A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: carlswall

Life in Qatar

After living in Qatar for 2 years I thought it would be a good time to note some of my observations of the country and living here. I’ve somewhat lazily separated them into the Good, Bad and Ugly. In order of how much I notice them:


1. Vision 2030: Growing up in Britain things didn’t really seem to change very much, or if they did it was gradual enough to barely notice. In Qatar I feel very lucky to see the country being almost literally built in front of you. In the short time I’ve been here many of the major roads have been built and the Metro system is coming online. Whole new cities are being built and the CBD skyline has been developed to be one of the most impressive in the region. Whilst much of the construction is for the 2022 World Cup, they do have the longer term plan of making the country and economy self-sufficient by 2030 as they slowly move away from being reliant on oil and natural gas. The fast pace of change gives the country an air of vibrancy and excitement which reminds me of China and means I always look around myself with interest at what’s happening.

2. Luxury Living: One of the things that attracted me to moving here was the fact that it was the richest country in the world and I basically wanted to see how the other 0.1% lived, and it hasn’t disappointed. People watching is outstanding and interacting with Qataris is fascinating as they never want for anything and can choose to do virtually anything money can buy. When you go out it’s to 5* hotels (there’s nothing else) and the quality of service and design of things are outstanding. I’ve never taken any interest in cars but car watching has become one of my favourite pastimes as from my balcony a stream of Maseratis, Bentley, Aston Martins and Ferraris stream past. In short the quality of life is amazing and it’s easy to see why many people stay around for a few years.

3. Holidays: Qatar, along with many Islamic countries is very generous with holidays. Whilst I’m paid for 12 months a year, I actually feel like I only work for 8 months of it. A long Summer break as well as Christmas and Easter holidays go down very well but Ramadan is maybe my favourite time of year. For a month, everybody is on reduced hours and not all that much work is expected of you. It costs the economy a huge amount but it’s something to really look forward to with special events on in the evenings. Afterwards the Emir will grant generous holidays during Eid, for example I’m writing this in an Eid break which was originally going to be 5 days but the Emir benevolently decided to give everyone 11 days instead. 

4. Multiculturalism: Qataris make up just 12% of the population ranking only behind UAE as having the highest proportion of immigrants. This means that there are people from almost literally all over the world contributing to the country. Whilst that does have it’s own issues (see Bad section) it means that the different languages, flavours and culture of the world meet in an Arabian setting which I really enjoy living amongst.

5. Weather: It’s never cold and a high percentage of the time it’s sunny. It really does make a difference in terms of the quality of life and how you feel on a day to day basis.

6. National pride post embargo: Whilst I’m absolutely not a fan of nationalism I have really enjoyed seeing how Qataris and other residents have rallied post embargo (see in Bad). The Saudis and friends were hoping for the Qatari state to implode and residents demand regime change but the absolute opposite has happened. Huge murals of the Emir’s face appeared on both public and private buildings everywhere and people even put up banners, posters and car stickers stating their support for the country.

The expat community has similarly got behind the Emir and supported the country through the blockade. The most memorable example of this was at the tennis tournament where the Emir (who was an excellent player in his youth) appeared on court, he then received a standing ovation from the entire stadium which was composed almost entirely of expats.

In many ways the embargo has been good for Qatar as it’s forced the country to become more self reliant with the farming industry in particular growing impressively quickly. The authorities invested quickly and thanks to imported cows, chickens and use of A/C and smart water use, we now get all dairy and meat locally with a decent percentage of our vegetables too.

7. Al Jazeera: I always thought it was a great broadcaster and living here has just reinforced that view. Their documentaries on how Israel is trying to capture the Labour Party in the UK and match fixing in cricket were particular highlights but it consistently tells good stories from ignored people and places.

8. Sporting events: It’s not London but I have seen Djokovic and Murray at the tennis, MSN when Barcelona played a friendly here and all the best squash players in the world. Maybe the highlight though was the World Cycling Championship finishing line being visible from my balcony.


1. Social Segregation: Whilst Qatar is very multicultural, mixing of people happens much less than it should and I’d go so far as to say that Qatar has one of the most extreme social hierarchies in the world. Different nationalities only tend to get employed (and in some cases are only allowed) to do certain jobs and this helps the authorities to manage the country but also stop potential problems like trade unions forming or unrest against the government. Therefore at ‘the bottom’, Indians/Nepalis work in construction, Ethiopians drive taxis, Kenyans are security guards and Filipinos do service sector jobs working as cleaners, maids and in shops. Much better off are Arabs from Egypt, Jordan and other countries who tend to do slightly better admin and services jobs, they might also work in the police or health services. Much better off again are European and American expats who tend to work in things like engineering and finance. At the top though are Qataris who live way up in the clouds. For a long time they didn’t tend to actually ‘work’ and would be parachuted into a ‘supervisory role’ in public ministries (where underlings would cover) or would buy businesses and count the profits as employees would do all the work. The government is trying to change this but when you grow as a multimillionaire and can do whatever you want, it’s difficult to develop a work ethic.

Therefore as an ‘expat’, I’d consider myself an isolated ‘middle class’, miles better off than the ‘workers’ but miles away from the Qataris.
You have very limited opportunities to mix with people outside of your ‘class’ beyond chatting to taxi drivers or cleaners and when you also throw in the most extreme gender split in the world (there are 5 working age men to every woman) there can’t be many less integrated societies in the world.

2. Bullshit jobs: Another thing to add about the nature of work is how much productivity varies across work sectors. Construction workers have it hard, working in the heat, they earn little money and their quality of life is low as they live in dorm accommodation maybe 6-10 guys a room and have little social freedom. They’re given limited holiday or even free time and they’re as single males are not even allowed in public areas like malls. The idea is that they earn for 7 or 10 years and can support their families and eventually start their own businesses or get married and buy a home etc. Nonetheless it’s undoubtedly a hard life.
In contrast, a lot of the service sector jobs and particularly security jobs don’t really produce anything and just seem a waste of manpower. Labour is very, very cheap so restaurants and shops will employ too many waiters or shop assistants and they end up just standing around a lot. In the ‘richer’ parts of the city there are security guards everywhere who do pretty much nothing all day apart from stand around. For example, to enter the car park in my building you need to be buzzed in by a security guard who sits in a booth all day. Quite why we can’t just let ourselves in doesn’t make sense to me but the Qatari population are used to a very high level of service and demand people to do these sorts of jobs. The sheer waste of manpower and knowledge of all the better things they can be doing with their time is very frustrating to see.

3. Embargo: Whilst I stand firmly with Qatar on the issue and they have taken steps to not let it impact the country too much, there’s no doubt it makes life a bit harder. Certain foods are more expensive/difficult to get hold of but the big thing has been travel. Etihad and Emirates stopped running flights and to get anywhere now is either very expensive as only Qatar Airways is still running or awkward and time consuming via Turkey or Kuwait. Therefore only a few destinations are still an option in the region which is a major frustration.

4. Early mornings: When I leave Qatar one thing I will be delighted to leave are the early mornings. Whilst I finish work at 2.30pm I have to get up at 5.30am and I’ve simply never got used to it. Whilst I enjoyed drinking coffee in the UK, here I simply have to have a cup to jumpstart me in the day or I simply can’t do the job. I’m not a morning person.

5. Driving: When I first arrived in Doha the roads were a real shock. As such a high percentage of the population hail from the sub-continent, they've unfortunately brought their driving habits with them. Drivers regularly text (or just surf the internet) whilst they're driving, constantly speed and take crazy risks whilst overtaking. The difference between here and India though is that most of the cars here are high powered and can go very fast. Perhaps worse still are the local drivers who don't even have to take a test and are largely immune from police action against their conduct. This all gets worse during Ramadan as no one eats all day and lose concentration easily. As new roads are being built and education programmes launched the situation is improving but the net result is a high death rate on the roads as well as the feeling that potential disaster is never too far away.

