their own lives, director Abu Moujahed pulls open a drawer for me and unloads one knife after another that he has confiscated from the kids. Kitchen knives, Swiss army knives, pocket knives.

“The parents, they do nothing”, he sighs. “How can we stop these children from becoming delinquents if the parents have given up?” Outside in the tiny concrete square that serves as the only playground, some kids kick a tennis ball around because they don’t have a football. “So what can we do?”

“You know”, he goes on; “we have a joke in Shatila. The devil comes to take a man to hell. The man tells him, ‘I will be happy to go with you because anything must be better than here.’”

But Shatila doesn’t make a believer of everyone. “If you visit this place”, Abu Moujahed says before I leave, “you will know that God doesn’t exist.”

Forget Paris. When in Rome…

Photo by Claire Harris
Photo by Claire Harris

The owner of the English school in Paris where I teach is a tiny French woman in her 60s with a chip on her shoulder the size of the Eiffel Tower and a penchant for reducing her employees to tears. Her favourite pastime is eavesdropping outside the door of the classroom when I am with my students so she can pull me into her office and list all the things I have done wrong. Which, incidentally, is everything.

Skulking around another corner and eavesdropping on Madame is her assistant Charles, a serious Texan who is half Madame’s age and twice her height. He has already informed me that he is developing extra-sensory hearing so he can listen in on his colleagues on the other side of thick walls. Nicknamed Austin Powers by his students, he dresses in a bright red three-piece corduroy suit with flared pants, usually accompanied by a yellow cravat and an array of eye-catching shirts with zigzag patterns.

Several times a day, Madame calls from her office, her voice cracked from a lifetime of chain-smoking, “Charle! Charle!” He flies across the school, crying out “I’m coming Madame, I’m coming! Don’t worry Madame, I’m on my way!” Her office closes, cigarette smoke fumes billowing from under the door, and Charles can be seen scraping and bowing through the window as Madame’s shouts reverberate for hours through the classrooms. He walks backwards out of her office still bowing and thanking her for tolerating his myriad mistakes.

The moment Charles leaves the school after his 12 hour day, Madame invariably hurries down the hallway to the kitchen, blows smoke over her employees, declares, “That Charles. What an idiot!” and breaks into a rattling cough. She picked him up out of the gutter, you see, when nobody in Paris would give him a job. She has made him into everything he is today. “And what is he today?” I ask. “A moron!” she shouts.

My employment at the language school ends abruptly with a colossal argument that culminates with Madame sending Charles scurrying for the phone with instructions to call the Australian Embassy. She will have me deported, she barks, for insulting my boss.

Unfortunately for both of us, the French do not actually consider boss-insulting a crime so I don’t get the luxury of a free plane ride back to Sydney. Instead, I am seriously strapped for cash in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I promptly go out to celebrate my job loss and lose my bank card in the process. This is okay since I have already booked my flight home.

I wake up to an email from the airline saying that my reservation hasn’t been confirmed as I failed to specify the musical instrument I have booked in. My attempt to re-book fails on my cancelled bank card. French banks no longer have branches with tellers, so I make my way to an office on the opposite side of Paris. When I arrive after an hour and a half, I find a horde of angry Parisians outside, tapping on the windows. The automatic door is jammed. “Come back in three days”, a flustered employee tells me.

I head down to the pawn shop with my unspecified musical instrument and try to earn a crust. The teenager behind the desk shakes his head and points over to the clutter of guitars already piled in a corner. “Please,” I say, and the whole story comes tumbling out, from Madame and Charles to the broken bank door and the rumbling in my stomach. He sighs and looks down at my guitar again. He scratches his head.

“I’ll give you 20 Euros,” he says at last. A charity pawn.

I blow my 20 Euros on enough cheap wine to get me through the wait period until the bank reopens. I arrive to more bad news: they need a copy of my last paycheque. I don’t relish the idea of going back to Madame for this so instead I cross Paris to the office where I deposited the check and try an emotional plea for a bank-issued copy.

On my third trip to my bank, I stuff 800 Euros in notes in my boots and share a ride across the border to Germany where my brother lives. I hand over the cash and he books me a cheap flight home with a 14-hour overnight layover in Rome.

