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#1 BOOK #1 Centr al America, E a stern Europe & the Middle E a st

An independent traveller’s journey of understanding of the world and its people

CONOR BROPHY


“I had it in my mind for a long time to go on one last big trip before I settled back in Dublin� > WORLD TRIP

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With Fred Cerene (a friend of mine) in Montpellier, France (where he lives) in September 2005, after my Eastern European adventure, but before heading off to the Middle East. So I was about half-way through my trip. Fred is a graphic designer and he did the design of this book.


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Introduction I

had it in my mind for a long time to go on one last big trip before I settled back in Dublin. I had been mostly in London since mid-1999 and although overall, I had a great time, London was beginning to do my head in. It’s not a nice thing to admit, but often when I would leave the flat in Belsize Park, I would immediately hate everyone on the street – which is a terrible way to think about other people. Also I remember, around that time, talking to an Aussie girl in a pub, who had just arrived over and she was all excited about the cultural opportunities London had to offer. I remember thinking just how naïve the girl was, and how much she didn’t realize the way that London was going to get under her skin. But at least I recognised the fact that I was having issues, and that my thoughts were not right thoughts. I took this as a sign that it was my time to leave. So I felt that the transition of moving between London and Dublin would be the ideal opportunity to travel. I had the money. I had the time. That’s what IT contracting gives you. I was single. From a career point of view I felt I could get away with an extended period of time off work. I had some really good work experience in London.

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I knew that to get set up again in Dublin would take a lot of effort. So it kind of made sense to do all the travelling at once, instead of multiple trips with the overhead each time of looking for work and settling back in socially. I also felt that I was at the ideal age to travel. You see there is a balance to be obtained. I think you need to be old enough to fully appreciate having so much time off work. Old enough to fully benefit from the experience of being exposed to so many different cultures. But, on the other hand, young enough to have the energy to do it all. Apart from actually living there, I do believe that backpacking is the best way to experience other cultures. There is no other form of travel which allows you to interact as much with the locals and appreciate their lives. However, it is tiring. I was 34 at time, soon to be 35, and I knew I was coming to the end of my backpacking days. If I left it too much longer I felt that the dread of an overnight bus, or the thought of haggling over a taxi fare in some dodgy location, may soon get the better of me, and the nice comfortable lifestyle I was going back to in Dublin, would prove too comforting to leave. I have met older couples or retired couples travelling independently but I have always thought that they had left it too late. I think that if you have the opportunity you should travel when you are young, because you can then use the experiences and the understanding you have gained throughout the rest of your life. At the end of your life it’s too late. There’s too little time to think and to do. In some ways I had been informally planning the trip for quite a while. I put myself on a Spanish diploma course in preparation of visiting Central America. I was working and studying hard to get my skills as up-to-date as possible, in order to


The iconic historical sites of Jordan in the Middle East

Experiencing Persian culture in Iran

The pristine environment of New Zealand

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The time-warp that is Cuba The deep Asian culture of the brutally oppressed Burmese

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Off the beaten track in El Salvador in Central America

Hong Kong – one of my favourite cities on the trip

The beautiful beaches of Australia

The commercial hub that is the Panama Canal


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withstand the prolonged absence from work. That kind of thing. However, I hardly researched the individual countries I wanted to visit. You would think you would, wouldn’t you?

This plan implied four separate trips. This was very desirable. I knew I could not keep travelling for a whole year without a break. I think it was because the task seemed overwhelming. I was visiting so many countries that to research any one place in-depth seemed fruitless. I knew the country would have significance when I was actually there. In the country, I could read up about the place and make daily decisions on where to go next. It wasn’t too late. That’s the freedom that backpacking gives you. I suppose I could have researched when certain festivals were on, but I felt the trip was too big for that. I was more interested in the countries as a whole, rather than individual events. There were a few places that I definitely wanted to visit. India, the great litmus test for independent travellers, Iran, Eastern Europe and Central America. These were all priorities for me. I began to fit the whole trip around these priorities and to learn about the nearby countries which I also had an interest in. I did originally look at South Africa and Mozambique but these were not of primary interest, and fell by the wayside, as they could not be fitted into the necessary route to see the above preferable locations. Then it all fell into place. I mainly used climate considerations to determine when I would go to each region. The only other

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consideration was the high tourist season with respect to Eastern Europe – I made sure to avoid late July and August, and to a certain extent the high tourist season in Australia and New Zealand. So my outline plan was as follows: January-April: Central America May-June: Eastern Europe September-November: Middle East December-April: Asia, Australia and New Zealand I will talk about the motivation I had for visiting each of these regions, in the relevant section. This plan implied four separate trips. This was very desirable. I knew I could not keep travelling for a whole year without a break. In London I had an Irish flatmate who had just returned from a year off travelling, and he said that at the end of the trip, he could have been in the most beautiful interesting location and he just wouldn’t care. That’s how tiring travelling can be. And this guy was young, 21-22. Not 34-35. I also knew this from experience and I always had the intention of breaking the travelling up into shorter trips. By doing this you always have a date in the near future when you know you are going home. The travelling never seems just an endless slog. Being back home for a while also gives you a stable and familiar environment, from which you can become excited and interested about the next destination. However, all of this was just an informal plan. When I left London on the 10th January, the only flights I had booked were the ones from London to Cuba, and the returning flight out of Panama city, three and a half months later. I didn’t even have a flight booked out of Cuba, normally a mandatory requirement to obtain a Cuban visa.

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However the trip did materialize as I informally planned it. I made a few minor detours and visited a few countries that I had never intended to visit, such as China, but in general I went to all the countries I first envisaged during my initial vague planning in 2004. Even the timescales were pretty accurate. I returned back to Dublin in April 2006, which was the rough date I had given my tenants nearly 18 months earlier.

When I left London I had no intention of doing any writing.

Writing When I left London I had no intention of doing any writing. I had been travelling before and I had never written up any of my travels. I had never taken a diary and I had never written down any notes.

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availability. I think it was the most expensive Internet of any country I travelled in, costing at least $6 an hour (some people say it is to prevent the locals from having access – the average wage in Cuba is only $20 a month). So I felt I was nearly prevented from writing, and when I got to Mexico I was desperate to record my time in Cuba. On and off I spent two days in an Internet café logging my experiences. I really enjoyed writing the email. I enjoyed the challenge of writing up my experiences in a form that was interesting to me and to other people. Writing makes your thoughts and opinions concrete. It stops you falling into clichés. It forces you to constantly challenge your views, which I like, especially when you give it to other people to read. It’s difficult to be vague as you can’t hide behind partly formed arguments. I say in the Cuba write-up that I would not be writing such a long email again. But I did. It became an important part of the trip and the emails became longer and longer as my trip progressed. I enjoyed it and I found it helped my learning and understanding.

I never intended to take any photographs apart from the usual holiday snaps. I only took a compact point-and-shoot film camera with me.

Finally, of course, I wrote to keep a record of my time off. You forget very quickly. Even now when I look back over my notes I am surprised at how many things I have already forgotten. It was a once in a lifetime experience and it’s important to remember what happened.

So how can I explain how all of this materialised? - A book consisting of over 400 pages. It was for a number of reasons. The first being my initial destination. I had such an interesting time in Cuba and it’s such a fascinating place, I wanted to write down my experiences before I forgot them all. I was going to take notes by emailing myself a diary but that was difficult in Cuba. The Internet was so expensive and of limited

A friend said to me that it did grate on her a bit that I was talking in such an opinionated manner about a country, after having only spent a few weeks there. Of course you can’t come to a detailed understanding of any country in a few weeks. However I think she’s missing the point. First of all, there is nothing wrong with giving an opinion, as long as you are open-minded enough to change that opinion. That’s how


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you learn. The motivation to go to a country was at times solely to challenge my own negative perceptions of the country, or the world’s negative portrayal of the country. Iran and China being good examples. Secondly, I did try and read up and research the countries on top of my own experiences. For example, I used to always read the history and cultural sections of the guide books. I took every opportunity of meeting and talking to the locals. I read respected magazines and researched material on the internet.

if I have been in any way unfair to a country or a people or an individual, I am truly sorry.

I always tried to send the emails to people from the countries I travelled in, especially if I was in any way critical of the country and/or the people. I try and write as if there is a person from the country I am writing about, sitting in front of me listening to what I am saying. As if I would not be embarrassed about expressing my views, because I am being as fair as possible. Also, I would be open-minded enough to change my views based on their arguments, or having learnt more about the country. In many ways the easy option is not to give an opinion and not be interested in the lives of the locals. In some of the other travel logs that I have read, the only reference to a country is to some bar they got pissed up in! However, I would like to state clearly now, and please keep

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this in mind when you are reading this book - if I have been in any way unfair to a country or a people or an individual, I am truly sorry. I always take minor offence when my writing is referred to as a blog. A blog is normally a boring and introverted account of day-to-day events, that is only of possible interest to immediate friends and family. I decided that the emails I sent out would form the basis of this book. I believe any major re-writing would not be of any particular benefit or worth. I like the immediacy of the emails. I wrote them soon after visiting the country or when I returned to Dublin in April 2006 from notes I had taken when travelling in the country. They do reflect my thoughts at the time. However, if there is anything I have forgotten and now want to include, I have done so. Similarly with any stuff that suddenly seems more important than it was. If I have changed my opinion, or my understanding has increased, or I want to make a comment, I do so, but I clearly identify those points in the writing (they are identified by the CB symbol and are written in italic.) I don’t want to lose the immediacy of the emails or my thoughts at the time. I think it’s all pretty obvious when you read it. I talk about the photography in one of my emails so I will not dwell on that here. But that also became an important part of my trip and I took more and more photographs as the trip progressed. I had the idea to produce a book to collate all my emails and photographs, with the photographs being interspersed with the text. The idea being that the text would hopefully come to life because of the photos, and the photos would have more significance and interest because of the text.

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Why do I travel? So why do I travel and what’s the appeal? If I was being honest, I think there is a fair argument that one of the reasons why I travel is because I have nothing else to do. I have no family to look after and I have no responsibilities. I remember when I first decided to travel in 1997. It was like giving myself a short term goal in life. However, on the other hand, I have always been predisposed to politics, and for me, politics is a key aspect of life. When I was a teenager my mother used to say she would see me in the Dail yet, as I used to watch a lot of current affairs and political programmes. So travelling is something which feeds that interest.

If I was being honest, I think there is a fair argument that one of the reasons why I travel is because I have nothing else to do. Also, of course, I go travelling for all the normal reasons. I love not having to work. I love having the time off to read, to think and as it happened, to write. I love being able to lie in bed in the morning, and allow that male morning miserableness to slowly lift from me. I find experiencing other cultures so interesting. The way people live their lives, and how their different social and political setups affect them. And, of course, I love the art galleries and the beaches and the history and the food. I handed my notice in work in November 2004. I was surprisingly nervous doing this. There was no problem though.

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That’s the other great aspect of being a contractor, there is no big deal finishing a job. My last day in work was Friday the 17th of December.

Summary What an amazing, amazing trip. I experienced so much. I experienced the fantastic diving in Cuba and Nicaragua, the beautiful beaches of Australia, the recent history lesson that was still visible in Bosnia, the gorgeous islands and crystal clear waters of Croatia, the incredible colours of India, the tremendous hospitality of Iran, the iconic historical sites of Jordan, the fantastic food in Turkey and Singapore, the wonderful cities of Istanbul and Hong Kong, the eye-opening experience of the mammoth changes taking place in China, and the wonderful warm smiling faces and deep Asian culture of the brutally oppressed Burmese. I bargained for carpets in Turkey, I swam with dolphins in New Zealand, I lost my backpack in Honduras, I was terrified on the buses in India, I went to a football match in Guatemala, I was questioned by the airport police in Iran, I talked to an Iraqi about the Irish football team in Jordan, I nearly came to blows in a scooter-hire shop in Turkey, I went to my first ballet in Budapest and my first ever Opera in Vienna, and I got to know families in Guatemala, Cuba, Hong Kong and Iran. I get nostalgic just thinking about it. I am often asked what my favourite country was and I find it very difficult to answer that question. However, if I am pushed I normally give the following answer. My favourite country was not the country I had the most enjoyable time


The incredible colours of India

The crystal clear waters of Croatia

One of the locals in China

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God’s gift to Asian travellers – Singapore

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Indian design flair

The wonderful mountains of Zakopane in Poland


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in, but the one that encompasses all the reasons why I love to travel. There were the usual climate and natural resource attractions; the beaches, the diving and the weather. Then there was the close interaction with the locals; the fact that I stayed in people’s houses and I could speak the language. I met an Irish guy who lived there and who brought me in as a friend to his wife’s village, and I could talk to him about politics and the real lives of the people of the country. The music was fantastic and as social setups and politics goes, I don’t believe there is any other country in the world which is as different and fascinating. I visited over 35 countries during my time off, but if I was pushed, I would say my favourite destination was my first destination. I arrived into Cuba on the evening of the 10th January 2005.

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THE 30-SOMETHING BACKPACKER TE X T & PHOTOGR APHY COPYRIGHT 2008 © CONOR BROPHY

A D V E R T I S I N G

A N D

D E S I G N

Designed by Frédéric Cérène www.fredfred-design.com


TABLE OF CONTENTS Cu ba

page 1 5

CE nt ral Am eri ca

pa ge 3 7

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page page page page

B e l i z e & Gu atemala S a fe ty El S alvad or H o n d u ras & N icaragua

E A S T E RN EUROPE

41 59 63 69

page 8 5

MID D LE EAST

pa ge 1 4 7

- Ira n - Tu rkey - Jo rd an

pa ge 1 5 1 pa ge 2 0 7 pa ge 2 2 7


“the week before you head off travelling is an awful time� > C u ba

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U N I T E D S AT E S OF AMERICA

BAHAMA ISLANDS

Havana

CUBA Playa Giron

Cie

nfu

Trinidad

To Cancun

eg

os

Isla de Pinos

Ja

ne

r

di

sd

el

aR

ein

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Baracoa Santiago de Cuba

JAMAICA


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Sent: Wednesday, February 2, 2005 11:59 PM _______ Hello everyone, Please pass this on to anyone I have missed. A lot of email addresses I had, I left at work. Apologies for not writing earlier but Internet access is very difficult in Cuba. It is slow, expensive and difficult to find, and there was one occasion when the whole network was out for about three days. However I will make up for it in this email which will be lonnnnnnnnnnng. I won’t be doing this again and you’ll thank me after reading this. But Cuba was such a great experience and it is such an interesting place, that I want to write it up before I forget it all. Hopefully it will be of some interest to you.

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’ll start at the beginning. The plane trip to Cuba was the usual depressing experience. The week before you head off travelling is an awful time, as all you’re doing is identifying potential problems and organising everything to minimise any risk. The question of why you are exposing yourself to unnecessary threats is often asked, and wouldn’t it have been better to be a bum at home in Dublin for a few months. When you are actually travelling, of course, you are enjoying yourself and dealing with any issues as they come along, but the week before you head off is awful. This feeling of dread had not totally left me when we took off. Also, I was wrecked tired after an early start and the horrible surreal graphics they show you during the flight, as the badly sketched picture of the plane gets closer to Cuba, made the whole trip feel somehow wrong. OK, I was tired, but I did not enjoy the flight.

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My bags did not appear until half past midnight and although Havana is a very safe city, it is never nice to arrive in any capital city in the early hours. Especially as I had not travelled for a few years and I was concerned about the accommodation, which I had booked and confirmed simply using phone calls to the house, talking only in Spanish. However the woman who owned the “casa particular” (private house) was really nice and had waited up for me. I slept really well in her fantastic colonial home, which had ceilings which went on for miles and was located in the centre of Havana. On my going-away night in London we ended up in the South American bar. I get nostalgic when I mention it :-) I even miss it over here. One of the barmaids is Cuban and I had mentioned to her before that I was going to Cuba. She had asked me about bringing a letter over for her, to give to her brother who lives in Havana (she is originally from Santiago de Cuba). I didn’t think she was that serious. She was! The next day I met up with her and her boyfriend to pick up a bag she had prepared. They say never to bring stuff on a flight for people you don’t know, but I wanted to help her (and I am really glad that I did), so I said I would try and fit it into my case but that I would have to carefully examine all the contents, for obvious reasons. She agreed. In the small bag there were some trendy clothes, well packed. There were a lot of photos of her family in Cuba, the unprocessed films had been previously sent over to her. There was a letter and five 10 pound notes. I didn’t read the letter but I was shown part of it the following day and the bottom two lines were as follows: Te quiero (I love you). No me olvides (Don’t forget about me). Quite sad really. She is only 24. It reminded me of the Ireland of old. The brother and half-brother appeared at the casa particular early the next morning, looking for the bag. I had said to Barbara that she was to tell her brother, if he could, to show me around Havana. So the first thing we did was buy a


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My first day travelling. Drinking on the malecon. The blue bag in the picture is the one I brought over.

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bottle of Cuban rum, a bottle of coke and started drinking on the Malecon, which is the sea front in Havana. We got halfcut drinking in the glorious Havana sun, with me desperately trying to speak Spanish and understand the Cuban accent. My Spanish teacher in London strongly advised me NOT to take Spanish lessons in Cuba because the accent is dreadful. They cut off the last letters of many words and roll the words together. An example is the expression “mas o menos” or “more or less” in English. To get an idea of how they pronounce this is to open your mouth wide, try and keep it open and say “mah-o-meno”.

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Now picture this. I had just arrived over and we were away from the main tourist area. I had a few rum and cokes on me, and then this vision passes by. A teenager gliding by in a Galway Gaelic football top (it was actually hurling but I didn’t know the difference at the time), wearing a Che Guevara hat and headphones, with a farmer’s tan on his arms, but yet his legs were still milk bottle white! I tentatively asked the most stupid question “Excuse me, are you Irish?”. I thought he might be a bit intimidated by the Mike Tyson look-alikes on either side of me, but there was not a bother on him. He came over, sat down and had a chat. His name was Diarmud O’Cuiv, great grandson of De Velera, nephew of Eamonn O’Cuiv, minister for Gaeltacht affairs (who as a politican I cannot stand – he’s up there with Martin Cullen, Jackie Healy Rae and off course Ray Burke as my most hated Irish politicians). His first language was Irish and he actually brought his hurley over with him taped to his rucksack. He had hardly any Spanish and was intending to spend three months in Cuba. He was only 18, a nice guy and I hung around with him for a couple of days after that. That’s what I like about travelling, you spend time with people that you would normally never meet or talk to at length. He was young though and came out with such words of wisdom as “I do not intend to live after 30” and his email was anarchist4cuba@yahoo.ie. But he said everything with a smile on his face and, as I say, he was a nice guy. Amazingly for the Irish he didn’t drink. However he was nothing compared to the other Irish guy I met on the trip – more on him later. That same day we met up with a French girl, Dorothee, who was also looking at some dancing in the street that we had been attracted to. I ended up travelling with her for the next two weeks. The four of us went across the harbour from Habana Vieja (the historic old town) to see the Estatua de Cristo (Statue of Christ) on the other side. The ferry going


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WHERE. As I found out children are integrated into every aspect of Cuban life. It’s a huge contrast to London where it felt like you could spend weeks without seeing a child, and when you did they were trussed up in some terrible public school uniform with about three guardians looking after them. All over Havana and Cuba you see children playing on their own. My overall trip in Cuba took me from Havana to Cienfuegos, to Playa Giron, to Trinidad, to Santiago de Cuba, to Baracoa, and then back to Havana. All in exactly three weeks. I hooked up with a Canadian guy for the last week in Baracoa. So I did a lot in a short time. I am quite happy to do nothing for a few days, here in Mexico, as I need to last the pace over the next few months travelling around Central America.

he came out with such words of wisdom as I do not intend to live after 30. Ararchistforcuba

across, which only takes five minutes, was heavily policed and they even checked our bags before we got on. We were halfcut, cracking jokes but the reason for the heavy police presence was that the ferry was hijacked the year before by people trying to make it to Florida. The hijackers were caught and sentenced to death. Havana is great. It, like the rest of Cuba, has a huge street culture. This is due to the weather, the social nature of the people and the total lack of cars. Music blares out from all directions. The first thing I noticed was that there were children EVERY-

In Cuba, I spent half the time in the water, swimming, snorkelling and diving. The coral reefs there are excellent and it really isn’t over dived and commercialised. As people know I am the champion of environmental issues in Ireland :-) and it is embarrassing to go to such a poor country as Cuba and see the emphasis they put on conservation. All the rivers and beaches I entered had pristine water and it’s not just by accident. The last time I was in Cuba (I was there once before) there was a cartoon being shown in the airport about the need for conservation. As a baby was being born, it was confronted with the different effects of pollution. It turned around and went back to the comfort of the womb. Simple but effective. So they do take the challenges seriously. The best place for diving and snorkelling I went to was Playa Giron. It was fabulous and so relaxed. You didn’t even have to leave the house to organise anything. The instructor called at the houses of the casa particulares to see if anyone was interested. We set up some dives for the next day and while we were eating breakfast the instructor glided through the front

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door, which was not just unlocked but fully open. He nonchalantly waved to us as he passed the breakfast table and went into the kitchen to chat to the family. It was that chilled out. Then an hour later we all piled into a Lada, went along the coast to a free spot, pulled out the equipment and jumped in. In the evenings I normally went for something to eat and if possible, caught some Cuban music. I love South American music and the standard in Cuba is very high and very accessible. Trinidad and Barocoa were especially good. However the highlight of the trip for me was meeting Sean in Trinidad. The casa particular owner in Havana was Senora Dulce who, when I first rang her on the phone from London, had said to me that she had an Irish friend. I was sceptical, or at least I thought it was a mis-communication due to my level of Spanish. When I left Havana, however, she gave me an address and a mobile number of a guy called Sean who was married to a Cuban in Trinidad. She said Sean’s wife was like a daughter to her. When I got there the mobile phone didn’t work but I decided to call down to the address. I was nervous, to be honest, because it was totally off the beaten track and I did not know what to expect or what the reaction would be. However the man himself answered. He was tanned but definitely Irish. I found out that he was from Raheny in Dublin, which for my non-Irish friends is about two miles from where I was brought up. After about five minutes of conversation he asked me what I was doing that afternoon. He invited me down to his wife’s village, where we could go for a swim. I jumped at the offer, rushed back to my accommodation, quickly changed and off we went in his typically Cuban, old American styled car. That’s one thing I like about the Irish. I never met the guy before in my life but after only five minutes of talking to him, I was heading out with him and meeting his family.

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“playas del este” near Havana

Now are you ready for this. And this is the abridged version! Sean is 44, left home properly when he was about 15. He studied something like “addictive behaviour studies” at Trinity College and he was a child counsellor who ended up specialising in counselling children of famous people in London. He had a serious alcohol and drug problem but he had been on the wagon for 14 years. He now spends seven months in Trinidad and the other five months on Inis Mor in the Aran Islands, renting out bikes. He had been married to another Cuban woman before. He had met her on a two week trip to Havana. He came back to divorce her vowing never to return to Cuba again, but he gave his new wife a lift in his car, and the rest is history. I spent two days with him and his wife’s family in their village. It was a really poor village a few miles outside Trinidad. It was a very special experience meeting and talking to rural Cuban people in that environment. It can be very difficult to meet normal Cubans who are not associated with tourism. Sean brought me into the village not as a tourist, but as a friend, and that is how he introduced me. He spent half his time there so he was totally integrated into the


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24 Sean


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Jose Marti birthday celebration

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Havana school children

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community. This meant, for example, you could buy sweets for the children of the village, which the guide books normally tell you not to do as it promotes begging. We went for a walk with the kids up a hill at the back of the village, and it was like something out of Huckleberry Finn. The kids were playing with sticks, pretending they were horses. Half of them were in their bare feet, having races and jumping in and out of the river. Sean said he couldn’t think of a better place in the world to bring up kids. It is totally safe for them and they can roam about at will. There are very few outside influences. None of the children, for example, had seen any advertisements. There are none on the telly and none on the streets or on posters of any description. Cuba must be unique in the world in that respect. There isn’t even that much political propaganda and there are no pictures and statues of Fidel. I believe there is a law prohibiting images of people that are currently living. Although Che Guevera is everywhere – he is genuinely loved by the people and endearingly referred to just as “Che” by both young and old. Of the political propaganda I did see, my favourite large billboard was as follows: W.BUSH.GENOCIDO.USA.COM There was also one in Spanish stating the number of children in child labour in the world and at the bottom of the poster there was written “NUNCA IN CUBA!” (NEVER IN CUBA!). Whatever you think about the regime Cuba does provide the basics to the people. There is free accommodation and the basic food is provided to all. The health service is fantastic and free. The child infant mortality rate in Cuba is the same as Canada’s. There is no Malaria or Dengue Fever, which exists through the Caribbean and Central America, including

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Sean with the village children

We went for a walk with the kids up a hill at the back of the village, and it was like something out of Huckleberry Finn.

computer. The locals told me that if there is only one child in a village there will still be a school provided. Cuba is also an incredibly safe country. Even now in Mexico, all I can see is political slogans for candidates promising “mas seguridad” (more security) in the elections that are taking place here on the 6th of February.

Mexico. Education is free and is at a high level. There was a girl who was acting as a translator on one of the tours I went to near Baracoa. She was on a placement there, as she was studying English and German in college. I asked her if she had to pay university fees and she was shocked at the suggestion. She simply said “Education is free”. Amazing for such a poor country. In the village I was in there were only seven children and the state provided a school building, a teacher and a

It seems a contradiction in terms that a country which promotes education and learning so highly can on the flip side stunt expression of views and forbid any challenges to its political ideas. Even Sean had a lot of hassle attending AA meetings for his addictions. The authorities do not like any gathering of people with common aims. But Sean pointed out to them, that it was in their interest for him to attend and stay sober, because the alternative would be to have a lunatic Irish

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piss-head on the rampage every night around Trinidad. Even the Cuban authorities saw the logic in that. That leads me onto the second reason why it was so good to meet Sean. I was able to talk to him about Cuban politics. This is incredibly difficult to do in Cuba. I knew this before I went there, as people need to be careful about what they say, but it was even more difficult than I thought. For example I started to talk about politics with the Cuban brothers. I thought it would be easy with them as I knew their sister and I was not a threat. But they said to me with a pained expression on their faces that they would talk about anything except politics. All they said was “No hay libertad” (there isn’t freedom) and they left it at that. I don’t know whether they feared repercussion, although I doubt it in the circumstances that I knew them. I think it was more to do with the fact that the issues were just too personal for them and therefore difficult to talk about. For such a small country to take an openly hostile stand against the US, and yet provide for its people is fascinating. Since the fall of Russia as a communist state, Cuba relies mainly on tourism to support the whole economy. To maximise the money they earn from tourists, they effectively have a dual economy. For the same services, such as taxis, countrywide buses and some hotels, the locals pay in pesos (pennies) and the tourists pay in dollars. The difference in price goes to the state and not the operator. The fact that the system works at all is due to the strict authoritarian government and the relative lack of corruption; corrupt officials face heavy penalties. However there are huge pressures and temptations in this model, especially as it is such a poor country. For example, when we went to organise a bus from Cienfuegos to Playa Giron, we were approached by a tout at the bus

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> Cuba

station offering us a taxi for a cheaper price than the bus. As we expected, it turned out to be an unofficial taxi. So the deal was, we would get a more comfortable and cheaper ride, but they would make a lot of money because an unofficial taxi pays nothing to the state. However the guys were taking a big risk, because if they are caught doing this by the authorities, they can be fined a life-changing sum of money. When I left the casa particular the next morning there was no sign of the taxi. Then in the far distance, I saw the guy from the bus station peeking around a corner, and after a quick check of the surroundings, he beckoned me over with a quick motion of his hand. He explained later that the house was beside a government building and he didn’t want to be noticed. We all piled into a car which had slightly darkened windows. For the whole trip, the driver and the tout were talking to each other, and were paying very close attention to their surroundings. They seemed to be constantly weighing up their options. Dorothee told me later that when she got an unofficial taxi back from Baracoa (we had split up by then) she at one stage had to get out of the car and hide behind a tree, because the touts feared a police car was heading their way. It was also interesting when we arrived at Playa Giron. We could not find a casa particular which had a free room. We were at a loss what to do and we even considered taking the same taxi back to Cienfuegos. There was no possibility of simply giving money to a random house in order to stay the night, even though the money we were willing to pay would amount to some people’s monthly wages. The reason being is that it isn’t worth the risk to the owners, because if they are caught taking in tourists without a licence, they can again be fined a life-changing sum of money. I believe the casa particulares pay around 100-250$, per room, per month, for a licence, whether the room is rented

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out or not, hence the reason why accommodation is relatively expensive for such a poor country. A room in a private house cost between $15-$25 a night, sometimes not even including breakfast. When we eventually found a room in Playa Giron, at inflated prices, we were told that a qualified chef would cook for us. We took this with a pinch of salt but they were true to their word! A chef in full uniform cooked us lobster that evening, and the food was delicious. CB

It was one of the best meals I had all year.

Even the fruit for desert was beautifully presented. I talked to the chef the next morning and he said to me that it was more profitable for him to cook for two tourists in a private house, than to cook for hundreds of people in a normal state run hotel, and receive state wages. He said he also preferred what he was doing because the quality of the food that he had to work with in the hotels was very poor.

They said to me with a pained expression on their faces that they would talk about anything except politics. All they said was “No hay libertad” (there isn’t freedom) and THEY left it at that.

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Havana rooftops

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Dorithee

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The food could be surprisingly good in the casa particulares. In general much better then the restaurants we went to. Cuba is not known for its cuisine. I met a friendly Canadian couple there who were justifiably moaning about the fact that all the food in Cuba is fried. “They would fry water if they could!” they exclaimed laughing. Due of the cost of an accommodation licence, when we rang up to book a place the owners very rarely said the place was full, even though it often was. What they would do is to pass us onto one of their friends. There seemed to be mini-cartels of casa particulares which they used to maximise their business. However, this got to be really annoying. We would book a particular place based on a recommendation in the guide book, and some characteristic we liked the sound of, only to arrive at the location and be brought somewhere completely different. Many times we were not even told of the change. Also because of this dual economy, tips become all important. People tip in proportion to the service they receive but this is huge compared to the actual wages of the locals. The guide book says that some doctors have left their profession and become taxi drivers because they can earn more money. So I hope you can see how the political setup puts an overall pressure on the society. Sean said that everyone must do something else apart from their normal jobs to survive. This adds a tension to the society which you wouldn’t normally notice as a tourist. It’s another reason why the hassle factor is so high. People constantly are trying to sell you stuff and hook up with you. By the end of the three weeks the constant question of “where are you from” was doing my head in. It was the usual way the touts started up a conversation. That was the good thing

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about the two guys in Havana showing me around. I got no hassle from nobody during the two days I was with them. One time a ‘jintenero’ (tout) came over and started introducing himself. When he noticed my two companions, he asked me was I with them. I said yes, and with a half-smile, he melted away. Interestingly, Sean said that he believes that if the people had a free vote to change the current government and the communist state, they would do so. This is because of the difficulty of


> Cuba

people’s day-to-day lives and the fact they can see the material benefits of other societies; the mobile phones, the computers. He did make the point though, that they also took for granted the positive aspects of Cuban society; the health service, the security and the education. For example his personal experience of the health service in Cuba was excellent. Sean had a major accident in Ireland. He said the eminent consultant he was talking to in Cuba over his resulting condition, was highly skilled but yet incredibly down-to-earth and self-effacing. It was in marked contrast to the less skilled, arrogant, self-important, over-paid, whores of consultants that he encountered in Ireland.