6. Nights out: Whilst you probably haven’t gone to the Middle East for nightlife, it is still nice to go out and socialise. Problem is that all bars are attached to 5*hotels and aren’t cheap (a tenner a pint is not unusual). If you go to a club, nights out can easily end up costing 3 figures and aren’t necessarily value for money. You can sort of get round it by going to the happy hours but they run at inconvenient times or be female (many places do free drinks for ladies due to the gender imbalance). Alternatively you can go to brunches which cost about 100 quid for unlimited food and drink. They are fun but you know they represent everything wrong in terms of treating your body and the world responsibly. There’s not a great range of music played in clubs either and ultimately have had only a limited number of memorable nights out.

7. Weather: Whilst it’s never cold, during the Summer it’s simply too hot to do very much and trying to play sport or even go for a walk just doesn’t work. It can get up to 50 degrees with very high humidity and a bizarre side effect is that a lot of people actually get a vitamin D deficiency. During the Winter it’s not cold but it can be overcast and just very dusty, which also isn’t fun. The best of time is Spring and Autumn where the temperature is perfect.

8. Roadworks: The flipside to seeing a country built is the delays and dust that go with it. To be fair this factor has improved dramatically in the time I’ve been here but Qatar is a long way from being ‘finished’.

9. Lack of local news: Whilst Al Jazeera does great international work, they broadcast virtually no news at all about Qatar, as in not even a weather forecast. There are a couple of local papers but they’re produced by the government and don’t really tell the ‘news’. As it’s not a democracy there’s no accountability for government decisions and ministers never talk about what they’re doing and why. There was an independent news source but they got shut down after publishing something the government didn’t like. Therefore there is a sense of unreality here as even though I live here I have got literally no idea what is happening with the embargo for example. You hear rumours about things but not actual news. This can be frustrating but people put up with it a) because the country is 88% immigrants and don’t care that much and b) the quality of life is so good so we can live in blissful ignorance.

10. Greed of expats: Finally, all immigrants in Qatar are here at least in part to make money (there’s no income tax) and improve their situation in their home country as and when they return. That’s as true for Bengali cleaners as it is for me. However, I’ve gradually noticed that a lot of expats have had the green eyed monster take over a little bit and (particularly after a few beers) smugly boast about how much money they’ve made. In a British context at least, everybody seems to want to buy up as many buy to let properties as they can and act as landlords. Many times I’ve had to sit through tedious and self-satisfied conversations about rent yields and profitability of their investments. Whilst Dubai is famous for it, lots of expats here are unattractively money oriented.


1. Natural Landscape: Qatar would be in the running for the least interesting country to look at in the world. It’s the second flattest country in the world after the Maldives and pretty much the entire surface area is just flat yellow desert with no vegetation. There is a small area in the South near the Saudi border with some smallish sand dunes and there are some mangroves on the East coast but I’m clutching at straws to describe almost anything of note. Even the coastline is surprisingly uninteresting as the Persian gulf is very calm but is also so saline that you can’t really swim in it and there’s virtually no wildlife. Whilst you can go desert camping, there are no national parks and there are no hikes you can do or anything really different to see on a weekend.

2. Human attractions: These are better but there’s still not much to see. There is a Unesco World Heritage site called Al Zubair fort but it can be politely described as being in ‘the intake which aimed to give as many countries as possible at least one’. There’s also a couple of museums which are quite good and a ‘cultural quarter’ though not much really happens there. My favourite place is the Souq which is a traditional Arabian bazaar and is always fun to wander round. There are also lots of malls and restaurants but these got very samey pretty quickly.

Overall, I do love living here and love the quality of life but ultimately I’m not sure that’s enough to keep us here long term. There is a degree of frustration that the athletics world champs and of course World Cup are coming in a few years but I just don’t know if I want to stick around in the country that long. We will see.

From Doha,

Posted by carlswall 10:40 Archived in Qatar Comments (0)

2 conflicted spaces

This Spring I visited a couple of zones of conflict in the Mediterranean so thought I’d write an email describing them.

First up was sun kissed Cyprus/Northern Cyprus in February.
After flying into Northern Cyprus (Turkish side) our first stop was the central city Nicosia, which is unique as it’s the world’s only divided capital city.
Greeks and Turks have both lived on the island for a long time but the Greeks have always been in the majority. In the early 1970s Turks made up about 20% of the population but were quite thinly scattered across the island. In 1974, in a display of needless machismo, the junta that ruled Greece at the time decided to invade (and run the country themselves) and the Turks responded by counter invading to protect Turkish Cypriots. After a few months of mid intensity fighting, a peace treaty was signed but with the island now split into a Greek South and Turkish North (not internationally recognised).
Whilst Nicosia didn’t have too many stand out sights, by far the most interesting aspect of being there was the atmosphere of the demilitarized zone that has formed right in the city centre. Whole chunks of the city have been either abandoned or turned into military posts and quite often you’d turn into an unsuspecting looking side road only to be faced by soldiers with guns and signs warning you that trespassers will be shot in several languages. Probably not a good place to absent mindedly get hammered methinks.
We then headed to the South coast and the pretty port city of Paphos. There are some great archaeological sights and once you can get off the beaten track in the Akamas peninsula some really impressive coastal scenery.
The highlight in the South was definitely climbing the highest peak Mt. Troodhos. Whilst you can’t get to the summit itself (British military installation) in February it was a great experience as the mountain is high enough to be covered in knee deep snow. There’s an extremely popular ski resort near the top but once you get away from that into the pine forests you almost feel like you could be in Scandinavia or the Alps as the perfect blue skies meets the green and white of the snow covered trees. Absolutely wonderful and not what you’d expect to find in Cyprus.
The problem I think I had with travelling in Cyprus was that it’s just really hard getting away from tourist developments. There are billboards virtually everywhere on the highways advertising property developers in a variety of different languages and it felt like the island’s economy seems to be based on a giant ‘laundromat’ model as Russians, other Eastern Europeans and even Chinese who’ve made their money through dubious means invest in the country and in return get a shiny Cypriot (read EU) passport. On top of endless dodgy Russians there’s also a huge number of annoying, generally fat and stupid British baby boomers, who bought and sold houses at the right time to live out a very comfortable retirement in the sun. Aside from creating an eyesore landscape of endless white duplexes, sprawling out from the dull cities, dodgy Adidas clad Russians and Daily Star reading Brits drinking pints of Carlsberg do not add much to the culture and I think they have sold their soul a little bit.
The North I definitely enjoyed more as I felt it still retained an old world charm about it. That said it’s also sold it’s soul somewhat as unexpectedly Northern Cyprus revealed itself to be a bit of an adult playground. The target market seemed to be Muslims from nearby countries (Turkey, Lebanon and beyond) but also from further afield in Central Asia as several impressive casinos have been built and are even joined by strip clubs in this Muslim country. Wandering round one of the casinos on a midweek night was a bit of a surreal experience as the designer clad patrons nonchalantly tossed around $100 chips and the whole place positively reeked of illegality somewhere in the system, but in an otherwise quiet coastal area.
To get around you pretty much have to rent a car but you’re rewarded as stunning coastal and mountain scenery is joined by some lovely cities in Famagusta and Kyrenia. There are some particularly good crusader era castles to climb up to and the bizarre ‘Blue Mansion’ owned by an eccentric lawyer/arms smuggler was a particular highlight. It’s much more sparsely populated than the South and in large parts of it not much is really happening until you come across another inevitable army installation of course.
The conflict in Cyprus and indeed the division as a whole felt a bit pointless as most Cypriots on both sides would actually like to reunify. Last year was a major blow to the process however as years of negotiations ending up collapsing after Turkey interfered and refused to remove their army presence from the island. As Erdogan pushes an ever more pro-Islamist agenda many on the Turkish side feel they’re losing their own much more relaxed culture as he tightens his grip on power. Pointless, expensive and misguided machismo started the conflict and even 45 years later continues to fuel it.