Photo by Claire Harris
Photo by Claire Harris

I’ve never seen Rome and 14 hours doesn’t seem like long enough for anything to seriously go wrong. A couch-surfing host by the name of Salvatore meets me at the bus station and we leave my bags at his house and pick up a bottle of wine and his guitar. We’re thinking of trying a little midnight busking down at the Colosseum and see if we can’t scrape together enough money for a night out.

Outside the Colosseum at 11pm, the only people showing any interest in us are the Bangladeshi sellers hawking little light-up trinkets. Finally, we attract an audience – a group of young Italian men who crowd around us, clapping and calling for songs they know.

Suddenly, Salvatore stops: “Hey, get your hand out of her bag!” At which the whole group bolts.

I make a quick search through my bag. My money is gone. Normally, I don’t carry my passport. I definitely don’t carry it with my money. Except when I take the plane.

Another search and I discover that my passport too has disappeared. Salvatore takes off running after the men and leaves me to fend off a drunkard who keeps pulling at my bag and the guitar. The Bangladeshis enclose me in a protective circle marked out by flashing neon Colosseums in miniature and escort me over to a row of bars. Salvatore is outside waiting for the police.

“They went in there”, he motions at the nearest bar but by the time the police arrive half an hour later, there is no sign of the men. “We’ll take a look around,” the police say, looking around at the hundreds of young Italian men who all fit the description we gave them.

“Well, where is she going? Australia? And she’s Australian, you say?” One policeman smiles pleasantly. “She won’t need a passport, she’s Australian!”

Salvatore also breaks into a grin. “Of course! You’re Australian!” he cries, gesticulating enthusiastically. “We’ll get you on that plane, no problem!”

By now it is after midnight and I have no cash, nothing left to be stolen and half a bottle of wine remaining, so we head down to the Parthenon to knock out some tunes. A couple of passing Saudis are intrigued by our busking and slip us 20 Euros. When I tell them I have just been robbed, they pull 100 more out of their jean pockets.

We arrive at the airport early the next morning because Salvatore still believes that we will be able to convince someone to let me on a plane to Australia with nothing but my accent as proof of my nationality.  We knock on the door of a bunker that serves as the office of the Chief of Police. He shuffles out in a tracksuit with a Playboy logo, clearly ready to fight some serious crime. The Chief pushes a paper written in Italian across the desk towards me. “Here’s the police report. Show this to Immigration. They’ll let you on the plane.”

The immigration officer takes one look at the piece of paper and shakes his head.  Salvatore’s face falls for the first time in 12 hours. His hands drop helplessly to his sides.

On the bright side, at least I am no longer stuck in Paris.

The English Slaughters

Photo by Brooke Bocast (this is a stock image)
Photo by Brooke Bocast (this is a stock image)

The Saddler’s Club, Lady Bedford informs me, holds their Annual Members Dinner every year for members. She has to make her way from her residence at the Slaughters in Gloucestershire up to the London flat, in order to squeeze the event into her busy social calendar. In 54 years she has not once missed the dinner; but since her beloved husband Wimburn has recently died, this year she is taking as her honoured guest one Roderick Wenby. And me, her live-in carer.

“Roderick Wenby,” she says as she brushes her wispy white hair in the mirror with the pearl-handled brush. “Wodwick Wemby,” she repeats, fixing her dentures. “Roderick Wenby, oh don’t let me forget will you?” She fastens diamonds to her neck and wrists and lacquers her head with Chanel No 19.

“Oh,” I say, “Have you got a date?”

She looks at me firmly. “I NEVER go on dates.” She pushes aside the box of foundation on the dressing table, opens the talcum powder and applies it liberally to her cheeks. I help her into her wheelchair and cramp her swollen foot into a solitary shoe. The other one was amputated after a hospital battle with golden staph.

“Anyway, I only invited Rodney – “

“Roderick,” I correct.

“That’s what I said! I invited him because no one takes him anywhere anymore, since he had the operation on his neck last year; it’s just awful – you can’t make out a word he says and his head juts out and he can’t wear his false teeth so he’s a bit of a sight. Poor man. He was so excited when I asked him, it was absolutely pathetic,” she says, drawing out the vowels. Paatheeeetic.