It wasn’t all easy. sometimes you really do feel just like a pay cheque in cuba. Sean did seem have a lot of time for the current political arrangement but I do think, to a certain extent, it was easy for Sean to have that view. Many of the detrimental aspects of the authoritarian government did not affect him. He can leave the country whenever he wants. He earns money in another country which allows him to have a work free existence in Cuba. He maybe does not have to struggle as much as his neighbours. I don’t want to be unfair to Sean but I do think it is a fair point to make.

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you needed to get angry, get it out of your system, relax, get over it and then get on with the trip. I jumped off the top of a waterfall, went horse-riding in Trinidad, did a lot of hiking in Baracoa, saw Cuban families reuniting after long bus journeys (smiles of joy kept bursting upon their faces as they half-embraced, while at the same time looking furtively for their bags as the bus driver was waiting to go) and loved (and I mean loved) the museum of national art in Havana. It was so good I went twice. The most enjoyable, accessible art collection I have ever been to. Do not miss it if you go there. I am currently in Mexico at Playa Del Carmen. I thought it would be quieter than Cancun but I’ll sum it up by saying that I watched, live, the Man Utd - Arsenal game yesterday afternoon. Enough said. So I do not know where I am going to go next. I am not sure whether to head straight down to Belize or go west across Mexico and then into Guatemala. I think I will go diving tomorrow. Hope you are all well. Keep in touch. Cheers, Conor

It wasn’t all easy. Sometimes you really do feel just like a pay cheque in Cuba. Over-charging was a big problem and it became tiring being always on your guard about prices and scams. Even the taxi driver who brought me to the airport on my last day, tried not to give me my change back. So at times

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36 Cuban landscape near Trinidad where I went horse riding


“When you think of it, being a backpacker is a very vulnerable state to be in. Everything you own, by definition, has to be somewhere on your person.� > C entra l america

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MEXICO Gulf of Honduras

Flores

San Ignacio

Cancun Playa Del Carmen

Belize City

BELIZE

Utila

Belize City

BELIZE

La Celba

GUATEMALA Quetzltenango (Xela)

Guatemala City Antigua San Salvador

From Cuba

MEXICO

San Pedro Sula

HONDURAS

Tegucigalpa

EL SALVADOR

NICARAGUA

Corn Islands

Granada

To Madrid

PANAMA

Panama City


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Belize and and Guatemala

travels. When an English guy handed over his passport the official replied in his best posh English accent “From England I see, jolly good show old chap” and he kept going in that vain.

Sent: Saturday, March 12, 2005 1:45 AM _______

Belize has a very different atmosphere to any other place that I have visited. I was heading for Caye Caulker, an island off the coast, but I had to stay a night in Belize City as I had arrived too late. I went to a local bar/restaurant to get some food and I just sat there in amazement, observing the people. The speed at which the people were moving was ridiculously slow, relaxed and unhurried. Without being disrespectful to the people, it was like looking a slow-motion version of “The Sims”, where everyone is doing their own thing, but occasionally they have to react to each other as their paths cross.

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n the end I spent seven days in the hostel in Playa Del Carmen in Mexico. It was a great place and one of the best hostels I have stayed in. It was very relaxing and it was nice to chill out after Cuba, and all the running around I was doing at home before I headed off. I decided to go to Belize instead of travelling further around Mexico. This entailed catching two buses to Belize City.

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amazingly, the immigration officer at the border crossing was cracking jokes.

Belize, like Jamaica, but unlike anywhere else in Central America, has Guinness as one of its most popular drinks. It’s strange to go to a bar and the see the oval, St. James Gate, Dublin, Guinness sign in a prominent position. The Guinness is 7.5% proof and very sweet. It is drinkable, but I didn’t really like it.

I am always amazed how, after crossing a border, the new country can have a totally different feel to the previous country. Belize is one of those places. Its land mass is bigger than Wales but it only has a population of about 250 thousand. There is just nobody around. It is a former British Colony (British Honduras), it is English speaking, and it still has a very, very young looking picture of the Queen on its money. The culture is Caribbean and walking around Belize city all you hear is reggae music. The people are very friendly and you get people passing you by in the street saying “Welcome to Belize”. Amazingly, the immigration officer at the border crossing was cracking jokes. It was the first time ever on my

Although the official language is English, the Creole people speak their own dialect which is a kind of broken English. However, I watched the news on television and the English that was being spoken was very clear and distinct with the presenter making an effort to express every word as if she were talking to a child, with out-of-place phrases being used as if they had just been learnt from an advanced English course. In order to give you an idea of what I mean, the following piece is from the editorial of one of the main national quality newspapers, complaining about the government: “As we observe this regrettable political situation in which a group of selfish politicians and their rabid minions are on their bellies, clawing and scratching to remain in power.


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…. Today the song is the same only the singers are different. So we see that we, the people, are victims of the system. Once we elect them, we cannot reject them. And once they are in power, they have no dignity or decency – just hunger and thirst. Is all they have – hunger and thirst. … voted back the corrupt PUP into office in March of 2003, even though everyone knew hanky panky was going on. … We are not happy, because we know for sure now, that we are victims of the system. The system really sucks.”.

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In Belize I spent a few days on the island diving and snorkelling. I dived the famous “blue hole” diving site (http://www. nationalgeographic.com/photography/galleries/belize/popup2. html). It is meant to be one of the best dive sites in the world but, for me, it was a big disappointment. There were hordes of people there, many of whom were very inexperienced divers. It was a deep dive (40m) around a stalactite-laden overhang, so you had to know what you were doing. I spent most of my time on a self-preservation exercise, avoiding people who were very visibly struggling with the dive. After the island I then went to the San Ignacio which is good base for Mayan ruins and cave exploration. I went to the Mayan city of Caracol in the jungle which was excellent. It’s a huge place but there were only about 15 tourists there. I believe in Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan ruins in Mexico, there are thousands. From San Ignacio I also went to the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, which National Geographic did a big spread on in 2001 (http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0107/story. html). These caves are different to the norm because, not only

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Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave


> b e l i z e & g u at e m a l a

are they impressive as caves, but they were also used by the Mayan people, and you can see Mayan artefacts, and skeletons of children that were made as Mayan sacrifices.

in antigua i had the worst day of my travels so far.

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really. Then I went to Antigua on an overnight tourist bus. Never again am I taking a tourist bus as it is a zero cultural experience. Also I don’t know what I was doing, as overnight tourist buses are far more expensive and far more likely to be hijacked. I am normally very careful. In Antigua I had the worst day of my travels so far. I was tired. I had lots of trouble finding accommodation. I had an argument with a tour company (Gran Jaguar) because they wouldn’t let me change a booking I made to see the active volcano Volcan Pacaya. The owner of the company actually put his hands on me and told me to go away. I was sharing a room with, among others, two young dopes from Switzerland, who were around all the time, smoking and talking arrogant selfimportant shite and doing my head in.

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AMERICA It is what is described as a wet tour. We were swimming and wading through water the whole time in order to make progress through the caves. The entrance to the caves was beautiful, in the middle of a forest, where there was a small lake. The guide we had said, in his opinion, the same level of access will not be allowed to tourists in the future, as some of the artefacts had been broken. Also, as it is such a physical tour, he believed that, somebody, some day, will fall and injure themselves badly. He was an excellent guide who was very passionate about his country and culture. When we were asking questions on the way home his face lit up saying “you see, you are now thinking about the history of the place”.

CB Looking back I think he was one of the best guides I had during the year off. The majority of guides I had, especially in poorer countries, were dreadful. They were simply uninterested or lazy.

Belize was very enjoyable and very different. However it is the most expensive country in Central America, so it was nice to then hit Guatemala which is one of the cheapest. I went into Guatemala from Belize and stayed in Flores, which is a good place to visit TIKAL, probably the most famous Mayan ruins. I did not like Flores. It was just full of tourists

Antigua is a lovely looking place and a good base to see nearby sights but its way too touristy for my liking. But the good thing about backpacking is that when you get pissed-off you just move on. So that’s what I did. I got up early the next day and headed for the local bus station, not knowing anything about the times of the buses or the best route to Quetzalenango (Xela). Then I had by far the most enjoyable journey of my travels so far. A bus was pulling out as I arrived with a kid hanging out the back door shouting out my first destination (the first place I had to change buses). So I jumped on as it was moving and I immediately warmed to the atmosphere on the bus. Travelling on the local buses in Guatemala is great. They are crammed full of indigenous, friendly locals wearing the most beautiful clothes, with kids being crammed into seats or strapped onto their mother’s backs. The normal buses that Guatemalans use are known as “chicken buses” basically ornate American or Canadian school buses. Sometimes they’re French Canadian hence the French signs. In my opinion

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they’re very beautiful looking machines, whose décor is surprising well maintained. They are also surprisingly powerful and if you think the night bus drivers are mad back home, they are nothing like the lunatics driving the buses over here. I had to take three buses to my destination. It took just over 3.5 hours in total for 270km which, after talking to a few tourists in Xela, I think is a record. Each transfer was incredibly easy with very helpful locals showing me where to go to pick up the next bus. It was full throttle the whole way.

would start flapping his arms to indicate to him to slow down. The idea being we could pull in before the other bus hit us. The closer the on-coming bus came, the quicker he flapped his arms. None of what I have just explained is an exaggeration. All this was accompanied by blaring, South American music. I loved every minute of it. It was also dirt cheap, costing about three dollars for the whole journey. It was my form of transport from then on and it is up there with one of the best cultural experiences I have had so far. Sometimes I also got speaking to the locals on these trips, who would often make an effort to strike up a conversation.

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AMERICA the drivers in guatemala do not take their foot off the accelerator. I really mean that. slowing down to assess a situation never happens!

The main part of the journey, the second bus, was driven by a particularly mad lunatic. Normally on the large mirror that the drivers use to see out the back, they have some religious words written across the top (e.g. Jesus Christ) - this guy had NO TEMOR (NO FEAR!).

The most exhilarating part of the trip was going up the twisting mountain roads. The guy who was collecting the money had a second role at that time. When the bus was overtaking (which it was doing all the time, and which was impossible to do so safely on these roads) another bus would often suddenly appear around the corner. As it was heading straight for us, the man would hang out of the front door of the bus, which was always open, and let out a whistle to the driver of the vehicle that we were trying to overtake. At the same time he

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I arrived in Xela which is the second largest city in Guatemala and I immediately liked it. It’s not as pretty as Antigua but it has a really nice atmosphere. It is known for its language schools for the more “serious” Spanish student. In the afternoon I enrolled for a week’s lessons and I moved in to stay with a family for the week. Staying with a family is not quite as good for your Spanish as it sounds, because you only really speak to the family at meals times. However, along with the four hours of lessons I did during the day, it was pretty good practice and at least you are listening to Spanish all the time.

The family had a really big four bedroom house. The father was a doctor and he worked in a clinic in the morning. It cost 10 quetzales for a consultation with him, which is about $1.2 and it was not subsided by the government. So he was very socially minded, which is kind of unusual for the Guatemalans as they are normally so focused on looking after themselves and their families. They were a nice family. Very religious. One day the mother (not much older than me) arrived with about eight other women, some of them indigenous and they started singing, crying (like wailing), and imploring God to be more a part of their lives. I think they were evangelical Protestants (very conservative). It was a very intense, emotional, expressive form of religion.


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Playing football in Xela. The guy on the left is from Glasgow.

you see things here that you just don’t see at home. I studied quite hard for the week, as most of the students there seemed to do. A lot of the time when I met other students I would automatically speak in Spanish and I found myself using certain Spanish expressions naturally e.g. Dios Mio! (My God!) I am officially an advanced Spanish student and all I did all week was have conversations with my teacher, or go through newspaper articles. I am so anti-classroom now. It reminds me too much of school. Instead we would head out and walk around the city chatting and interacting with the locals. Then afterwards my teacher would go over any mistakes that I had

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made. It was good. A lot of the students I met were spending a long time there. I was one of the few students taking lessons for only a week. It was a very easy place to study and very cheap. It cost $125 for five hours of lessons a day, Mon-Fri and a full week living with a family with three meals a day. It was not overrun by tourists and most of the schools had some sort of social aspect to their work. In the afternoons there were always some sort of activity organized – which you could go on if you wanted. I visited a local village and I watched a video about the history of Guatemala. Even the small village was interesting. You see things here that you just don’t see at home. For example: a church that was given over to worshippers of the dead, a dead dog slightly submerged in the river with buzzards gathering around

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it, and a hairdressers with a large old style red American chair in the middle of the floor, with the hairdresser stretched out fast asleep on it. I even played five-a-side football with the school, a mixture of tourists and locals.

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jaundiced view of the world. He had also worked in the City of London and had lived in Belize Park so we had a lot to talk about. He was a long-term Spanish student in Xela and he knew his way around. One day we went to one of the hot springs that surrounded Xela and I noticed that sometimes after asking people directions, we would be sent completely the wrong way. Andy asked me had I noticed yet, that nobody ever says that they do not know where a place is, instead they will always point somewhere. I had read about this in the guide book, which says that the people are too polite not to be helpful, and they do not want to lose face.

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AMERICA I went to a football match. That was another one of the highlights of my time in Guatemala. I had seen the way the Latin Americans follow football on telly but I thought it was only for the big teams or for internationals. First they had pre-match entertainment in the form of two separate Latin American singers dancing about on a tiny make-shift stage. Then when the teams came out, all the fans threw handfuls of paper up into the air which were lit up by organised fireworks on the pitch, the fireworks being dangerously close to the fans. At this time, the two separate bands in the crowd were going at it full tilt. It was a great spectacle. It was all very friendly with some of the fans standing back to let us go first through the turnstiles, and asking in broken English “Where are you from?”. There was also a lot if interesting stuff going on in the crowd. There was an indigenous woman going around with her wares balanced on her head and another woman with a large over-sized teapot selling hot drinks. There also some food stalls behind the fans. I bought potatoes with meat, hot sauce and onions. They were all taken out of the pot with the vendor’s bare hands. It was lovely though and I didn’t feel the effects of it the following day. Good game too. 3-2 to the local team after being 2-1 down.

One of the people I went to the football match with was a guy from Glasgow. We went for a few drinks afterwards with a couple of others and suddenly Tequilla started appearing from all directions. He was a nice guy and I hooked with up him for a couple of days, enjoying the fact that he shared my slightly

The following day after the football match I was wandering around the town and I came across this huge religious procession to do with Lent, with the centrepiece being a large float of Christ with Mary looking down over him, being carried by about 50 men all dressed in black. The crowd was very respectful. It was amazing. I just hope my photos come out OK.

They say in the guide books that Guatemala is awash with colour and they are right. You are constantly surprised by colours as you turn a corner in a street. Mostly this is as a result of the gorgeous clothes worn by the indigenous people. Guatemala is predominantly an indigenous country. The women appear comfortable and proud in their clothes. This is in stark contrast to the women that used to walk around the canteen in Credit Suisse, who looked like they were all walking on stilts, and in my opinion, many of them totally ill at ease with, or at least very conscious of, what they were wearing. As I mentioned above even the buses were incredibly colourful, like brand new toy buses with strong colours that would appeal to children. Every day I would look forward to seeing the rainbow of colours which presented themselves, near the house

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50 Semana Santa (Holy Week) Celebrations, Xela


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where I was staying, of an indigenous woman who was selling vegetables on the side of the street, the vegetables being laid out flat on a rug beside her. After Xela I went to Lake Atilian and I stayed in a place called “Casa Del Mundo” (House of the World). The guide books say it is Guatemala’s most magical hotel. It was a beautiful place. I think it is the nicest hotel room that I have ever stayed in. The hotel is a labour of love of an American, who I got talking to, and his Guatemalan wife. Every room was completely different and incorporated Guatemalan art. Have a look for yourself (www.lacasadelmundo.com). On my birthday I splashed out on one of the large double rooms (cost about $50) which is used a lot by honeymoon couples. I spent the day swimming and reading. If I ever get married I will go back there.

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AMERICA CB It was the nicest hotel I stayed in during my year off, and it is still the nicest place I have ever stayed in anywhere in the world.

So as you can tell, overall, I loved Guatemala. The country has its problems and it has definitely become more dangerous for tourists in recent times but I am delighted that I went there. There is so much interesting stuff going on. Just to show you how interesting travelling can be, you could say that the two biggest disasters in the world last year were the Tsunami and the re-election of George W. In Mexico, in the hostel where I was staying, the guy on the top bunk was an English scuba-diving instructor. He was living on Ko Phi Phi island in Thailand when the Tsunami struck, but luckily he was diving at the time. He told me when they were out at sea, the boat was spinning around, all the fish had disappeared and the sharks were going berserk, but no-

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Casa Del Mundo

body understood what was going on. However they all understood when they tried to get back to shore. It took them hours to dock because of the devastation. He said that it is now possible to see across the island because the wave flattened everything. The house where he was staying had only the foundations left and he lost all of his possessions – the only stuff he had with him in Mexico was his dive gear. He saw lots of dead bodies and he had to flee from the island the day after the Tsunami, when the rescue boats arrived, as


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there was no food or drinking water. I also met a few George W. supporters in Belize. They were two brothers from New Jersey, who were no major fans of Bush, but they voted for him in the last presidential elections. For some reason, the Americans I have met abroad are normally Democrat supporters, so it was interesting talking to them. We spent the next three hours arguing about mainly US and European politics. The first thing that struck me was that the guys grouped all European countries together, like another US. I was at pains to point out that you really cannot generalize like that. One brother engaged me and was eager to put across his views. He was intelligent and knowledgeable. He knew a lot about foreign politics which even he admitted was not the norm in the States, due to the insular news coverage and the general lack of interest. I enjoyed talking to him because he listened to my views and I believe he was open to other people’s opinions, as I hope I am. However, I didn’t get the same feeling from the other brother. He didn’t fully engage me and I sensed his opinions were already set for life. I brought up about Michael Moore. As soon as I mentioned his name the two guys dismissed him completely and just made reference to the fact that he made so much money from his films. I am not a big fan of Michael Moore, and I personally do not like his style of filming, but I do believe he has made some interesting and valid points. I actually find the man a lot more impressive in a normal interview situation. But the brothers dismissed him out-right, which I don’t think you can do unless you can argue against the points that he makes. So what if he makes a lot of money! Also, when I mentioned Fox news and its biased coverage, they again dismissed my criticism completely saying its only one news channel among many, and people keep focusing on just that one station. It

The George Bush supporters

interestingly, he travelled around ireland on a motobike in 1955. he said dublin at the that time “was pathetic”. brought home to me just how polarised American politics has become and how sensitive people are to the issues. However from the discussion we had I think I have a pretty good understanding of what motivates many Bush supporters, and why they voted for him over Kerry. On the flip side in the hotel Casa Del Mundo I talked to an old American guy (75) who was a liberal and he said that for the first time in his life he actively took part in the last elections. For him they were the most divisive in his memory. He was devastated at the outcome. He said he didn’t know what to do or where to go with his views or anxieties.

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Interestingly, he travelled around Ireland on a motorbike in 1955. He said Dublin at that time ¨was pathetic¨. There were lots of children begging and many of the buildings in the city centre were dilapidated. When backpacking you can end up staying in the most interesting type of places. In San Ignacio in Belize I stayed in the guest house of an old couple, with the husband having lived there since he was four years old. They were very nice people and although the room was tiny, they had a wonderful patio where you could sit and chat or read. It had lots of character. I used to go back to the house where La Senora (the woman of the house) was singing and playing hymns on her electronic keyboard. One night I ended up talking to the owner and an Eastern European couple, who now live in Hamburg, about my experiences in Cuba. They talked about their experiences in Eastern European before and after the wall came down, and they did mention, as Sean said in Cuba, that people did take for granted what was good about the communist state. People only realised the advantages, such as guaranteed work and security, when the wall came down. It was very interesting. Also the owner talked openly about Belize and how it was faring since it got independence from Britain in 1981. Overall he was optimistic about the future of the country, and the possibilities that independence has brought.

an American girl in the Spanish school who was gay, and she asked to me come to a screening of a film that she had made in college. In the end I didn’t go because I had difficultly finding the place where she was showing the film; so I went playing football instead. I don’t think she was too impressed! But I gather from one of her friends that the basis of the film is a clandestine recording of the phone call she had with her mother, the first time she told her that she was gay, and the fact that her mother went berserk. Dios Mio! It’s one thing to have family problems, most families are dysfunctional in some sense. But to record something in anticipation of what was going to happen, without her mother knowing that she was being recorded (which I think is very unfair to her mother), make a film out of it and show it publicly in one of the least gay friendly places in the world, takes some woman. I don’t know whether it’s brave or stupid or just hugely egotistical. Anyway, it’s all very American. There is also a part of me, with my Dublin argumentative hat on, that wants to challenge her on the reasons for making the film because I have the impression that no-one in the US would have done so. Anyway, in the end, she didn’t have the pleasure of my criticisms. I would still like to see the film though!

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AMERICA I have some regrets. I slept through an earthquake. I know. How could you sleep through an earthquake? It was the first big night out I had (the Tequila night). The earthquake hit at about four in the morning, which woke up both the family I was staying with, and my Spanish teacher, who both talked to me about it the following day. I cannot believe I slept through it. You also come across some slightly strange stuff. There was

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I have just arrived in El Salvador. Very different again. Hope you are all well. Cheers, Conor


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Safety S

adly, Guatemala has the distinction of being probably, the most dangerous country for tourists that I travelled in during my year off. Sad, because the country has so much to offer. Sad, because I really liked the people. Even when I was studying in the Spanish school in Xela, a group of German students cancelled their reservation because they thought the country was too dangerous to go to. Guatemala didn’t necessarily have the worst crime rate. However, the problem was that tourists had become a target for some criminals, and that makes all the difference. Normally you know things are bad when you actually meet people who had been victims of crime, which I did. I met an Irish guy in Hondurus who was held up by two guys with a machete, in a so called “safe” walk near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. I met an American girl, if I remember correctly, in Turkey, who was robbed in the street in Antigua, and I met some girls who had their bags slashed on a bus near Xela. None of them were victims of any violent crime and they certainly weren’t at all traumatised by the events, but as the Irish guy said, it does make you a bit more wary of people in the

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future. There were also some reports of more violent crime against tourists, so I was very careful when travelling around the country. I followed closely the guide book’s advice, especially when visiting the main tourist attractions. Guatemala City is horrendous. In any city there are good and bad areas but I never heard a good word from anybody about the place. I got chatting to a guy who worked in the city, and who was on honeymoon in the hotel “Casa Del Mundo”, and he said smiling that Guatemala City was “un poca peligrosa” (a little dangerous). I saw a programme when I got back to Ireland on Channel 4 about the gangs and lawlessness of Guatemala City. When watching this I thought to myself nothing ever is perfect. The country had to endure years of civil war and now, having just come out of that, they have a major crime-wave to contend with. Personally I had no problems in Guatemala and I travelled quite extensively around the country. Altogether in Latin America, over two trips, I have spent nearly nine months there

guatemala didn’t necessarily have the worst crime rate. however, the problem was that tourists had become a target for some criminals, and that makes all the difference. as a backpacker, and I have never had any significant problem. I am not even sure that would be the case if I travelled around Ireland for nine months. The guide book says that most cities in Latin America are no more dangerous that most major cities of North America.


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However, during the year off, Central America was definitely the region where safety was more of a consideration, than the other regions I travelled in. It did require a certain amount of planning and thought and, for example, I would strongly advise anyone intending to travel there alone, to have at least a basic appreciation of the language. Surprisingly, most travellers that I met, had just that. The notable exceptions being the Irish, English and Aussies. Central Europeans were amazing. I met a girl from Switzerland who already spoke (I think) four languages and after two weeks of studying Spanish for seven hours a day she had reasonable Spanish. It took me years to get to the same level. It was the best decision I ever made learning Spanish. Interactions were easy, I felt a lot more confident and comfortable, and I could better appreciate the culture. Spanish is great, you learn one language and you can travel around so many different countries. When you think of it, being a backpacker is a very vulnerable state to be in. Everything you own, by definition, has to be somewhere on your person. In Central America, the time when I felt the most vulnerable was when I was moving between places with my backpack. When I used to arrive at my destination I normally kept most of my valuables in the backpack itself. I locked the bag and chained it to the bed. I did this because generally the accommodations that I stayed in were very secure. The locals are used to protecting themselves and their goods. In 2001 when I stayed with a family in Lima, Peru, the house had a surrounding high wall with a door facing the street, which was well away from the house itself. You couldn’t just walk up and look in the window. That was the norm in Lima. Also, many large houses in good areas had electrical wires on

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top of the perimeter wall and some even had their own personal security guards. So when I went out of the accommodations in Central and South America I didn’t take any valuables. I would normally wear shorts and tea-shirt nearly proclaiming to the world that I had nothing to rob. I also always tried to look like I knew where I was going. I used to keep pockets of money in different locations. I would have some in my money belt, some in my backpack, some in my day pack. The idea being if I was robbed I would always have some emergency cash to hand. I met a girl who was robbed in China and she had everything in the bag that was stolen. It caused her huge problems and she had to rely on the charity of a kind Chinese policeman to help her out of the situation. I didn’t carry much cash with me and I relied on my credit cards to obtain local currency. The only two countries I visited where I could not use the ATMs were Iran and Burma. In some places in Latin America the idea of stuffing money down your socks or in some hidden pocket on your person is not even good enough. The thieves are wise to that. I was told of a guy in Quito, Equador, who was mugged, and he arrived back at the hostel in his underpants. So although safety was a concern in Central America, it never affected my enjoyment of the trip. There was very rarely a sense of menace in the air and certainly there was never any attitude from the people. In poor countries, people have more important things to worry about than “what are you looking at” attitudes or similar pettiness.

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In the other parts of the world I travelled in, safety was less of a concern or of no concern at all. The main (small) concern was from other travellers in hostels stealing from you. In 1997, in a hostel in Paris, two days into my first ever travels, I was dosing in bed and I saw a hand come in through the door, and quickly check under the pillows of the two empty beds closest to the door. The reason for this is that many people keep their money belts under their pillows when they are sleeping. So I would normally keep all my valuables with me when I went out. The opposite approach to what I had when travelling around Central America.

a dictatorship can have a big impact on the safety of the country for tourists - if not for the locals. iran, singapore, cuba and burma were all very safe. Eastern Europe I found to be very safe apart from pick-pockets in Romania. Middle East, contrary to popular misconceptions was very safe, and although you have to be on you guard from touts at all times in India, Asia was generally pretty safe also. In fact the countries with some of the most sinister reputations can be some of the safest places to travel in. Burma is a good example of this. I have tried to come to some sort of conclusion about the reasons why one country is safer than another. It’s difficult to do, because there are so many different factors to take into account.

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A dictatorship can have a big impact on the safety of the country for tourists - if not for the locals. Iran, Singapore, Cuba and Burma were all very safe. Although I must stress that a dictatorship is no utopia. For example, I was in Tehran and I was being shown around the city by a family that I knew. It sticks in my mind that when they told me of some people who were taken away in their neighbourhood by the authorities, and they hadn’t been seen again, they were looking very closely at my reaction. I could tell they felt a huge injustice by it all, even though I gather that they did not know the people personally. Similar to what I would imagine someone’s stance would be if it happened in Dublin. Sometimes you think that because the history and culture is so different, the people’s sensitivities would be blunted somewhat, compared to the norms of Europe. It didn’t seem to be the case. Having a strong effective police force seems to make a difference to crime levels. The lack of one in Mexico is one of the main reasons why the crime rate is so high, especially in Mexico City. I used to practice Spanish with a Mexican girl in London and she said that the police in Mexico were “MALO!” (TERRIBLE!). She said to me if there was a crime in Mexico City the police would go in the opposite direction. It makes you wonder how a city as big as Mexico City, can function without a police force that people trust or use. My Spanish teacher in Guatemala told me how the Mexican police stole from his father as he travelled through the country between the US and Guatemala. It was a very subtle theft – they would talk around the subject but you were under no illusion what they were after. Even the Central American guide book says NOT to go to the Mexican police (apart from maybe the tourist police) if you are a victim of crime as generally they will only make the situation worse.


overall, safety was not a major concern during the year. However, in El Salvador where the police force is by in-large, un-corrupt and professional, and they have very powerful laws against gangs, they still have a huge problem with their murder rate. I think the general crime is less than other countries in the region, but they still had major issues with gang violence. Also poverty didn’t necessarily mean crime would be higher or lower. For example, the poorest country in Central America is Nicaragua but yet their crime rate was one of the lowest. Maybe historical or cultural factors also play an important part. I found the people in Nicaragua very proud of their country, very resilient and upfront. It’s difficult to say how safe it is for women travellers. Not just because I am a man but because many women would understandably be reluctant to discuss any bad experiences they had with me. However I did hear about a few incidents. After hanging around with a fellow traveller for a few days she told me that she was sexually assaulted in Malaysia. A 17-year old boy had been following her and talking to her near a beach. She didn’t feel in any way threatened or intimidated, but then he suddenly jumped on top of her. She was fighting him off and then out of nowhere she let out an almighty scream, which frightened him away. She told me it’s surprising what you are capable of under such circumstances. The girl, with her boyfriend, reported the incident to the police. It was interesting their reaction. The police were taking down the details but they kept saying “...but you still like Malaysia?”. In the Irish Times there was an account of a woman who went travelling around Iran and she was groped in a shop in Esfahan. She told the tourist police in the city. As you will

read in my Iran write-up the tourist police in Esfahan were very good. It was swift justice because the police went into the shop, arrested him, brought him back to the police station and started beating him – so much so that the Irish tourist pleaded with the guards to stop. The only reason he got off lightly, was because he signed a ludicrous confession and a pledge that he would not molest a woman again, which she wrote for him. Also my mother told me of a very serious rape of two Irish women in Cusco in Peru. Something which wasn’t made public and wasn’t widely known. So I think there may be a lot of stuff that happens that you don’t even hear about. However the majority of women I met seemed to be having a great, and generally, trouble free time. Overall, safety was not a major concern during the year. You are taking some risk travelling. However I would like to think that the risk is less than most people imagine, and I do believe the world in general is a safer place then it is often portrayed. I had a few problems. I think my wallet was stolen in Romania, I just missed being mugged in a drug laden island in Nicaragua, I was confronted by bogus police in Iran, and I think, I was part of a distraction scam in Indore, India. Not bad really for over a year off travelling; especially when you consider I was a fair-skinned Westerner, travelling alone, and everything that I owned was in a large conspicuous rucksack strapped onto my back. For more details on what happened, please read on.

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El Salvador

was located in certain areas and tourists were not a target. The main violence is gang-on-gang. So anyway I was interested, especially to see how El Salvador was faring after the civil war.

Sent: Thursday, March 24, 2005 1:41 AM _______

I took a direct bus from Guatemala City to San Salvador.