Whilst I enjoyed Cyprus it also me realise that I like more of a challenge when I’m on holiday. I don’t think I’m ready for the days of renting a villa and enjoying the sun as the main focus of a holiday so, looking for something a bit more on edge, this Easter I headed to the land of Israel. Or is it Palestine? Or Canaan? Or Judea? Or ‘The Holy Land’?
I don’t really know but as the different names above suggests, it’s one of the most contested places in the world. Travelling there has been an extremely thought provoking and stimulating experience, but I also pretty shocking too.
After getting quizzed for well over an hour by 3 different security agents at Tel Aviv airport (a Qatari ID + some unusual stamps in the passport “Where is this Somaliland”? will do that) I was very relieved to get into the country and headed straight to the Holiest of Holies, Jerusalem.
I arrived just as Shabbat (Sabbath) was breaking at Easter/Passover and being in Jerusalem at this time is an eerie feeling. Virtually everything shuts down with no shops open or public transport running. Jews also aren’t allowed to drive a car and it’s a surreal feeling in the dusk as you’re in the downtown of a city of nearly a million people but with virtually no noise. With the exception of some background automated noises like pedestrian crossings or the hum of street lights, there are no signs of life beyond the occasional Orthodox Jew in their extraordinary 17th century Eastern European outfits scurrying to get to synagogue.
The whole city is built from the same material called Jerusalem stone and in the silence, as you get closer to the Holy city a unique air of expectancy grows, I could easily see why so many people get ‘Jerusalem fever’ when they visit. It’s the most important city in the world to both Christians and Jews and third to Muslims (after Mecca and Medinah) and all (very pious) communities are easily identifiable walking around the narrow streets. To allow everyone to coexist peacefully, the old town was split into 4 quarters, a Christian one, an Armenian (also Christian) one, a Muslim one and a Jewish one where each community can live how they choose. They are all fascinating in their different ways and I thought it would only be right if I saw a range of devotion in action.

When I reached the old city I went and watched the eerily quiet Good Friday evening service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jesus alleged tomb location) and then afterwards went to the Western Wall (alleged last remaining part of the Jews 2nd temple) to see Orthodox Jews much more active prayer rituals. The following day I got through the heavy security up to the Dome on the Rock (allegedly where Mohammed ascended to heaven from). Even though they were thronged with pilgrims, looking round them and other sites like the Garden of Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives had an almost transcendental quality to the experience; like you were there but due to their importance to the different faiths and to human experience, being there just didn’t feel quite ‘real’, like you couldn’t quite believe you were in the place where Jesus/Mohammed etc. had been. This feeling of unreality was a sensation I would feel later on in Israel/Palestine and underpinned much of my time there.

After leaving Jerusalem I headed North and spent a fairly hardcore 2 days hiking the Jesus trail from Nazareth to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. It connects up important places in the life of the big man and whilst it was tough going with all the weight on my back it was a wonderful way to connect up the landscape and gather an understanding of how Christianity started. Some places e.g. Nazareth have changed a bit since the Bible and are now fairly ugly sprawling towns but other places, notably on the Sea of Galilee still retain a degree of bucolic charm and it again felt surreal walking in the footsteps of the disciples.
Israel really is ground zero when it comes to organized religion on Earth. Aside from its importance to the Abrahamic faiths, it’s also home to a couple of secondary faiths including Druze and Bahai. The Druze are quite secretive and won’t let you in to many of their temples but in Haifa (Israel’s third city) the Bahai spent about 20 years designing and landscaping a set of quite magnificent terraced gardens. They’re set out over 19 gorgeous terraces and rise several hundred metres up Mount Carmel. They were made a Unesco World Heritage site almost immediately and dominate the landscape in a way that I can’t recall one feature dominating a city so much.
Aside from religious sights there’s a wonderful range of other cultural sights which connect up large swathes of human history. From seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israel Museum to the Crusader and Napoleonic war port of Acre and even up to the amazing Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem it’s probably the fullest trip I’ve done in terms of trying to pack activities in. I was getting up and out by no later than about 7am and averaging around 30,000 steps a day which gives an indication of how intense a trip it was. My favourite historical sight however was definitely camping out and then hiking up the infamous ‘snake path’ to the incredible Roman era mountain top fortress at Masada on the Dead Sea. Somewhat reminiscent of Caribs Leap in Grenada, trapped by Roman forces, after a desperate last stand, rather than surrender, the 1000 Jewish rebels elected to commit mass suicide and Masada has become a byword for Jewish independence and freedom. When you reach the summit and look out over the spectacular views as with so many places it’s Israel it’s an incredibly evocative place.
Unfortunately I got stuck in a couple of places as during Passover transport becomes a real headache in Israel. Whilst I got to see the amazing standstill of traffic in Tel Aviv on Holocaust memorial day, over the 2 weeks I was there on 3 days there was no transport running at all and on another 3 were running a very reduced timetable so it was quite frustrating at times.
That felt like very much a ‘First World problem’ though as I next ventured into Palestine. Many tourists only really visit the somewhat ‘neutral’ spaces of Bethlehem and Jericho but in terms of understanding the conflict I found the countryside and main city of Hebron to be far more illuminating.
One of the most noteworthy things I found about travelling in Israel is just how fertile ‘the land of milk and honey’ now is. Israel are virtually world champions of irrigation engineering as through ingenious use of drip feeds and other technologies they have successfully ‘tamed’ much of the land and are now almost self –sustainable for food. It has come at a great cost for the Palestinians though.
When you cross over into Palestine one of the first things you notice is how much lower quality the land is compared to Israel. Green fields of crops and bovine pasture get replaced by scrabbly hillsides which can support sheep/goats and little else. There are however, pockets of greener land but these are almost all behind barbed wire fences and have IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) defending them nearby. Controversially, lots of hardcore Zionist Jews have moved into Palestine as they feel it’s ‘their land’ and by a variety of methods have slowly but surely taken over the best quality land.
Israel has gradually diverted water from the Jordan river (less than 5% now reaches Palestine) and other sources into Israel and what’s left for the Palestinians is almost not worth having.
Whilst the idea of a 2 state solution is very popular in the West, to some extent it ignores just how much the population has changed since it was first proposed in the 1920s. Even when Israel was created as a home land for European Jews in 1948 the population was under a million but its numbers have swollen 10 fold since then. Much of it is ‘by design’ as Orthodox Jews are encouraged to go forth and multiply and are subsidised by the government to an almost comical extent. In Jerusalem and other Orthodox communities you see couples with endless numbers of kids tagging along everywhere as they have around 7.5 children on average and the country as a whole is the most fertile in the developed world at over 3 per couple.
On top of this, immigration has continued apace and whilst some stories are almost heroic (e.g. Operation Solomon) much of the increase is due to the nearly 2 million Russians who moved in post USSR breakup. In many areas you’re more likely to hear Russian than Hebrew as anyone with Jewish heritage has a ‘right to return’ to Israel but many of the Russians were only grandchildren of Jews and were essentially economic migrants. Israel is now one of the most densely populated countries in the world and when you consider that most of the Southern half is the Negev desert it’s almost inconceivable to see how an agreed 2 states could be even remotely fairly apportioned. Israel has recently finished a huge series of desalination plants and some have optimistically reckoned that much of the Jordan river can be allowed to flow back to Palestine and allow it to become regenerated but I think population pressures dictate that a 2 state solution that both sides are happy with is now infeasible.
I found a similar story of contested space in the main city of Hebron; home to the tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) it is claimed by both Jews and Muslims and there’s a persistent air of tension in the city. To travel across different neighbourhoods you have to (very slowly) get through various IDF checkpoints as Israel has tried to clear the city centre of Palestinians and replaced them with Israeli settlers. On ‘security grounds’ the IDF have kicked Palestinians out of their homes and shut down most of the commercial centre of the city. On a visit to a refugee camp and speaking to some Palestinians they are under no illusions that the Israelis are gradually trying to suffocate life out of Hebron and Palestine generally. The current government of Netanyahu makes little secret of their desire to own all of Palestine and there are now over 3million Palestinians in Jordan alone. By slowly removing agricultural and any other economic opportunities for the Palestinians, they are hoping that the rest will simply gradually give up and leave. As one guy in the refugee camp said to me: “They were in the diaspora for 2000 years so they do not mind playing a long game but this is our home and we will never give in”.
I finished my time in Tel Aviv and once again the sense of unreality of travelling in Israel hit me. Full of artisanal coffee shops, interesting Bauhaus architecture, tech start ups and hippies smoking weed everywhere, in many ways it felt like a city the Guardian could describe as the ‘ultimate urban experience’. Everyone has dogs and are very chilled out and ‘happy’ but to me it brought up visions of the Capitol and their splendid isolation from the other zones in the Hunger Games.
In many ways Israel is an incredible achievement, from it’s legal system to it’s creation as the homeland of Jews after the Holocaust to the regeneration of Hebrew and the construction of a super strong national identity, there is a lot to admire… but it’s also one of the most unfair places on the planet where the country is basically run on an apartheid system. Most towns or cities are either Arab or Jewish but even in ‘mixed’ cities like Haifa the two communities don’t really mix; from childhood they attend different schools and are brought up to regard the creation of Israel as either the greatest event in recent human history or the ‘nakba’ (literally ‘The catastrophe’). This is then followed by national service for Jews and living in a police state for the Palestinians.