I close up the guest bedrooms one by one and triple-bolt the heavy wooden front doors. Slaughter House has already endured three break-ins and now Lady Bedford is forced to keep her extensive collection of diamonds and pearls in a walk-in safe.

Ryan_Stuar_House“Hello, hello? Where are you?” I wander through the maze of corridors, up and down the grand staircase lined with portraits of the Bedford family ancestors and finally discover her in the vast kitchen where she is busily transferring the contents of a bottle of whisky through a funnel into a plastic water bottle.

“Have you locked the swimming pool and the tennis courts?”

“The gardeners will take care of that.”

She squawks, “They’re not even real gardeners! I only hired them because they were unemployed. They are so lucky to have me in control –“

And a trickle of whisky snakes down her remaining leg and laps at the open wound she got from running her wheelchair into a wall last week. She knocks the control of the chair with her elbow and it lurches forward, jamming her foot into the table leg.

“Blast!” She cries. “Things just fall apart when I’m not here. I mean, one of the gardeners has dislepsia and the other one always forgets to turn off the door.”

Three hours later we are in London and Lady Bedford is safely delivered at the Saddler’s Club. The bottle of whisky lies empty on the floor of the disabled van.

“There he is!” She points at the elderly man shuffling towards us, grinning toothlessly. His head appears to be fastened to his left shoulder.

“Ronald! Darling!” She unfurls one hand magnificently towards him and turning to me she proclaims, for every member of the Saddler’s Club to hear, “Poor man. They say his cancer has returned and he won’t last another year.” She leans on the control and Roderick Wenby’s foot vanishes under the wheel of her chair with an audible crunch.

When I arrive to pick her up at ten, the dinner is still in progress and Lady Bedford is driving at high speed in circles round and around the guests seated at the table. In one hand she holds a bottle of wine and in the other she clutches a whisky. The front of her dress is sodden with red wine stains.

“Oh you are here.” She grinds to a halt before me.

“I seem to be early, did you want to stay for dessert?”

“No,” She says firmly. “We’ve had enough.”

Roderick scuffs along behind her. “Oh here he is.” She says and rolls her eyes. “Roderick is quite ready to go home, aren’t you. He drank everything in sight.”

We make our way to the van, the wheelchair veering left and right, ploughing into a wall here, colliding with a table there. The guests clear a path and I dart forward as she tips to one side of the ramp and threatens to tumble right off, front wheel spinning furiously in the air.

“Lady Bedford, are you locked in?” I ask once safely inside the van. “Is your chair secure?”

“Yes, yes,” she says impatiently. “Ronnie, get in the back won’t you. Now hurry up please.” He clambers obediently into the back of the van.

“Where is your car?” I call out but Roderick’s whispered reply is overruled by the shouts emanating from Lady Bedford.

“I just can’t get it out of him!” she cries. “It’s no good! I’ve tried and tried, you see what you can do with him. I give up.”

Her guest giggles nervously and I strain my ears to catch his directions. “Turn left,” he chortles into his shoulder.

“Don’t turn left! Turn right!” Lady Bedford bellows.

“Left or right?” I halt mid-turn, occupying both lanes and behind me an angry horn sounds.

“Left” comes from the back.

“Right!” screeches from the front and as I turn right, she wails in frustration. “Where are you going? I said right.” and she jabs at the air with her left hand.

“Left?” I follow her finger with my eyes.

“Where is your car, Roderick? Turn right! Here, here! No back there!”

“Left or right?” I ask in confusion.

“Left,” Roderick said and I turn left into a side alley. There is no car in sight, only a meagre light from a flickering lamppost. Roderick gets up to leave.

Lady Bedford hollers. “For heaven’s sake, your car isn’t here!”

He mumbles, “I can walk from here.”

“Get back in the van! We want to drop you at your car! Now tell us where it is? Go forward!” The van pitches forward and the wheelchair rocks from side to side.

“Are you sure the chair is locked in?” I ask.