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The first thing I noticed about San Salvador was the difference in wealth in comparison to any part of Guatemala, including Guatemala City. The overall standard of the cars was in general comparable to Europe and near where I stayed, every single global fast-food chained restaurant was present. There was also a large “mall” nearby. The first night I went to the mall in order to get some money and something to eat. It was some place. There were really expensive shops, a huge food hall, and it was more commercial than any other place I have been to in Central America. The only difference I could see to the goods being sold back home, was that, like in many other Central American countries, sewing machines were prominent in many of the electrical shops. I presume this is because the people still make some of their own clothes or at least mend them. The mall was all very family focused like much of Latin America. I was the only tourist walking about and I could see people slyly glancing at me because I stood out so much.

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wanted to see El Salvador for a number of reasons. First of all it is off the beaten track and I really wanted to go off the beaten track at least once on my travels in Central America. Lacking headline attractions of other countries and with a reputation for violence, not many tourists go there. However, on the flip side, the guidebooks say the people are not jaded by mass tourism and in many ways they are the best reason for visiting the country. They are friendly and welcoming and you have many of the tourist attractions to yourself. Secondly, I did not know much about El Salvador. I knew that by going to the country, for even a few days, I would develop a certain interest in the country and it would prompt me to read the historical sections of the guide books. I would also take note of any mention of El Salvador in the future. Finally, a few months before I left London I saw a program about the huge problem of gangs in San Salvador. In the Guatemalan newspapers, I read a report about the alarming increase in the murder rate in El Salvador since the beginning of the year. For the Guatemalan papers to be interested in this, considering the obscenely high murder rate it is currently experiencing, things must be bad. So although all of this is hardly a recommendation to visit a country, from experience, I knew a country is never that bad if you take precautions and know what you are doing. I was reassured by the guide books which stated that the country was no more dangerous for tourists than neighbouring countries and the type of violence

When I left the hostel to go to the mall, I asked a few of the locals directions. They pointed out a circular shaped underpass nearby which I went through. I took note of the route and followed in on the way back. The next day I checked the guide book, and on the map of the area where the underpass was, there was a note exclaiming “Do not use this path at night!”. A girl I met a few days later said to me it was known locally as, if I can remember correctly, “syringe alley”! So being safe on a trip like this also has to do with a certain amount of luck.


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View from the restaurant in Juayua

I based myself in San Salvador for the five days I spent in the country. I went to see the local art galleries etc. and I took two trips to places outside San Salvador. I went to Suchitoto on a day trip and I spent the night in Juayua. Juayua was a nice town. In the evening there was a Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession again with a figure of Christ being carried by men, followed by respectful locals, mainly families, and a band playing what sounded like funeral music. The next day I went to a waterfall with a guide and a girl from Austria, who was the only other tourist I came across in the place. CB

I stayed with Teresa two months later in Vienna.

It was a beautiful setting with a natural swimming pool at the bottom of the waterfall. Friendly locals came over to us when

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it was a beautiful setting with a natural swimming pool at the bottom of the waterfall. friendly locals came over to us when we arrived asking us where we were from and trYing to persuade us to go for a swim, whiCh i did.

we arrived asking us where we were from and trying to persuade us to go for a swim, which I did. Afterwards we went to a food market in the central plaza of the town and we sat and ate and chatted, and enjoyed the live music that was going on around us. It was all very chilled out. As the guidebooks said I found the people very friendly, apart from the usual odd cantankerous taxi driver and official. People were generally very helpful and I found myself saying hello to everyone as I passed them on the street, with even members of the army making a point of saying hello.

in Guatemala and afterwards I walked down to the nearby lake. It was all very peaceful, tranquil and safe. I was tempted to go further east in the country, which is even more off the beaten track. However Semana Santa was looming, which is one of the biggest holidays in Central America and I knew it would be very difficult to travel at that time. So I decided to head for Honduras instead. I felt a bit guilty, as if I had not done the country justice, but even after a few days you do still get a feel for a place, and I am interested enough to want to know more about the country, and to wish the best for the people and the country in the future.

I went to Suchitoto on my last day. This is one of the highlights in the guidebooks but I did not see one other tourist walking around the town. The village was pretty, like Antigua

El Salvador is very different to Guatemala. It does not have the same colour or culture of Guatemala. There are no indigenous people and the globalization of parts of San Salvador

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can be very characterless and off-putting. However the industrious, hard working nature of the people is apparent. In a very short time, it has become one of the strongest economies in Central America and the country is definitely better off than it was during the civil war. I bumped into a Peace Corps worker from the States who had been living there for three and a half years and she loved it, preferring it to back home. She explained to me a bit about the Peace Corps. It is an apolitical American organization (volunteers are told specifically not to express political views) which was set up by John F. Kennedy when he was a Senator. The organisation basically helps developing countries and they seem to do a lot of good around the world. Have a look, www.peacecorps.gov. She gave me advice about where to go in El Salvador. She said that she always liked to promote the country. She explained that the gangs, who are called “maras”, are not interested in tourists and should not be a problem. They are interested in revenge for a brother of a gang member who was killed by a rival gang two months before, because they had killed a member of their gang four months before that, and so on. After the civil wars in many of the Central American countries, gang violence is now a big problem. By reading the editorials and letters in the papers I found there to be a real fear, anger and lament in these countries over the escalation of the gangs, and the day to day effect they were having on many businesses and people’s lives. Some of the highest murder rates in the world can be found in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In El Salvador the murder rate is very high. From what I could make out, since the beginning of the year, it is something like nine murders a day, for a population of 6.3 million, most of

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which are gang related. As a hangover from the civil war there are guns everywhere. Even outside some of the restaurants I went to, there were security guards with shotguns. Outside many of the bars there were notices prohibiting firearms. But as I say, walking around many parts of El Salvador you would not think the people had a care in the world. What stands out when you look around is the normality of everything, how

i found there to be a real fear, anger and lament in these countries over the escalation of the gangs, and the day to day effect they were having on many businesses and peoplE’s lives. well off many of the people are and the importance of the family in everyday life. Again, talking about things that you never see at home. On the way back to San Salvador from Juayua the bus was travelling full speed on the dual carriageway when, galloping on our side of the road, in the fast lane, in the opposite direction, were three riderless horses. For the first time on my travels in Central America the bus actually slowed down. The horses reached us, split up, went past us and galloped on. I don’t think I mentioned it before but on all these bus journeys there are people who come onboard to sell stuff. Any time the bus has to slow down they appear. It is the norm and the driver and conductor just let them get on with it. Sometimes there is a procession of people selling mainly food and drinks. However my favourite are the people who are actually

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some of the highest murder rates in the world can be found in guatemala, el salvAdor and honduras.

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AMERICA touting items. For example, one guy was selling a collection of ultra-modern pens and another guy was selling some new miracle drug. Like the shopping channel they give their spiel at the top of the bus (in very clear Spanish which even I can understand). Then they proceed to reduce the cost three times to some bargain price and they go among the passengers flogging it. This is normally done in a bus that is travelling as fast as it can, being driven by a lunatic driver, so the whole selling process is condensed into about two minutes. It’s very entertaining. However, after a while it does kind of get to you, that for the people who sell stuff on the buses it is not much of a life. They must make pennies from what they sell and they have to spend all day doing it. They do seem to be a resilient people but at times it must be hard. Finally, Ireland was mentioned in the editorial of the main national newspaper in El Salvador. It was talking about economically successful countries which had a low taxation policy to increase investment, for example “the miracle economy of Ireland in Europe�. I am currently in the Bay Islands in Honduras. I am staying put until the end of Semana Santa. Cheers, Conor

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Honduras & Nicaragua

Sent: Friday, April 22, 2005 7:08 PM _______ After El Salvador, I made a beeline for Utila (via San Pedro Sula), one of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. I stayed there for twelve days, waiting for Semana Santa to finish. I chilled out and read most of “War and Peace”. Utila is famous for its diving and it had a nice mix of locals and tourists. I met quite a few Irish there. There was one character

we went to cusco where he said the stonework was incredible. at this time the other irish guy that was with us said with a smile on his face, “wot, better then bunratty?” from Tipperary who was a farmer and he had gone travelling because he was “lacking ideas”. He was 32 and one of nine children with four sisters and four brothers. Very nice guy. He should be working for Bord Failte (Irish Tourist Board) as he had such a friendly, honest, nearly innocent manner about him. But as I say he was a bit of a character. I was talking to him about his travels in Latin America. He started in Argentina which had “great meat” and he then went to Chile, Bolivia and then onto Peru. He went to Cusco where he said the stonework was incredible. At this time the other Irish guy that

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Scene from Utila, Bay Islands

was with us said with a smile on his face, “Wot, better then Bunratty?”. Then the farmer, who was wearing his Peru hat at the time, even though it was boiling hot, told me how he took a flight to Central America and went on to describe all his subsequent travels around the region. I said to him ‘OK so what’s your favourite country’ ‘Tipperary’ ‘No, cOUntry’ ‘Ireland’ (Dios Mio) ‘In Latin America!’ I took some Spanish lessons in Utila as I had time to kill. The teacher was from the mainland, she was interesting to talk to and good craic. She told me she had taught one other Irish student before who had very good Spanish, was diligent and who didn’t go out that much (which I wasn’t doing at the time). She asked me was that the norm for the people of Ireland. I had to tell her the truth :-)


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Top: Relaxing in the Bay Islands, Honduras Left: Bus ticket

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She was a Jehovah Witness so I was asking her all about that. She told me that every Sunday she went out for an hour or so trying to attract people to her religion. She said that sometimes she feels like “un arbol sin fruta” (a tree without fruit) due to the difficulty of the task, and she had only signed-up one person to the religion so far. She was 24 years old. I mentioned about the evangelical Protestantism I had experienced in the house of the family I stayed with in Guatemala. She said with a grimace on her face, “Oh, I hate that”. After getting to know her a bit, she ventured the notion that Europeans think they are superior to Latin Americans, which is maybe a fair point. Its amazing the topics of conversation you can get onto in Latin America. I have noticed that there is no such thing as a taboo subject or an embarrassing question – the people very rarely talk about triviality such as the weather. They can ask you the most personal question and then sit there quietly waiting for an answer. When I studied Spanish in Ecuador in 2001, one of my Spanish teachers, who was at least in her 50s if not older, asked me was it the same in Ireland, that when you invite a woman back for coffee it means you want sex. She said that one of her American students had said that to her. My Spanish teacher in Utila also talked about the Latino machismo culture. It seems that fidelity is not high on the list of priorities for many of the people in Honduras, especially men, although she said that women were also getting worse. This had been expressed to me before from other well educated Latinos. Even the most conservative proud Latinos I have met, who hate hearing anything negative about their culture, have admitted that many Latinos would be pre-disposed to infidelity. But she was saying in Honduras it is now nearly getting to

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the stage where there are no longer marriages anymore, just temporary unions. She also explained to me about the double meaning of the song “Gasolina” (that fucken song!) which will be forever imprinted in my mind as I heard it so often travelling around Central America.

but she was saying in honduras it is NOW nearly getting to the stage where there are no longer marriages anymore, just temporary unions. In Ecuador in 2001, in the Spanish school, I had some lessons with the owner of the school. She was not that much older than I am now. She was a brilliant teacher, really intelligent and very interesting. One time I had a lesson with her on a Sunday and when I arrived at the reception she was there waiting for me. We ended up staying at the reception chatting. That’s the good thing about obtaining a certain level of a language, the lessons can consist of just having normal conversations with the teacher. It then depends on how much you have in common whether the class is interesting or not. However when I met her that day she wasn’t right. She seemed on edge, very cynical and slightly depressed. She talked about the Latino culture and the role of women. She talked about infidelity. She mentioned about a “newspaper” that had been banned recently because it showed pornography, and she complained about the remaining “normal” tabloid papers which had naked women paraded in their centre pages. She had a point. You would see men on public transport going through

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the papers, turning them on their side and holding them up, completely oblivious to the women around them. She said women would go with married men because woman wanted to “be in love” and men with women, because “men want sex”. “Women want to be in love and men want sex.” That quote has stuck in my mind. The meaning of life, the universe and everything in it :-) Two days later my lessons with her were cancelled. She had had a nervous breakdown. So much so that, for a while, even her husband was not allowed to see her.

as having problems with tyres is a common occurrence. None of the other passengers were fazed by this. Another thing I have noticed is that there are very few announcements in Latin America on the buses and in other situations, about what is going on. Nobody said anything about what the damage was, how they intended to fix it, or how long it would take. Nothing. They just go ahead and do it. The passengers never get arsey or annoyed or uneasy. They just accept what has happened and the subsequent actions.

After Semana Santa I headed for Nicaragua and I ended up staying the night in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa. The journey there was quite eventful. First of all I left my bag in the bus station in La Ceiba. I took the advice of one of the locals who said the bus company would load the bags for us, only to have the horror, stomach churning realisation, when we arrived in San Pedro Sula (where I was changing buses), that everyone had their bags and there was nothing left in the luggage compartment. I talked to the bus company who rang their office in La Ceiba. Luckily for me they had realised the bag left in the station was mine and they had put it on the subsequent bus. So although La Ceiba was over three and a half hours away, the bag was waiting for me 20 minutes later, when I returned from having something to eat. How efficient is that! I was very lucky because it would have probably signalled the end of the Central American leg of my trip.

I decided to stay one day in the capital and I am glad that I did. It’s an interesting place and there were absolutely no other tourists. Nearly every capital city in Central America is dangerous and you are advised not to spend much time there. But Tegucigalpa was fine during the day so I just wandered around.

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AMERICA Secondly, we had a blowout. It was like an explosion under the bus and as we were travelling full speed we veered slightly off course. However the driver simply slowed down, moved over to the side and got out to assess the damage. There are always double tyres so it minimises the impact if any one of them goes. We were able to continue on slowly down the road until we came to a “llantera”, a place that mends tyres. These are placed at regular intervals along all main highways

Things you never see at home. In the main square in the centre of the city, one whole side was taken up by a line of middle aged shoe-shiners. One guy had an ordinary weighing scales in the middle of the plaza. It cost 1 lempira, about 5 cents, to weigh yourself as you were passing. There was an organised grouping of women positioned between a shop front and its metal shutters. It was to do with some protest, as I saw their picture in the newspaper the following day. You would not believe the number of protests in Latin America. It seems that every country every day has some sort of street protest. It must be an engrained part of the culture. On the front pages of many of the newspapers, including the respectable papers, there is often a picture of some killing, normally gang related, that took place the day before. Unlike Ireland and the UK they will actually show the corpses lying

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there without being covered over. That day, the picture on the front of the main national paper stuck in my mind. It was of a married couple who were caught under a motorbike. It was as if the motorbike that they were on had suddenly cut out and the motorbike had toppled over. They each still had a leg under the bike and they were wrapped around each other, in the same position they would have been travelling on the bike. Neither of them was wearing a helmet. In Honduras it is not mandatory. They were 30 and 28 years old, had two children and were heading down to the local shops to get a take-away for their dinner. It just looked like a small accident. The difference was that they had both been shot in the head. It stuck in my mind because it was more sad than shocking.

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AMERICA I then went to Granada in Nicaragua. I immediately liked it. It is a Spanish colonial town which is really beautiful in parts. It has fantastic architecture, it’s not too touristy and the people are friendly. I used it as my base and from there I travelled to the island of Ometepe (which is the largest fresh water island in the world), a lake in a volcanic crater and the Corn Islands.

Ometepe is an island consisting of two volcanoes, quite close to Granada. When walking to one of the beaches there I came across some monkeys. It always really exciting seeing monkeys in the wild. I had seen monkeys before but it was immediately obvious that they were not hunted on the island, as they were not bothered about my presence. Because of that it was really easy to observe them. Monkeys are very interesting animals. They are so expressive and intelligent. There was a group of four of them playing, literally, like children, on a single vine; jumping on it, pushing each other off, and then repeating. My companion at the time had the bright idea of eating in one of the other hotels. Of course it was pitch dark when we started to walk back to our own place and we were struggling.

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Then out of nowhere a local appeared with a torch to guide us back to our hotel saying it was dangerous if you could not see what you were walking on (shit!). I thought he was going our way but he wasn’t. When we were safe he turned back to his house. It was very good of him. I then headed off to the Corn islands. These are two small idyllic islands off the coast of Nicaragua. It is a hellish journey by bus and boat so being the hardened traveller I am, I caught a plane instead. I flew to the big island (“Big Corn”) and then


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Scenes from Granada, Nicaragua

Island of Ometepe

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A Killing in Tegucigalpa. “Pandillero” and “Marero” are terms used for gang members.

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AMERICA The death-trap of a boat I took to Ometepe. The tarpaulin was to stop the water splashing in.

Little Corn

took a speedboat to “Little Corn”. What a speedboat! It was really powerful and as the sea was pretty rough we were literally jumping out of the water and landing down hard. It was not possible to see out the front of the boat because of the angle it was travelling at, so there was a teenager holding onto a rope at the front, looking over the top to make sure we didn’t hit anything. It was like a fairground ride.

On Little Corn I stayed in a beach cabin. It cost 10$ a night right beside a beautiful beach with gorgeous water to swim in. I have never stayed in a place that was so close to such nice water. My typical day was to get up about 10 and saunter over to the other side of the island where the dive shop was located. There was between three to six divers on each dive and it took three minutes to get to any dive site because the speedboat was so powerful. Everyone was pretty experienced so we could do some interesting dives. For example, we did a semi-cave dive.

It was in sharp contrast to the boat I caught to Ometepe, which was like a clapped out fishing boat, which lurched at acute angles forward and back and to the side. When we took off, there was a loud feminine scream from the locals as water poured in over the side. The screams were then matched by laughter and smiles (there never is an attitude over here) as the boat made its precarious journey to Ometepe. Sometimes you feel that the width of the smile is inversely proportional to the wealth of the country. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the world but it is also surprisingly one of the safest in Central America.

There is no better feeling than being on a speedboat, heading around such a beautiful island in the glorious sunshine, knowing that you have a good dive coming up. It was expensive but it was probably the most enjoyable diving I did in Central America. Over the three and a half months in the region, I dived 22 times in five different countries.

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There is no better feeling than being on a speedboat, heading around such a beautiful island in the glorious sunshine, knowing that you have a good dive coming up. Then I would get something to eat, go back to my cabin, and in the afternoon I would go for a swim. There was absolutely nothing to do in the evening, so after having read for a while, I would go to bed early. Once every trip I get badly sunburnt and once every trip I get badly bitten my mosquitoes. During the year off, I got badly burnt once in Guatemala when I stayed in the “Casa Del Mundo” hotel. However I had learnt my lesson from a previous trip and as soon as I could, I bought a minor burn lotion from the pharmacist. I knew it would help to relieve the incredibly uncomfortable, painful itching. The only time, all year, that I got badly bitten by mosquitoes was in the beach hut on Little Corn. The hut had gaps all over its wooden construction. However, I had not seen many mosquitoes and for some reason I didn’t think mosquitoes would be that prevalent near the sea. How stupid is that! There was a mosquito net in the cabin but I did not use it and when I woke up after the second night I was in pain. There were bites all over me. There were no mirrors in the hut but when I went for a dive, people were asking me what were the marks on my face. I did a quick body count and there were at least 50 bites.

On my birthday getting badly sunburnt

CB

I have over my travels developed a hatred and fear of mosquitoes. The worst are the ones you can see struggling to fly, lad-

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en down with your blood. The only consolation I had was to splat the little fuckers against the wall, and have the perverse pleasure of seeing my blood being streaked across the paint. I was very careful not to get bitten from then on. It wasn’t just because of the discomfort from the bites but because of the threat of Malaria and Dengue Fever. I took Malaria tablets in any area where there was a risk. The tablets I took were called Larium (notorious Malaria tablets) and induced vivid dreams which I describe later on in my writings. However I was nearly more afraid of getting Dengue Fever which has no prevention (apart from not getting bitten of course) and no real treatment. It is not normally life threatening but it is described as feeling like you are about to die. I have met people who have had Dengue Fever and they all talked about it as being a really big event. I have just read an article in the Economist about its resurgence in Latin America. It says: “THERE is no vaccine. There is also no good way to treat

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it—just fluids and the hope that the fever will break. At first it seems like a case of severe flu, but then the fever rises, accompanied by headaches, excruciating joint pain, nausea and rashes. In its most serious form, known as dengue haemorrhagic fever (DHF), it involves internal and external bleeding and can result in death. Fuelled by climate change, dengue fever is on the rise again throughout the developing world, particularly in Latin America.”

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The girlfriends having disappeared (and who could blame them), the two guys started going into Jackass mode. Rodeo speedboating. They attached a rope to the front of the boat and they both stood up with their legs wide apart, gripping the rope as tightly as they could. Now standing up in such a small boat is difficult enough in itself, but as they were totally hammered, they were using all their concentration just to not fall over. The guy at the back had his arm outstretched so that he could just about reach the throttle on the engine. Then still standing, he opened it up, full throttle and the boat took off like a rocket, with the objective being, not to be the first one to be thrown out of the boat. As I said the engine was really powerful and the boat was haring along, changing direction violently and suddenly; with the two dopes hanging on at the back for dear life. It was the funniest thing I have seen in years.

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AMERICA It was off season so there were very few tourists on Little Corn but I don’t think tourists ever really overrun the place. Many backpackers skip the Corn Islands as it is expensive compared to other places on the mainland. There was no running water where I was staying and the shower consisted of me pouring water over my head. There was only electricity for a few hours in the evening so it’s the closest I think you can get to a true island experience. There was some funny stuff going on also. A group of four locals (two couples, in their 20’s) were drinking all day on the beach where I was staying. When they were pissed they all jumped into their speedboat. It was a small, low boat with a pretty powerful engine at the back. The guy who was steering basically pushed the engine as far as he could into the water, pushing the front right up and started skimming around the water like that, thinking it was great craic. After a few seconds the women were thrown clear and the boat went under; with people from the beach running out to haul the boat out of the sea. Then I saw them turning the boat upside down on the beach, with water going everywhere. I went back to my book, but about 20 minutes later I looked up again because the workers in my place were all animated, looking out to sea and then back at me saying, “they are so drunk”. The guys had once again capsized the boat and were frantically trying to pull it out of the water.

But there was another side to the island. First of all a group of six people were mugged walking to one of the more remote hostels by two guys with machetes. It was the largest group I have ever heard of being mugged. I could have been with them. The hostel they were going to was the biggest hostel on the island but I went the opposite direction because I wanted a quieter place. There were no police on the island but the victims went to “Big Corn” and reported the theft. The police came over and arrested the two guys. But when they came over they came over in force, in full military uniform, carrying sub-machine guns because the other interesting fact about the island was that it was on a drug smuggling route from Columbia. It did not take long after arriving on the island before I was offered drugs, and I am not exactly the stereotypical hippy type. An Italian guy who was staying in the same place as me, who was in the know, could not believe how cheap cocaine was. He said it would be worth 20 times that amount in Europe. An ounce of pure cocaine cost about 120 dollars.

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Panama Canal

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The locals get the drugs from San Andreas, an island which is owned by Columbia and is situated about a six hour boat trip from the Corn Islands. So Nicaragua was great. The people were also interesting. The guide book says that they are a proud people, which they are. They are interested in knowing what you think of their country and they enjoy any compliments received (which were easy to give). However they are not arrogant. In general that’s what you could say about the Central Americans I have met;

there. He was an older man who had recently moved back to Panama City after living in the States for years. I think I was his first fare back. I knew something was different when he shook my hand when I got into the car. He hadn’t a clue where he was going and he kept apologising and thanking me for my patience. I was in no rush, we had already agreed a fare, so I just enjoyed the trip and talking to such a nice man.

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AMERICA when they came over they came over in force, in full military uniform, carrying sub-machine guns because the other interesting fact about the island was that it was on a drug smuggling route from Columbia.

So that’s it. Overall it was a great trip. I flew into Madrid yesterday and I am heading back to London next Tuesday and Ireland on the following Sunday. I am staying with Helene right beside the South American so if anyone wants to meet up just give Helene a ring or drop me an email. I am not sure if my phone will still work when I go back but you could try ringing me on 07951 886913. I am free most of the time so I will definitely be up for going out and about. See you then! Cheers,

Conor

a proud people, but not arrogant and therefore easy to like. Nicaraguans were also quite upfront and not scared of tourists like in some other countries and I kind of wish sometimes that I had made make more of an effort to talk to them. But by nature I am quiet and I was always trying not to draw attention to myself. After Nicaragua, I headed straight to Panama City as I had run out of time, where I spent four days. I went to the canal which was surprising interesting. Panama City kind of grew on me. It has a national park right inside the city and the old town is really nice. I had the nicest taxi driver in the world

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CB On the way back from Central America there was a stopover in Madrid so I decided to stay there for a few nights. I stayed in a hostel in the middle of the city. I do talk about how I avoided staying in hostels as much as possible in one of my emails but I think the hostel in Madrid sums up well why I am now just too old for them.

utes later the door of the dormitory flew open and smashed against one of the beds. I was on the top bunk opposite the door and turned to look over. The door was open with the light bursting through but there was nobody there. I pushed my head closer to the edge of the bed and looked down and there was one of the girls, arms outstretched, spread out flat on the floor. I was dozing and a few minutes later I looked over the edge of the bed again, and she was gone. She must have literally slithered (or maybe shunted) over to her bed. The next day a girl told me that the woman’s toilets were full of red wine sick.

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AMERICA Generally you find with committed hardcore backpackers there is no messing about when sharing rooms. No turning on the lights at three in the morning, no people making too much noise. For example in Iran, where only real hard core backpackers travel to, I stayed in one communal room in Yazd, which is a deeply religious area of Iran. I am amazed they even let people sleep in a mixed room. It was quiet, people just went there to sleep, no hassle. However Madrid was the total opposite to that. It was full of groups of 18 year old teenagers from the States. I knew when I arrived it could be trouble and I tried to get a room on my own. However to no avail. For the first three nights there was no problem. I was out until about 4am myself and I slept all morning. However on the final night when I arrived back and I went to the door of my room, there were two American students there. The corridor was really narrow and they were both lying on the floor, wedged in a u shape across the corridor, their heads propped up by the walls. There was a mound of red wine sick beside them. However, when they saw me they were like babies, totally relaxed and there was no distress in their eyes. It was obvious that they were totally out of their faces drunk. I asked them were they alright. They mumbled something about not being able to get the door open. I knew there was a knack to the door so I opened it for them and went to bed. About 30 min-

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Also that night a barney between a Mexican guy and two French guys spilled over and the Mexican guy woke the whole room up again in some petty protest. It was very different to the last place I stayed in, which was in Panama City. It was a good organised hostel, with a little bit of flux in the rooms but nothing like Madrid. There were beautiful people everywhere in the hostel in Panama City. I don’t know what it was about the place but everyone seemed to be gorgeous. For people who don’t backpack there may be an appeal of meeting young, good looking, open-minded people all the time. However to be honest the reality is different. People are not that good looking (me included) and normally you have very little in common because of the age difference. However this hostel was different. I talk more about my accommodation choices later on in one of my emails.


Hostel in Panama City

Hostel in Madrid

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From London

GERMANY

Prague

POLAND

CZECH REPUBLIC

Zakopane

SLOVAKIA

Olomouc Vienna

Bratislava

AUSTRIA

To London

Sighetu Marmatiei Budapest

HUNGARY

SLOVENIA

Ljubljana

CROATIA

UKRAINE

Krakow

ROMANIA Sighisoara

Zagreb

Brasov

BOSNIA HERZEGOVINA SERBIA & MONTENEGRO Sarajevo

Split

Cluj-Napoca

Oradea

Mostar

Dubrovnik

Bucharest

BULGARIA Sofia

Kotor

Shkodra

Kruja Tirana

ALBANIA From London

Veliko Tarnovo Plovdiv

MACEDONIA Ohrid

GREECE


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two days in Ljubljana, Slovenia. All in two months, it’s exhausting just reading about it.

Sent: Wednesday, May 10, 2006 8:44 AM _______

This was a trip across Eastern Europe going in a general direction, instead of really exploring around a particular country, apart from maybe Romania. It was tiring because I was constantly getting used to a new culture, currency, and language. I always try to learn the basics of the language in any country I travel in (hello, please, thank you) but even that was a struggle at times considering I was in so many countries for only a few days.

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he route I took was as follows.

EASTERN

In the Czech Republic I spent a couple of days in both Prague and Olomouc. Then I went into Poland where I spent four days in Krakow. From there I went on a day trip to Auswitz, followed by a couple of days in Zakopane. Then I went to Vienna for three days. Vienna is right beside the Slovakian border so I went to Bratislava for two days and then I headed down to Budapest for three days. I then travelled for two weeks around Romania. I visited Oradea, Cluj-Napoca, Sighetu Marmatiei, Sighisoara, Brasov and Bucharest. Neighbouring Romania is Bulgaria where I spent about six days. I visited Plovdiv, Veliko Tamovo and Sofia. I took an overnight bus from Sofia to Ohrid on Lake Orchid in Macedonia where I spent one day. Then I went to Albania for four days basing myself in Tirana but also visiting Kruja and Shkodra. I took a taxi across the border to Podgorica in Montenegro where I caught a bus to Kotor and stayed there for two days. Then into Croatia, where I went to Dubrovnik for two days and then I travelled to Split where I joined a boat for a week long cruise. On the cruise some of the places I visited were Vis and Korcula. Then I went into Bosnia where I spent one day in Mostar and four days in Sarajevo. From there I took a bus to Zagreb where I stayed for a couple of days and then I finished with

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The trip was kind of divided into three main parts for me. The first consisted of what you would consider the established Eastern European destinations such as the Czech Republic, Krakow and Budapest. The second part consisted of the non-established Eastern European destinations, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Albania, which really are off the beaten track for tourists, even backpackers. The third part was a kind of a mix. The beautiful and slightly touristy, by Eastern European standards, Croatia, and the quite shocking recent history lesson that was Bosnia. Overall, it was a fabulous trip. It was beautiful, interesting and different. Before I left I thought it would be a great time to visit these countries as they were emerging from the recent war and communist rule, and they were beginning to be more integrated into mainstream European politics and life. It proved to be the case and more, and by writing this up and researching particular topics, I hope to consolidate my learning and understanding.


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Zakopane

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Olomouc

Krakow

Czech Republic and Poland

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here is nothing really much to add to what the guidebooks say about the Czech Republic and Poland. Prague is beautiful. People complain it is too touristy but it is still beautiful and I once again enjoyed the city. I had been there seven years before and things didn’t seem to have changed that much. Then I went to Olomouc as it was on the way to Poland. I did try during this trip to see at least one other place in a country apart from the normal tourist hotspot. Olmonoc was not even in my general Eastern European guidebook but it was a really, really nice place. There was a lovely square in the centre with good architecture, good food, everything was really cheap and there were not many tourists. The hostel I stayed in was also very good. Then

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Olomouc

The guide in Auschwitz was the best part of the visit... he was not jaded by tourists at all and at times he came across angry, nearly bitter. onto Krakow, which boasts the second biggest square in the world. From there I took a day trip to Auschwitz and spent a couple of days in Zakopane. Auschwitz was interesting and absolutely packed with tourists. The guide in Auschwitz was the best part of the visit. He was very knowledgeable and passionate about telling the story of the camp. You could tell that he was not jaded by tourists at all and at times he came across

angry, nearly bitter. He kept repeating the fact that so many of the German officers in the camp managed to escape without punishment. He said it about four times. It was also interesting that the training for the guides included them talking to survivors and personnel from the camp, so they knew what they were talking about. There was a model of a gas chamber in one of the buildings and when it was being described, a man from another group fainted. The second half of the trip was in Birkenau, which in many ways is more shocking than Auschwitz, because it shows more clearly the industry of what went on there. I went to Auschwitz with a French girl whose father is Jewish - although she did not consider herself Jewish. The following day I went with her to the Jewish quarter of Krakow, which

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was really good. In my opinion, better than the main square. It had a nice atmosphere with good bars and restaurants and interesting Jewish museums. She was interesting and a great talker. She had a phobia about flying and she had just come from China, travelling across Siberia. She was a hard-core backpacker and had been all over the world, but she always travelled by land or sea. She said that from experience an hour of a plane journey would normally translate into one full day travelling by land. So to get to a location eight hours away by plane, meant she had eight days travelling ahead of her.