Things kicked off in Gaza when I was in the West Bank (but when has Israel/Palestine been ‘quiet’?) but entering Palestine via endless checkpoints and barbed wire fences didn’t feel dangerous, just deeply annoying. I’ve often found that the one of the things most frustrating about conflict zones is realising just how much money, time and effort is wasted on the military when it could be better spent elsewhere. Tens of millions are spent on the Palestinian side as the UN and European charities help offer limited support, but its dwarfed by the absurd extent to which Israel is ‘financially doped’. Thanks to the super powerful Israel lobby in Washington, it receives over $3bn a year in aid from the USA alone (way more than any other country) and it’s even written in American law that the contribution can only go up. This doesn’t even taken into consideration private Jewish contributors from around the world and the money is used to both metaphorically and literally build a wall blocking out the Palestinians.

Like most nationalities, Israelis vary a lot, for every ultra Zionist settler you’ll get several more easy going socialists who have no desire to harm the Palestinians. However, over time the 2 state solution has been largely shelved and the country has now settled into a ‘treatment is better than cure’ mindset. By putting up with having heavily armed soldiers posted everywhere (even in places like bus stops) it’s a price they’re willing to pay and by building huge border walls around Palestinian areas they’re effectively keeping the problem out of sight and out of mind rather than attempting to solve it.
The quality of life in Israel is now one of the highest in the world in many ways but this full knowledge of but ignoration of the problem is why it felt like they were living in the Hunger Games.
Whilst life in the West Bank was overcrowded with poor quality services (the streets for example were filthy) it could be a lot worse. Gaza’s population density is over 5,000 per sq km and ringed by the border wall and the naval blockade in the Mediterranean there’s a reason it’s nicknamed the ‘biggest open air prison in the world’. I can’t really imagine just how tough life must be there and felt at least somewhat hypocritical for visiting Israel and contributing to the economy etc.
With its wonderful wide ranging landscapes, unique culture and incredible history, it’s one of the most thought provoking places I’ve ever been to but I also left with very mixed feelings. Whilst Cyprus felt like a slightly unnecessary conflict and hope that at some point in the future things could change, no one seems to have any ideas on how to move the conflict forward in Israel and the great/awful reality for the two communities looks like it will persist.
From Tel Aviv,

Posted by carlswall 09:28 Archived in Israel Tagged northern cyprus palestine Comments (0)

Indian Ocean Islands

Greetings from wonderful, beautiful Praslin in the Seychelles. Home to the world's sexiest fruit (the Coco de mer) and several potential entrants in internet lists of 'the best beaches in the world', it really is a veritable slice of paradise and a truly perfect place to end any trip. 2 months earlier we began our journey of 13 islands spread over 4 countries via 11 flights and 11 boat trips, so after such a complicated trip it felt invigorating to end the trip in such a glorious location.

After an epically bad flight (we turned up 24 hours late via Johannesburg) we finally got to start the trip in Mauritius, the world's first openly gay country. Mark Twain claimed heaven was based on Mauritius and it's not difficult to see why. Aside from the perfect white sand and turquoise waters the lush green landscape is a bit of a wonderland of volcanic fecundity with fruits and vegetables growing everywhere and the island able to support one of the highest population densities in the world.

As with the Seychelles later on, Britain and France traded the island according to whom was in the ascendancy in the Indian Ocean at the time and it's left an interesting melange of people and cultures. The French brought African slaves to the island and the British later brought Indians over as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations so it's not unusual to see churches, mosques and Hindu temples within a single village. In many ways it reminded me of Guyana or Suriname in the make up of the population but Mauritius is doing far better as a country. Due to a long running focus on education and shrewd political decisions on where to focus investment in the economy (from agriculture to clothing manufacturing to IT and finance) the country is very much a Middle Income country and consequently there are far fewer social problems like crime of racial disharmony meaning it's a very safe and easy place to live.

That's not to say it's perfect; as in many similar countries lots of the best beaches have been bought up by resort chains or property developers and public areas do feel slightly second class but overall it's undoubtedly one of the more successful ex colonies.
After 10 days of relaxing and enjoying the ease of Mauritius it felt like we needed more of a challenge in Madagascar and we certainly got that.

Madagascar is not really like what most people would expect; although for such a big country it doesn't really get a lot of press generally. Informed largely by the Dreamworks films, most people probably think that Madagascar is made up impenetrable jungle with few people and unusual animals everywhere but that's not the case at all.

After arriving and spending a couple of days in the polluted and chaotic capital city Antananarivo (or Tana for short) we were pleased to leave it behind and get out into the countryside. Our first adventure was a pirogue trip on the Manambolo river down to the West coast for 4 days. In many ways it was amazing as we saw virtually nobody but our boatmen and heard no noises except river birds and the lazy river slowly winding it's way downstream. We camped every night on river islands and whilst it was supremely relaxing the landscape was surprisingly monotonous and at times quite sad to look at.

As with so many LICs, Madagascar has undergone appalling deforestation in recent decades for hardwoods, firewood and in particular slash and burn agriculture. Whilst it's not Haiti in terms of damage done, in the dry season this has created a landscape of rolling empty yellow grass hills with few trees and surprisingly little to see in much of the country.
When we arrived at the coast we were greeted by the spectacular Tsingy national park; a stunning collection of limestone pinnacles and caves that they've created an excellent harnessed climbing route through. It took all day but was utterly exhilarating climbing through the formations and it was nice to get some physical exercise after so long on the pirogue.

After finishing in the Tsingy we then had to start travelling by road and as with so many African countries, getting around quickly proved to be a harrowing experience in Madagascar. Despite being the size of France the country only has around 2000km of paved roads and many of the national highways are little more than dirt tracks that are closed for several months a year during the rainy season. Journeys are done by taxi brousses (converted mini busses) and they really are an ordeal to get through. Your fellow passengers don't really have the same hygiene considerations as you would in a Western country and will hawk and spit on the floor or fart without a second thought. Malagasies also have a lot of kids (who go free) and on one particular journey there were 18 adults and 17 children on 18 seats. Being thrown around so much by the journey, the kids predictably started throwing up everywhere and mixed up with the phlegm of the others the bus quickly became truly disgusting to sit in. Many of the vehicles are in shocking condition and whilst extremely cheap, progress is often glacially slow and most tourists end up either renting a private vehicle with driver or simply fly between the destinations.
Obviously this jacks up the cost of travelling considerably and removes you from ordinary people and actually experiencing the country rather than just being on a guided tour. Therefore I found the balance between 'adventure' and 'comfort' was very difficult to get right and ultimately at the end of travelling through Madagascar I had the unusual feeling that the parts of the trip were 'greater than the sum'. Whilst we saw and did some amazing things, the actual practical difficulties of travelling meant the trip as a whole didn't feel that easy but that's what you get when you go to more unusual places.