Lady Bedford sighs and her hand flies to her forehead. She doesn’t know why the poor man is being so difficult. It’s one thing to have cancer, it is quite another to expect everyone to bend over backwards for you. With the other hand she grips onto the rail above the window in order to stop her chair from rolling right into Roderick’s lap. The van roars up a hill.

“Please,” I beg, “Don’t you see none of us can go home until we have dropped you at your car?”

But Roderick Wenby plunges headlong into an utterly inappropriate anecdote about his brother’s death during the war.

“Oh God,” Lady Bedford groans. Her eyes search desperately through the London streets beside her. “Turn left! Turn right! Keep going, don’t stop!” Her voice is shrill and high and the chair is bobbing like a rowing boat adrift in stormy waters as I attempt to negotiate the city traffic.

Again Roderick’s instructions take us to a dead-end where his car isn’t. “Why are you listening to him? Listen to me!” Lady B cries in dismay.  “No honestly, I can walk…” he musters all his strength to pull back the door with both hands.

“Oh, I give up!” She throws up her hands in despair. “Reginald, just get out and leave us alone, would you!”

Roderick stops mid-clamber to lean through the crack between the chair and the window, pursing his lips and aiming for her cheek. “Yes, yes, goodbye then and get on with it,” she leans away, offering him her hand. “He’ll never make it,” she whispers out of one corner of her mouth. “He’s so drunk he can barely stand.”

Roderick is toppling forwards from the door, his head buried into his shoulder and his podgy legs buckling in the effort to keep him upright. He reaches solid ground and taps on the window in a futile attempt to prolong his farewell. Lady Bedford steadfastly refuses to open, instead blowing him exaggerated kisses from the safe side of the glass and hissing “Go! Get us out of here.” through gritted teeth.

Roderick’s head is in danger of making its way back through the open door as he launches into another re-telling of his brother’s death. “Go, for the love of god!” Lady Bedford roars in my ear.

“The door is still open.” I protest.


I throttle the engine and seek out the only available exit, a narrow alley wending its way up a steep incline to the right. I pause; “I think the van is too wide.”

“Keep going! Oh please do go on!” Behind us, Roderick waves forlornly by the pavement, stranded in a dark London back alley. I breathe in and hit the accelerator as both Lady Bedford’s hands leave the rail to point out in front of her. There is an ear-wrenching screech as the side mirrors of the van scrape along the brick walls. “Don’t stop!”

I push my foot down and a second shriek is heard, this time from my passenger. In the rear view mirror I see a single leg fly upwards.

Her shoe flings from its owner and bounces off the back window, thudding onto the floor of the van. I hit the brakes, bottlenecked between the ever-narrowing walls. The wheelchair is tipped on its back and Lady Bedford’s head is twisted on the floor beside her shoe. Her foot dangles precariously in mid-air.

“Are you okay? Are you alright? Lady Bedford?” I climb over the driver’s seat and into the back of the van, trying to pull her chair upright.

She opens her eyes weakly and with one shaking hand, she claws at her hair, tugs at the white strands falling over her eyes. Her face is deathly pale but that could be the talcum powder still speckling her cheeks. Her hair, painstakingly washed, set, blow-dried and sprayed into a perfectly rounded coiffeur in a two-hour ordeal at the salon this morning, now hangs limply and the pink of her scalp is visible.

“Oh no,” she wails and a shiver runs through me. “Oh dear. This is terrible.” she moans. “My hair is absolutely ruined.”

Dancing Barefoot Under the Montana Sky


We never intend to wash up in Livingston, Montana. My friend being a native New Yorker means she has neither a driver’s license nor a desire to gain one, so I’m exhausted from hours behind the wheel. Our GPS gave out as soon as we hit the highway out of Seattle and can now only be illuminated for a few seconds at once. This gives us just enough time to find out that we are going in the wrong direction then cuts out without shedding any light on which road we should be on.

We pull into a roadside café at what resembles a town to search for budget accommodation. At 50 dollars a night, the lodgings we stumble upon are half the price of the cheapest motel. The website shows interior photos of a rustic log cabin complete with a stuffed deer head mounted under the roof beams, a throw rug on the wooden floorboards and a kitchenette in the corner.