EASTERN

EUROPE I always think when you say hard-core backpacker you imagine a big strapping German or Aussie girl with straw hanging out of their arse, but she was a little thing, barely noticeable.

Zakopane

The second thing that sticks in the mind about Poland, and it is a generalisation you can make about Eastern Europe as a whole, is that the women are GORGEOUS!

people. Pope John Paul II was the archbishop of Krakow and there were pictures of him everywhere. The second thing that sticks in the mind about Poland, and it is a generalisation you can make about Eastern Europe as a whole, is that the women are GORGEOUS! They are all dressed to kill, really careful about their appearance and they all seem to have amazing figures. I think jeans were invented for Eastern European women.

She got me interested in China which I had absolutely no interest in visiting before I met her, and I changed my subsequent plans to go there. I’ll explain about that in my China write-up.

A couple of other things stick in the mind about Poland. One is that they are a very religious people and according to the guidebook, up to 80% of the population go to mass regularly. I have never seen so many nuns as I saw in Krakow. I saw churches in Krakow which were literally overflowing with

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Since I have been back in Ireland all I see is tracksuits and pyjamas (yes pyjamas!) everywhere and the people look unhealthy. Now the fact that everyone is as white as a sheet because the weather is crap doesn’t help, but I have noticed that there are now a lot of overweight people in Ireland, certainly in comparison to Eastern Europe. I think it’s one of the downsides of Ireland’s newly found riches. I met an American girl in Plovdiv in Bulgaria who was on a photography trip of the area, and she said that in the toilets the women’s make-up bags were larger than her camera bag!


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Vienna

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So appearance is very important. I was on a bus in Bosnia, sitting beside a Bosnian student who was back for a holiday after emigrating to the States six years earlier, and even he was commenting on how beautiful the women were in comparison to the States.

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flavours (e.g. tiramisu) in big display cabinets dotted about all over the place. It was strange to see a whole outdoor café packed with people who were just eating ice-cream, with not a drink in sight. You normally pay per scoop but in Bulgaria for example, you pay by weight. It was gorgeous stuff and I had some most days of my trip.

EASTERN

EUROPE It’s all very cool and sophisticated in these places. It’s nearly the opposite to the backward image that some people have of Eastern European countries. I’ll talk more about the people later on in this email but at times you feel the people are nearly looking down at you because you are a scruffy backpacker, in stark contrast to their beauty and style. The attitude did annoy me at times, even if to a certain extent it was understandable, because at the end of the day it is arrogance and I do hate arrogance in all its forms.

Zakopane is a mountainous region near the Slovak border, where the locals head to for a bit of hiking, which seems to be very popular in Eastern Europe. Along with three local women and an American couple I saw the Champions League final there. The locals actually bought us all a round of tequila to celebrate the Liverpool victory, which was nice of them.

Vienna

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then went to Vienna and bummed off a girl I met in the middle of nowhere in El Salvador. Teresa is Austrian and she lived right in the centre of the city.

When I met Teresa at St. Stephen’s cathedral, which is probably the focal point of the city, the first thing we did was go for an ice-cream. Ice-cream is big in Vienna and as I found out, big all over Eastern Europe. And it’s not the crap that you get over here. This is the real deal with all sorts of weird

It was strange to see a whole outdoor café packed with people who were just eating ice-cream, with not a drink in sight.

I can’t believe the Irish government shied away from the notion of liberalising the licensing laws in Ireland to put more of a focus on food in bars and cafes. In Ireland on a Saturday night there can be very few alternatives to the pub if you want something to do. The café bar ethos would more closely resemble European culture in general and would have provided a welcome alternative to just drinking your head off.

Another generalisation you can make about Eastern European countries, is to do with the arts. As far I could see throughout the whole region, opera and ballet is an integral part of the culture. It’s not considered the exclusive activity that it is in Ireland. Even in Vienna where top price seats can go for 150 odd Euro it was still possible to stand at the back of the theatre with a perfectly good view for €3.50. Students can also obtain, an hour before the show, any unsold top price seats for €7. Picture this. I was with my friend having some food in an outdoor café at 6:00pm and I remarked that it might be nice to go to the

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opera that evening which I knew started at 6:30pm. There is a great public transport system in Vienna and three trams later we were standing at the back of the theatre. Even in the standing area there were small LCD displays translating between the languages. I am embarrassed to say what I was wearing that night compared to the beautifully dressed locals and tourists, but I’ll sum it up by saying I had sandals and shorts on. It was my first ever opera and I loved it. It was called “L’italiana in Algeri”. Even Teresa said it was a particularly good one. So I kind of made a point of going as often as possible during the following months. It was so available, so part of the culture and generally so cheap. I went to the opera and/ or ballet in Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Bucharest and Tirana. In Bratislava I went, mistakenly, to a matinee pantomime opera for kids. I was the only adult there apart from the teachers and I left during the first interval in case anyone got the wrong idea :-) Terrible world we live in. But I think it shows you how integrated opera music is into the culture, when it is used as the music for a pantomime. I also went to my first ever ballet, “Swan Lake”, in Bratislava. After having gotten over my initial Dublin reaction that everyone was taking the piss jumping around like eejits, I settled down and enjoyed it. However one of the highlights of the whole trip was the ballet I went to in Budapest. I tried to translate the title and I think it was “The Taming of the Shrew”. It was still cheap by western standards, being about 30 Euro for a top price seat but it was world class ballet. I know I am not an expert but I could tell the huge leap in standard and quality. It was fabulous and I would love to see that particular production again. The Opera in Tirana, Albania, which incidentally cost 10 dollars, was a different experience altogether. First of all the thea-

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Tirana, Albania. The opera house is in the background.


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middle of the performance and reappeared five minutes later, without an ounce of embarrassment or awkwardness. People also kept taking pictures. I thought it was a worldwide rule that photography is banned in theatres. Finally, there was constant talking. It was all annoying in one sense but I also kind of liked the lack of respect and the informality of it all. The standard was no way nearly as high as in Budapest with some dancers visibly struggling to achieve some of the moves, but the two main leads were very good, especially the man. At the interval a young girl with a childish knowing smile on her face starting running across the front of the stalls right beside the stage, jumping up and kicking her legs out in opposite directions, mimicking the ballet. She was actually very good. A young boy encouraged by this joined her. He was crap. Then a third kid appeared from nowhere and with that immediate common understanding of children, the three of them lined up and then started off together in a sprint, ballet jumping in unison along the front of the stage. Eventually an usher spoiled their fun and with an exuberant smile on their faces, they assimilated effortlessly back into the audience. Teresa

tre was painted in a 70s orange colour which was a big difference to the decadent splendour and beauty of the opera house in Budapest. Also, the audience was totally different. There were all ages from young children to groups of teenagers to older couples. There was no dress code, which was a relief for me, but it was such an informal gathering of “normal� people that the whole experience felt like going to the cinema. The way the audience acted was totally different. For example, people kept getting up to go to the jacks. They got up in the

Normally, at the end of the show, in any other Opera house there is a fifteen minute applause. At times it is way over the top and just too much. There was none of that here. During the performance the dancers had to earn their applause and at the end of the night, the curtain had not even closed for the first time, before everyone was up and heading for the door. I loved Vienna. Of course a place is always better when you are with a local but it was so pretty, so architecturally impressive, cultured, clean and safe with loads to do. My host was a very proud Austrian, as the people are, and was very sensitive to any criticism of the city. I went on a paddle boat on the Danube when it was 34 degrees in May. I think it was the hot-

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There were great lifts. In the place where Teresa lived there was a beautiful ornate wrought iron lift that had a plush seat to sit on as you slowly arose, observing the grand stairs wrapped around it. Because I liked it so much she brought me into the local university to show me the traditional rickety open wooden lift. The ones that are in continuous motion and have no door, so you have to hop on and hop off. They loop in a circle when they reach the top and bottom. Like a child I had a couple of goes.

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test day in May ever recorded in Vienna. I visited the Leopold and modern art museum. Normal Viennese art is pretty out there in its own right, so you can imagine what the modern art gallery was like. I didn’t really like it. In Vienna there are jaywalking laws, which are enforced. How different to Ireland is that. Imagine trying to fine someone who went jaywalking in Dublin. I think even the Taoiseach himself would tell the police to f**k off.

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fter Vienna I went to Bratislava which had a relaxing small town atmosphere. Again café culture dominated. What a difference good weather makes. I hiked up the nearby castle and the view was interesting because all you could see in the distance, on the other side of the river to the old town, were a large number of stereotypically dour communist apartment blocks. What a contrast to the character of the old town. A friend in London has a Slovakian friend who lived in one of those apartment blocks and she absolutely hated it. She said it was dangerous and she didn’t feel safe there. However one of the characteristics of my trip in Eastern Europe was to do with how safe it was, or at least how safe I felt it was. Safety was just not an issue. It was a nice change to Central America where in places you did definitely need to be careful. It was a nice surprise because I thought it would be an issue because of the all the bad publicity you hear about eastern European gangs. For example, at the end of my trip I booked a hostel in Zagreb, Croatia, that was slightly out of town. I wasn’t going to


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View from the castle and the communist style apartment blocks in the distance.

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arrive in Zagreb until about 10 in the evening and I knew I would have to take a tram to get out to the hostel, so I asked the receptionist if the city was safe at that time. She actually laughed at my concern. I found out why when I stayed there and talked to the young girl who was running the place. She said that it was just not an issue for women to walk around the city at any time of night. She told me that she had talked to two Cork women recently, and that she was shocked when they told her that their male friends would escort them to their cars after a night out.

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agree that the city was safe and I don’t think any women in Dublin would say that it was totally safe to walk around Dublin alone at any time of night. The girl from California - God she hated Italy. She was a fairly quiet girl but once she got onto the subject she became very animated. She said it was the only country in Europe that she would never go back to. She said the people were terrible. Initially she thought she was just having one-off bad experiences, and that other regions of the country would be different, but she said they weren’t. She travelled all over the country and it was the same everywhere. She said the people hate everyone, even themselves. The people in the north hate the south and vice-versa.

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EUROPE I did not hear of any problems from my fellow backpackers throughout Eastern Europe. They are normally a good source of information and I did not feel threatened once, even in much maligned countries such as Romania and Albania. In many ways Eastern Europe is less threatening than parts of Ireland because there is less drinking. To have an influx of migrants from these areas could challenge many of the assumptions that we now have in Ireland.

On the flip side I met a black Californian girl who had been to Ireland before. This girl was a hard core backpacker and had travelled around Europe for six months. She had recently spent two weeks in a hostel on Talbot Street in Dublin, which is not the best area in the centre of Dublin. She knew Dublin well and liked it (e.g. she knew to go to Merrion Square as opposed to St. Stephens Green) and she felt totally safe walking home at night. Also the hostel, being more medium term accommodation, had a lot of Eastern Europeans and I gather that safety was not really an issue among them also. So there is always an element of heightened anxiety when you have lived in a place for a number of years and you know its dodgy history, even if the incidents are not that regular. However, having said that, everyone in Vienna seemed to

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went to Budapest from Bratislava. I was tempted to see other parts of Slovakia but I had already travelled quite a bit through the country on the way to Vienna.

When I arrived in Budapest, the first thing I noticed was that it had a bit of an edge to it in comparison to Vienna, Bratislava and Krakow. The people were less reserved and a bit more in your face. I went to a modern opera (“The Nightmare”) which was interesting. It was good to see the composer at the end because normally they are dead. It cost about 28 Euro for a top-price seat. I went to the spa baths both days. It was a lot more expensive, commercial and busy, since the last time I was there, seven years previously; but it was still great.

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fter Budapest, I went to Romania. There was an immediate change in atmosphere as soon as we crossed the border. Romania is poor, poor, poor. Poor and underdeveloped. I spent two weeks there, longer than any other country in the region. It’s an interesting place, in parts not unlike Ireland 50 years ago and it is different, but overall it was a slight disappointment for me. Probably because the guidebooks hype it up so much. I got a taxi in Oradea, which was my first port of call. The taxi driver was a nice guy with good English and he was slagging off his slightly dilapidated car as a “Romanian” car. He was saying that Romania had the double whammy of both communism and Ceausescu (the dictator), which together were a disaster for the country. I went to the anti-communism museum in the north of the country, called the “Museum of Arrested Thought”, which was really interesting. It was an old communist prison converted into a museum. It talked about, for example, the cultural genocide that went on in the country during the communist period, of which the effects, according to the museum, were still being felt in the country to this day. I felt that Romania was lacking ideas and it didn’t have the same forward looking mentality of other countries. For example Bulgaria, a country which is often talked about in the same vein as Romania, especially as the two countries are both scheduled to join the EU at the same time, seemed a lot more industrious and forward thinking. As an example of what I mean, even tourism is not promoted properly in Romania. There are no state sponsored tourist information centres anywhere in the country, not even in the capital. On the bus on the way up north a guy in uniform got on totally pissed and he literally fell on top of me. With an Aus-

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Romanian railway station


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Hotel Parc in Oradea where I stayed. It was a lot better inside!

Oradea

tralian couple I was travelling with, we got him onto a seat and he got off a few miles later. He was in fact a policeman! I couldn’t see the gun he was carrying on his left hand side and the Aussies told me he got off at a police station. That’s more like a Third World country, not a country that is ready to take advantage of EU membership. On the way into Brasov on the train, coming into the station, there were no railings between the train tracks and apartments and there were kids playing on both sides of the open tracks. All over the country there was rubbish everywhere. I am a committed European and I believe in its expansion but I do think that a country needs to be in a state to take advantage of EU membership, but Romania struck me, in its current state, as a country that is not ready to take advantage of anything.

had similar problems to me, so I’d say it was a fairly good bet that it was. The place where I lost it was near a central Metro station, and outside it there were vendors of brand new wallets, which I thought was a bit too much of a coincidence. Luckily, I didn’t have too much money in it.

It wasn’t a dangerous country at all but pick-pocketing in tourist areas was rampant. I lost my wallet in Bucharest. I can’t be 100% sure that it was stolen but other backpackers

I went to Oradea and then to Cluj-Napoca. Oradea had a faded charm, a bit like the hotel I stayed in there, which had a huge corridor and high ceilings. I can imagine that it was once beautiful. But my lasting memory of Oradea is maybe the argument I had with the guy in the restaurant toilet, who was charging me to use the services. I had just eaten in the restaurant and I didn’t believe him that I still had to pay. In fact I did! The way he stuck out his palm and pounded it with his finger indicating where he wanted money placed just got me angry, and I ignored him and strode past. Maybe I gave people the impression that I was an arrogant tourist but that’s what I mean about Romanian, it’s different but not always necessarily in a good way.

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Ceausescu’s folly. The “House of the People” which is the second largest building in the world, behind the pentagon.

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The closer I got to Bucharest the more standard European everything became, and the young waiter in the restaurant I went to in the capital sticks in my mind, because when I was leaving he was so nice and he wished me all the best for the rest of my travels in Romania. I could tell he meant every word of it.

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Bucharest was one of those cities which you initially hate but which grows on you. The first day I was there was so frustrating. The traffic is particularly bad and it seems to have priority in the whole city. It was really difficult to take some time out and relax. The metro was good but there was absolutely no help for tourists and you had to figure out the whole system yourself. There were no multi-lingual signs and hardly any maps of the underground on display. However it was a very good transport system. In Eastern Europe as a whole, the public transportation systems were excellent. First of all they were integrated. Every connection seemed so easy and you could buy one ticket and use it for the whole journey, using different forms of transport if necessary. There was normally just a time limit. Nearly every country had a tram system which was frequent and not over-crowded. It was so easy to get anywhere and not just to the centre of the city. It was way better than anything that we have in Dublin or Ireland.

There really were very few tourists in Bucharest for a capital city. When I got back home I saw that Bucharest is officially the cheapest city in Europe – and it was cheap. Top price tickets for the opera “La Traviata” were 150 Lei, about €4.30. A two trip ticket for the underground was 18 Lei, about 50 Cents and a 10 trip ticket was 60 lei which is just under 2 Euro. But to be honest, after living in London and Dublin everywhere in Eastern Europe seemed ridiculously cheap. Food,

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Bucharest

drink, travel, accommodation were all very affordable. Croatia was definitely more expensive than other countries in the region, but an Italian couple I met there told me that to eat out in Italy was twice as expensive as Croatia. Even in Prague I went to this bar in a prime tourist location right beside the castle, which was defiantly holding out against the developers. You could still get a pint of excellent beer there for less than a Euro. Another generalisation I think you can make of my trip, apart from Prague and Vienna, was that in each country it was all pretty homogenous without any visible foreign workers or immigrants. I hardly saw a black face for the whole two months that I travelled. It reminded me of Ireland when I was growing up. Also there wasn’t the same globalisation with respect to businesses. For example there were not many fast food chains around the place which did give the countries a lot more character and identity.


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People of Eastern Europe I am still trying to decide what exactly my opinions are of the different people that I met. It’s very difficult to say whether you like or dislike a people on a trip like this, because it’s up for debate whether you ever really have a true interaction with anyone, especially when you do not know the language and you are just passing through. I talked to a friend in Dublin and he was moaning about how Eastern Europeans in Ireland are so dour and lifeless. To a certain extent, as a generalisation, he does have a point. Sometimes you do not exist when interacting with an East European in a shop. I know it’s a hangover from Communist days but its not exactly endearing. To be honest it was that kind of attitude I was expecting and ready for, when I went to Eastern Europe. I think that a lot of the reputation for dourness comes from the Russians (Latvians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians) who are world-wide notorious for their diabolical service without a smile. A sister of a friend of mine worked in Moscow for a few years and she said that out and about in the street and in the shops, people were just downright rude. I met a Finnish guy on my travels who was studying Russian in the Ukraine. I asked him if he liked the people and he said that out in the street people weren’t that friendly or helpful. But once you got to know someone they were very hospitable and when you went to their houses, their attitude was their house was your house. However, overall, as a huge generalisation, I liked the Eastern Europeans. Like anywhere there were rude people and I suppose some were stereotypically Eastern European with the service industry being a bit impatient and a bit unhelpful. For

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example, I stayed in a guest house in Bulgaria (a country in which I really liked the people) and I asked a basic question about the buses the next day. Immediately the woman replied that she didn’t know and you could tell there wasn’t a hope in hell of her trying to find out. It was a very basic question. Similarly, when I asked a question to a girl at the reception in the hostel in Slovenia, about a famous church in the middle of her city. Again she just dismissed the question without even looking at me. There was just no possibility of her trying to be helpful. I gave her the Brophy stare in protest! I know you can have similar experiences in any country but she was a young, bright, intelligent student. By Irish standards it was rude. However having said that it was never that bad and some people in similar situations were very nice. It is different because the culture is different. I could tell it wasn’t personal or with a f**k you attitude and therefore it didn’t get to me. Other travellers did moan a bit, especially Americans in the Czech Republic, but Americans are used to very attentive service and Prague does suffer from too many tourists. A well travelled friend of mine went to Prague with her husband a few months ago and she said that the people were terrible. When I said it was a hangover from the communist period she was having none of it. She said that’s 17 years ago and surely the people could have moved on since then. CB

I never got annoyed to the stage of losing my temper fully or feeling uncomfortable in a place, and a lot of bad experiences could be put down to a misunderstanding because of the language or just because the culture was different. At times I did get annoyed but I just got over it and normally it was a one-off occurrence with the following interactions being fine. You lose your temper or start feeling uncomfortable in a place when one interaction after another is bad and things start to

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get on top of you. But it never happened and many times I was surprised at how nice people were after having a semi-bad experience. I suppose I wasn’t often surprised by people going out of their way to be helpful (apart from maybe the Albanians), which you might expect after travelling for over two months. However I was pleasantly surprised at times by the eagerness to be friendly to foreigners by many people. For example, it sticks in my mind that the waiters in the local restaurant to the hostel I was staying in, in Prague, which does suffer from tourism hell, were trying to be friendly. It wasn’t just that the service was good, it was a bit more personal than that, as if they wanted me to enjoy myself in their country.

CB However this couple moved to Cork for a year after their travels in Eastern Europe and during that time they stayed with me for a weekend in Dublin. She told me that she found that many of the Polish in Ireland were uneducated and rough. Around Cork, she found it hard at times to take their aggressive unpleasant swearing in Polish.

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EUROPE I especially liked the people in the Southern loop of my trip. That is, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and Zagreb in Croatia. In Zagreb, for example, I was totally lost and trying to find a tram to the hostel I had booked. I had to resort to asking people in English where to go. Normally I would figure it out myself but it was getting late and my backpack was killing me. I was surprised by how many people spoke English, I think Italian and German are more prevalent there as second languages because of the countries proximity. People were very helpful. You always appreciate help more when you are at a slight disadvantage in a new place. The parents of the Aussie girl I hung around with in northern Romania were Polish, so Gosia had been to Poland before. She spoke the language and obviously knew the culture well and could compare it to the Australian culture. She talked about the helpfulness of the Polish and how her parents used to put people up in her house all the time when she was a child, and she talked very positively about the people in general.

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In Budapest I literally bumped into a friend of friend from London who I had met once before, and I ended up going out with her and her friends for a drink that evening. She had worked as an au-pair in Ratoate in Kildare for a year. She was Hungarian and she spoke fluent English and so in many ways was well placed to do a good comparison between the people. In her opinion she thought the Irish were a lot friendlier than the Hungarians. However she did stay with a really nice family in Ireland with children that she loved. She said it was the worst day of her life when she had to leave the children. The poor girl showed me a picture of one of the kids she looked after, which she had permanently stored in her wallet.

CB A couple of weeks ago I was in Zurich and I was chatting to an Iranian scientist who lived in Budapest for a year and he said that the people there were great. He said he would often go down to a pub on his own and he used to find it very easy to meet and chat with the locals. He preferred the people to the Swiss.

In many ways the Eastern European countries fared better than other western countries in the friendliness stakes, from the backpackers I met. A lot of backpackers did not like Italy. Couples love it, backpackers don’t. Anyone who I have met that has done seasonal work in Greece hates it and I heard a few moans about Vienna. Ireland was generally liked and I don’t think they were just saying that because I was Irish. Incidentally everyone loved Berlin and Turkey. They were the two places that I never heard anything bad about.


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Rural scene in the north of Romania. Reminds me of Ireland.

Recently, in Dublin, I met a Polish girl in a pub. Incidentally, she looked about as Polish as I do. She had jet black hair and she could have come straight from the bog in Connemara. She was in Ireland five years ago and she was saying how much things had changed. Initially she said the change was for the worse but then she kind of checked herself and said well it was just different. She thought the Irish had become a bit more closed, not necessarily unfriendly but more closed. I suggested that when the cultural mix of a country changes so much in such a short space of time, that’s what happens. She kind of agreed. So the above is totally inconclusive but maybe that’s the way it should be. Anyway, it’s all food for thought. Overall, the people were friendlier than I expected but it was not like the

Middle East where it was obvious that hospitality is a core part of the culture. OK back to the travels. The north of Romania. The north of the county near the Ukranian border is very rural and a lot of people still wear traditional dress like in Guatemala. For example, many women and even some children wore traditional headscarves. The horse and cart were surprisingly prevalent throughout the whole country, like in old Ireland and many people worked with manual tools. There were lots of scythes and hoes with women permanently bent over working in the fields. I found the music kind of surprising in Romania. It was like upbeat, even slightly techno, Arabic music and I really liked it.

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The famous wooden crosses of Sepanta

Young and old were dancing to it so it seemed to be pretty ingrained in the culture. I went to Sapanta to see the famous wooden crosses which were beautiful and interesting. Around Sapanta it was such a rural environment. The taxi driver pointed out Ukraine to me as we were so close to the border. I also went to see traditional peasant homes which, as a tourist attraction, seem to be very popular. However, there were very few tourists in the north of the country. On the way back to Cluj the bus broke down near the start of the journey with a burst tyre. The driver got out and flagged the next car down. The man in the car who was wearing a woolly jumper and straight brown trousers (reminded me of

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Many times during my trip around Eastern Europe, on the outskirts of the sometimes beautiful towns and cities you would come across the most unbelievably dour, colourless, lifeless buildings...


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the farmers of old in Ireland), jumped straight out of the car and threw himself under the van. He worked intensely to get the thing fixed, with his wife waiting patiently in the car. His clothes must have got manky. Then off he went. Maybe he knew the driver of the van. I don’t know, but there was such an unspoken work ethic and helpfulness in the man’s actions. It was very impressive. I don’t understand enough to figure out exactly what was going on there. Many times during my trip around Eastern Europe, on the outskirts of the sometimes beautiful towns and cities, you would come across the most unbelievably dour, colourless, lifeless buildings, as if a giant syringe had been inserted into the area and had sucked out all the colour, individualism and style of the place. The approach into Cluj was one of those places. In Romania and in many Eastern European countries you would often see young women holding hands or in an embrace, arms loosely hung around their shoulders and waists slowly meandering down a road. It said it in the guide book and again it proved to be true. There were a couple of highlights in Romania. Brasov was lovely. I really liked it. It was a cool place with nice people. I went on a tour to visit three castles on a day trip from Brasov. The interior of the castle which was furthest away was stunning, one of the best interiors I have ever seen. Dracula is a big tourist draw to the area especially in Sighisoara and I actually read the book for the first time. Bram Stoker used to live in the same flats as my Granny in Dublin. The book was surprisingly good.

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Bulgaria From Bucharest I headed into Bulgaria. I got the overnight train to Sofia and from there I went straight to Plovdiv. The train station in Sofia had exactly the same look and feel as the train stations in Romania but that was really the only similarity. Bulgaria was one of the real pleasant surprises of the trip. It was friendly with beautiful countryside and interesting towns and I really liked the capital Sofia. The hostel in Sofia was great and was owned and run by a lovely Bulgarian couple.

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EUROPE After Central America, where I had the language, I felt so stupid for the first few weeks in Eastern Europe because I could not understand anything.

Bulgaria and Macedonia use the Cyrillic alphabet. So the phonetic street names in the guidebook were totally different to the ones you see on the actual streets. There was also something very disconcerting about opening a menu in a restaurant, and not being able to even recognize the symbols being used. After Central America, where I had the language, I felt so stupid for the first few weeks in Eastern Europe, because I could not understand anything. However, after a few weeks, I just got used to feeling stupid and I developed a way of getting by. For example, I had an Eastern European phrase book and I would write down exactly the type of train tickets I wanted and when I wanted to travel. If there was any difficulty in the initial interaction with the vendor, or if I got that infamous East European “Ne!” when I asked if they spoke English, I

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would simply hand over the slip of paper. In the main tourist areas you normally could get by in English or by just pointing. However, at times, it was still frustrating and with the Cyrillic alphabet I had even trouble copying out the characters, because it was like drawing. In Plovdiv I stayed in the “Queen Mary” hostel and the owner of the guest house said that Romania and Bulgaria were similar in the development stakes, but he believed that Bulgaria


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I started to negotiate the price a bit, but not too much, and certainly not enough to piss him off, because there wasn’t a hope in hell of me trying to sleep in a bus station for five hours.

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In Bulgaria I also saw some stuff that you would never see at home. For example, there was a guy in the street in Poldov with a telescope that was pointing at the moon, and he was charging people a small fee to look through it.

EUROPE Macedonia and Albania

To leave Bulgaria I took the overnight bus from Sofia to Lake Ohrid.

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was one step ahead of Romania. It was a fair judgement, although I personally felt it was quite a few steps ahead.

Sofia was really nice. It had nice relaxing side streets. There was a lively atmosphere and friendly people. There were interesting buildings and I enjoyed the foreign art museum. In Sofia, I bought a sun hat and my first ever pair of sunglasses, as I knew Albania would be hot.

For the first part of the trip around Eastern Europe I stayed mainly in hostels. For the second part I stayed in mainly hotels and private rooms, as at times hostels were doing my head in, and in the off the beaten track countries hostels didn’t exist. So, for example, when I arrived in Macedonia on Lake Orchid there was a guy waiting at the bus stop, at three in the morning, touting rooms in his house. I started to negotiate the price a bit, but not too much, and certainly not enough to piss him off, because there wasn’t a hope in hell of me trying to sleep in a bus station for five hours, waiting for the main accommodation services to open. In his house there was also a guy from Monaghan who had just come from Albania. Lake Orchid is on the Macedonian-Albania border. He had come up from Greece along the Ionian coast. He was very positive about Albania. The guidebook he had was totally out of date, so he ended up completely relying on help and advice from the locals to get around. He found the people to be very helpful.

The Bulgarian countryside was beautiful and unspoilt which made the trips within the country very enjoyable. Especially as there were hardly any advertisement boards and very little traffic compared to Ireland and other Western countries; even though Bulgaria still suffered from some truly awful communist blocks that ringed the cities.

So the following day I got up early and took the bus to the Albanian border. No one else was there apart from one Albanian and there were certainly no tourists. I had to pay an entrance fee of $10, the only such fee I had to pay in any of the countries I visited in Eastern Europe. I caught a taxi to Podgradec where I picked up a maxi-taxi (van) to Tirana. The

When I entered the country, the Bulgarian authorities were quite strict on checking passports. The policemen went away and checked the passport numbers. Technically, in Bulgaria, you have to register your passport details with police every night during your stay in the country. It must be done at the local “administrative control of foreigners” and it was done by the hotel owner for me. It must be a hangover from the Communist era.

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journey from Podgradec to Tirana was probably the most enjoyable journey of the whole trip. I had slept well the night before and I was sitting in the front with loads of space for my legs. We travelled through beautiful mountain scenery with small patchwork farms dotted about. There were loads of scarecrows in the fields which were dressed in modern Eastern European clothes (you know the type, heavy off-brown jackets). I loved it. I was also sitting beside a guy for a while who spoke good English. It was spectacular and enjoyable, if at times a little scary.

I was ironing a shirt in the hotel and a woman came over and took the iron off me and finished the shirt properly. When I tried to order some fish in a restaurant down the road, and was having serious communication problems, the waiter did not get annoyed. Instead he went into the kitchen and he took out a platter of fish and I pointed to the ones I wanted. When I tipped him at the end of the meal, he charmingly put his hand across his chest in gratitude. It was the first time I had seen this action, but I was going to experience it a lot more when I subsequently travelled around the Middle East.

I liked Tirana. It is a surprising sort of city. There are big wide spaces but also small little streets which are waiting to be discovered suddenly around a corner. I did notice also that the locals like their football.

I went to Kruja for the day and on the way back a man came up to me and started talking to me in pretty good English. He had just retired and I ended up talking to him all the way back into the centre of Tirana. He was a nice man. He was very interesting to talk to, as he had lived in Albania during the communist era. For example, I asked if he voted in the elections during that time. He replied yes but with a smile on his face he said that you had to vote for the ruling party, otherwise you were sent to prison. I asked him if it was really a bad time under communist rule and he replied no, but he was open to the suggestion that he too may have been a bit brain-washed. He was also the first person I talked to about the recent war. Albania was affected because over 600,000 Kosovo refugees fled into the north of Albania during the war, which obviously put a big strain on the country.