The denuded landscape has left the country with 3 distinct climate zones, the East coast where there is still some rapidly shrinking rainforest, the temperate central highlands (where most of the population people live) and the desert or spiny forest in the West.
Whilst generally not the most interesting landscape, the spiny forest did have some real highlights to see with the beautiful Baobab trees springing up sporadically as well as some good national parks where we got to see some lemurs.
Madagascar is of course very famous for its wildlife as it's isolated location causes it to be something of an '8th continent' with over 11,000 species of animal and countless plants species endemic to the country. The reality is a far cry from wildlife watching in Kenya or Tanzania though as the wildlife simply isn't easy to spot as most of them are simply small (lemurs are as big as they get) shy and their habitat has often been cut down. Therefore wildlife watching is slow and you have to be patient; alternatively you can go to created lemur parks or areas where humans leave rubbish like campsites and they'll come and find you, but it's not quite the same.

After some lovely snorkelling and whale watching on the reef in the South West we headed back to the capital and it's 'view of a thousand hills' (not really). After reading about Harry Flashman's adventures with Ravalona I (the Maddest Queen of them all) a few years ago, I was expecting the country to be quite wild and colourful but the culture was less distinctive than I was expecting and certainly nowhere near as memorable as somewhere like Ethiopia in terms of food, clothing, music etc. One thing that is quite unique about the population and which struck me immediately on arrival was just how odd the people look. Madagascar does not have an indigenous population but it's 25m people have come in waves from different parts of the Indian ocean. Therefore the people can look as though they're Indonesian, Arabic, African or from the Indian subcontinent. Whilst they split into 18 major tribal areas over the last 500 years there has been enough intermixing (particularly in the capital region) that they look often look like a mixture of all those ethnic groups and so trying to describe what a Malagasy looks like is nigh on impossible.

Before visiting the North of Madagascar we took a 9 day detour to the Comoros, where the people are definitely African, definitely Muslim and definitely not gay .
A liberal Muslim island archipelago to the East of Mozambique it is a former French colony composed and would rank as one of the world's most obscure countries. It turned out to be a really nice contrast to Madagascar in that the country is covered in tropical rainforest but is relatively easy to get to and explore (and get lost in). Getting between the 2 main islands of Grand Comore and Anjouan would have to rank as one of the toughest sea crossings I've ever done. In a part of the world where safety precautions are limited to put it mildly, setting off in a Chinese built ferry quickly felt very unsafe. The Indian the ocean is meant to be calm but almost immediately after leaving port the sea was up to swells of 5-8m and it felt like riding the pirate ship at a theme park as you climbed and dropped over the wave crests. I'd estimate 60% of the passengers threw up over the 6 hour journey and I just felt so sorry for the poor crew whose job on the crossing was largely composed of going inside and carrying bags of sick out and then throwing them overboard. After our motor broke down in the middle of the ocean just as the sun was setting, I did start to worry as to how we could be rescued but thankfully after 45 stomach churning minutes the crew got it going again and we thankfully made it to Anjouan.

As often happens though the next day we immediately had another reckless adventure on the island's highest mountain, Mt Ntringui.
After climbing up to a beautiful crater lake we continued pushing on up to the 1500m summit on the thickly forested mountain. Unfortunately we then got very lost trying to find a way down to the city. After losing the path we continued getting nowhere trying to descend through forest so thick you needed a machete to clear a path. After getting far too close to a near vertical drop, despite having been hiking all day we had to take the decision to exhaustedly reascend the mountain back to where we could safely camp. We then made an heroic effort to firstly climb back up to the summit in the twilight and then getting up and descending the way we'd come at 3am the next morning to make our boat on time. Every single muscle in our bodies ached but the sense of relief in being back to safety when you have been in genuine trouble is an incredible feeling.

Much easier was the spectacular Karthala volcano which dominates the main island Grand Comore in a similar way to Etna on Sicily. A huge volcano that has erupted 3 times in the 21st century, there are lava fields all over the island and wherever you are the volcano stands imposingly and ominously above you. The relatively straightforward climb up was rewarded by views out towards the other islands and in to the spectacular 12km caldera which is so big it has several craters smoking inside it. It takes a couple of hours just to walk around it all and when the cloud clears it's an incredible vista and definite highlight of the country.
Unfortunately we finished our time in the Comoros in the capital Moroni but as with many other areas of the country it was ruined by a terrible litter problem. Across the country you see abandoned cars and disgusting beaches covered in rubbish and it creates a really negative impression of the place as it's such an easy problem to fix. On the final day in Moroni at the market I saw a huge rat run directly in front of a cat who didn't even bother to chase it and unfortunately this would be one of the defining images of our time in the Comoros. Whilst Mauritius and the Seychelles have world famous tourist industries (and a decent standard of living) I couldn't help but think the Comoros could join them if they cleaned the country up a bit.

On returning to Madagascar we took a flight North and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of life. The French ran the country from the North the cities of Hellville and Diego Suarez were clean, orderly and had some lovely colonial architecture.
In many ways it was a nice area to finish the country in but the French owned hotels and bars was not really representative of the poverty elsewhere in the country.

Partly due to it's isolated location and lack of involvement in the global economy or geopolitics, Madagascar is almost completely ignored by rest of the world. One of the poorest countries in the world at a GDP of just $400 per person, it's the sort of place where 90%+ of the population could be described as poor (1/3 of the population still practice open defecation) but yet receives little to no aid, investment or even interest beyond its wildlife. There is a strong feeling of economic inertia here as unemployment (and underemployment) plus a high birth rate leave so many people just 'hanging around' for most of the day, most days. I do find it frustrating that a country like Madagascar which desperately needs help to develop its infrastructure and agricultural productivity but generates no problems is essentially ignored whilst basket case countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan have tens of billions of dollars wastefully pumped into them every year. It's not a fair world.

Whilst travelling through Madagascar I found it difficult to get away from the poverty and it can be a very humbling place to travel in. On our last night we took a taxi back to our hotel but the 40-50 year old Citroen we got into was way past the point of safe or reliable usage. Despite the poor driver never leaving first gear it was giving off awful fumes and broke down several times in just a few km. He'd briefly get it going again using push starts but the car had quite simply gone, however he clearly had no other asset in the world to help him earn a living and so had no choice but to persist with it. After it broke down one last time we got out and walked the last km and as we walked away I felt so, so lucky to be able to get on a flight the next day...

And so we finished our trip in the glorious, also gay Seychelles. Whilst not cheap, it is a place where you can 'live the dream' as perfect white beaches are flanked by huge granite boulders and palm trees. Half the tourists there seemed to be on honeymoon although ironically Seychelles has one of the lowest marriage rates in the world and 3/4 of the population are born out of wedlock!
As with the likes of the Maldives they have firmly put their eggs in the luxury tourism industry and it's worked as Seychelles has the highest GDP per capita in Africa and few problems of any note. In truth it doesn't really feel like an African country and in many ways is much more similar in culture and atmosphere to some of the Caribbean islands as most people work in tourism and large parts of the coastline have been parceled off into different resorts.
Getting around however is easy and after structuring the trip to be something of a sandwich i.e. easy Mauritius then more challenging Madagascar and Comoros in the middle, we were delighted to have such a relaxing end to the trip. We hiked, cycled, snorkelled, played with giant tortoises and otherwise kicked back in these paradisical islands for a week.
Logistically this wasn't the easiest trip to plan and at times it was quite difficult but I finished the trip pleased to have got through it safely but also delighted to have had the opportunity to experience this part of the world.

From Praslin,

Posted by carlswall 04:51 Archived in Mauritius Tagged madagascar mauritius seychelles comoros Comments (0)

Arabian Adventures


Having only written blog entries when I’ve traveled for slightly longer periods of time, I thought I’d try something slightly different by combining my notes on a couple of smaller trips within the Middle East.
After moving to Qatar the first piece of travelling I did in the region was to Dubai (actually pronounced doo-bay) and having not really travelled in this part of the world at all I was really looking forward to it. I’m aware that for many people Dubai conjures up a certain type of hell associated with expats who now live there or where people in TOWIE or Sex and the City go on holiday and there is obviously some truth to that, but it is nonetheless an incredible achievement in the desert.