There are no exterior photos. As we pull into the Livingston RV trailer park, we understand why.

IMG_7768Winding our way through the caravans and portable homes, a gruff middle-aged woman in denim overalls and dark cropped hair emerges from a ramshackle building marked with a handwritten sign: OFFICE. “I’m Billy,” she grunts, reaching a hand through the driver’s window of our car to firmly grasp mine.

Billy leads us past the gaggle of children playing tag in the dirt and we turn the corner as she gesticulates with a flourish to our booked accommodation. The log cabin stands in the shadow of the enormous Quality Inn and is flanked on one side by the motel parking lot and the RV camping ground and on the other by the Interstate 90.

“Brand new, it is.” Her face flushes with pride. “Y’all are our very first guests.”

She shows us around inside, pointing out its features – throw rug, deer antlers (sans head), microwave and something that resembles a splayed numbat pinned to the wall.

“If you folks aint got nothing to do this evening,” Billy says, “you might wanna heat up your TV dinners in the microwave, pull the chairs out onto the porch and sit watchin’ the cars go down the highway.”

We sit in our plastic chairs, TV dinners in hand, and watch as the golden lights of the McDonalds arches flicker in the distance while the sun skulks over the highway. Billy, seated on her own plastic chair outside her campervan opposite, gives us a wave and a thumbs-up.

The whir of cars down the Interstate begins to thin out and it is time to find some other form of entertainment. Darkness is creeping over the main street of Livingston which means the “quilts and liquor store” is closing up for the night and the jukebox bars are opening. The dying sunlight glances off the craggy mountain backdrop and casts a spectacular glow over the pastel rainbow of the Empire cinema. Inside the mint-green Owl Cocktail Lounge next door, a few bearded locals have been building beer can towers since about 2 o’clock this afternoon under framed pictures of rippling waters and white sand beaches.

A bluegrass band is in full swing at a small bar tucked off the main street and a handful of people are scattered amongst the row of booths.  A neon cowgirl is lit up on the wall behind the bar and flashes different colours as the woman bartender leans across the counter: “What can I get y’all?” With her denim micro skirt and cowboy boots, Kristal is about as Montanan as apple pie and assault weapons.  She is thrilled when she finds out we are foreigners: “Y’all come all the way from Seattle?”

“No, no, we came from Seattle,” we explain.

Further down the bar, a tall older gent is bent over a bottle of Budweiser, which he sips thoughtfully. A cowboy hat covers dark hair peppered with grey. He says slowly to his beer, “I thought about travelling. But then I thought, aint no reason to go somewhere else when I haven’t even seen all of Montana yet.” Kristal hands us our beers.

The band is still playing on a small stage set up in one corner of the bar. A singer blows soft into a harmonica and plucks at the banjo strings and a drummer behind him brushes on the cymbals. In front of the stage, a middle-aged woman swings her ample hips and taps her feet. Her eyes are shut tight and one hand clutches her tin of beer while the other waves exuberantly over her head. Mary is barefoot, oblivious to the cigarette butts and beer stains that litter the carpet and lap at her toes.

When the band pauses for a cigarette break, she opens her eyes as if awakening from sleep and brushes her limp hair back from her face. “I just left my husband!” she cries. “I haven’t been out dancing in 20 years!”

“Where are your shoes?” I shout back and she hoots with laughter.

IMG_7785Mary begins to sway again to the music playing in her head, tipping her head back so her hair tumbles over her shoulders. The tall cowboy at the bar shifts his gaze from his glass to Mary and, with a decisive swig of his beer, strides silently over to place his arms gently around her waist. She looks up at him as though he has appeared out of a dream then nestles her cheek into his chest.

The drummer is out the front, leaning against an old school bus and puffing on a Lucky Strike. He wears a checked shirt and a majestic ginger beard. He hands me a business card that only has one word beneath his name: TROUBADOUR.

“There aren’t any contact details,” I say.

He looks at me like I have fallen off another planet. “I’m a troubadour,” he says. They have been riding the school bus since Tennessee.

“Do you do any Arctic Monkeys covers?” I ask.

He tuts, flicking the cigarette butt under the front wheel of the bus. “We only do originals.”