EASTERN

EUROPE I had difficulty getting accommodation at the start in Tirana but I ended up in this really nice place with the manager giving me the room for what I could afford as a backpacker. It was called the Albatross. I had my own bathroom, cable TV, air conditioning, all for $30 a night. What luxury! The staff were really nice. I wanted to get my clothes washed and the middle-aged friendly receptionist let me use the hotels own facilities for free. I went to thank him later on and give him a tip, but he point-blank refused to accept the tip and he physically forced me to take it back. It was nearly as if it was an insult to him because he was just genuinely trying to help me out. I think it’s the first time ever on my travels that a tip was not accepted. As a generalisation people were if anything trying not to rip me off in any transaction I had. As if they were going out of their way to be fair. For example, when I asked a price for the maxivan going to Tirana and I showed him a $5 bill, he nodded that that was acceptable. However I checked later and it was slightly less than what the guidebook suggested, which was about $6.

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I never really came to any major conclusions about the communist era in the countries I visited. I believe that in the former Yugoslavia the quality of life was pretty good under Tito and I was surprised to learn that people were not restricted from leaving the country. The guidebooks say that many people now lament his passing. However a lot of the good times in Yugoslavia were bankrolled by massive foreign loans, and when Tito died, the country was just about to feel


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the effects of the consequences of those loans. I met a group of Slovakians in Iran and they said that, similarly to Iran, there was a lot of disquiet during the communist period but like in Iran, people had to bite their tongues and keep it among themselves. However he said that as a child growing up in Slovakia, it wasn’t a bad childhood. However the effect of Ceausescu in Romania does stand out and highlights just how destructive a dictatorship can be. If they are rotten to the core or just as mad as Ceausescu was, not only can they do lasting damage to their own country but they can also potentially f**k up the world in general, as Iran is threatening to do at the moment. However I would like to understand more about communism and its effects. I am still lacking in knowledge of exactly what life was like during that period and if most people value the newly found freedoms that they now have in their countries.

However the effect of Ceausescu in Romania does stand out and highlights just how destructive a dictatorship can be. So anyway, Albania. Some of the scenes looking out of the window reminded me of Central America. A kind of marketled existence with, at times, a certain zest for living. I went to the art museum in Tirana, where there was a very strange nearly surreal exhibition. There were posters lying about in Spanish (I was so happy to see Spanish again!) calling people in Bogota, Columbia to come and sing their favourite

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Smith’s song in front of a camera. Remember this is Albania! On a television there was a film showing the different people singing. There was a hilarious rendition of “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” by two youngish Columbian women, who had an impassive five month old baby in their arms. Maybe they couldn’t ditch the kid but that wasn’t going to stop them. You could tell they were huge huge Smith fans as they sung the whole song in English. Every now and then they would look down and up at the face of their expressionless baby to see if he was OK, as they were dancing around in sheer bliss singing their hearts out.

When I entered the country the van driver, through the interpreter of the guy sitting beside me, made the point that Albanians are people like any other people, with two legs and a head. He was having a go at other countries’ perceptions. I went right back at him saying “I know that!” and that was one of the reasons I was in country, to better understand the country and its people. It’s one of the reasons I go travelling. Much maligned Albanian is a good example of that.

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EUROPE When I entered the country the van driver, through the interpreter of the guy sitting beside me, made the point that Albanians are people like any other people, with two legs and a head. As I mentioned above, I met a guy from Monaghan who travelled around Albania and he really liked the Albanian people. I got a similar glowing account of the country, from an American girl (aged 25) I met in Turkey, who had also been to Albania. So it definitely got the backpackers thumbs up. The guidebook’s introduction says: “Yet visiting Albania remains something only for the ‘adventurous’ and many people associate it with former isolation, peppered with stories of crime and poverty. In reality, the visitor will find a warm and sincerely hospitable country with a fantastic nature, breathtaking mountain landscapes and long sandy white beaches by a clear blue sea”.

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Kotor - All photos

Kotor (Montenegro)

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rom Albania I went to Kotor in Montenegro. Normally at a border crossing there is either a bus service which crosses the border connecting the two closest towns, or there is a bus service to the border which you can then cross on foot, picking up another bus on the other side. There were no tourists and hardly any locals on this border crossing, hence no such services were available. This is very unusual because all over the world border crossings are normally very busy. So I had to pay a taxi to go all the way from Shkodra in Albania, to Podgorica in Montenegro, crossing the border. I had such a nice man as a taxi driver. He was just trying to be friendly and he kept accepting any negotiation on the price. At the border, the guard came over to the taxi driver, who ex-

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At the border, the guard came over to the taxi driver, who explained where I was from. The guard shook my hand! It was the first time ever at any border crossing.

plained where I was from. The guard shook my hand! It was the first time ever at any border crossing. Then another guy got the taxi driver to open the boot, and with a friendly smile on his face he pointed to my rucksack and said “Drogas?”. I smiled and shook my head saying “no no” and I noticed that the other two guards also had friendly welcoming smiles on their faces. It did stand out on the trip. I only spent two nights

in the beautiful town of Kotor. No one knows about it which is surprising as it is so close to Dubrovnik but the secret of Kotor and Montenegro will get out. Currently Montenegro is looking for independence so now is the time to go. I really enjoyed my short stay there and I also found the people to be very nice.

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Scenes from the beautiful Croatian coast

Dubrovnik. You can see the perimeter wall clearly on the right hand side.

Croatia

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hen onto Croatia. Super Dubrovnik. It is now quite touristy but it is something special. I have two lasting memories of my time there. One is of the view of Dubrovnik coming in off the mountain road from Montenegro. It was spectacular and beautiful. The other is of the walk around the wall of Dubrovnik. It is about 2km all the way around. It is complete with no necessity to go back down to ground level and the fabulous wall architecture changes all the time. It’s hard to believe that in the early 90s this town was shelled during the war. How could anyone want to damage this place? For the previous three weeks I had been trying to get on some sort of boat trip around the Croatian islands on a specific date

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(2nd July), which fitted in with my plans. Two days before, I was informed that there was a place available, so I caught a bus to Split and joined the boat. They couldn’t fill the last cabin so they gave it to me on my own without me having to pay a single supplement. It was a small boat with only 21 people on it, plus the staff. It was a great decision because it really is the best way to see this gorgeous country. If you like swimming, the water is amongst the cleanest in the world and there are so many gorgeous little bays and towns dotted all over the coast and the islands. Croatia is quite expensive compared to other Eastern European countries but it has got so much to offer. At the start of the trip the weather was crap and the sea was pretty rocky so we had to change our destination and stay overnight in a smaller quieter port. It was absolutely beautiful and it wasn’t even one of the famous or touristy locations. You could spend months travelling around the islands and stay in places like that. The daily routine on the boat was to have breakfast, go swimming in some scenic bay, have lunch, and then dock at a new location for the day. I would head out and explore the town and find some place to eat. Many times I ate with a very friendly Italian couple from the boat. The great thing about a trip like this is that the location changes every day and everything is made so easy because two meals and all transport are provided. After independent travelling it was unadulterated luxury. There was also something very comforting about having the same accommodation waiting for you every night, even though you were in a completely different location. The sun came out for the rest of the week and once again it came home to me what a difference good weather can make to a country’s lifestyle.

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Italian couple I met on the boat in Croatia

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Dubrovnik

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Mostar graveyard. Everyone in the graveyard died in 1993.

Mostar and the famous Mostar bridge

EUROPE Bosnia

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hen I got back to Split I headed for Bosnia. Bosnia interested me because I wanted to know more about the recent war and I wanted to avoid the tourist crowds that were beginning to appear in other countries. A summer tourist surge is still not a factor in Bosnia, not yet anyway. God, I am glad I went. It was one of the most interesting times of any trip I have been on. I went to Mostar and Sarajevo. Mostar is famous for the arched bridge which connects the Croat and Muslim sectors but was destroyed during the war in 1993 and rebuilt in 2004. Walking down towards the bridge I passed by a graveyard and I stopped to have a look.

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It all seemed very new and the tombstones showed people of all different ages but then I had the shocking realisation that everyone in whole graveyard died in 1993.

What was surprising was just how much you could still see the effects of the war. The first thing I noticed was that there were bullet holes everywhere. If a building had not been re-surfaced it had bullet holes in it. In both Mostar and Sarajevo there were still, 10 years on, completely shelled out buildings. It was like a jolt to the reality of what took place there.


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Mostar Divers. They jump off the bridge that is shown on the right of the previous picture.

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Sarajevo was under siege for three years. How a city so close to the centre of Europe could be under siege for so long is incredible. During that time a tunnel was built from the centre of Sarajevo to the airport. In the tunnel arms and food were smuggled. It was about 800 metres long and it is still possible to walk through a section of it but most of it has collapsed. I did a tour of the war which included showing some footage of the siege of Sarajevo. I had been in the city for a

I had been in the city for a few days already and it was shocking to see images of the city that I was getting to know, being shelled, with people being shot at when crossing the street. few days already and it was shocking to see images of the city that I was getting to know, being shelled, with people being shot at when crossing the street. There were 11,500 thousand people killed in Sarajevo alone and it was not uncommon to see people without limbs in the city. When I was there, it was the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre where over the course of four days 8,000 – 9,000 Muslims were killed in an act of cultural genocide. From Wikipedia: “Serb forces began gathering men from the refugee population in Poto_ari and holding them in separate locations, and as the refugees began boarding the buses headed north towards Bosniak-held territory, Serb soldiers separated out men of military age who were trying to clamber aboard.�

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Top & below: Pictures from one of exhibitions in the city to mark the 10th anniversary of the Srebrencia massacre.

Sarajevo

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“These men were taken to a building in Poto_ari referred to as the “White House”. As early as the evening of 12 July 1995, Major Franken of the Dutchbat heard that no men were arriving with the women and children at their destination in Kladanj” “More than 60 truckloads of men were taken from Srebrenica to execution sites where they were bound, blindfolded, and shot with automatic rifles; some of the executions were carried out at night under arc lights. Industrial bulldozers then pushed the bodies into mass graves. According to evidence collected from Bosniaks by French policeman Jean-Rene Ruez, some were buried alive. Serb forces killed and tortured refugees at will and streets were littered with corpses, he said, and many people committed suicide to avoid having their noses, lips and ears chopped off. Ruez also cited cases of adults being forced to kill their children or watching as soldiers ended their young lives”

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EUROPE A lot of families have never found the bodies of their relatives. Because of the anniversary there were photography exhibitions about the massacre in Srebrenica, which I went to. The whole experience was very shocking, interesting, profound, moving. I had also been reading up in detail about the war in the guidebooks, and coupled with talking to a few people, I obtained a general understanding of why the war happened and what went on during the war. It is not straightforward, and like many wars, some of the countries were both the oppressors and the victims, with Croatia being a good example. In the hostel I stayed at in Zagreb there was a French Canadian guy who was married to a Croatian. He spoke fluent Croatian, which is very similar to Bosnian. He visited Sarajevo during the war and he was in Zagreb researching material for his thesis on Slovenian-Croatian relations from 1970 to 1990. Talking to him and learning from him, a person who had first hand experience and a detailed knowledge of the war, was amazing. There can’t be many people in the world that would

Sarajevo war tunnel

have as good a knowledge as he had. That’s why independent travelling can be so good and so enlightening compared to normal holidays.

Around 13,500 people died in the war in Croatia but Zagreb got off nearly untouched. However it was shelled twice and the account of the girl who ran the hostel was fascinating. She told me that there were two different sirens to indicate an air raid. One to identify bombing planes and the other to identify shelling. One time when the shelling sirens went off she told me that she had a discussion with her neighbour about whether to head to the air-raid shelter or not. She lived outside the centre of Zagreb and luckily her area was not affected. But to talk about air raid sirens going off, in the mid-nineties, in a modern European capital, that is on the doorstep of Italy and Austria (and I mean on the doorstep, look it up on the map) is just unbelievable. One thing I learnt is that, in many ways, these countries are more European than Ireland. The café culture, the interest in

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You can still clearly see the effects of the war, 10 years on.

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the arts, the architectural style and their location, mean that they are culturally and geographically in the heart of Europe. I have learnt that it is an insult to call, for example, the Slovenian people or the Czechs, Eastern European because they have always looked to the West and they don’t like the derogatory tone used. I think there is a mental barrier when you hear of Eastern Europe because it was off-limits for so long and you imagine it to be geographically far away. However, that notion was destroyed for me when I flew from London to Prague. I couldn’t believe how close it was.

But to talk about air raid sirens going off, in the mid-nineties, in a modern European capital, that is on the doorstep of Italy and Austria is just unbelievable. Nothing is black and white but overall I am a committed European. I like the varied mix of European cultures and I especially admire the EU emphasis on environmental issues. Also I think that with the emergence of India and China there is no possibility that individual European countries could prosper without being banded together with a common aim. However, after visiting Bosnia, I am even more committed, because compared to what happened between the Balkan states, there is absolutely no way a war between EU countries would be allowed to start, let alone be allowed to continue, for as long as it did in the former Yugoslavia. No way! To remove the possibility of war between countries is for me, in itself, a very strong reason to support the EU and its extension. One

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Market in Zagreb

of the biggest successes of the EU is the peace and stability it has given Western Europe over the last 50 years. Remember the EU was created soon after the Second World War when Europe was in turmoil, and many of the member states hated each other. Who would have imagined then, that Germany and France would now get along? I read a book by Chris Patten in Hong Kong called “Not Quite the Diplomat” where he talks about the approach he had to negotiations with countries who wanted to become EU members. The EU insisted on better democracy and less corruption in the countries before they would be considered. It was a good carrot which has definitely changed countries for the better. I read in the Irish Times a few days ago that the EU has suspended its

negotiations with Serbia over joining, because of Serbia’s failure to hand over General Ratko Mladic, the war criminal, to the International Criminal Tribunal. It has plunged the country’s governing coalition into a political crisis. As the editorial says “Political reform in the region has been driven since the end of the wars by the prospect of the EU’s eventual enlargement to embrace its successor states.” How good is that. I think Romania should be bullied more to get its act together before it is allowed to join. However I do think it should be allowed to join for the reasons I have described above. It is a poor country but Ireland was poor when it joined. Anyway, that is my current opinion.

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Ljubljana

Ljubljana, Slovenia

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ended my trip in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I flew back to London and then onto Dublin. Ljubljana has a vibrant street-cafÊ culture which is centred around the Ljubljanica river. It is very pretty and relaxed with nice architecture. It was a bit of shock to see the chewing gum ridden roads of Dublin when I returned. When I was in Croatia on the cruise, some of my companions received text messages about the bombs in central London. As soon as I got off the boat I checked my email and Helene had thankfully sent me a message saying that her and Jim were OK. They both live in north London and pass by the places where the bombs went off. When I went back to London there was the second wave of bombs, the ones that failed to go off and for the first time in my experience, London was tense. It’s a resilient city and it has been through a lot before, so it was very strange to be around the place with that type of atmosphere. Two women I knew said that they were not taking the tube again.

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Ljubljana. You can just about see my reflection in the shop window.

Ljubljana

Ljubljana. You can just about see my reflection in the shop window.

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Back in London in the “South American�

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Sexy Fred

After London I went back to Dublin and I spent about seven weeks researching the rest of my travels. As I said in the introduction my whole year off was very adhoc. Even In Eastern Europe I had no route planned apart from the vague notion that I wanted to see Romania and Albania. Every few days during the trip I decided on where to go next. I also visited some friends in Scotland and France and organised life matters such as tax returns. Eventually I booked my round-the-world plane ticket for my Australasia adventure and I booked my flights to the Middle East. On the 12th September I caught a flight from Dublin to Heathrow where I picked up a connecting flight to Iran. I arrived, slightly nervous, at 2 in the morning in Tehran airport. Conor

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“it was nearly a different level of hospitality” > MIDDLE EAST

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TURKMENISTAN TURKEY

Tabriz From London

Tehran

IRAQ

Esfahan Yazd

Shiraz

SAUDI ARABIA

Persepolis

AFGHANISTAN

IRAN

Kashan


Shahzadeh-ye Ibrahim in Kashan


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Iran

Sent: Friday, October 14, 2005 02:43 PM _______

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have always wanted to go to Iran ever since I first went travelling seven years ago. On that trip I met a few travellers who had visited the country (one was American) and it stayed with me how they talked about how friendly and hospitable the Iranian people were. I also read that most of the university students in Iran were women (currently the figure is 63%) and that women were on the board of many major companies, something which is not even the case in many Western countries. So it was totally different to my perception of the country and I have been interested in knowing more about Persia ever since.

I have always thought of Iran as being up there with Columbia and Pakistan as one of the most unfairly maligned countries in the world When Iran played America in the last World Cup the Iranian players made a genuine presentation to their American opponents, and there was a certain warmth and near gentleness in their actions which stuck in my mind. I have always thought of Iran as being up there with Columbia and Pakistan as one of the most unfairly maligned countries in

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the world today, whose worldwide perception is dreadful but the reality of the country and of its people is totally the opposite. Although the countries themselves may have issues, I have only heard excellent reports from other travellers. Finally, I am interested in world politics and there are few other countries in the world at the moment that have such a high profile as Iran, even if it is, unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. So overall, there was no other country that I was looking forward to visiting more than Iran. However, everyone was aghast at me going there. In a way, the reaction is understandable when you look at the publicity that the country receives. For example: - the week before I left Dublin, I saw a programme about the threat of Iran’s nuclear programme, - the fatwa against Salman Rushdie over ‘The Satanic Verses’, - the imprisonment and at times, killing, of government dissidents, - the banning of all alcohol consumption, even by foreigners, with locals being flogged, - the fact that it is positioned right smack bang in the middle between Iraq and Afghanistan, - being a supposed centre of extreme Islamic fundamentalism with endless street protests chanting death to America, - the subjugation of women in dress, law, and business, - the fact that a German businessman was sentenced to death for having sex with an unmarried Iranian woman. The guide book says that it can be difficult to obtain an Iranian visa; although it was simple in Dublin. Also, unlike nearly every other country in the world, in Iran you cannot use credit


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Street scene, Tehran

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Driving around Tehran

One of the relatives of the Iranian family in London who showed me around Tehran

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Street musician


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cards or travellers cheques, so I had to bring all the money I needed in cash. So I suppose, being honest, it doesn’t sound too promising.

MIDDLE

Although I had checked that the country was safe to travel to by reading the guidebooks and by talking to Iranian friends and associates, I was still a bit nervous when I arrived at the airport. I suppose it’s kind of hard not to, considering the negative publicity the country receives. Everything seemed normal in taking the flight and my visa wasn’t even checked by the airline. You nearly imagine yourself being accosted by the secret police before you get on the plane. However, before we landed, there was an announcement on the flight that women had to cover their heads before they left the plane. I was taking no chances with my dress and I had purchased new respectable cotton trousers, a conservative long-sleeved shirt and boring but good quality shoes. I was trying to look as much as James Bond as I possibly could! It was in marked contrast to many of the Iranian men off the plane who were very casually dressed. There are rules with respect to male dress in Iran, short trousers and sleeveless tee-shirts are not allowed, or certainly looked down upon, but apart from that anything else goes. There was no problem with immigration who just checked that my visa was on their computer. On the other side I was nonchalantly waved past the baggage search. Even before I went to Iran I got a flavour of the Iranian culture. My ex-flatmate in London has a friend whose mother is Iranian. She told him to tell me to get in touch before I headed off, in order to see if she could help in any way. In the end I actually talked to her mother who reminded me of an Irish

Tehran

mother. In fact, there are distinct similarities between the Irish and Iranian cultures which I will talk about later. She was very easy to talk to and she seemed to be in control and in charge, as a lot of Irish mothers are. For example, she informed me that she was going to ring Iran herself to make sure that everything was set up correctly and that there would be someone waiting for me at the airport, as her daughter had already kindly arranged. As promised when I came out of arrivals at about 2:15 in the morning, there was a piece of paper with “Conor Brothy” written on it, being held up above the crowd. I jumped into the car with the two guys (who were surprisingly casually dressed) and we headed off around the hotels in central Tehran looking for a reasonably priced room. I had nothing booked but I quickly found a place and fell asleep. For the next three days I hung around with the relatives of the Iranian family in London. I visited the main tourist sites, of which the National Jewels museum was the highlight and I visited the parks and restaurants of the city. Tehran is not an

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Bazaar

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Wedding in Tehran

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attractive city, it’s an unorganized urban sprawl at its worst, but it is friendly, it has some good parks and it does have a certain charm. It’s a big city with 14 million people. The route I took in Iran was as follows: Tehran (4 nights), Kashan (2 nights), Esfahan (3 nights), Yazd (3 nights), Shiraz (3 nights). From Shiraz, I flew back to Tehran (2 nights) and then I flew to Tabriz (3 nights). From Tabriz, I caught a bus to the Turkish border and walked across. I arrived in Iran on the 13th September and left on the 4th of October, exactly 3 weeks later. The main attractions in Iran are the historical sites, with the most famous being Persepolis near Shiraz.

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The first thing that hit me about Iran was how relaxed everything was compared to my preconceptions. In Dublin I had read Sean Penn’s article on his recent trip to Iran and he said that before he went there he imagined people scowling on the street and making threatening stares towards him. I knew it would not be like that but the reality was even more different than I thought. Tehran is in many ways similar to many large European cities but maybe it is even more relaxed.

Restaurant meal in Tehran

I thought it would be a bit like Cuba, totally different to anything I had experienced before, with the culture knocking up against you all the time. It’s not. It’s surprising normal and surprisingly relaxed with very little of that built up tension that is prevalent in large European cities. If something happens between people, it is either ignored or some words are spoken, then people get over it and move on. The kind of shops you see are the same as in Europe plus of course the huge wonderful bazaars that exist throughout the country. I had also heard horror stories about the driving but, to be honest, I thought it would be worse and it still didn’t compare to those chickenbus Guatemalan lunatics in Central America. Crossing the

road was a bit of a challenge though. My approach was to follow an Iranian and do exactly what he or she did. Tehran was also very clean compared to many of the large cities I have visited. There is money in Iran. It has huge oil reserves and as a result the motorways are surprisingly good. The dress sense was also different to what I expected. For young men it was probably trendier than it is back home. Some women, especially in Tehran, had a surprising amount of make-up on, with some of them wearing jeans and sandals


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with painted toe-nails, with their scarf almost hanging off.

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It could be very friendly and hospitable. An example is when I went to one of the Tehran bus stations to catch a bus to Kashan. As soon as I stepped out of the taxi a young student came up to me and asked if she could help me with anything. She came into the bus station and queried the different booths about the bus and she figured out that I was in completely the wrong place. She then negotiated for me a good price with a taxi driver to the other bus station. When I arrived at the second bus station a man came up to me, shook my hand and asked me where I was from. “Robbie Keane!” he exclaimed. They are football mad over there and many people I talked to answered Robbie or Roy Keane when I said I was from Ireland. He brought me to the correct place to buy the ticket and then down to the bus itself. He shook my hand and then walked off. That was not a one-off for me or for other backpackers I met. Also it was not unusual for very diffident respectful locals to come to me in order to practice their English or to ask me about my country and culture. At times it felt like it was nearly a different level of hospitality. When I was shown around Tehran and Esfahan the whole energy of my hosts was focused on looking after me. I was allowed to walk through any door first, I was given the best seat in the car and they did whatever I wanted to do. At times it was like I had bodyguards, with one ahead of me and one behind, making sure that everything was OK. Even when I went on an English tour of the Jewel museum, one of the guys stayed with me (even though he wouldn’t understand much) in order to make sure I was being properly looked after. I said to my friends in London that if their family was good enough to show me around, as a “Thank You” I would like to

Kashan street scene

buy them, at least, lunch or dinner. However, even that proved nearly impossible. They would not let me pay for anything. If I said I wanted to buy a water they would buy it for me; likewise for food, and they even tried to pay for my entrance fees into the tourist attractions. To be honest, at times, I found this a bit frustrating and nearly annoying. But you see what you mean, it’s a different level of hospitality to the norm. Luckily they accepted gifts, such as CDs and other bits and pieces I had brought from Ireland.

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Also, it was not just because I had some connection to these people. Other Iranians I met who I had no connection with, treated me in exactly the same manner. For example, my friends in Esfahan. In Kashan I missed the bus, so instead I took a shared taxi to Esfahan. In the taxi there was a construction engineer who lived in Esfahan and he said that his son, who was 30, would be very interested in meeting me, as he had lived in Vienna for six months. So he gave me his phone number and he told me to ring him, which I did. At 8:30 they arrived in a big, nearly jeep type car. They put me pride of place in the front seat, with the father sitting in the back, and they asked me what I wanted to do. I hadn’t a clue so they suggested that, if I was interested, to go to a wedding ceremony that they had been invited to in a village outside Esfahan. They had already asked the family if they could bring me along. It sounded great so off we went to this village in the middle of nowhere, about 70 Km outside the city. Remember this is with people that I had only just met. On the way there, they took out all the implements for making tea and they started drinking in the car. Tea is everywhere in Iran. Even when I went to the barbers, halfway through the cut, I was presented with a cup of tea. Then my companions produced a bag of mixed nuts and we chomped on them for the rest of the journey. In Iran you can get whole sections of shops dedicated to selling different types of nuts. For the first time in my life I had fresh pistachios, the ones with the jacket still on, which I had never even seen before. Iran produces 53% of the world’s pistachios.

Shahzadeh-ye Ibrahim in Kashan

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Carpet shop scene in the bazaar in Kashan

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The two guys warned me that because it was a small village it would be very conservative. .. The men and women ate separately. The two guys warned me that because it was a small village it would be very conservative. When we arrived it was late, about 10:30, and most of the ceremony had already finished. Everyone was now eating out the back. I was warmly welcomed and put sitting down, cross legged, in an area with the men. I was presented with some food and a Coke. The men and women ate separately. Of course there was no drinking at the wedding and with the men, everything was very quiet. Not much was said when we were eating and quiet conversation occurred afterwards. The party was going on in the women’s room. Although there was a drape across the door you could hear them dancing around, singing and hollering (Indian type). As an example of the contradictions within Iran, some Iranian friends recently told me about a wedding they went to in Tehran, and they were describing how most young people at the wedding were absolutely plastered. CB

After dinner we went up to another part of the village and the following experience reminded me of the wedding scene from “Ryan’s Daughter”. There was an Arabic flute player who looked literally like the ones you see in the films. He never seemed to draw breadth and he was playing continuously. There was also a hand drummer beating out a rhythm. There were two young guys

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Esfahan

from the village moving around in a circle. They had large sticks in their hands and were kicking up their legs slightly, in time to the beat of the music. Then suddenly they would square up to one another, with one guy trying to whack the

After dinner we went up to another part of the village and the following reminded me of the wedding scene from “Ryan’s Daughter”. legs off the other; his opponent having to defend with his stick. He only had one chance after which they would both snap back into their rhythmic dancing. Sometimes they would exchange roles. Then a local guy, who was described to me by my host as being a bit simple, exactly like the guy in Ryan’s


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daughter, took up the challenge. With a more exaggerated dance and some pronounced waving of the stick, just like the stereotypical village fool, he took part in the game; with the young guys of the village laughing and encouraging him on. Then a procession started. First the musicians, followed by the men, then the women, with some fireworks being thrown up into the air. It headed back down to the place where I had

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I had an experience in a car of being driven around by a young trendy Tehranian, who instead of a cup of tea in his lap, he had a glass of vodka and coke. eaten. The men waited outside and the women went in to collect the bride, with the music and games continuing outside. We then had to go because it was already 1:00 in the morning. However, my host explained that the bride is brought out by the women and the same procession of musicians, men and women, bring the bride up to the house of her husband, who is waiting for her there. It was very very interesting. I got back to the hotel at about 2:45 in the morning. I spent the following day with the younger guy who treated me in exactly the same manner as the people in Tehran. Again he tried to pay for everything, but when we met up with his father, I insisted on buying them both dinner. Eventually they accepted but only because they said I was getting upset! Talking to them I did get a feel for the complex nature of the politics and social structure of the country. Nearly everyone I

Esfahan

talked to during the three weeks I was there wanted reform. 70% of the population of Iran is under 30 so it is a young country which is maybe impatient for change. One of things I learnt travelling around Iran is that religion is treated in generally the same way as it is in any other country. The difference being that, in Iran, religion is enforced by the law. With all the negative publicity the religion receives, a Muslim is nearly portrayed as someone who is by nature devout or overly intense about their religion. However, I found a huge mix of people with different views and different levels of devotion. Nearly everyone I met did not want the religion forced upon them or religious behaviour enshrined in the law. Many people I met did not pray three times a day, some jokingly told me that they were bad Muslims, and one man I encountered even wanted to change his religion, which is dangerous to say so in public. Some also drank and I had an experience of be-

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Islamic Art

ing driven around in a car by a young trendy Tehranian, who instead of a cup of tea in his lap, had a glass of vodka and coke. Of course there are big differences between north Tehran, which is the most liberal area of the country, and some rural areas. For example in Yazd it was totally different. Unrelated men and women were not allowed to be together at all! Guides had to have a special licence to take women in their cars. Even in the hotel I stayed in, I was told the police would come regularly into the courtyard to make sure foreign women were wearing the hijab (Islamic dress). I remember seven years ago talking to a young Muslim in east Malaysia who was very intense about his religion and very devout. However, what stuck in my mind about him, and what is not normally portrayed, was his tolerance towards other people and other religions. I asked him if he minded people drinking alcohol in his country and he replied of course not, but maybe in a Muslim area you would try not to drink

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in front of Muslims. I felt that same kind of respect and tolerance in Iran. Probably because I was a tourist many people would come up to me to express their naked anger at the current political situation in the country. I won’t tell you how some people described Ayatollah Khomeini. Nearly everyone I met said that the majority of people in the country as a whole wanted change. For the first time on my travels, probably because I had so much contact with the people and their dissatisfaction, I actually mused about how lucky I was to live in a democracy, especially in Ireland where the state really does leave you alone. Also a lot of the young people seemed to be into heavy metal, just to piss off the establishment. Incidentally Chris De Burgh is huge in Iran as he is in Eastern Europe. Everyone knows him. In Iran if you worked for any government body you had to be devout or at least pretend to be. I talked to a surgeon who said that he believed in God but he did not practice religion. However he had to pretend to do so in his work. He pretended to pray three times a day and he pretended to adhere to the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan. Also I met a taxi driver who had been a petro-chemist. He was a very smart guy who said that he lost his job, his home and his father because of the revolution. He said that he simply could not work with the mullahs. It was sad because he went through what made him happy in his life, a certain friend, a particular park, in order to point out the fact that everything else around him, and what happened in his country, he totally ignored. He had given-up. You do hear a few passive voices. There was a young law student in Yazd who I hung around with for a day. You can just hook up with locals like that. He suggested that the reason

Persepolis

why the Muslim faith works so well in Iran, is because it fits in so well with traditional Iranian family life, with the family being all important to the culture. Being married is accepted as the most natural state of being in Iran and normally people do not leave home until they get married, even in liberal Tehran. People couldn’t believe I wasn’t married for example. CB Even my trendy liberal Iranian friend in London surprised me recently by the fact that he couldn’t believe my family were not putting me under any pressure to get married.