Like many of its neighbours, Dubai made its initial money from oil but unlike Abu Dhabi or Kuwait for example it didn’t have that much in reserve. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the far thinking owners spotted a gap in the market and rapidly developed in the city as a trading hub between Europe and the subcontinent. Later on they started successfully investing in tourism and the ‘new economy’ (IT and media firms) and now oil makes up less than 5% of the GDP.

Whilst it was famous in the 1990’s for being the ‘world’s biggest construction’ site, most of the major works are now finished and I think the city now looks fantastic. The major highways and metro are complete and all over the city are pieces of bold architecture which really add a 21st century iconic feel to the city. Whilst they don’t have a Colosseum or Trevi fountain they’ve simply built new wonders. Whether it’s the world’s highest building (Burj Khalifa), biggest mall (Mall of Dubai), world famous hotels (Burj Dubai, Atlantis) or amazing new neighbourhoods like the Marina or the Palm, you’ve got to admire the ambition they’ve shown in making the city what it is.

It is a fantastic place to spend a week or so as the above mentioned attractions as well as the beaches, restaurants, wonderful nightlife and the old town means that there’s loads to fill your time. I also found Dubai a really interesting and quite complex society to be in; around 90% of the population are immigrants making it the lowest proportion of native residents in the world. Whilst in other Middle Eastern countries, immigrants are simply there to make money and often don’t earn that much, in Dubai the immigrant communities felt both more permanent but also more ‘middle class’. In Qatar for example every business has to have Qatari 51% ownership and owning property is very difficult. By contrast in Dubai the government encourages foreign investors with Special Economic Zones and it creates a more mixed society. Restaurant owners or small traders from the subcontinent or even office workers from Europe or Asia are much more common than Qatar. They’re clearly not rich but they’re doing OK and makes Dubai feel like a more mature society.

That said, the knowledge that Dubai is both literally and metaphorically built on sand never feels far off. Since it doesn’t really produce a great deal, much of it’s economic growth has been based on real estate and using increasing land values to take out more debt and build ever more with the expectation of increasing value. This bubble mentality works fine during boom years such as the early part of this century but when recession hits it can hit Dubai very hard. In 2008 house prices lost 50% of their value in 6 months and the emirate was in danger of defaulting on their loans. They had to be bailed out by their much wealthier neighbor Abu Dhabi and bizarrely part of the deal was that the Burj Khalifa was named after Abu Dhabi’s ruler. There’s no doubt Dubai had simply overreached, thousands of luxury apartments now stand empty or half finished with the famously disastrous ‘World’ project going down as perhaps the most expensive white elephants in history. Part of the problem for Dubai is that whilst it’s still probably the best place in the Middle East to do business, lots of other places have had the same idea to attract international investors and their first move advantage is gradually being eroded away.
For the moment though, as global economic confidence has gradually returned they appear to have weathered the storm and perhaps have learned to become more sustainable into the long term. It’s definitely somewhere I found a lot of fun and would like to return to.


The following Easter we visited another country on the Arabian peninsula and probably the one I was most looking forward to visiting: Oman.
Our first stop was the capital Muscat which has an unusual feel to it. It’s perhaps better described as 3 villages that have loosely been connected by urbanization to form one ribbon shaped settlement along the coastline, penned in by sea and mountains it’s never more than a few kilometres wide. It’s got some impressive sights in the gorgeous opera house and huge mosque which boasts the world’s biggest chandelier and 2nd biggest carpet. One part of the city is set aside almost solely for the majestic palace of Sultan Qaboos and the port to his two (why two?) $300m yachts. Aside from the magisterial architecture you can explore the winding alleyways and souqs of the old town meaning the city has a nice balance of old and new Arabia.

Aside from the huge portraits of Qaboos looming down everywhere, perhaps the most memorable thing about Muscat were the roads and the difficulty of navigation. Based on a system developed in China, there are few roundabouts or traffic lights designed to keep the traffic moving and reduce road rage. That’s fine but it means there are flyovers and turn offs everywhere and if you don’t know exactly where you’re going and stay on the road too long or take a wrong turn you can get lost very easily. Without doubt one of the most frustrating cities to navigate in that I’ve been in, even with a SatNav you could find yourself getting lost for 20mins at a stretch as you struggled to get back to where you were.

When we eventually got out of the city we did the amazing drive up to the Saiq plateau South West of the capital and began some incredible trekking over the next few days. The rocky West of Oman rises some 3000m above the sea but the tourist infrastructure in Oman is superb and you can drive around much of it (with a 4x4). After leaving our stuff in Saiq village we started climbing the rocky slopes of the Hajar mountains up to an extremely enjoyable trek called Jabal Akhdar. After grinding to the top of the mountains in the sun we were then greeted by the incredible sight of looking down into a 1200m deep bowl shaped landscape with the mountains forming the rim. Our route was to get down to the beautiful green villages below and thankfully we were now in shade. The descent path looked unpassable on numerous occasions from afar but it kept going and finally we made it down to the wonderful oases below. The villages survive using the ingenious falaj system which traps and transfers water to irrigate mountainous areas and allow people to survive in the harsh climate. They’re so ingenious they’re listed as Unesco world heritage sites and they were a great spot to refill our water and marvel at the watermelons and other fruit being grown. We camped in a dry canyon bed then got up early to enjoy walking in the cool of the morning. I found the path very tricky as the harsh rocky landscape was very unforgiving on the feet but eventually we got to the last village and started the climb back up to the mountain top to complete the circuit. In the heat of the day the climb was extremely tough and you can see why the British army love using Oman as a base for desert training as the terrain is so punishing. With the mixture of challenge and incredible landscape, I’d have to rank it as one of the best hikes I’ve ever done.

Oman as a country immediately felt different to others in the Middle East and culturally offers a pleasing contrast to their neighbours. Oman has some oil but not that much and unlike other countries in the region where generous welfare states mean the locals basically don’t bother to work, in Oman everyone has to work and make their own way. In Dubai and Qatar this means locals don’t really interact with foreigners much but in Oman they’re much more likely to strike up a conversation and talk to you. They follow Ibadi Islam (small school of Islam that predates the 2 major branches) and happily step out of all the regional disputes between their neighbors meaning the country comes across as pleasingly relaxed and maybe a bit more old fashioned. Our next stop of Nizwa was a good example of this where the smells of the old souqs and gorgeous majlis add a gloriously atmospheric feel which can be lost in ultra modern Dubai or Doha.

After meeting a couple of friends we then drove up to arguably the biggest attraction in the country, the mighty Jebel Shams. Known as the Arabian Grand Canyon, it’s a 3000m deep canyon which rises magnificently out of the desert. An impressive drive took us up to the rim and after marveling at the vastness of it all we then hiked to the summit of the mountain beyond. It was a 2 day walk and again trying to do it in the piercing sun was a real challenge but seriously rewarding too. We descended somewhat exhausted and celebrated with Fanta (no alcohol here of course).

Arguably the thing I’ll remember most about Oman are the colours; as we drove across the desert the contrast between the orange desert and blue skies is stark and feels like the opposite of overcast memories of the UK. Our destination was a place called Wahiba Sands which is pretty much anyone’s desert fantasy. Singing 200m high sand dunes as far as the eye can see, kissed by golden sunrises and sunsets it’s difficult to imagine a more romantic setting. Tourist camps have been set up and as we listened to traditional Arabian music on the dunes, things felt just about perfect.

You obviously can’t spend too long in the desert during the day so we headed to the incredible Wadi Bani Khalid. Wadis are river channels in the mountains that form in the rainy season and along with sinkholes, Oman is blessed with many beautiful ones. If the desert offers beautiful yellows and oranges, the wadis offer wonderful blues and greens in marked contrast to the rocky slopes around them. Gloriously cool and refreshing, it had various caves and waterfalls and the pools keep going so you can swim explore the landscape in an unusual way. We followed this up with an amusing night out in the pretty coastal town of Sur with Omanis naughtily drinking and eager to chat to us before flying to our final destination of Salalah near the Yemeni border.