He has already headed back inside for the second set before I can tell him it was a joke.

The tinkling of the banjo starts up again and the cowboy has returned to the bar, hunched over his beer. Mary rushes over to me gushing, “I met a guy! He is just sooo groooovy!”

Beside her, George nods and shakes his white beard. His hair is twisted into a long white plait down the length of his back and his head is wrapped in a tie-dyed bandana. His faded white t-shirt shouts: WOODSTOCK 3 DAYS OF PEACE AND MUSIC. He wasn’t at Woodstock, he says, but he sure feels like he was and that’s what counts, aint it?

He’s a retired poet and a full-time groupie and he too rides the school bus. That’s where the after-party is going to be held if I want to rock on like it is ’69. By now, Mary is in ecstasy over a third man, a burly biker with a thick moustache and a sleeve of tattoos. Soon after, she disappears from the bar altogether. As does he. The last thing she tells me is that she aint ever going back to her husband ever. She’s just gonna keep on dancing.  I find her high-heels shoved between two empty booths; the glitter has rubbed off and is scattered over the debris of crushed chips on the table.

My friend has called it a night and gone back to our log abode. The troubadours are rolling joints and packing harmonicas, drums and banjos into cases. Kristal is collecting empty beer cans, the cowboy has sauntered off into the night, and George is waiting for my answer.

I shrug, pick up a guitar case and board the bus.

Slow Boat to Timbuktu

In the first of a new column for Litro, Claire Harris tells a tale from her nine years backpacking the world. In the age of bargain flights, package tours and weekend breaks, Claire’s writing is a nod to the lost tradition of the Grand Tour, valuing travel for its own sake and building deeper relationships with the communities in which she lives and works.

wide shot

The Swiss may have the watches, but in Mali they’ve got the time.

“Three days,” Mohamed promises us as we hand over our money. “You know, it’s the dry season and the trip take longer this time of year,” he adds apologetically. “But you will be in Timbuktu in three days, inchallah.” God willing.

He pockets our cash in some secret compartment of his robe and goes on, his hands moving in ever more excessive gestures, “You have everything, don’t worry! Nice bed, good food. The captain is my uncle, we take care of you, my friends.”

As it turns out, the captain has no nephews, and God has no desire for us to be in Timbuktu any time soon. Our friend Mohamed mysteriously disappears as we watch our wooden cargo boat being loaded with thousands of kilos of cement and millet grain, the men plunging shoulder-deep into the water with bags on their heads. The pinasse is like a giant rowboat with a v-shaped hull and the timber beams holding up the roof are lashed together with rope. Our ragged mattresses are laid on top of the cement bags stacked into the hull. One does not walk the length of the boat but clamber over beams, bags and small children. The families travelling with us did not get the luxury of a mattress and they are curled up together.

bailing boy“Don’t look down the sides,” one of my fellow travellers says.  We are four: two Canadians, a Moroccan and me, the Australian. “Whatever you do, you do not wanna see what is underneath us,” Matt warns. Which naturally makes us rush to peel back the sides of our makeshift cement-bag bed and peer into the damp darkness of the hull beneath. The wall of the boat is literally moving; it is squirming with cockroaches. The floor is filling up with water and a small boy is employed to constantly bail it out with a single bucket.

First things first, I want to know where the toilet is. Down the back, they motion, and I stand on the side of the pinasse gripping onto the roof with my hands and edging sideways step by step along its full length. I promptly get hit on the shin by the bucket of the Water Bailer. “Sorry!,” he cries. The rail I am holding on to disappears under cargo strapped to the roof. At the back of the boat, a group of seven men, a teenage boy and a woman are standing around a hole that is now below water level.  I indicate that I want to use the hole, but have some trouble encouraging them to actually leave. The woman remains behind to supervise, as does the boy. I point at him and she throws a blanket over his head.

banksThe boat is moving and I almost fall overboard on the crawl back from the loo. It is smooth sailing past the women scrubbing their clothes on the banks, the fisherman on long boats casting their nets into the water, the naked children splashing and diving. An hour later we run aground.