As I mentioned in the introduction there are a lot of similarities between the Irish and Iranian cultures. For example: - as stated above, a lot of women wield the power in the home, - the people are both hospitable and - the system of ta’arof. Briefly, ta’arof is where you don’t accept something a number of times before accepting it, in order to be polite and to allow the host not to lose face in the case that they can’t actu-

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ally provide what they are offering. It is not as widespread in Ireland (ta’arof applies to most interactions in Iran) but it does exist. It is what is parodied by Mrs. Doyle in Father Ted saying “go on, go on, go on”. I unknowingly fitted into this culture, only later musing over the fact that the other person was not surprised when I accepted their offer after many requests. There is also a tradition of humour and comedians in Iran. In London it seems that the biggest body of non-English comedians are Irish and Iranians. The leader of the Iranian pack being Omid Dhalili.

If this account achieves anything it is to get over the fact that the impression of Iranians being intolerant, scowling people is totally untrue. Of course religion is an important part of people lives there as it is/was in Ireland. Even the mandatory scarf in Iran was expected to be worn by women in Ireland when they went to mass on a Sunday, which only changed after Vatican 2. CB Recently I saw the film “The Rocky Road to Dublin” which was made in 1967. There was a scene outside a church in Dublin. I noticed that all the women were putting on scarves before entering the church.

Finally “hello” in the Irish language is the same as “goodbye” in Farsi. They both translate to “God be with you”.

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Outside a bank in Shiraz. Note: The men go in the left door and the women go in the right.

So to sum up, I felt comfortable and at ease with the people in Iran. If this account achieves anything it is to get over the fact that the impression of Iranians being intolerant, scowling people is totally untrue. It is the opposite. They are in fact very tolerant of foreigner’s behaviour due to their hospitable nature. Of course there are not many tourists in Iran. Everyone said tourism had suffered greatly since September 11. Maybe the situation would be not quite as friendly if the tourist masses descended but to search for any badness would be perverse. The experience I had in Iranian homes shows their hospitable nature is a core part of their culture. The place was very safe and hassle free. Physical safety was never really an issue. I went for walks in towns and villages without any consideration for personal safety. The guide books and other tourists I met also bore this out. The fact that


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there was no one (openly) drunk of course helps. I read an account of another Irishman’s experiences in Iran which was published in the Irish Times and he said that he felt safer in Tehran than he does in Dublin and I would second that. I have included his letter at the end of this email to show you that I am not making all of this up.

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I met a couple of really friendly interesting Dubliners in Iran. The Irish do get about. One of them was a guy from Sandymount in Dublin. He had spent two years teaching English in Syria (a country which he really liked). He told me about the following occurrence during his time in Iran, in order to highlight how strange and different the culture sometimes can be by Western standards. He was on an overnight train and he got talking to a local man. The man had not been home for two weeks and he invited David for breakfast at his home; another example of Iranian hospitality. When they arrived at the station there were two people waiting for him, a man and a woman. The man kissed the other man three times on alternate cheeks, as they do over here. Now these are not phantom kisses, they mean every one of

He said if the police saw a couple kissing they would be both arrested immediately. them. Then he proceeded to shake hands with the women. Then he introduced the pair, the man being his brother-in-law and the woman being his wife! I talked to the surgeon in Tehran about this and he said it is forbidden to kiss any woman in public. I kept saying to him

Shared taxi in Tehran

(with a big Dublin head on me), “even if it’s your wife!”, “even if it’s on the cheek!”. I couldn’t believe it. He said if the police saw a couple kissing they would be both arrested immediately. In Iran, women also kiss in public, like in France, with three kisses on alternate cheeks. The only people who don’t kiss are men and women together. It’s strange the way a culture or religion can position itself in such a manner. Sometimes things just don’t make sense. On local buses women sit at the back and men sit at the front, with even married couples being split up. However on long distance buses married couples can sit together but still, unattached men and women cannot. On the metro in Tehran the first carriage is given over to women but they can still go, and do go, into any other compartment. It can be like musical chairs in a shared taxi to try and ensure that men and women don’t sit together. One time, when I was with my Iranian friend in a shared taxi (I will talk about her

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later) she was going to be between two men in the back seat so she automatically jumped out. There are implicit rules which everyone follows. She sat in the front seat squashed in beside me as two people normally sit in the front seat beside the driver. She sat there because she knew me (just - for only a few hours). However the physical contact with her was strange by Western standards considering how little I knew her, and it seemed even more out of place because I was in Iran. However I could tell it wasn’t a consideration for her or something which made her feel uncomfortable. So different cultures have different standards. Amazingly, I have not seen this, but it says in the guide book that there are mixed carriages on the sleeper trains. Finally there were mixed dormitories allowed for foreigners even in conservative Yazd. It’s all very strange. CB When I got back to London my Iranian friend Saman told me about one funny experience he had in a shared taxi in Yazd. In the taxi there were already two people in the front seat beside the driver and Saman and a woman were in the back. Shared taxis stop at most street corners in order to fill up with people. The taxi stopped to let one more man in, and because the woman would have been with two men in the back, she said she would get out and wait for another taxi. Saman said to her no, that it was OK and to help her out, he got into the front seat with the driver, sharing his seat. So in the end there were four people in the front of the car and only two in the back!

I also saw in Tehran, but forgot to mention in my original write-up, the following traffic incident. A car was turning right into another street and ended up being a bit close to a woman who was crossing the road, which raised her ire. In protest she lashed out with a back kick, one that that Bruce Lee himself would have been proud of, right into the middle of the passing car, the driver looking around puzzled. CB

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I had a few problems: I was often amazed at how accurate the guide books could be. For example, they said that sometimes people may ask you how much you earn, and they did. The response they suggested giving was a joking, “not enough to pay the bills”. They said that black market bootleggers may hiss “whiskey” in your ear as they pass you by in the street. They did. In my case I heard in Shiraz the word “whiskeybrandy”. They also talked about the infamous “Bogus Police Scam” where men pass as

They appeared. Three men in a car, flashing some card telling me they were undercover police and instructing me to come over. undercover police in order to obtain money or passports. They appeared. Three men in a car, flashing some card telling me they were undercover police and instructing me to come over. I was very near the hotel and I just kept pointing to it saying my passport was in there. I didn’t totally ignore them because you are never 100% sure and it is Iran. However, eventually they got spooked and drove away. Finally there was Imam day. They celebrate many Imam days in Iran which are public holidays. In Esfahan I saw lots of marauding groups of young people in the streets. I heard later that it is like Halloween or Paddy’s Day in Ireland, a chance for any gurrier to make a nuisance of himself. There were large groups of young men chanting songs and setting off fireworks. The one saving grace was that they were sober (I think).


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It was intimidating but I don’t think it was dangerous. Although I stood out like a sore thumb they did not take the easy option of targeting me out for any abuse. However instead of going to an Internet cafe I took the decision to return to my hotel. While I was waiting to cross the street a tourist policeman came over to me and asked me to careful with my bag. He offered to escort me back to my hotel, which was nice of him. But I said to him that I would be OK (I’m hard, I am from Dublin!). However, one good thing about Imam day is that it is traditional to give out food and drink to other people. I had soup, a drink and some desert handed out by locals as I passed by their shops, with some people going out of their way to make sure I got a taste. Other issues I heard from other travellers were about being ripped off in taxis and in hotels. One couple paid 40 Euro going from the airport in Tehran to their hotel in the early hours. You can go to the moon from Tehran for 40 Euro. The country is very cheap. Before I left, I am sure I heard that Tehran was the cheapest capital city in the world. For example, I paid about 15 to 20 dollars a night for a double room with en-suite, fridge and television. A good meal, which is normally a kebab, would cost no more then 5 Euro. Bus transport was ridiculously cheap, with a second class bus costing about 1 Euro 50 for a seven hour journey. Not only does Iran have one of the biggest reserves of oil in the world, it actually subsidises petrol prices. Diesel is cheaper than Iranian bottled water and it is one of the reasons why so many young people just ride around in their cars for something to do. CB At the end of June 2007 the government suddenly introduced petrol rationing in Iran which caused protests in some

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areas. Although Iran has one of the biggest oil reserves in the world, it has very little refinery capability, and therefore most of the petrol used in the country has to be expensively imported. Just to show you what a pain in the hole travelling can sometimes be and maybe to also show you some of the Iranian psyche, I’ll write briefly about my experience of going from Yazd to Shiraz.

Just to show you what a pain in the hole travelling can sometimes be .. There was an agency nearby which sold bus tickets. I booked a bus and was told to pick up the ticket the following day. The following day I arrived and the guy I booked the ticket with, was in Tehran, and his colleague did not know anything about my ticket. He rang up and organized another ticket. This new bus was going further afield but would stop in Shiraz. I was to pick up the ticket in the terminal. He wrote all the instructions for the people there on a piece of paper in Farsi, which I was to hand over. I went to the terminal at 10:30 the next day and the guy hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. He practically ignored the piece of paper and wanted to charge me the whole distance. OK. So I bought a ticket for 2:00 pm instead on a different bus. I went back to the hotel, had lunch and arrived back at the terminal at 1:30.

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Free food handed out on Imam day


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amusement to it all. However there was an old French couple off the bus who had a big argument with the bus driver. They were demanding that the company pay a taxi back to the terminal. To be honest I think the best thing to do in these situations is to cut your losses and run, especially when the culture is so different. They kind of added to my stress and at this stage I was standing at the back totally quiet and completely resigned to staying another night in Yazd.

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Hotel in Yazd

The bus took off at 2:20 and it broke down about two miles outside Yazd. From 2:30 to 8:10 (yes, nearly 6 hours!) we were waiting on the side of the road. I have never seen so many people (men), achieve so little over such a long period of time. I was going to say that it was better organized in Central America but that would be an insult to Central Americans whose transport systems were surprisingly efficient and easy to use. The guys just kept tinkering around with the engine and talking on their mobile phones. At one stage there were four ordinary cars and one police car around the bus. No one made a decision or was in control and collectively they just kept stringing everyone along saying that something was about to happen; which it never did. The bus driver was particularly arrogant and rude. For the first few hours or so, I was in a sulk, as it was totally ruining my plans and it was continuing the nightmare of such a simple trip. However, because the delay was so bad, after a few hours I gave up sulking and adopted a certain detached

The locals on the bus were very nice and a couple of them spoke English and were our translators for the day telling us what was going on. They also made sure that we got our money back for the bus and they ordered a taxi for us on one of their mobiles. One young guy even apologized because of the bad experience. So it showed the best and worst of the Iranian culture. Among the Iranian passengers there were some arguments but they were surprisingly good-natured about the whole event. Maybe they are used to it! The people seem to have a sense of humour which could be another similarity to the Irish culture. The Irish have for a long time used their sense of humour as a way of getting through life. In fact, there does seem to be a certain togetherness about the Iranian people which was perhaps helped by the combined purpose of the Iran-Iraq war. There is nothing like a war to bring people together. They all talked highly of their own people and all the interactions between them seemed easy and hassle free. The French couple and I took the taxi back to the terminal and we booked the bus for 8:00a.m. the next morning. When we got back to the hotel it was totally full, with people even sleeping on the roof. However the guys in the hotel allowed us to sleep in the restaurant area. They were very nice and provided what they could in terms of blankets and duvets.

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So I slept OK considering, apart from being eaten to death by mosquitoes. I caught the bus and arrived in Shiraz at 15:30 feeling hot, sweaty and hungry. Everything worked out fairly smoothly for the following few days.

he said was just terrible. When I was talking to another guy he received a phonecall from his father to see if the party had been raided. He explained that his father was a socialist and after the revolution was imprisoned for five years. In fact after

I returned to Tehran by taking a flight from Shiraz. I went to one of the infamous north Tehran parties. The authorities don’t like them for a number of reasons; because of the loud music, the fact that the sexes mix freely and wear what they want, and because alcohol is sometimes available. Previously they had been tolerated to a certain extent but I had seen a BBC news item about recent government crackdowns. So as I had been invited to a birthday party (in his parents’ house of course) I was eager to go and see for myself.

The birthday boy explained that if they are raided they would be in a certain amount of trouble but with alcohol it doubles their problems.

Some of the women were wearing short skirts, some had bare shoulders and they were, in general, very trendily dressed. It was a fancy dress party. I went as James Bond. The first thing I noticed was that the dress of the women was totally the opposite to what you see on the streets. Some of the women were wearing short skirts, some had bare shoulders and they were, in general, very trendily dressed. Iranian women can be very beautiful. There was loud music but no alcohol. The birthday boy explained that if they are raided they would be in a certain amount of trouble but with alcohol it doubles their problems. Remember they can be flogged if they get caught. I talked to as many people as possible. One guy had just finished the first two months of the two year mandatory military service, which

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the revolution it was a lot stricter than it is now. Men could not wear T-shirts for example and were scolded in the streets for cutting their beards. Nowadays in the parks you see the odd couple serendipitously holding hands, which would have been completely forbidden ten years ago. CB However, recently (today is 09/07/2007) there has been the biggest crackdown in Iran for a decade, with women being stopped in the streets by the police over their dress. From the Economist: “THE government’s opponents, real or imaginary—be they secular liberals, trade unionists, campaigners for women’s rights, immodestly dressed youths, disgruntled ethnic minorities, even dissenting clergymen—have recently been subjected to a string of arrests, harassment and threats. There are fears that Iran is slipping back into a more repressive mode.”

As I said it was very easy to hook up with locals for the day. I had more interaction with the locals in Iran than I had in most other countries. They were interested in talking to foreigners and learning more about other countries, or just at a loose end and preferred doing something different. They would


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Fancy dress party in Tehran - All photos

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normally come up to you and ask where you were from and start up a conversation. For example, I spent the day in Esfahan with a young guy who was thinking of becoming a guide. He came with me to the bus station to help me buy a ticket and for the rest of the day I followed his advice on where to go. I even went with him to a really nice park that was a fair distance outside of the city and was not even mentioned in the guidebook. I met another friendly Irishman in the hotel in Tehran on my way north. He was from Ballyfermot in Dublin and he was cycling from Istanbul to India. You do meet some hard-core backpackers in Iran; Iran is never anybody’s first trip. For example, I met a woman, who in England lived in a bus, that was travelling with her grown-up son overland from Beijing to Egypt. The one thing that stuck in my mind about the conversation I had with her was that in every country she had passed through, apart from China, nearly everyone she met had said that they wanted to leave their country; which is a sad state for the world to be in. Anyway, the following day I went with Patrick to the modern art gallery in Tehran. Patrick knew a lot about art, I don’t, but I do love art and we both thought the art gallery was fabulous. We were killing time, because we both had appointments that afternoon. So picture this. Two Dubliners, sprawled across a park bench in the middle of Tehran, getting shade from the sunshine and casually remarking on how nice the park was. One was 45, with tattoos on his arms, which drew the attention of all the locals as I think tattoos are banned in Iran, hanging about before he met the family of a 20 year old student who had invited him to dinner with her parents. And I, 35, killing time before I met up with the 22 year old

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Patrick from Dublin. To show you the antagonistic nature of the Iranian government; they purposely renamed the street on which the British embassy resides in Tehran, to what you can see in the picture. Read the street name phonetically and you will understand its significance.

girl who helped me in the bus station two weeks earlier, and who I was going to spend the afternoon with in north Tehran. She had explained to me, in the most charming manner, that she couldn’t invite me to her home because her parents didn’t live there. She lived with her two sisters and in Iran it wouldn’t be acceptable to allow a man into your home under those circumstances. No problem. That’s one advantage of the strict culture in Iran. Due to its rigidity there is no fear or suspicion. It’s possible to hook up with people that normally it would be difficult to hook up with, such as women. For example, it would be very difficult


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to do the same in Cuba, without being suspicious of the motives on either side. Sad but true.

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Even while we were waiting there two guys came up to talk to us. They were students from the local university. They were studying surveying, specifically to do with the oil industry. As Patrick had actually been a seabed surveyor on one of the oil rigs off the east coast of Scotland, they offered to show him around Tehran University the following day. Golara (my Iranian friend) was studying management and French in university. We went first to a park in north Tehran and then to another park in central Tehran. There is not much to do in Iran for young people. As far as I could see cinemas only showed “Film Farzi” (like Bollywood) movies. American films must be banned because I didn’t see any advertised. Under the section for nite-clubs in the guide book it has two words “Dream on”. Even live music was difficult to find. Some restaurants did have bands but women are not allowed to sing in public. The television was controlled and terrible, showing a disturbing amount of military imagery, except for the football which was on most nights. No wonder they’re all football mad. However some families in Tehran did have satellite television. So parks are the main focus of Iranian social life. They were wonderful and it was so enjoyable to walk around them on Thursday and Friday evenings and take in the atmosphere. Friday is the only day off in Iran. Families would set up picnics. Teenagers would play table tennis, kick a football around or shape about on bikes or motorbikes. I saw groups of people singing under one of the fabulous bridges in Esfahan. There was such a relaxing and inclusive atmosphere with no hassle and very little unpleasantness. As I said there does seem to be a certain togetherness of the people. I am currently in Turkey

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and one of the contrasts between Turkey and Iran so far (I have not reached the liberal west part of Turkey yet) is that there seemed to be more emphasis on the family in Iran. In Turkey, I have noticed more roomfulls of just men. To show you how much you can adjust to a country even after a few weeks, Golara changed her headscarf when she went into one of the parks. I am not sure why. I think it is because

for a few seconds her head was totally uncovered and immediately I started looking nervously around in case anyone had noticed women can get away with a more “trendy” headscarf when they are in a park. Anyway, for a few seconds her head was totally uncovered and immediately I started looking nervously around in case anyone had noticed. It was such a shock to see a woman without a headscarf in public. In Tabriz a few days later I saw a few women tourists not wearing a headscarf which again seemed out of place. I said to my young friendly taxi driver, is it OK for them? He looked up and said it was OK, they are tourists, and anyway, they “aren’t even good looking”. So Golara and I just wandered around the two parks. We even took a boat out on one of the park lakes and paddled about. I was again quizzing her about the culture. She said in north Tehran it was liberal enough and there wasn’t anything like the restrictions in place as in other parts of the country. She was quite happy with the culture and said things had improved considerably over the last few years.

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She was so so nice. Honestly, too nice for the Western world. She had an English dictionary and she kept charmingly delving into it to retrieve a new word or she would speak in French to see if I recognized the word. One time I was sitting in the front seat of the car and we were going up a steep hill. I turned to the back seat where she was sitting, and angled my hand to show the steepness of the hill, motioning towards the road. Obviously she did not understand me correctly, and misjudging my intentions, with a slap of her hand she high-fived me! The following day I headed to the airport as I was catching a flight north to Tabriz, which is not too far from the Turkish border. When I arrived at the airport Golara was there, as a surprise, to see me off. We got talking and we sat down to go

They took Golara away to a glass booth in one corner of the airport, which was obviously a security area, and I saw my friend arguing with the plain clothes policemen. through the accommodation choices in Tabriz. She was going to ring up and book a place for me, speaking in Farsi. When we were going through the guide book, two women appeared out of nowhere and said something to my friend. The women were dressed in the chador, the all-encompassing head-to-toe black tent, which is not unusual in Iran as a whole, but it was unusual in the airport. I knew immediately something was wrong. They took Golara away to a glass booth in one corner of the airport, which was obviously a security area, and I saw my friend arguing with the plain clothes policemen. I didn’t know what to do but I decided that any protest or interference

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She was upset and crying and she muttered something about there being no freedom in her country and she left the airport. on my part would just make the situation worse. After about ten minutes, Golara came out of the booth and came up to me briefly. She was upset and crying and she muttered something about there being no freedom in her country, and she left the airport. I felt terrible. I was scared that I had got her into trouble or I had at least changed her perception of her country. The day before she was fine. Five minutes later the police called me over and asked me when I had first met Golara. I told them two weeks previously when she had helped me buy some bus tickets. The policeman explained that in the airport there are some women who try and steal from tourists and therefore they had to be careful. However, I don’t believe him. The airport was a very controlled area. I just don’t think they like an Iranian woman interacting with a foreign man. Anyway, it just shows you, you can take your freedom for granted. I have subsequently got an email from Golara and she is fine. So that’s Iran! Hospitable, interesting, thought-provoking and I’ve hardly talked about the fabulous historical sites. I urge anyone to go there and see for themselves. There is a lot more I would like to write but I just can’t face it and I am sure you can’t either. For example, it was said to me that many people in Iran like Bush (what!) because he captured Saddam Hussein, and Saddam Hussein is despised in Iran because of the Iran-Iraq war. I took a trip out to the countryside passing by one of the infamous nuclear sites, with photography prohibited signs on the road and gun turrets


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Letter in the Irish Times last week (October 2005). Madam, - I write to you concerning certain misconceptions people can have about other countries, in this case Iran. Upon announcing to family, friends and colleagues that I planned to go there for a month I faced a constant barrage of “Iran? Is it safe? Aren’t there terrorists there? The Iranians won’t take too kindly to a Westerner travelling around their country”. Well, having been here for three weeks I can only report that all the above misconceptions are exactly that. I feel safer walking the streets of Tehran, a city of 14 million souls, many of them impoverished, than I do in Dublin. In the 21 days I have been here in towns and cities such as Esfahan, Yasd, Shiraz and Tabriz, no fewer than 11 evening meals have been spent at the invitation of locals in Iranian homes. The hospitality and friendliness of total strangers have been both astounding and unprecedented in my travels.

looming ominously above the mounds of earth that had been bulldozed up to obscure the view. Or the time when I took a picture of a group of Iranian women wearing chadors and asked my Iranian friend if the women minded. He replied, not trying to be funny, that they might not mind but their husbands might (shit!). But when I get back I will write it all up properly for myself. I am currently in Turkey in Goreme in the middle of the country. I am taking an overnight bus to the coast tonight for a few days swimming and relaxation on a boat. Cheers, Conor

I am completely drunk with amazement that the exact opposite is true of what many people referred to as a “dangerous holiday”. Instead it has been full of welcoming hospitality, stunning Islamic architecture, fascinating history - as well as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Darius the Great’s Persepolis. In’shallah, this letter will help others to leave behind badly construed perceptions and go and discover for themselves a real jewel of the Middle East and a uniquely Persian “Céad Míle Fáilte”. - Yours, etc, DEREK LARNEY, Shiraz, Iran.

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Golara’s Emails What follows is a selection of some of the emails I received from Golara. When Golara helped me to buy a bus ticket she asked me for my email address. So I received the first few emails from her when I was travelling around Iran. Then when I decided to go back to Tehran we arranged to meet up. @

Golara

24 September 2005 18:32:19

I hope you are well. if you go to shiraz,certainly go to Hafeziye.Hafez is famous poet at Iran and world.their poem can tell us future, likeness a good bibliomancer.if you go north,enjoy of weather and green places.north is very nice likeness IRELAND.     have good time,bye.  ---------Iranians are big into their poetry and Hafez is one of their

most popular poets. Iranians have a saying that every home must have two things: first the Quran, then Hafez. It says in the guide book that almost every Iranian can quote his work. Hafez’s tomb is in Shiraz and that’s what Golara was urging me to go and see. I managed to have a quick visit before heading off to the airport in Shiraz. The place had a wonderful atmosphere with very relaxing gardens surrounding the tomb, amongst which very respectful Iranians strolled. My English literature friend, David Doyle, who kindly reviewed this book for me, also went to the tomb. He went with some Iranian

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friends that he met over there. They arrived at sunrise when it is traditional to read verses of Hafez’s poetry out loud. From the guide book : “After the sun sets, with the tomb floodlit and sung versions of the poetry of Hafez piped quietly over the public address system, it is difficult not to feel transported back to the magic of ancient Persia.” David’s doctorate is on W.B.Yeats and he had a book of the poet’s work with him. Once his companions were finished with their recital of Hafez’s poetry, he pulled out the book from his bag, and exposed his Iranian audience to verses from the famous Irish poet. @

28 September 2005 19:42:10

Hi,my time at friday is free,i can see U,please write for me appiontment ; where is and what time ; write clearly.speak later about your question.i will check my email tomorow night.if i have problem about place of appiontment,i will send email for U.tomorow night check your email.Thanks. ----------

@

29 September 2005 20:06:34

Subject: change place Hi,the time of appointment that is okey,but place of it isnot suitable for me,it is so far.i offer our appointment at tajrish square opposite post office.it is distinguished.please take a taxi and come to tajrish.if U are okey,tell me by telephon.if U arenot okey,U can send message later.

I received the following email soon after the event in the airport. @

01 October 2005 17:09:29

Subject: Today, i understand you, what you said to me yesterday. Hi,I am middle,how are you? I wanted you are happy but i couldn’t Im not free to choece my rilation, becouse i live in Iran. you dont know laws of Iran unfoytunately president of Iran changed at agust. Mr ahmadi nejadt think closed. i dont like him. Mr khatami was last president of Iran he thoght open. But now Iran isnt free also police spock me accufatory. I think the police at Iran is aggressive(trespasser) The Police here lie any time, and they are stupid I don’t know futher of iran is well/bad by this gaverment i don’t know. I WICH GOD HELP ME FOR HAVE FREE TIME I don’t see you sadly, I will see you happy and I will see you again But today I know the peaple in iran aren’t liberty and they are not free But I know, I will left iran vor ever, I don’t know when and I don’t know where but I know I left iran vor ever i hopes you are not furious of me and you can understand me I hope you will be fine in the next time and have fun in your journy.

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He said that Ahmadinejad promised to take from the rich and give to the poor, and considering the dire economic situation the country’s in, it was a seductive argument. The world is preoccupied with Iran’s nuclear capability, but like in many countries, the people themselves are preoccupied with making a living and supporting their families. However, I was left with the feeling that these arguments did not fully explain the reason why so many people voted for Ahmadinejad, and maybe Iran is a more conservative country than many liberal Iranians like to portray. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

@

02 October 2005 06:33:56

i am very uncomfortable,nobody cannot understand me. i hope U have good time at Turkey   The person Golara is referring to is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who had just came to power before I went to Iran. The previous President was a cleric but by all accounts was a reformist and a good man. However he hands were tied because many of his reforms were vetoed by the Supreme Leader, and the people became disillusioned because no progress was being made. Ahmadinejad is completely different. He is a hardliner and is rolling back many of the minor liberal achievements of his predecessors. The way the voting system works in Iran is that the Supreme Leader only allows presidential candidates that he approves of, to go forward to the elections. So although the final presidential vote is a democratic vote, effectively the country is a dictatorship. However, I was always puzzled by why the majority of people still voted for Ahmadinejad in the elections, and not for some of the less hardline candidates. I never got a clear answer. Many people I spoke to in Iran did not vote at all because they were so cynical about the electoral system. The surgeon I talked to said to me that Ahmadinejad was portrayed as a “robin hood” figure.

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@

03 October 2005 11:48:38

Hello,how are U?did weather of tabrjz is cold? i thought wisely , excuse me ,i was nervous. i must try to forget <airport problem>. U told true,i agree U,i should not let what happenned in the airport spoit anything. i did not want to spoil your travel.please tell me that U are not uncomfortable of me.i have nice remembrance for U. i like to see U happily.  ----------

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The following was sent on my birthday. 07 March 2006 05:09:55

Subject: I like U are ok!

@

Hi, are you ok, what is up at turkey, now where do you visit, i recieved your email. i am happy because you had good time at Iran. i started learning english language at home half an hour every day. i am studing manegement at university,consequently i have not enought time for to go english class. my computer is demolished <go off> .it became viros , now , i check my email at cofenet.       i like to see    “you are happy”                 I MISS YOU  

When you were born , it was raining , but the wether was not cloudy , there were angels , who were crying , because you were going to leave them ! ? ----------

@

19 March 2006 20:27:33

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@

15 November 2005 08:53:50

AND THE God of GOds separated a spirit from Himself and created in it Beauty. He gave to it the lightness of the breeze at dawn and the fragrance of the flowers of the field and the softness of moonlight. Then He gave to it a cup of joy,saying,You shall not drink of it except that you forget the past and heed not the Future. And He gave to it a cup of sadness,saying,You shall drink and know thereform the meaning of life”s rejoicing.     (Selection from Gibran Kalil Gibran)             I HOPE YOU ARE WELL   

Hi conor, i hope you are ok! thanks for your e_mails.            In Iran,new year start by spiring,then,now,i spend vacation of new year’s day,but,after vacation i must looking for a job.         i searched about live and continuation of university in “ France or Belgium “   [ i know french language ] ,but it is difficult,because it is expensive+ it want vise. i don’t khow <it is possible or it isn’t possible >     i like to marriage this year . i wish to marriage with foreigner man,because :1- i think “ marriage of down age is better ! “    2-i like to continuation of my life by new culture and new place.   (a good man don’t find me , yet )        i will become happy , if i receive notice of you.       cheers    golara  ----------

---------OK. Let’s talk about Iranian relationships. When I talked to Golara she did have boyfriends. She complained that her last boyfriend was always late, which drove her nuts. The first thing she said to me when we met up that day was “You are on-time!”. She said that her previous boyfriend proposed marriage but that her family rejected him.

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Golara said that her husband must have a house, a car and something else (which for the life of me I can’t remember) and then with a smile on her face she said “and then he comes and finds me!”. Talking to Nazanin, the wife of my Iranian friend Saman, in the Iranian culture, women make it known that they are available for marriage and then as Golara says the men come and find them.

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Nazanin also said, as Golara mentioned, that somebody to have their own place and be financially secure is a definite tick in the box with respect to eligibility. I suppose that is true in even Western cultures but probably more relevant in Iran where, although women represent 63% of third level students, they only represent 11% of the workforce. There are many highly educated women in Iran and they can obtain high positions of power within companies (for example, Saman’s boss in Tehran, was a woman) but they still follow pretty traditional roles within a marriage, and in general women are expected to leave their jobs when they have children. However, as the guide book says, you are under no illusion as to who is really in charge when you enter an Iranian home. That reminds me of one visit I made to the home of the family that showed me around Tehran. I was warmly welcomed and about ten minutes later the mother appeared with tea and bikkies. Then one of the family’s friends arrived at the house and everyone went out to greet her. It was a big event somebody just calling at the house. We went into another room and five minutes later I looked down, and there were the tea and bikkies. They had miraculously moved from one room to the other. Then out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the mother hovering around, closely observing what was going on and making sure everyone was OK. How similar to Ireland is that.