Oman has a large section of the Rub al Khali (Empty quarter) on the Arabian peninsula and there’s a stretch of about 1000km in the middle of the country where virtually no one lives. Eventually the landscape starts rising again and when you start flying over Salalah though, a verdant coastal city emerges as water flows down from the mountains above to fruit plantations and farms that skirt the city.

It’s a fascinating cultural melange of Arab, Indian and Swahili influences and was a key part of ancient trading routes. In the city itself there’s a fascinating archaeological park called Al Baleed and outside there are a few plantations which stands testament to the role the city played in the Frankincense trail. Frankincense is a resin from a tree which grows here and smells fantastic. Aside from the Biblical significance it was very valuable and led to this part of the world becoming moderately wealthy as the abundant camels would transport it via oases to Mecca, Damascus and even as far as Constantinople and beyond. Whilst the camels looked perfectly happy, in the blistering heat the guys cultivating it had one of the hardest looking jobs I’ve ever seen. Reminiscent of salt cutters in Uyuni or Danakil, the sheer lack of any shade or relief for months at a time made me very grateful to do a job which has climate control.

The heat was a problem in Salalah as the middle 6 hours of the day were simply too hot to do anything. There’s little shade anywhere and when we tried camping on the beach that didn’t work as the sand had been heating up all day. We found we were at a loss as to how to fill the time between 9-3 and you can’t really hang around towns or villages as everything shuts down and there are no people around. Once the sun started to go down though you can explore a bit more and a real highlight was the cliffs of Marneef where fascinating rock formations are joined by some pretty impressive waterspouts.
We then flew back to Muscat and had a wonderful night out before finishing our time here. In some ways it was a fairly tough 2 weeks but extremely rewarding too. I loved the landscapes which I think I was expecting but the more traditional culture was fascinating to see and adds up to a terrific holiday destination.

From Muscat,

Posted by carlswall 03:25 Archived in Oman Tagged dubai Comments (0)

Horn of Africa

Greetings from Addis Ababa, the self styled ‘Capital of Africa’ as it’s the home of the African Union and the UN has their continental HQ here. Whilst like virtually all African cities it has a very rough edge to it (awfully polluted, aggressive beggars, chaotic etc.) it also has a more attractive side to it with good restaurants and nightlife and a very pleasing climate. The sort of place (assuming you had a bit of money) you really wouldn’t mind living in.

That’s where we ended the trip, but you would probably say the opposite about where we started the trip in Djibouti. A ‘hot hell’ as one local described it, Djibouti city offers virtually nothing for the visitor except debilitating heat and one of the worst value for money cities to visit in the world. An ordinary restaurant meal costs upwards of $30 and a hotel room costs in excess of $100 a night for fairly poor quality. The reason for it is the huge number of Western military that are based there as Djibouti has emerged as a key ally in the very unstable Southern Red Sea area; with the extra foreigners on expenses accounts brings inflation for any visitors.

That said there is a bit do to in the country as a whole; located in an area called the Afar Triangle, it sits on no less than 3 tectonic plates moving away from each other and this creates an amazing landscape to look at with hot springs, volcanoes, depressions and rift lakes all around you. Highlights of this were the hypersaline Lac Assal, at -156m the lowest point in Africa and the amazing fumaroles at Lac Abbe. From a distance they look like a city skyline but up close they reveal themselves as chimney like vents that offer an outlet for the thermal activity below. Millions of years ago when sea levels were higher they were submarine volcanoes that slowly got built up over time but now just stick eerily out of the landscape on the lakeshore as flamingos and other birds fly around them.

Financially Djibouti seemed to survive on 3 things; remittances from overseas workers, payment from Western countries to allow their military bases and tax revenues to allow Ethiopian companies to use the port. However, this money didn’t seem to spread at all outside of the capital city and I can scarcely remember such extreme poverty as we saw in rural Djibouti. When people think about poverty you tend to think about shanty towns in urban areas and the danger and dirt that goes with that. However, in the country side it takes a different form and in a country as hot as Djibouti (the temperature was about 40 degrees every day) very, very little can get done.
In most villages we passed people seem to be doing almost nothing at all for most of the day with only a sprinkle of activity at dawn/dusk. Visually the men seemed to get through their days by doing nothing but chewing qat; qat is a plant from East Africa that can act as a mild stimulant if you chew its leaves. It will almost certainly never catch on in the West as it is disgustingly bitter to chew and takes ages to have an effect unlike most recreational drugs that are used. However, in this part of the world it’s incredibly popular despite often dreadful consequences on both the environment and society as a whole. In Djibouti, the standard day for a shockingly high percentage of men is to get up, go to the local qat den then spend pretty much all day in a zoned out state, sat in the dark chewing qat and chatting nonsense to their friends or just staring into space. There are obvious consequences of mental health problems, lack of economic activity and an appalling sense of inertia as things just don’t get done.

There’s no move to cut down on it as it’s such an ingrained part of the culture but travelling through the country I could kind of understand why they do it so much. Similar to Russians/Mongolians drinking so much vodka to help get them through the challenges of their climate/environment, East Africans treat qat in the same way as it helps get them through the many boring hours they pass daily in a brutal heat. I kind of grew semi sympathetic to the idea of doing it so much as there are so few other ways to pass the time there; it’s a difficult, difficult place to live in. Indeed the only people who seemed to have it worse were the women who culturally aren’t allowed to even chew qat to waste time.

From Djibouti we had a real adventure and did an 18hr journey across the coastal desert to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. When I told people I was going there I got a lot of “Are you nuts?” type of comments but Somaliland isn’t quite what most people think it is. When Mohamed Siad Barre’s government of Somalia collapsed in 1991, most of the country became a lawless dystopia run by a combination of local warlords, Islamic extremists and in Puntland, little more than modern day pirate kings as the country imploded and anyone who could, fled.

Somalian culture is subdivided into a very complex system of different clans and subclans with all the rivalries, alliances and disputes that go with it; but not all areas shattered in the same way. Somalia is shaped like a 7 and in the horizontal part in the North, Somaliland, they have actually been very stable. Immediately civil war broke out in the 1990’s the people worked together to retain their security and way of life away from the problems of the South. They have security through their own army and police, control of their borders and even things like their own currency and functioning democracy.

In short, it’s a real success story in a very unstable area but has become one of the 10 de facto but not de jure countries of the world. They have been pushing for independence since the 1960’s and I think it’s to the international community’s shame that they are unwilling to listen to their wishes. The logic is similar to the safe Kurdish area of Iraq; if the West were to support independence it would remove a stable part of a very unstable country and this would be bad for the future of the country as a whole. I don’t think this is a very positive attitude to take for the people in Somaliland who have achieved so much despite what’s going on elsewhere in the country.

I was slightly wary that it would be a very conservative and slightly dangerous place to be but the people were much more easy going than I feared and happy to see foreigners there. That said we still had to take an armed soldier to travel around the country as a precaution but it never felt that dangerous. Thanks to investments from the large Somali diaspora around the world, the economy is also doing well and you can’t help but feel they really deserve their independence.

After an awful journey to the border we then hit the main focus of the trip in Ethiopia.
We actually started in the Muslim East of the country and the historical city of Harar. It was great going round the walled city via the narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards and even got to see the famous hyena feeding ceremony. It started off as a way of stopping them eating livestock during drought but now feels a bit contrived as a tourist show. However, it’s still pretty cool seeing them emerge from the darkness and wrench the hunks of meat from the hands and even mouth of the feeder.

From Harar we did the long trip West and realised that probably the worst aspect of travelling in Ethiopia is the travelling itself; journeys are long and whilst tickets are cheap you aren’t allowed to travel at night so often entire days are spent ‘in transit’. That said the scenery is wonderful and as you travel across the country you really start to appreciate the huge variety of landscapes and environments that make up the country from the parched lowlands up through coffee plantations to the highlands which act as something of a roof of East Africa as many of the rivers and lakes are formed there.

