I don’t know about you but when I am lucky enough to go on holiday I don’t like going on standard beach holidays and I don’t like staying in resorts. A beach is a beach, a pool is a pool. What I want to do is see the sights both the touristic and also the everyday ones in each place for good and for ill. I don’t want to see or hear any British voices or English language whatsoever if I can help it or anything that reminds me of home or even familiar countries which I have visited. I want to get lost in cities or desert roads. I want to get stuck at rail junctions in the middle of nowhere with just no-one to talk to except the local whose home language I know very little of but who I can make friends with by sharing my drink or showing my photos. I want to be a bit confused in rush hour in a strange city and the delight of knowing I can live with and like the locals wherever I might be.
Most of all I like to meet the locals. In all the travelling I have done I have only ever felt personally threatened twice. Once in a shady corner of Paris whilst exploring a cemetery and coming out of the wrong exit and the other whilst behind the Red or was it the Bent Pyramid in Egypt about 50 miles south of Cairo when two lonely and bored policemen insisted on showing me round to the back of the pyramid before cocking their guns and telling me how poor they were and how no-one knows where I am.
Not that anyone should read anything into that. Probably most of the kindnesses shown to me while travelling have been in Islamic and desert countries. Sometimes for baksheesh but usually just to be helpful or maybe be friends or to meet a traveller. Just in Egypt itself for example I feel safer walking around Cairo than I would in almost any Western city. Policemen would come and stand behind you at cash machines to guard you… as if I needed it. Strangers would see me walking past their houses and even during Ramadan when they would be fasting, they would invite me in to their homes. Guilt of “wasting” their scarce food and resources on me and just being a bit of a young though old fashioned Brit perhaps too often stopped me from taking up these invitations though once in a while the hosts were so insistent and my time-table allowed me to accept and enjoy local food and hospitality.
Knowing that their culture and faith compelled them to help travellers and that to them I wasn’t a “waste” of food but an honour and probably a topic of interesting conversation amongst their household and neighbours for at least as long as I am remembering them. It was also a chance to do my bit for East-West relations. They would ask me all about myself, am I going to get married? How is England? Do I know their cousin who is studying in Birmingham? Of course these trips now being about 10 or 12 years ago almost any time with any local would sooner or later turn to politics and wars. They would tell me how they despised their President and his son and tell me how bad Bush and Blair were and when I joined them in doing fart noises after speaking their names the whole house including the sometimes veiled and silent ladies would roar with laughter. As with everyone everywhere, they would say how they don’t like governments but they like the people and I liked them.
Sometimes strangers when travelling can be an absolute God-send. There is giving directions and there is giving directions. The first is when you need to know where the museum is. The second is when you are lost and stranded in a country, in a city, in a part of town even the locals avoid. Many a time here luck plays a part or maybe it is pity. The luck of finding a lady in Prague who just happened to live a few minutes walk from the hotel we wanted 30 minutes drive from the city centre after our best laid plans were ruined on arrival by forces out of our control and a bus station with no timetables, assistants or notices. The pity or more likely kindness of the veiled lady in Alexandria who after wondering around lost for what seemed liked ages, gradually entering more and more foreboding neighbourhoods until there were animals being slaughtered on the streets and being fed on the balconies of crumbling tower blocks and people everywhere looking at you as if they had never seen a white man before or more likely knowing that I was well and truly lost in some place it may have been better never to have seen.
Summoning up my best Arabic I approached a young veiled lady and told her I was lost and could she help my friend and I. She nodded her head and told us to follow her. At one point some young men came to her, probably to ask her if she was okay. She replied to them and then they turned and ran off and we followed them. Eventually we left the entered a maze of rock-hard mud floored alleyways and into a compound. This being a at a time when westerners and particular British were being kidnapped and murdered in Iraq for just a moment the glances between my friend and I got more worried. Should we run for it? Where would we go? If they wanted to kill us, we wouldn’t last 2 minutes before a gun or dagger would be drawn. So we followed her through one compound and another as bemused family and neighbours gave us a mixture of a bemused once over and looks of amazement. Then as good as her word we emerged onto a tarmac road and not too far away from a point of reference, Pompeii’s pillar. Thanking her profusely and giving her Egyptian currency equal to about £35 British pounds (a months salary I would imagine in that neighbourhood should anyone be lucky enough to have a job) and some colouring pens for her child we went our separate ways. I often wonder about her and how she explained to her husband that she was given all this money and just how kind she was. As the English saying goes, ‘One good turn deserves another’ or as one might say in Arabic, ‘Allah favours the compassionate’ and so might this not simply refer to the helpful stranger but also to myself who on a later trip to Egypt lost my wallet and passport when it dropped out of my pocket whilst getting out of the taxi from the airport. I needn’t have worried as minutes later a young local boy of perhaps 10 or 12 years of age hurried into the hotel reception area and gave me my wallet, passport and pretty much all the money I had in the world back to me. His father wouldn’t accept anything but my thanks and a warning that I should be careful when travelling but maybe I was being favoured by Allah too!
My holidays are full of chance encounters of people marooned at remote travelling stops, of helpful passers-by and fellow travellers exchanging tips and tales. Friendships forged in a moment and this will lead me very nicely to my next posting…