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Another key factor with respect to marriage in Iran concerns the age of the woman. After the age of 30, women are seen to be past their prime because they are past the ideal child-bearing age. Many women are then allowed to go abroad to find a husband. I think that is what Golara was referring to in one of her emails (not printed here, it was in Farsi and my friend translated it) where her family said that if she was still unmarried by the age of 30 they would allow her to go to Europe. Nazanin talked about how a friend’s mother was depressed that it was her daughter’s 30th birthday because her daughter still wasn’t married. The idea that, because Iran is a strict Islamic state, the moral behaviour there would be somehow far superior to other godless states, is an absolute fallacy. Nazanin remarked that in Tehran, when women go out on their own, they can get a lot more hassle than any other country she has been to in Europe. She said that some of the things that men could say could be quite nasty, and they could sometimes even make physical contact. Saman said that if a woman stops in a street beside the road, nearly even second car would stop and hassle her, which he found shocking. He said that if you have a daughter in Iran it can be a worry. It was funny, when I asked him the question if a woman would be hassled if she was with her husband, or father, he looked aghast and said “What! He would rip their heads off!”. When I was with Golara a man said something to her, and Golara stormed off exclaiming “Iranian men!”. Golara said that you had to be careful when taking a taxi in some parts of the city because some men can touch you, and she motioned across her chest. Saman also mentioned that Iran could be one of the most sexually charged places in the world. Members of the opposite

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sex are constantly checking each other out. He said he does it himself. Iran must provide a good study in human sexual behaviour. How a people manage to attract each other and get together despite the strict dress code and cultural restrictions. It’s amazing how, given this environment, women can look so trendy and beautiful. In north Tehran they constantly push the boundaries of what dress they can get away with. For example, with many trendy Tehranian women the mandatory headscarf is literally pushed back on their head, to show as much hair to the front as possible. Saman says he sometimes gets the urge, as I did, to get hold of the scarf and put in on properly. Or to take it off completely; anything to avoid the annoying constantly precarious state that it’s in, poised to fall off at any minute. However, as I mentioned in the main text on Iran, over the last few weeks (end of June 2007) there has been a big clampdown on women’s dress in Tehran with women being arrested in the street for immodest dress. It’s the biggest clampdown in ten years. When I was in Kashan I hooked up with a guide there called Ahmad Pourseyedi, who was 70 years old. In the guide book it describes him as a “Charming old rogue”. Personally I think a better description might be “Dirty old man” :-) Against my best efforts, he kept dragging the conversation back to the topic of women and sex. Sometimes there can be a very thin line between someone who his unpleasant and seedy, and someone who is actually funny; in a black humour sort of way. You know you shouldn’t be amused and laughing but you can’t help yourself. This guy just about sat on the side of the fence where he was, in a slightly perverse manner, amusing. Just! He couldn’t believe I wasn’t married. He kept coming back to

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the subject. He said to me “What do you do, mass-ur-bait?”. He pronounced at one point “I am an old man and I still like women!”. I could tell. So during the half day tour, despite my best efforts to steer the conversation onto other matters (like, for example, the sights he was meant to be showing me around!) he frequently came back to the topic of women. He wasn’t all bad though. He was meant to drop me off at the bus station where I was to catch the afternoon bus to Esfahan, but in the end we missed it. I had made it known to him that I thought we were cutting it fine to get there on time, but he said it would be alright. I think then when we did actually miss the bus he was feeling guilty. He had a quiet, slightly concerned, slightly embarrassed air. He talked urgently to the people at the bus station and told me to get back in the car. He was going to try and cut the bus off and flag it down. So in his visually dilapidated but surprisingly powerful car, we took off like the Dukes of Hazzard, haring across the city. We came across a bus and he drove beside it, waving his arms frantically outside the car. It was stopping anyway in order to pick up some other passengers and we found out it wasn’t the right bus. He then went out of his way to make sure I got a shared taxi and told me to ring him when I arrived in Esfahan so he knew that I was alright. So, as I say, he wasn’t all bad. However everything worked out well because it was in the shared taxi to Esfahan that I met the engineer, with whom I went to the wedding in the countryside that evening.

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The “Charming Old Rogue”

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01 July 2006 10:48:53

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Hi Conor, thank you for your Email How are you? yes i found a good job and i found also a boyfrend he is a good man. i have a new job and i stay in iran. i congratulate you for your new house   i wish you a very good time   see you later ----------

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I sent an email to Golara the following year about the hostage situation with respect to the British sailors. This is her reply. @

13 April 2007 14:19:14

hello , how are you? I became glad to have news conserning you. at Iran new year started by spiring since 24 days. for vacance, we traveled to Antalya( in Turkey) .and now i work at a pool ( i am teacher’s swimming ) . but conserning politics’s Iran: i don’t listen to news at television because i thing : it isn’t true. i don’t know what news you heared !!!  only i know : unfortunately, our president isn’t a politician man .he even cann’t select suitable clothing for international parliament.he take a little liberty that we had. i hate he. ... and finally congratulation for your book. i hope you succeed. cheers. ---------It does raise a few interesting points this email. The first is, like in any dictatorship, as Golara says you cannot trust a word that the media tells you. I talked to Saman about this also because he was in Iran just after this international event, and he said that everyone he talked to believed that the British sailors were in the wrong. So even educated liberal Iranians, were accepting the government propaganda. The email also shows you, two years into President Ahmadinejad’s reign, he hasn’t exactly won Golara over and I believe he is losing support among even poor conservative Iranians, because he hasn’t delivered the promises he made at the time of his election.

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“ WaronTerror

views and I strove to be as correct and as accurate as possible. However, although it took me so long, it was a great learning process. It has made my views more concrete and my understanding more complete and for me it is a kind of culmination of extracting every last bit of worth from the time I spent in the Middle East. OK then, here we go.

London 2006/2007

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want to address this issue of the “war on terror” and how it relates to the Middle East and the Muslim religion. One of the motivations I had for going to the region was to try and to understand more about the situation there. Although, to be honest, when I think back to my time in the Middle East, I am simply reminded of the very warm and hospitable people. The political situation did not impact on me at all when I was travelling around. However, I talked to the locals and as I said in the introduction, I believe that even just visiting a country gives you an extra interest in country going forward, and I think it enables you to better understand how the political situation affects the people’s day-to-day lives. Also I have been reading up and researching the issues as best I can here in London, and there is no better place in the world to do that. The following passage took me absolutely ages to write and I found it very difficult, because although it is a very opinionated piece, I genuinely tried to openly consider other people’s

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When I started working back in London I met up with the half Iranian sisters and their mother, the people who organised for their family to show me around Tehran. The “Monk” family, probably the most inapt surname for any three sisters I have ever met. Only joking girls :-)

She also said that she is now reluctant to tell people that she is a Muslim. When she told me that, I really bEgan to get worried. The sisters are friends of my flatmate and they live in London, so I met them a few times before meeting their mother, who lives outside London. I met the mother (Zara) one afternoon in a pub in North London and there were a few things that stuck in my mind about the conversation I had with her. The first was a discussion of a television programme about a young woman who was hanged (yes hanged!) for persistent immoral behaviour in Iran. She said that she cried, as her daughter did,


It’s as if the world needs a global threat; something to fill the vacuum that the retreat of communism has left.

Benazir Bhutto

when she saw the programme and she said that how could she possibly tell anyone she was Iranian, if they had seen that documentary. I must admit there are times when I too have to remind myself that I was in Iran, and that I met the people, when I see some of the reports about the country. She also said that she is now reluctant to tell people that she is a Muslim. When she told me that, I really began to get worried. An open-minded liberal Muslim, married to an Englishman, totally integrated into English society, moderate and intelligent, and yet feels embarrassed to say what her religion is, due the terrible stigma that is currently attached to being a Muslim. Maybe it’s from the experience of Northern Ireland that I can understand how attitudes will deepen and harden within any grouping of people, if the people are put on the back foot or feel they are on the defensive. The most diehard “Irish” people in Ireland are the nationalists in Northern Ireland, much more so that the people down south in the Republic.

It’s as if the world has suddenly been thrust into a global threat by the Muslim religion and radical Islamists. It’s as if the world needs a global threat; something to fill the vacuum that the retreat of communism has left. Personally, I can’t understand where all of this has come from. It’s bordering on paranoia. It’s not as if the religion is a recent phenomenon, or a cult that has just materialised. I read the latest edition of TIME magazine and there is an unbelievable amount of articles related directly or indirectly, to Islam. The last time I was back in Dublin I had a debate with David Doyle over this issue. Personally I think he’s been reading too much Kevin Myers. But I will try to give my arguments on how I believe the perceived threat on the Western world by the Muslim religion is, in my opinion, unfair and counterproductive. Threat to Western values from the Muslim Religion I went to an interview recently with Benazir Bhutto in London, the ex-prime minister of Pakistan. She talked about what she saw as being the hijacking of Islam, and that when she was a child, Islam was taught to her by her religious teacher, as the religion of tolerance. She said that in the Muslim world “we say that God created man and woman equal and Islam gave women inheritance right, divorce rights, child custody rights… long, long before the Western world woke up to them”. She is some woman and in many ways shows the potential

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for women in Muslim countries. She is incredibly intelligent and articulate. She was the first ever woman leader of a Muslim country. When she became Prime Minister of Pakistan, a country of 150 million people, she was only 35. Even now

She [Benazir Bhutto] talked about what she saw as being the hijacking of Islam, and that when she was a child, Islam was taught to her, by her religious teacher, as the religion of tolerance. after her forced exile from the country, she still is the most popular leader in Pakistan, and leads the most popular political party. She is a controversial figure and there have been corruption charges against her which she strongly denies, but there was one quote from her at the talk which stuck in my mind. She said no matter what happens, she is going back to Pakistan at the end of the year, to try and take part in the elections - even though she has been threatened with imprisonment if she does. She said that “when my father was killed I then decided that I would actively fight for freedom within Pakistan and I am prepared to risk everything in that fight; whether it’s my life, whether it’s my liberty or whether it’s my happiness.” These are not idle threats. Her father was hanged and two of her brothers have been killed. She was imprisoned for five years before, most of the time in solitary confinement. And yet she has the most serene, relaxed air with a keen sense of humour. Watch this space for how she gets on. CB

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I am in the latter stages of putting this together and Benazir

Bhutto last week returned to Pakistan. On the homecoming procession from the airport, two suicide bombers in the crowd blew themselves up, killing 140 people. It was the biggest terrorist attack in Pakistan’s 60 year history. Benazir Bhutto was lucky to come through the attack unscathed. In her talk she persistently put across the view that the threat to Western values is not from the Muslim religion but from dictatorships. I think it is a valid point. The strictest Muslim states, where a lot of the problems originate from, are dictatorships. For example, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Where you have democracies there are, in general, tolerant societies. Look at the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, which has a population greater than the whole of the Middle East. It is a republic with 200 million people and there are no issues with the Muslim religion being an oppressive force in the country. Of course there are a handful of extremists, which

It’s not just an issue concerning the Muslim religion.. I have concerns over the teachings of some very conservative religious groups in America. took part in the bombings in Bali, but the people in Indonesia are united in the total condemnation of these actions. The Muslims of Indonesia pose a threat to nobody. If you look at Turkey, it is a secular state and in general, people of different faiths and different levels of faith live peace-


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Afghanistan. I saw this picture in the Irish Times in 2005 and I loved it.

fully together. The new government is a mild Islamic government, but no one has accused it of being undemocratic or against Western values. Its popularity is more due to its good governmentship rather than its Islamic credentials. I agree there are issues with some interpretations of the Muslim religion, let’s express them as the “non-Benazir Bhutto interpretations” and how these differences can hamper integration into secular societies and yes, I agree, pose a threat to Western values. However this is no different to how other non-religions cultural differences can pose a threat to secular open-minded societies, or threats from other religions for that matter. It’s not just an issue concerning the Muslim religion. For example, I have concerns over the teachings of some very conservative religious groups in America. At times they do not

preach a level of tolerance that I would associate with Western values and, for me, they have too much of an impact on American politics. The way you deal with these threats on Western values, is by the introduction of strict laws to ensure a secular, tolerant society with no ambiguity. So nobody is under any illusion about what type of culture they are emigrating into and what is expected in a Western society. If this means that a religion, any religion, has to open itself up to scrutiny and has to adapt to meet these Western values, then so be it. There should be a zero-tolerant approach to zero-tolerance. If this happens, then there is nothing to fear. I think it’s hypocritical of some Muslims, living in the West, to criticise the Western culture when it allows them to have a lot more free-

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dom and opportunity (which many take for granted) than they would have in many Muslim countries. Just look at women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and under the Taliban in Afghanistan. But this is also an issue with, for example, Hindus, who in their own country can be restricted to what jobs they can apply for, or even the people they can marry, because of the caste system.

Listening to the programme I was struck by how well Muslims can integrate into British society. I say that because she had that world wide notorious, in-built, British arrogance. David pointed out that one of the main reasons for the nonintegration of Muslims, is to do with their religion and by the fact that they inter-marry with other Muslims. I do agree with David on this point. The experience of Germany with the Turkish community shows that after 50 years the Turks have still not integrated into German society and, for example, they still obtain most of their marriage partners from Turkey. Although, I have read an article which made the point that the non-integration of the Turkish has also been hampered by German government policy. However, this issue is not just restricted to Muslims. Look at the Indian population in the UK. They do exactly the same; even second and third generation Indians, in general, marry within their own Hindu community. They can even follow, in the UK, the ridiculous caste system.

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The Jewish population nearly exclusively marry within their own religion. So I do agree that integration is an issue but it is not restricted to Muslims. I listened to a BBC radio programme about the controversy concerning the wearing of the veil by Muslims in the UK. The programme was made by a British Muslim woman who was a reporter for the BBC. She was very critical of Jack Straw’s request to Muslims to remove the veil when he was talking to them in his constituency office. Listening to the programme I was struck by how well Muslims can integrate into British society. I say that because she had that world wide notorious, in-built, British arrogance. Her smugness and slightly condescending attitude was awful to listen to, and she came across as having no consideration for the general population at large, and how such a strong cultural statement could be perceived as a threat to Western values and women’s rights. When I went to Iran I did not drink, I dressed conservatively, and acted in an appropriate manner, out of respect for the people, their culture and their way of life. In the same way, I would expect the same of anybody visiting or living in Ireland (I can only talk about my own country) and in my opinion, wearing a veil in Ireland is an insult to the Irish culture and Irish society. I wouldn’t ban it in public places, as they are considering doing in Holland, but I would legislate for it in any work place and in any state building. If people don’t like it they can go back to the repressive regime they came from. Personally I have no problem with the Muslim headscarf, because it is not alien to the Irish culture and does not dehumanise women as I believe the black chador and veil does. It’s more culturally acceptable and I personally have no problem with people wearing religious clothes or symbols.


as soon as I heard him speak I was transported back to the incredible warmth and tolerance of the people I met in the Middle East.

However at the end of the programme she talked to a Muslim scholar about this issue and as soon as I heard him speak I was transported back to the incredible warmth and tolerance of the people I met in the Middle East. He made the point that it is up for debate whether the veil is even a Muslim religious symbol and may have been adopted by Muslims when they invaded the Byzantine Empire. Certainly he said nobody can say for sure that it is part of the Muslim dress. To be honest, I personally donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t remember seeing any woman wearing the veil in Iran, or in the Middle East for that matter. I think it only enforced by the extreme religious dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. The Muslim scholar also made the point that Muslims should try and reach out to the wider community, instead of alienating themselves over issues such as this.

The terrorist threat from radical Islam As I said in my write-up I did experience a tolerance (yes tolerance!) in the Middle East, and also when I visited other Muslim countries such as Malaysia. I think the problem with terrorists that associate themselves with the Muslim religion (I do not like calling them Islamic terrorists), originates from dictatorships, such as the ones in Iran and Saudi Arabia; and

the emergence of extremist groups from conflicts, such as the mujahideen in Afghanistan. With respect to dictatorships: The disgraceful fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie again was issued by Iran, a dictatorship. Many of the protests against the Danish cartoons were orchestrated by governments for political gain, such as occurred in Syria. One of the most repressive religious regimes in the world, which is a breeding ground for terrorists, is led by the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia. With respect to the mujahideen: The mujahideen were looselyaligned Afghan opposition groups that fought against the

So where this extremism originated from, was from the miltant groups that fought the Russians. Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan praised the people as fredoom fighters, and in the 1988 film Rambo III they are portrayed as heroes. Watch Rambo III and prepare to be amazed. A radical splinter group from the Mujahideen was the Taliban which harboured and supported Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which started all this turmoil. Al Qaeda themselves originated around the time of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. So where this extremism originated from, was from the miltant groups that fought the Russians. These groups taught their troops an extreme interpretation of the Muslim religion, which they used to create warriors, totally obedient soldiers who would be prepared to die facing the formidable soviet

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war machinery. If you look up the entry for Al-Qaeda in Wikipedia there is a big question mark over how big and organised this organisation is (or was). e.g. “Although the governments opposed to al-Qaeda claim that it has worldwide reach, other analysts have suggested that those governments, as well as Osama bin Laden himself, exaggerate al-Qaeda’s significance in Islamist terrorism” For the full argument, please look up the article for yourself.

I do share David’s view though, that the Muslim world has not been strong enough in its condemnation of such attacks. So this supposed worldwide threat probably originated from a fanatical bunch of fighters in Afghanistan. Of course the fact that they are a small bunch of fanatics does not mean they cannot have serious consequences. You only have to look at September 11th for proof of that. But in many ways Al-Qaeda got lucky with September 11th (if you will pardon me for using such a term for such a heinous act). But I do think people sometimes forget that this world changing event was perpetrated by only nineteen people. I do share David’s view though, that the Muslim world has not been strong enough in its condemnation of such attacks. During the worst troubles in Northern Ireland, the Irish government unreservedly condemned the IRA and made sure that everyone was well aware that the atrocities being perpetrated

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George W. Bush

by the terrorists, did not the have support of the Irish people as a whole. I do not feel the same level of anger in the Muslim world, certainly not in the Middle East. Although, in case people forget, all the Middle Eastern countries do condemn these attacks (including Iran). So what you need to do is to focus on these lunatics and with the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, go after who is responsible. What you do not do, is to in any way generalize and associate these acts with a religion that encompasses 1.3 billion people, because if you do, you end up dragging other people into the conflict that normally would not be involved. That’s exactly what Bush has done. His moronic “axis of evil” speech helped, single-handedly, to stigmatise whole nations. His omnipresent use of the term “war on terror”, and just listen to an extract from one of his Presidential addresses.


His moronic “axis of evil” speech which single-handedly helped to stigmatise whole nations. “we have learned that their goal is to build a radical Islamic empire where women are prisoners in their homes, men are beaten for missing prayer meetings, and terrorists have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilized nations.” Sounds like Saudi Arabia! Bush’s great ally. Saudi Arabia is already a “radical Islamic” country whose dictatorship brutally enforces a religious doctrine that also provides a breeding ground for terrorists. Remember that’s where Osama Bin Laden comes from, and that’s where fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers came from. “The war against this enemy is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation” So we have gone from a handful of people on September 11th, to a world-wide ideological threat by the Muslim religion, similar to the threat of communism. It’s nearly a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more you talk up the issue the more it becomes reality. I do believe that the focus that this issue is being given will only exacerbate the situation. I was pleased to hear that Gordon Brown seems to realise this, and has banned his cabinet from using religious terms when talking about terrorist attacks, and has also banned the use of the phrase “war on

terror”. The danger of course is that the issue starts to become a battle against Islam, and that is why I found it so worrying that a moderate Muslim no longer tells people what her religion is. If it is seen to be a battle against Islam then there will be no shortage of people prepared to defend the faith. It will lead to a hardening of attitudes and people retreating into intransient positions. Also people and governments will start to feel on the defensive, and it may be that the recent crackdown, the most severe for ten years, on moderate and dissenting voices in Iran, is an example of this. There is now an increased voluntary use of the headscarf all over the Muslim world (apart from, ironically, Iran). If the moderate voices are feeling threatened what about the extremist elements!

If it is seen to be a battle against Islam then there will be no shortage of people prepared to defend the faith. If this was a global conspiracy, an uprising of radical Muslims against the world, a struggle for ideology, then we would not have the situation where most of the violence being perpetrated, is by Muslims against other Muslims. It proves the conflict is not a religious one. As David Doyle said, Muslims would be dangerous if they were united. We had the Iran-Iraq war which was primarily a struggle against Sunni and Shia Muslims based on territorial issues, in Iraq it is now a sectarian war between Sunni and Shias, and recently Lebanon has blown up, again between Muslims, over power struggles within the country. It similar to

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the fighting that went on amongst Christian groups in Northern Ireland. We can learn a lot from Northern Ireland over what is going on in the Middle East. We are horrified at the sectarian attacks occurring in Iraq, and the barbaric behaviour of the Muslims in the country. However, at times, similar atrocities occurred in Northern Ireland. The IRA have placed bombs in British streets and pubs;

What you most certainly do not do, is to invade another country illegally, based on trumped up charges, in one of the most volatile and sensitive rEgions of the world! loyalist terrorists went into a random pub in Northern Ireland with a sub-machine gun and tried to kill as many people in the pub as possible. And that is in a state with a stable government, with the vast majority of people being against the attacks, and with nearly 30,000 British troops being stationed in such a small province. So we have to be very careful at judging what is going on in the Middle East and making generalisations about the people.

Also the complete callousness of the attacks by Al-Qaeda, their total lack of any principle or idealism, sets them apart from any religion, from any just cause or valid movement. So, I will state again, what you need to do is to focus on these

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lunatics and with the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, go after who is responsible. What you most certainly do not do, is to invade another country illegally, based on trumped up charges, in one of the most volatile and sensitive regions of the world! Iraq Right, here goes a full-blown Dublin rant about the Iraq war. Where do you start with the war in Iraq? In my opinion, at every stage this war has been a disgrace, and an absolute disaster. First of all there was no international consensus or agreement to go to war. If there had been, I would have supported it. The whole point of obtaining a UN mandate is to give legality to an action. It means there is an international consensus to a potentially world changing event. It helps to ensure that there is a good enough reason to go to war and it prevents dictators illegally invading other countries, as Hitler

Many people think Bush and Blair went into Iraq primarily for oil. I donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t. did to Poland, which started World War 2. However Bush and Blair, in the end, dismissed that formality. They did not achieve an international consensus among democratically elected countries, and like a dictatorship, went ahead regardless. They even had the nerve to make France the scapegoat in the process. Many people think Bush and Blair went into Iraq primarily


although Iraq had nothing to do with the “war on terror” prior to the invasion, Bush and Blair together have single-handedly made Iraq the biggest issue with respect to the “war on terror” in the world today. for oil. I don’t. I believe they went in for the reasons they gave. Bush because he hated Saddam Hussein, a hatred he inherited from his father. Blair, because he was over zealous, and had an overly simplistic view of the world and its threats. He became too self-convinced of the information presented to him. He was too eager to show support for America. He believed too much in his ability to change the world for the better and did not doubt enough his ability to make the correct judgement. What really gets to me is that neither one of the two leaders has ever even hinted at being sorry for the mistake they have made. We were told that Saddam Hussein was being removed from power because he had weapons of mass destruction and these weapons posed an immediate threat. No weapons of mass destruction were found. That was the clear reason they went to war. So where are the apologies? Then we are told that it was a worthwhile invasion because they removed a monster of a dictator. Do they think we are all idiots? I mean the cheek of them! They invaded another country illegally, based on a clear premise. It was the reason they justified the war to both their own people, and to the world

in general. And now they are, retrospectively, presenting a different argument. If they were on a crusade to get of dictators, why didn’t they invade Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? They have even managed to introduce the “war on terror” as one of the reasons for the invasion. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9-11 or the “war on terror”. Even an American produced report came to that conclusion. In fact, although Iraq had nothing to do with the “war on terror” prior to the invasion, Bush and Blair together have singlehandedly made Iraq the biggest issue with respect to the “war on terror” in the world today. Iraq has become the focus of dissent for every radical nutcase in the world. Instead of isolating and demonising the terrorists, Bush has broadened their potential support to worldwide proportions.

Then they go and make an absolute fuck up of administering the country. Then they go and make an absolute fuck up of administering the country. I read a best-selling book by the journalist Bob Woodwood called “State of Denial”. Bob Woodwood is a reporter for the Washington Post and is a highly respected journalist. Early on in his Presidency, Bush used to give him interviews, and Rumsfeld gave him interviews up until very recently (although he won’t be doing so in the future, considering the pasting he gets in the book). Basically the author shows what a shambles the invasion has been. In his opinion, the decisions the U.S. government made at the start of the war, led directly to the quagmire that the

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country now finds itself in. Woodwood portrays an image of incompetence, a lack of debate, and a cosiness within Bush’s inner circle, the members of which only wanted to hear positive accounts about how the war was progressing. And look what’s happened. There is over 500,000 dead, 2 million Iraq’s have fled the country and 1.5 million Iraq’s are refugees within their own country. Even the Economist, which supported the war, has admitted that it lacked imagination about just how dire the situation could become, and it agrees that the country is now in a worse state than it was under Saddam’s rule. The majority of Iraqis are now against the invasion. How is that possible considering what a horrendous dictator Saddam Hussein was? The country is also on the brink of civil war which could send these figures through the roof. Then George Bush goes on national television and challenges the insurgents in Iraq to “bring it on”. I know from the experience of Northern Ireland that this type of statement is like a red rag to a bull. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it, knowing what the response would be. Well they brought it on! Is he happy now? There is also a very real danger of Iraq’s neighbours being drawn into the conflict, and the whole Middle East blowing up. This would be a disaster for the region and for the rest of the world. The mistrust of America and its allies, and the desire not to be associated with another Iraq, is going to make any future intervention, no matter how just and necessary, even more difficult. The level of violence in Iraq and what atrocities the disparate groups are prepared to inflict on each other, is depressing, and provides unsettling precedents for future conflicts. Bush and Blair have made the world a more dangerous place than it was before the invasion.

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I am left wondering, what it would take for George Bush and his cronies, or Tony Blair, to admit that the war was wrong, and that they have made serious mistakes? At what point would they change their mind? What situation would need to materialise for them to have serious doubts? The problem is that I cannot envisage that situation. Personally I cannot see how the whole debacle could have gone any worse. I believe the facts speak for themselves. Yet the people who supposedly believe in democracy, open-mindedness and debate, refuse to accept the reality of the situation. Then if you add into the mix, interment in Guantanamo Bay, state sponsored torture by “special rendition” flights, Abu Ghraid, and illegal wire-tapping in the U.S., you could be forgiven for thinking that the Bush administration is like a quasidictatorship. It’s certainly using the tools of a dictatorship. I can understand why they do it, what’s the motivation, and why they feel it’s necessary, but I can understand why dictators do it also! But when you take actions like these, it is very difficult to assume the high moral ground and preach about freedom and democracy.

America has been portrayed as the main culprit with respect to Iraq, but Britain too has also a lot to answer for. Also the American government’s record on the Palestine-Israel issue consistently challenges its credentials as being an honest broker in the Middle East. Many people have strong views on this issue and many people have sympathy for a particular camp, but America has gone further than that. Many times it


Tony Blair

Bush, the former US President Jimmy Carter said recently: “Abominable. Loyal. Blind. Apparently subservient. And I think the almost undeviating support by Great Britain for the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq have been a major tragedy for the world.” When I read Bob Woodwood’s book on the war I was struck by the near complete lack of reference to the British government and the British army. The book describes the British forces as nearly being a sub-division of the American army, and certainly at a management level, the British government did not appear to have any influence on how the invasion was carried out.

Tony Blair is biased in its support of Israel. Even respected publications (such as the Economist) have that view. There is also the criticism in the Muslim world that the life of a collation soldier or any Westerner is of more importance in the eyes of the American public, compared to the life of an innocent Iraqi. Sadly, I do believe there is some truth in that. America has been portrayed as the main culprit with respect to Iraq, but Britain too has also a lot to answer for. In Britain, the two main political parties supported the war. That was not even the case in America. This really struck me when I watched a special Iraq edition of Question Time in March, where, against all the evidence, most of the politicians were going out of their way to look for any positive slant on the current situation. Also, Britain’s support for America has given America’s actions a credibility which otherwise they would not have had. Asked by BBC Radio how he would judge Blair’s support of

I don’t think I have ever been so disappointed or changed my opinion so much about any politician as I have with Tony Blair. This leads me onto Tony Blair. I don’t think I have ever been so disappointed or changed my opinion so much about any politician as I have with Tony Blair. I used to always like and admire Tony Blair. What he did in Northern Ireland, in Bosnia, how he changed politics for the better in Britain, and his genuine concern for the disadvantaged people of the world. I was always ready to defend him and try and understand the difficulties of office for someone with such a high profile, and for someone who in the end has to make difficult decisions. Of course I want politicians to do the right thing, but if make

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the wrong judgement, I expect, at the very least, that they put their hands up and admit that they were wrong. Tony Blair has done none of that; he has admitted nothing! I listened to an interview he had on radio about a month before he left office and I read a “What I’ve learnt” article that he wrote in the Economist. In my opinion, the man has completely lost it. He is in a total state of denial. He continually spouts platitudes about freedom but yet ignores the current reality. In his long article for the Economist he does not mention once, not once, anything to do with weapons of mass destruction. There was a letter in response to Blair’s “What I’ve learnt” article in the Economist: SIR – Tony Blair is right to insist on social justice (“What I’ve learned”, June 2nd). But by committing Britain to join George Bush and the neoconservatives in their disastrous military crusade against Iraq, while at the same time denying the Palestinian people even elementary justice, Mr Blair is doomed to failure. As for “freedom”, it certainly eludes the dead and displaced and remains a utopian dream to the victims of the bloody civil war unleashed by the invasion on the Iraqi people. All of this justified by the removal from power of Saddam Hussein, a scoundrel and America’s former ally against Iran. “Get real” indeed. Jon Baldvin Hannibalsson Iceland’s minister for foreign affairs, 1988-95 When he left office, his profound parting statement was “I have always done what I thought was right.” And? So? Is that meant to be poignant? Is it something that he thought we had all missed, or didn’t realise? Tony, that’s what you’re paid to do. The judgement of a politician, or anybody in power for that matter, is not that they did what they thought was right,

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but what they did, was the right thing to do. Surely? I am not missing something, am I? For many Labour supporters the final straw was his failure to call a ceasefire to the pointless bombing of Lebanon by the Israeli army last year. That too was for me, the point that I lost all time and respect for the man. How could he not call for a ceasefire? What possible reason could he have for continuing the senseless bombing that was not achieving its aims and killing innocent people?

That too was for me, the point that I lost all time and respect for the man. So why would Blair not condemn it? Was it because America was not condemning it? Even a committee set up by the Israeli government, to investigate the war with Lebanon, issued a damning verdict of the Israeli government’s handling of the crisis. From the report: “In making the decision to go to war, the government did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of ‘containment’, or combining political and diplomatic moves with military strikes below the ‘escalation level’, or military preparations without immediate military action…” I watched recently, the historic debate in the houses of parliament over the Iraq war, and it reminded me of just how much of a skilled politician Tony Blair is. It was an incredible performance by the man; the debate showed to the full his force-


ful persuasive powers, his doubtless sincerity. However looking at the debate in hindsight, I think it shows clearly, that at the time he made the decision to go to war, he was in an over zealous state. He does seem like a man who was on a moral crusade and that he was over simplifying the issues. He was not relaxed enough or open-minded enough to be able to fully consider contrary arguments to what he was proposing. For me, Tony Blair has had this mental state since September 11th, specifically when he made a speech with Bush at the White house, pledging allegiance to America’s cause. Even magazines such as the Economist, who supported the war, are admitting they got it wrong. What follows are extracts from its excellent editorial concerning Iraq, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion: “Loathsome though he was, Saddam Hussein had no link to al-Qaeda or the September 11th plot.” “Mr Bush and Tony Blair tried and failed to win a clear United Nations mandate for war. By invading without one, they made themselves vulnerable to the charge that the war was unlawful.” “There were those (such as this newspaper) who supported the Iraq war solely because of the danger that a Saddam Hussein with a biological or atomic bomb would indeed have posed. But Mr Bush and Mr Blair refused after the war to be embarrassed by the absence of the weapons that had so alarmed them beforehand. They stressed instead all the other reasons why it had been a good idea to overthrow Mr Hussein. In Los Angeles last month Mr Blair argued that the invasion was all about supporting Islam’s moderates against its reactionaries and bolstering democracy against dictatorship.