We stay aground for hours, just a few kilometres from our starting point. The men stand in the waist-deep water and strain uselessly against the side of the boat, trying to dislodge it with poles or with their bare hands. It doesn’t budge. Finally someone has the bright idea of enlisting the aid of another boat and for hours they unload the cement bags until we are bobbing on the water again and can be pushed free.  The level of our bed drops down further into the hull and closer to the cockroaches.

As soon as the pinasse is floating, the men re-load every single bag of cement. Our bed rises to the top of the hull. The boat scrapes along the river floor and is grounded again.

fruit sellersDay two begins with several hours of pushing the boat from where it hasn’t moved since the night before. Unload the bags, bed drops. Reload the bags, bed rises. Once in motion we pull into the next village and add more cargo and more people. Our bed starts creeping in on all sides, and now sits right above the edge of the boat. The wind rushes in and the head of a hippopotamus breaks the surface of the water beside us. The sun beats down relentlessly and along the banks, the women look up from where they are washing clothes outside their straw huts and the little boys wave, all dressed in identical Barrack Obama t-shirts. The girls wade out to the boats carrying bowls on their heads laden with biscuits and mangos and we lean over the sides to negotiate prices as they pass the fruit up to us.

The engine cuts out in the middle of a vast lake. The captain, a thin man in a flowing robe and turban, spends a long time walking around in the water with his hands on his head, looking distressed. “The battery is dead,” someone explains. “We are waiting for a boat to pass to help us re-charge.”

No boat passes. Night falls. We go on waiting. In one corner, a woman is cooking rice and the smell of fish wafts over the group of mothers clutching screaming babies to their breasts. We eat rice and fish three times a day until we stop eating at all because even the smell makes us feel sick.

Day three and a boy is dispatched on a bicycle to ride to the nearest village and fetch us a new battery. “Don’t worry, we will be in Timbuktu tomorrow inchallah,” the captain says but I have my doubts because he is still walking around in the water and his hands haven’t moved from his head and by 4pm we haven’t shifted an inch.

loading boatBattery replaced, and we promptly run aground and spend day four marooned on a sand bank. Cement bags off, cement bags on. Bed goes down, bed goes up. In the middle of the night, the Bailing Boy is thrown on top of us by one of the Boat Dislodgers. The boy is taunting the man, who is twice his size, and with each comment the man rushes at him to slap him around the face.  The women shriek and grasp their babies tighter and the other men hold the boy down, kicking.

Day five and we are finally in deeper water, so you would think we would make a little more progress. But the captain orders all the millet bags offloaded, emptied and the contents spread on the ground. We spend three riveting hours watching the grain, until Captain decides it is time for the bags to be repacked and then he calls a tea-break. Our bed goes up and has been reduced to one square metre between two of us, as another group of passengers arrive in a pirogue and clamber on.  Dozens of car batteries have been procured from somewhere to go somewhere else and we sleep on top of those too.

We hit the ground. The new arrivals hail down a passing fishing boat and leave. “Ce bateau est foutu,” they say. This boat is fucked. “Timbuktu tomorrow, inchallah,” the captain insists.

Day six. Wake up. Breakfast. Break. Nap. Tea. Break. Nap. Post-nap break. Pre-tea break. Post-pre-tea-break nap. Tea. Lunch. Post-lunch break which turns into a nap. Tea. The battery gives out a second time. A herd of camels lazily crosses from one side of the river to the other. “Any chance we will be in Timbuktu soon?” I ask. “We are in a bit of a hurry.” The Malians look at each other and laugh.

boatMidnight, and we are rudely jostled from sleep. “Get up, get up! You need to get off the boat!”

“Is it Timbuktu?” We ask hopefully.

“No, this boat doesn’t go to Timbuktu.  We stop here,” the captain says, as though this should be perfectly obvious.

We are bundled into another boat identical to ours except it is chock-a-block from aft to stern with passengers crammed on top of each other. “I don’t think we will fit.” We are surrounded by noises of encouragement as they literally push four of us and four backpacks into a single cubbyhole in which a small child could not comfortably stretch out. Fortunately I rather enjoy sleeping in the foetal position.

“Timbuktu tomorrow, inchallah,” the new captain cheerfully reassures us.