Our next destination was the so called Historical circuit that Ethiopians themselves are so proud of. Ethiopia’s place in human history goes back further than anywhere of course as it’s here that the 3.6m year old Lucy skeleton was found right up to the brutal Derg regime in the 1970-1990’s backed by the Soviets who murdered some 500,000 civilians during the so called Red Terror period.

Between those two events it arguably contains the richest history of any sub Saharan African country. From the various pre-Christian legends that are said to emerge from here such as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to a variety of powerful empires that ruled vast areas before collapsing such as Axum. Rastafarians site their spiritual home in Ethiopia after they saw the 2nd coming of Christ in the former Emperor Haile Selassie’s (whose original name was Ras Tafari) coronation and there were also a lost tribe of Jerusalem who have moved to Israel with limited success. However, when Christianity did arrive it became just the second country in the world to adopt it as the state religion (after Armenia) and religion is still a key part of daily life all over the country.

From the remote and intriguing monasteries on Lake Tana to the famous rock hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia is one of the best places in the world to see Christianity in a purer, more devout form. The most extreme example of this was in the rock hewn churches in Tigray, where you may remember the wonderful (in my opinion) Exorcist 2 is set. In a landscape very similar to Monuments valley in Utah you climb up steep slopes towards churches hidden up in the cliffs. However, in order to show their devotion to God (and find a quiet place to pray) early Christians would put them in places where you have no choice but to climb vertically for some 20m using just natural foot and handholds in the rock. You can now wimp out and use a rope but we wanted the authentic pilgrim experience (or copying Richard Burton/Max von Sydow in the film) and did the terrifying climbs up to the amazing churches cut into caves. Early monks would paint beautiful frescoes on the walls and surrounded by 200m+ precipes on both sides they really are an amazing sight and experience to behold. Whilst the climbing was amazing I was absolutely delighted to get back to the bottom of them and it did beg the question of why? Could you not have found a quiet place that was easier to get to?!!

Ethiopia is somewhere that has been high on my list for a while; however it’s a country that a lot of people have a very limited understanding of and that included some of the fellow Westerners we met. One Australian executive of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world was visiting on business and said “This really isn’t what I was expecting; I think I just thought I’d see starvation and poverty based on that Band Aid song”.

I actually teach a lesson about the song and how a) inaccurate it is and b) how it has completely fixed even educated Westerners minds onto the idea that all human life in Ethiopia (and indeed Africa in general) is in grinding poverty and completely dependent on the weather.
Actually the situation is very, very different, particularly at this time of year. In a land where “No rain nor rivers flow” during the Summer is actually in rainy season and can be extremely wet, indeed the capital Addis Ababa receives twice as much rain as London and large parts of the country flood every year. On the plus side we saw the source of the Blue Nile and its wonderful falls at full volume but the Simien Mountains were the biggest disappointment of the trip. A World Heritage site famous for its wildlife and views out over the Rift Valley, our time there was ruined by rain and our proposed 5 day hike got reduced to 3 soggy ones as locals said the rivers were too high to cross. We did however get a silver lining on our final day as we go to see the wonderful 500m Jinba waterfall descend from the clouds.

Aside from its historical attractions, Ethiopia offers an incredible array of landscapes. Whilst we spent most of our time in the cooler highlands I also fulfilled an ambition of mine by visiting the Danakil Depression. The road from Makele momentously dropped more than 2000m down to -100m in the Depression. As you descended the temperature on the dashboard in the car increased a degree every few minutes before eventually stopping at about 45 degrees. It has the claim to fame as the highest average temperature of anywhere in the world and as in Djibouti life is extremely hard with salt mining using the ubiquitous camels to help you pretty much the only economic activity. There are however things to see with the undoubted highlight being the incredible Irta Ale volcano. It reminded me of the Gateway to Hell in Turkmenistan as you walk several hours uphill towards an orange glow in the darkness. I drank 4 litres of water on the way up in the scorching temperatures but oh my it was worth it to see two of only 6 lava crater lakes in the world. Bizarrely it strongly reminded me of playing in Super Mario Bros as most of it was covered in black lava that has solidified at 700 degrees, however a lot of it is molten hot magma at 1500 degrees and this is constantly bubbling away and having mini eruptions. It’s a mesmerizingly beautiful sight and whilst at times it is too dangerous to go near, at the moment it’s safe enough that you can go to within a few metres for a near unique experience. Wonderful.

Indeed in many ways Ethiopia is one of the most unique countries in the world and really does do it’s own thing. Famously it’s one of a very small number of countries that were never colonised by Europeans during the Age of Empires as they humiliatingly defeated Italy towards the end of the 19th century using little more than medieval weapons. This lack of ‘contamination’ of European practices can be seen in a variety of very basic ways of how society is organised. For example it’s 2008 as they go by a different calendar, which also has 13 rather than 12 months and bizarrely the time is told differently as their day starts at 6am rather than 12 so they’re always 6 hours behind (or ahead). Their version of Christianity is unique with many of the stories having Ethiopia at the core e.g. The Ark of the Covenant is supposedly buried in Axum, no one outside of Ethiopia believes this is true but every Ethiopian takes it as fact.

All this means that they don’t “Know it’s Christmas time at all” as they celebrate it on January 6/7th like other Orthodox believers. Even the culture isn’t like anything else as they shun everything but Ethiopian music and the dancing is done almost entirely with the upper body as just your neck, head and shoulders move in time to the rhythm as your legs stay static. Eating is done differently too as you eat communally with your right hand from a big slab of injera and its toppings which acts as a kind of edible plate. Delicious. It all takes a while to get your head round but definitely adds to the charm of visiting this unique country

Band Aid also described it as a land “Where nothing ever grows” which must have been a surprise for the 100m or so inhabitants of the huge country. Amartya Sen won the Nobel prize for Economics by using Ethiopia’s disastrous Derg regime as an example to demonstrate how famines rarely have to do with the weather but the governing system that creates the conditions for it. Droughts may always happen but if you have a reasonable government, famines shouldn’t as steps would be taken to prevent that happening.

Despite the impression it created amongst Westerners, amongst lots of other things coffee, flowers and various cereals grow in abundance and this has in part led to a booming economy over the last 20 years. Whilst corruption is still a big issue unlike many African countries Ethiopia has generally been led very well and has become a bit of a darling of Western aid economists due to its steady and consistent leadership. It’s also built up a reputation as a hotbed of entrepreneurialism and certainly does better in areas like manufacturing than most of its African neighbours. In Addis in particular there is a real feeling of positive change as new buildings are being built apace and major structural changes such as a metro and Chinese built highways are also being constructed.

However, claims of being ‘Africa’s China’ are fanciful and gives an indication of how far Africa has fallen behind Asia economically. Whilst new roads and factories have been constructed as well as the burgeoning tourist industry they often mask many of the big problems Ethiopia still faces. Aside from the ongoing ‘Cold War’ with Eritrea and sporadic clashes between the different ethnic groups, some 83% of the population still live in the countryside and a GDP per capita of little more than $500 per year gives a good indication of how hard life is for most people.

Aside from the beggars and homeless I strangely thought that showed itself most in the children of the country; the constant cries of “Gimme money” from them got irksome and sad very quickly and for all the talk of the economy and infrastructure projects the biggest problem by far is the sheer size of the population. The country’s economy has grown a whopping 10% a year for the last decade or so to be one of the highest in the world but the benefits of this have been somewhat lost as the population has also grown by 20million. The average woman still has 4.6 children and they are absolutely everywhere in Ethiopia running around as their poor parents struggle to feed them all and encourage them to beg.

However, the country really does feel like it’s moving in the right direction rather than the sense of stagnation which you feel travelling in many African countries. If it can keep its massive multi-ethnic and multi-lingual population content and under control then they can continue to make progress as one of Africa’s success stories in the early 21st century.

Overall Ethiopia is a wonderful place to travel in due to its unique yet varied culture and landscapes and its friendly and interesting population; 1 month simply didn’t feel like enough and having not even had a chance to see the South it’s definitely somewhere I intend to visit again in the future.
From Addis Ababa,

Posted by carlswall 09:16 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (1)

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