Such arguments no longer sell in the West, let alone the Muslim world. If it was all about dictatorship, what about the dictatorship the West continues to embrace in Saudi Arabia, and the quasi-dictatorship in Pakistan? If it was about helping Islam’s moderates against its reactionaries, what is so clever about stepping in to someone else’s civil war? Besides, the horrors of pre-invasion Iraq had nothing to do with Islam’s inner demons. Mr Hussein’s was a secular dictatorship in which Islamists of all stripes kept their heads down.” “To the secular mind, the jihadists’ notion that the faith is everywhere under attack looks absurd…. And yet a troubling recent development is the emergence in America of an equal and opposite distortion. This is the idea that it is the West and its values that are everywhere under attack, and everywhere by the same seamless front of what Mr Bush has taken to calling “Islamic fascism”, as if this conflict is akin to the second world war or the cold war against communism. “We are in the early stages of what I would describe as the third world war,” Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in July.” “Al-Qaeda did not invent terrorism…. But September 11th seemed to portend something new. There was something different in the sheer epic malevolence of the thing: more than 3,000 dead, with destruction sliding out of a clear blue sky, all captured on live TV. Most previous terror organisations had negotiable demands and therefore exercised a measure of restraint. Al-Qaeda’s fantastic aims—sweeping away regimes, reversing history and restoring the caliphate—are married to an appetite for killing that knows no limits. It boasts openly that it is seeking nuclear weapons. Mass terrorism by Islamist extremists remains a danger. To

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say that America’s mistakes have increased the threat is not to say that America caused it. It is important to remember who attacked whom five years ago. Islam had its deadly and inchoate grievances before the Iraq war and before September 11th. The world must still strive to destroy al-Qaeda and, even more, the idea it represents. But it had better do so with cleverer means than those Mr Bush has used so far.”

So good riddance Tony Blair. So good riddance Tony Blair. I hope in years to come your conscience finally gets the better of you when you reflect on what you’ve done. In a way I wished I believed in God so I know that when you finally meet you maker, you will not be able to squirm out of the responsibility for the actions that you’ve taken.

But I believe that due to our history, there is also a sense of injustice that the Irish people feel. And I do feel that the Iranian people (not the government) are one of the most unfairly maligned people in the world today. The situation at the moment is also very grave in Iran and if the Iranian government continues on its current path there could be potentially very serious times ahead for the people. I received an email from Saman, my Iranian friend, concerning a special report they had in the Economist this month (July 2007) about Iran. He said: “I managed to read through most of the article in the Economist and I must admit it’s been one of the most informative and balanced points of views on Iran that I’ve read. Sadly there seems to be even more pressure building up on the country where the real losers are going to be the people.” Let’s all hope for the best.

Conclusion So, my heart goes out to the Iraqi people and I wish them all the very best. It’s a terrible thing that’s happening to them and to their country. I think being Irish maybe gives me a better understanding of what is going on there because of the recent history of Northern Ireland. I think my fascination with Iran, is to do with, like Cuba, the incredibly interesting social and political setup of the country. But I think it also stems from the fact that again, I am Irish. I have already discussed the similarity in many respects between the cultures and I have felt at ease and comfortable with most Iranians that I’ve met, whether it’s been in Iran or London.

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north. I flew to Amman in Jordan from Istanbul on the 28th of October. I never considered Turkey when I was first planning my overall trip in London, but I met a lot of backpackers in Bulgaria, who had come up from Turkey and they all loved it. Turkey and Berlin were the two places that I kept hearing good things about. So again I became interested. Also, Turkey is on the border of Iran and the weather is perfect in October, so it kind of made sense go there. On the Ishak Pasa Palace island

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n the 4th of October, after exactly 3 weeks in Iran, I crossed the border into Turkey at Gurbulak. I headed for Dogubayazit, which is well known because of the nearby Ishak Pasa Palace. My route in Turkey was as follows: I spent two nights in Dogubayazit, two nights in Van, two nights in Sanliurfa, a day trip around Mt Nemrut and nearby sites, one night in Malatya, and three nights in Goreme in Cappadocia. Then I took the overnight bus to Fethiye for a three day boat cruise, then three nights in Selcuk and then finally Istanbul for six nights. It was some travelling. Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s a big country, one and a half times the size of France, and I went its breadth from east to west and then

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My first impression was that the atmosphere was a bit more rough and ready than in Iran. There is no mandatory dress code but there were still a lot of

In fact, my overall impression of the time I spent in Turkey was that the people were more religious than in Iran. women with their heads covered. In fact, my overall impression of the time I spent in Turkey was that the people were more religious than in Iran. It was very different to what I expected. I saw more mosques, and more people going to mosques, in Turkey than I did in Iran. They say that Turkey is where east meets west, and in the east it is still very conservative. For example, I arrived just at the start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Although non-Muslims are not expected to fast, it is considered bad form and disrespectful to eat in front of fasting Muslims. The fasting period is from dusk to dawn and it was difficult to find


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a place to eat in Dogubayazit during the day. I once bought food in a cafe but I was not allowed to eat there and I had to bring the food back to my hotel room. The following day I did find a restaurant for lunch, but the room was upstairs and away from public view. I found some locals eating there, but they were in the furthest corner of the restaurant, nearly hiding behind a wall. In Van, which is a much larger town, I easily found a restaurant in which I could eat during the day. There were locals present but they were eating at the tables against the walls, out of sight of the street.

I didn’t realize before but fasting actually means that nothing can pass a Muslim’s lips. So not only can Muslims not eat, but they cannot drink or smoke either. I travelled with a guy from Barcelona for five days and we remarked to each other that we nearly felt guilty munching on a bread roll, in some of the buses we took. When eating we would try and hide behind each other and the seats. It was also difficult to get an alcoholic drink with your meal. None of the restaurants I went to in the east served alcohol. The guidebook said that in most villages there is at least one restaurant where you can have a drink, but it wasn’t the norm. This totally changed when I hit Goreme, in the centre of the country, when suddenly I was back in tourist land. It was quite a jolt back after being in Iran and Eastern Turkey for the previous four weeks.

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Ramadan still seems to be adhered to by the majority of the people in Turkey. Even in Istanbul, coming up to dusk, queues would start to form outside many of the well-known restaurants, with the locals eagerly waiting outside. On the bus into Istanbul, suddenly water was handed out to everyone as dusk had arrived. The man sitting beside me started to eat some pre-packed food. He kindly offered me some. On the boat trip I took down south one of my fellow travellers was sleeping on deck. He woke up at about five in the morning and he saw the captain tucking into some food in the kitchen.

Queuing outside a restaurant in Istanbul during Ramadan

I didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t realize before but fasting actually means that nothing can pass a Muslimâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s lips. So not only can Muslims not eat, but they cannot drink or smoke either. It must be very difficult not to be able to have a glass of water during the course of

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the day, especially in the Turkish climate. Another example of how accurate the guidebooks can be, is that they say that during Ramadan tempers can flare and we witnessed that in Goreme, but more on that later.

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In many ways, as a tourist destination, Turkey has everything. It has got masses of history with more classical ruins than Greece or Italy. It has great food and great music. It has a very interesting Muslim culture, with the whirling dervishes and the atmospheric call to prayer five times a day. It has great beaches plus the fantastic lunar landscape of Cappadocia. Also, Istanbul is a wonderful city with truly amazing buildings. And all of this is connected by a fabulous public transport system. In Turkey there are two ways to get around. One is by large coaches - comfortable, clean, easy to use. The other is by dolmuses, which are oversized vans or small buses which tend to go on shorter fixed routes. A couple of dolmuses strung together can take the place of a coach. The best and easiest public transport systems I’ve experienced, have been in Central America and Turkey. The only way I can describe them is that they are like fast moving treadmills which you jump onto. As soon as you come to the end of one treadmill, you shout out your final destination and someone points you to a new treadmill. You continue on in that way until you reach your destination. It is that easy. In Turkey there always seemed to be a bus or dolmus waiting for me to bring me to the next stage of the trip. I never had to wait more than twenty minutes. One time I was on a dolmus and I told the attendant my ultimate destination, which I knew was a long way off, and much further than where the bus was going. He explained roughly the best route to get there. I couldn’t understand him but I knew it didn’t matter.

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The best and easiest public transport systems I have used, have been in Central America and Turkey. On this particular trip we were on a dual carriageway and the driver noticed that the next bus I had to take was going in the opposite direction. He flashed the other driver and stopped the bus and the attendant, a young guy, motioned me out. So if you can picture the following: looking down from above at


Muslimâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s washing their feet outside a mosque

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to be washing them or collecting any rubbish. In Central America it was similar. When you arrived at a terminal there was nearly always someone outside the bus, asking you where you were going. When you responded he would take your bag, hand it to a new bus attendant, who normally threw it on top of the bus. There was never a moan about how large my bag was, they would just handle it. There was never a moan by the locals if the bus was overcrowded and I suddenly appeared, they just dealt with it.

It could be very hospitable in Turkey.

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Sanliurfa

Anyone who goes to Turkey will always remark on the cologne that is deposited on your hands at regular intervals. In the first restaurant I went to, at the end of the meal, the waiter suddenly appeared with a bottle and by intuition I cupped my hands. He proceeded to deposit some cologne, which I rubbed in. On nearly every bus journey the same thing happened.

the dual carriageway far below, during late afternoon nearly dusk, with not much traffic on the road. There were two people skipping across the intersection holding onto a rucksack, heading towards a dolmus that was reversing back down the dual carriageway to meet us. I jumped in and the attendant said something to the driver and we were off. I was totally unconcerned and relaxed and not even trying to figure out where I was. I knew I would arrive at my destination eventually. The buses were also surprisingly clean and they always seemed

Southeastern Turkey was the focus of the Kurdish terrorist attacks of the 80s and 90s. This was due to the Kurds wanting more independence and some 30,000 people were killed. It is a lot more peaceful now but there still is the occasional bomb attack, one of which killed the Irish teenager on holidays in Turkey a few months ago. There are still checkpoints in Southeast Turkey. The police would board the bus and check everyoneâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s ID, including my passport. I got talking to a very friendly Kurdish waiter in a restaurant in Sanliurfa. He explained that the situation had improved considerably for the Kurds over the past few years. Before if a policeman came into the restaurant, they would all have to stand rigid waiting to


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Evening Ramadan meal I was kindly asked to join in Istanbul

Cappadocia. 10 minutes before the “Battle of the Scooter Shop”.

see what would happen. I think one of the main reasons why the situation has improved is because Turkey aspires to be part of the EU, and the government have been forced to treat the Kurdish people better. Before they did not even recognise their existence. It is another reason why the EU is such a good idea. I actually met a few young Turkish guys in Iran who were from Istanbul and they were quick to point out that the Kurds were a good people, even though there were problems in their country with extremist elements.

ing the narrow streets and asking numerous people directions along the way. I think he said to my companion that he was a member of the PKK, which is the political wing of the Kurdish terrorists. Then he kissed us both and left. One time we went to a castle near Van and this young smiling guy came up to us to welcome us and he kissed us both. After my initial reaction that he was trying to mug us, it was one the warmest welcomes I have had on my travels. When we arrived in Malatya, a student who had been on the same bus as us, came up to us to offer his help and he brought us into the city centre.

It could be very hospitable in Turkey. In the east of the country when I was walking along a secondary road, a number of cars stopped, without any encouragement, and offered to give me a lift. When I was walking down a busy main road with the Spanish guy, two young guys in a car again stopped to offer us a lift. They took us 40km to Van, offering us walnuts to eat on the way, even though they couldn’t eat themselves because of Ramadan. In Sanliurfa, we asked a guy directions to a restaurant. He spent the next ten minutes with us search-

Even in Istanbul, a city of 16 million people, in an Internet cafe which was very close to the main tourist drag, I was offered, by a group of locals, to join them in their evening Ramadan meal. Finally, I have just received an email from a Canadian guy that I travelled with in Cuba and who is currently in Turkey. He said “I have never seen such friendly people, so hospitable”.

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Mt Nemrut and surrounding sites

However, when they were bad, which wasn’t that often, they were very bad. There was a bit more of a “f*!k you” attitude with some touts when you didn’t take up their offer than I experienced in other countries. When you argued justifiably over something, even if they were totally in the wrong, they would arrogantly argue back, nearly indignant. It was very different to Iran where the people would nearly always try to avoid an argument. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have a temper and for the first time this year I lost it. In Goreme we rented out scooters which were a complete disaster. After paying more money for “better quality scooters” we had three breakdowns and we arrived back at the shop, one and a half hours late. There was no apology. They just said we had to go straight back out and fill the bikes up with petrol. Now we were feeling lucky just to have made it back, and the last thing we wanted to do was to get on those bikes again. We also wanted some money off because of all the problems we had. They

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were not interested and they totally ignored our claims. The Spanish guy started to lose it. However, the language was proving a barrier so I took over. Then the guys in the shop started pointing at the contract and raising their voices. Then I started shouting which prompted one of the guys to really aggressively slam down a motorcycle helmet on the table. After that I totally lost it “You can fucken slam that down all you want...!”. Then I said something offhand which one of the guys really took offence to and he squared up to me bearing down, with the Spanish guy trying to hold him back.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have a temper and for the first time this year I lost it.

Then we stormed out of the shop looking for the police. Looking back you do feel a bit of idiot. By this stage we had attracted the attention of other people in the area and the owner suddenly appeared from nowhere trying to calm things down. We came to an agreement with him, that the shop would pay half the petrol. He offered free motorbikes the next day (no chance!) and when I protested that the guy was physically aggressive he just kept saying in a relaxed manner, “It’s Ramadan”. But there was never an apology. The main tourist area in Istanbul did get annoying at times. It was a bit like Cuba, where touts in order to get some interaction going, would drive you nuts by continually asking you where you were from.

Turkey kept surprising me. I would go the main attraction, which generally lived up to the billing, but then the other lower profile sites nearby would also be surprisingly interesting. For example, the famous heads on Mt Nemrut were great but so were the ruins nearby. This happened more often than in Iran. The lunar landscapes of Cappadocia were fascinating. I wish I had taken the recommended hot air balloon around the area. I

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On the boat cruise

stayed in Goreme in Cappadocia which was an interesting place. Two completely different lifestyles lived side-by-side, tourism and deep routed Turkish rural culture with traditional dress. However, the landscape in general in Turkey was disappointing. I know it is hard to believe, but the planning laws in Turkey are actually more lax than they are in Ireland. I have never seen such bad construction, so badly located in any country in Europe. It was dreadful. You would have these newly constructed communist style apartment blocks suddenly appearing out of nowhere, ruining any enjoyment of the landscape. Most of the country is already scarred.

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The boat cruise was great even if it was not as good as the cruise I took in Croatia. Croatia has more interesting towns and villages dotted around the huge number of Croatian islands and it has cleaner water. However, in Turkey, the food provided on the boat and the boat itself were a lot better, and it was still a very enjoyable three days. The Roman ruins were really interesting. Ephesus was the highlight with the nearby town Selcuk being a good example of a town that is comfortable with tourism. It you are into history at all Turkey is a fascinating place to visit. I finished in Istanbul. What a city! I spent six days there and


The ice-cream man

I could have spent more. There is a real mix of all strains of the Turkish Muslim culture, plus tourists, plus expats, plus a trendy young Istanbul set. But as the guidebook says the city welcomes everyone, and everyone is included and accepted. I stayed in Sultanahmet, the area where most of the tourist attractions are. I can still hear the Luas like tram announcing the destination just before it arrived. Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s strange that the budget and top-end accommodations are both in the same area, nearly side-by-side. There is the Four Seasons hotel, which is often talked about as one of the best hotels in the world and which costs around 360 Euro a night, plus another 23 Euro

Cappadocia

for breakfast. Or just around the corner, there is the Sultan hostel, which costs 20 Euro a night including breakfast. Guess which one I stayed in! The attractions are world-class and because of that, Istanbul is surprisingly touristy. I didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t hook up with anyone during the time I was there but I look forward to going back with other people and exploring the city properly, because the possibilities seem endless. As it is such a big city it took a bit of effort getting into. At times it was a bit tiring and difficult just because of the sheer number of people around. However, it was safe, it had a wonderful atmosphere and it

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was always interesting observing the people and what was going on around you. Even in the main touristy area it was so nice to walk around in the evening, where all the families would stroll after dusk, and where they would eat from the different foods stalls that were providing sustenance to the fasting hordes.

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Even though I didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t get into the city properly, Istanbul was still one of my favourite cities during my year off. I bought a carpet. I spent one full day traipsing through the shops. It was interesting to see the vendors going through the process. 1. offering tea, 2. showing you lots of carpets, 3. narrowing the selection down to one or two, 4. giving a high price, 5. trying to get you to commit to a price that would be acceptable, 6. reducing the price until you get to that point. The key for them is to establish some sort of a relationship with you and to always make a sale before you leave the shop. In the end, like in Iran, the place where I eventually bought a carpet did not bargain. I could tell it was different because no one came out to meet me when I arrived at the shop. I had to go the assistant and ask to see the carpets. Believe me, this was a first in Turkey. They were normally desperate to get you into the shop. The carpet shop was recommended. It was family owned, going back four generations and you could tell that they knew their stuff. They told me that 80% of their business is still from the locals, which is interesting because the carpets are so expensive and the shop is in the grand bazaar, which is full of tourists. Carpets are still part of the Turkish culture and many of the carpets they sold were antique. They are used for wedding presents and are passed down the generations.

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After my purchase, on the way back from the shop, I made sure to avoid all the other carpet shops that I had visited during the day. I couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t handle the guilt :-) The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was interesting but it was nearly too well organised. It was like a shopping mall with toilets, restaurants, police, and sometimes proper shops with doors. You need to go to Iran for the real deal. I was ready to leave Turkey when I did. There was a bit of big city blues with lots of tourists thrown in. I am currently in Jordan and I fly out to Dublin tonight. Cheers, Conor


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Istanbul scenes â&#x20AC;&#x201C; All photos

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briefly tried to get a visa for Syria in Istanbul, as I had heard really good things about the country from other travellers, and just by its position it is the natural route down into Jordan. However, after spending half a day traipsing around Istanbul trying to find the Irish consulate, in order to get a letter of recommendation to present to the Syrian embassy, I gave up and booked a direct flight to Amman in Jordan instead. So I arrived in Jordan in the early hours of the 28th October at Queen Alia international airport in Amman. In a way I was glad to leave Turkey when I did, in order to get away from the tourists and back to the real Middle Eastern experience. I stayed twelve days in Jordan, flying out on the 9th of November at three in the morning; the day of the suicide bombs in Amman. It was pretty shocking. I was not staying in the area where the up-market hotels were located and where the bombs went off, but Jordan was this oasis of calm among fairly volatile countries and that image will definitely be affected. I feel sorry for the people. Not only were the locals the main casualties of the bombs, but like everywhere else in the Middle East tourism had been badly affected since September 11th, but was slowly recovering. I had just read an editorial from the local English speaking paper “The Jordan Times” which had an upbeat view of the future of the tourism sector, which is of critical importance to the Jordanian economy. I was actually meant to fly out on the 11th of November but I moved my flight forward by two days in order to give myself

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more time in Dublin. So I had been scheduled to be there at the time of the bombs. Jordan is a location for many students of the Arabic language and I met a lot of American students who were studying there. The two places they seem to migrate to are Cairo and Jordan. The first night I was there I hooked up with two such students and an Austrian guy who was there on a placement with his airline company. I went to a restaurant and when I sat down they advised me not to drink the tap water. I got talking to them and they invited me to join them, which I did for the rest of the night. For the first time I tried the hubble bubble water pipes. You must have seen them. It’s a glass bowl filled with water, above which there is scented tobacco, and hot coals with a long pipe. When you exhale you have a strange sensation of the flavour of the tobacco being used, which is normally a type of fruit. The students were experts as they had one at home. There is no problem drinking in Jordan, but most restaurants don’t serve alcohol as a matter of course, and a lot of the locals


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smoke nargileh (water pipe) instead. When you inhale bubbles form in the glass bowl below. In Jordan there are very few dogs, there is something in the Muslim religion against having dogs as pets. However, there are cats everywhere and they are kind of semi-wild. The Americans told me of a time in a café where they were smoking nargileh, and there were two kittens jumping up against the bowl clawing playfully at the bubbles inside.

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It was good meeting the Americans because they lived in Amman and they were able to fill me in about the country and the people. One of the girls was Jewish and she did some voluntary work to improve Jewish –Palestinian relations. You actually get Israeli tourists in Jordan. It’s the only place in the Middle East. At the end of the night I walked home through the streets of Amman with the Austrian guy, without any consideration for personal safety. As the guide book says crime is extremely rare in Jordan and after coming from London and Dublin where you need to be at least aware of what is going around you, it is just a different atmosphere and a different way of thinking. That’s what makes the bombs even more shocking. I spent two nights in Amman, then down to Petra for three nights. I spent one night in Wadi Rum, Dana Nature Reserve for two nights and then back to Amman for four nights, from which I took day trips to nearby attractions. It’s a small country Jordan, where everything can be reached in about four and a half hours. My first impression of Jordan was that I was definitely back in the Middle East. In many ways Jordan is your stereotypical Middle East destination. It has mainly characterless towns dispersed amongst its desert landscape. The towns are a col-

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lection of similar flat roof dwellings. The title “Kingdom of Jordan” evokes huge palaces everywhere with grand cities but it is not really the case. I was staying in what is known as Downtown Amman. There was a lot of litter everywhere but it definitely felt like what you would expect a Middle Eastern city to feel like. In Wadi Rum I met a Belgium guy who was there with his wife and three young children. When we were leaving he remarked that he could not figure Jordan out. He could not pin it down or come to any sort of conclusion about the country, which was exactly what I had been thinking. I think the reason for this is because Jordan is such a new state, which has experi-

...he could not figure Jordan out. He could not pin it down or come to any sort of conclusion about the country, which was exactly what I had been thinking enced huge recent changes to its social setup. The actual physical boundaries of the country have changed considerably, with it losing a lot of land to Israel after the six day war in 1967. The population has increased from 586,000 in 1958, to 5.3 million in 2001. I was surprised to learn that the population is mainly Palestinian. Due to refugees resulting from the neighbouring wars, over 60% of the population as a whole, and 85% of the people in Amman, are Palestinian. The Palestinian and Jordanian flags are nearly exactly the same. Also, there are now approximately 400,000 Iraqis in Jordan. I met one of them and I will talk him about later. So it a real mix of people.


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to children because of the oncoming winter. One of the benefits of travelling is that certain things fall into place. I remember seeing in the Irish Times in March 2004 (I checked the archives) a picture of the Jordanian Queen, Queen Rania, in Fatima Mansions in Dublin. Fatima Mansions is one

I met one scary taxi driver. He was an Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein supporter. Queen Rania in Dublin in March 2004

The government is also very different. It tries not to be antagonistic towards America and the West, but at the same time keep its Arab and Palestinian credentials. It is constantly balancing the two and it is seen as a calming influence in the Middle East. Because of that it receives a lot of international aid. This is the complete opposite to the governments of Iran and Syria. When I was in Jordan, all American tourists were banned from entering Syria, because of the recent US accusations that a senior member of the Syrian government was involved in an assassination in Lebanon. Jordan is also a secular state and religious freedom is enshrined in the law. The current king, King Abdullah II, was educated abroad and has perfect English, and many people in Jordan talked very highly of him, as they did of his father King Hussein. When I was there he organised the distribution of 700,000 new coats

of the most deprived areas of Dublin. It stuck in my mind because she was looking drop dead gorgeous amongst the palefaced locals. She is in fact King Abdullah’s wife, a Palestinian, and she does a lot for children’s charities and promoting women’s rights in the Arab world. She is very glamorous and she never appears to wear a head scarf, or what I would consider Muslim dress. This is very different to what you see on the streets of Amman. There was a picture in the local paper of the King and Queen helping to hand out the new coats to the children, and they could have come straight from a fashion shoot in New York. Seriously! So you see what I mean, Jordan it’s a strange sort of place. I met one scary taxi driver. He was an Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein supporter. He was the first such person that I met on my travels. When he heard I was Irish he mentioned Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein. I am always amazed how well known that political party is around the world. He had a totally perverse view of the West. He said to me that in Europe, family members don’t love each other. At the age of 16 the children are kicked out of the home, and no son would ever help his father.

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He kept talking about honour crimes in Jordan. This is basically where men can get away with killing women, when they are supposedly in a state of “fury” over the women’s bad moral behaviour. He kept saying to me, you get “one month” in prison. “That’s all, One month!”. I won’t go into his perverse view of Western women but it was scary. Then after everything he said about lower moral values of the West, he started quizzing me on where, in Europe, were the best places to get prostitutes. He was a total and utter scumbag. Maybe I shouldn’t have but I had a right go back at him. I didn’t hide my views. In fairness he did listen to what I had to say and maybe I changed his perception a little bit. Maybe, maybe not. The next taxi driver I had was the complete opposite. He had perfect English and you could tell he was really intelligent. That’s one thing I have found travelling. You can meet the most educated people driving taxis because they cannot find work in their particular field (e.g. doctors, dentists etc). He was Palestinian and he said that he would prefer to be in Palestine, but that it was safer in Jordan and you could get on with your life. I did actually get a couple of dirty looks in Amman. I remember them distinctly because they stood out so much during my time in the Middle East. I am just guessing now, but maybe they were Iraqi refugees, pissed off at the Western influence in their country. Ok, it’s pure speculation, but you never know. There are now, by some estimates, up to a million Iraqis living in Jordan. Jordan only had a population of 5.3 million before they arrived. So, as you can imagine, the influx of Iraqis is putting the country under a huge strain. Also, it’s not just the poor Iraqis that have fled to Jordan. I read a BBC CB

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Petra

report about the tensions in Amman due to the Iraqis buying a lot of the prime housing in the city, which has sent prices sky high and outside the reach of most Jordanians. The two main tourist attractions in Jordan are the archaeological site Petra, which is in a scene of â&#x20AC;&#x153;Indiana Jones and the Last Crusadeâ&#x20AC;? and the Wadi Rum desert, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. They are both world class tourist attractions and I loved them both. Petra was first established sometime around the 6th century BC, by the Nabataean Arabs, a nomadic tribe who settled in the area and laid the foundations of a commercial empire that extended into Syria. Petra is a huge area with amazing buildings built into the stone.

Where we camped out in the dessert

I spent the night out in Wadi Rum and in the morning there

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were fantastic views of the desert with large morning shadows crossing the landscape. When I was sleeping I felt a small animal walking across me. I didn’t get much sleep that night, wondering what the hell it was. However, the guide told me the next day it was a fox that lives in the area, which he sometimes feeds.

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I also swam (floated) in the Dead Sea. I went on a day trip from Amman, with two women from the hotel I was staying in. We went to a changing area with showers where you could walk down to the sea. It was an intimidating atmosphere for women. It was the first time I had this feeling of dodgy, dodgy Arabs. There seemed to be men everywhere, looking shiftily in all directions. Although, I have to be honest, after nearly two months in the Middle East, the pleasurable shock of seeing women in swimsuits again was not lost on me either. There were also some men coming up to us and taking photographs when we arrived, as if they wanted to be photographed with a woman. I think. They were also taking lots of photographs of themselves. I couldn’t figure it all out but I did not feel comfortable. I think I understood this behaviour better as my trip went on. For example, it was the same in India, where groups of locals would come up to me and ask if they could take a photograph. I think it’s to do with the fact that they are not used to seeing foreigners.

all around the Middle East, and he said that he didn’t really like the Iraqis either. In Amman I talked to one Iraqi. When I entered an Internet café, I gave my name to the attendant who asked me where I was from. After being there for two hours, finishing off an email, I went up to pay and the middle aged attendant said to me in a very warm and gentle manner. “So you didn’t make it to the world cup then?”. I replied, and we got into a ten minute discussion about football, as you do. I at first presumed that he thought I was English but then smilingly, knowingly, he mused “Liam Brady was a great player”. He knew all about the Irish team. I assumed he was Jordanian but he was from Iraq. He was a really nice man. Once again generally the people were very friendly in Jordan. People were eager to help and at times they offered assistance without being prompted. I stayed in the Farah hotel in Amman and the staff were great. They had signs up saying “PLEASE SMILE”, which I may put up in my own house. All over the country it was never an issue being lost, because there was always somebody eager to help and provide information. You would nearly look forward to having an excuse to interact with the locals.

CB

The young taxi driver said something angrily to a group of them when we left and he said to us “Iraqis!”. I heard a few dissenting voices about Iraqis. One, very quiet, young guy in Iran who had lived in Iraq for a year, suddenly became animated and said: “All they do is eat and sleep; that is why they are so fat!”. I met a Palestinian taxi driver who had travelled

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It is always interesting reading the editorial of the country’s newspapers. For example in the English language paper “The Jordan Times” they were discussing tourism in Jordan and the recent improvement in the tourism figures. Again, it is sad to see that this will be affected. The heading of the editorial was “For the benefit of all”. One part of the editorial was interesting: “We also have to admit that we still have a problem in making certain tourists feel comfortable. A few women tourists, for example, still complain of the occasional staring, hissing, honking, or irreverent whispering. Nothing even technically


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Petra - All photos

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close to harassment, but annoying nonetheless, especially

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when one feels she’s dressing modestly enough not to attract certain kinds of attention.”

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Getting around was a lot more difficult in Jordan than in neighbouring countries. Between the two main tourist attractions, Petra and Wadi Rum, there was only one bus a day. It departed at 6:00a.m., which I missed by approximately three and a half hours :-) To go to the Dana Nature Reserve, a bus left me in the middle of a dual carriageway at an intersection, which I had to hike across to get to a tributary road, where I was going to try and catch a local bus or hitch a lift. It was real backpacking country. At the intersection I met a couple of locals who I got chatting to. One was a policeman, who phoned for a taxi. In Wadi Rum I met a young soldier in the American army, aged 21, who was learning Arabic. He told me that he will earn more money in the army if he can speak the language. He had not been posted to Iraq but he said that he could be in the near future. He was a smart intelligent guy and a very mature 21 year old. If he, in any way, represents the calibre of the American soldier in Iraq, there is hope yet. I am just sorry I did not get a chance to talk to him fully. In brief: I got a lift back from Dana Nature reserve with a bunch of American students and we had tea with two of the locals in the middle of the desert. One was a shepherd and the other was a policeman. There was tea everywhere in Jordan. I don’t drink tea normally, but I started drinking it in the Middle East as I felt I was being rude rejecting people’s offers all the time. I remember sitting in the hotel room in Amman and listening to the beeping of the horns in the city. It is the normal background noise to the cities of the Middle East.

Stopping off to drink tea with American students and locals on the way back from the Dana Nature Reserve.

So, to sum up, the Middle East was friendly, hospitable and safe. It is not really what you expect to hear. Sometimes it was a little bit quiet though, as there was not that much to do in the evenings. Being quiet or in any way boring has never been described about my next destination. A country I have always wanted to visit. I arrive in New Delhi, India, tomorrow morning. Conor

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The 30-Something Backpacker  

An independent traveller's journey of understanding of the world and its people