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Sunday 15th May 2016 7:24 PM [General]

Those of you who have been here for a while might remember that I used to run a music bar in Thailand a while back. One night, I was doing my one-man show, when a guy in a cowboy hat wandered in and sat down to listen. During the break, I went over and had a chat with him, and found out that, he too, was a musician.

I didn't know it at the time, but he was David LaMotte, and is one of the bigger names in the U.S. folk scene. He was in town to give a show at one of the universities, and was staying at a hotel around the corner.

We got on pretty well, one beer led to another, and we somehow ended up with him performing a special show at the bar, and it was definitely one of the most memorable shows we ever had. I did a lot of recording at the bar, and while this show[1]There is also video available here, although the video quality is less than stellar ๐Ÿ˜ was one of the earlier ones I did, and so the sound engineering is less sophisticated than if I did it again today, it's not bad and (hopefully) catches the warmth of his performance. Folk is not something that I'm really into, but his songs are very accessible, and have a warmth and honesty that's quite amazing.

He has been on a musical hiatus for the past ten years, instead doing things like helping build and fund schools in Guatemala, travelling the world, speaking on how each of us can effect change, and helping select Nobel Peace Prize candidates (!)

However, the time has come and he's back in the studio, putting down a new CD in what sounds like a fascinating project, with a menagerie of musicians from every continent.

Being the cynical, grumpy old fart I am these days, it's not often I see someone who I would call inspirational, but this guy is definitely one of them. Check out his music, then put a few dineros in his jar to help make the CD happen. I have.

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1. There is also video available here, although the video quality is less than stellar ๐Ÿ˜
Sunday 30th March 2014 8:54 AM [General]

Yup, it's official. Just in case there was any, you know, doubt ๐Ÿ™„

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll know that I like to travel. The first time I hit the road was in '93 and while I didn't really know where I wanted to go, I just had a hankering to go somewhere. I eventually decided on Montreal in Canada - the whole French/English thing sounded intriguing, it's got a great music scene, the food's good, what's not to like? I got a ticket from Oz to Vancouver, with the plan of travelling across Canada by train until I got to Montreal.

It was winter in North America at the time, and my guide book told me that temperatures could drop to -20°C or lower, and me, being fairly young and stupid, thought "oh, that won't be a problem, I'll just pack an extra sweater and she'll be right" ๐Ÿ™„

Once in Vancouver, a Canadian guy who had worked in central Canada during the winter explained to me the realities of extremely cold weather, so I decided to head south and travel through America instead. It was a great trip, but I never made it to Montreal and it's been a source of amusement to me that, for all the travel I've done in the intervening 20 years, I still haven't been there.

As part of my quest to visit places before they radically change :), I'm going to Cuba next month. I was supposed to play at a blues festival in Thailand next week, but that got cancelled, and I messed up the flight times for my transit through Toronto, so I ended up having to change my ticket and if I had to do that, I figured I might as well spend a few days in Montreal. Woo hoo! :clap:

I checked what the weather was going to be like, and it's spring, so it'll be max'ing out at about 5°C, maybe -10°C at night, and of course, I said to myself "oh, that won't be a problem, I'll just pack an extra sweater and she'll be right" :wall:

And after rebooking my flights and hotels, I found out that the east coast of Canada is being mauled by the worst storm in a decade, sinking ships and closing airports. It's far enough east to apparently not be affecting Montreal, but you never know - I'm this close to making it to City of Saints, so I'm sure the gods will be conspiring to make sure I don't actually get there :drevil:

Anyway, -10°C isn't that bad, and I've got myself a nice warm sweater :), so hopefully it'll all be good. We'll see...

Update: it's gratifying to see that you can still go up against the gods, and win ๐Ÿ™‚ First, Air Canada told me that flights that day from Toronto to Montreal were maybe being cancelled, due to weather in Montreal. Then, they didn't want to honor my ticket, although in all fairness, I used an Australian credit card, in Thailand, to purchase a flight in Canada, so it's understandable they were a bit iffy abut it. However, they made me stand in line for 2 hours to repurchase the same ticket, using the same credit card ๐Ÿ™ There were only 3 people in the queue but - and I swear on little green onions, I'm not making this up - they were taking 45-60 minutes to process each person :bigshock: Then the flight almost didn't take off because of mechanical problems.

Note to self: never fly Air Canada again. I've been on flights where there were goats on board that were better organized than these guys ๐Ÿ™„

Finally made it, though. I had to laugh when I got to Montreal airport - my backpack came out on the conveyor belt with ice on it, and walking out onto the street, I realized how long it had been since I had seen snow. And -10°C is not that bad; cold has never really bothered me, although I'm very glad I brought my new sweater... ๐Ÿ™‚

Wednesday 26th March 2014 12:26 AM [General]

I was in Burma the other month and...

Well, the first problem with talking about Burma is what do you call it? It was renamed as the Union of Myanmar in '89, but some people refuse to use that name since it would confer some legitimacy to the military government. On the other hand, some people are unhappy using the name Burma, since that's what the colonial British called it. You can't win, so I'll call it Burma, since I'm old school [1] ๐Ÿ™„

Anyhow, I was in Burma the other month, and very excited to finally make it. I had planned to go in 2008, but Cyclone Nargis hit, which put a kibosh on that trip. It affected only a small part of the country, but IIRC, the government was so intent on controlling the message that was getting out, and stopping journalists from running around and reporting on stuff, that they made it very difficult to get in.

Nowadays, it's a completely different story. The government has opened things up for tourism, and while there are still parts of the country foreigners are not allowed to go, it's much easier to get in and travel around, and tourist numbers have been nearly doubling annually for the past few years.

Of course, there's a lot of debate about whether or not people should visit the country, since a lot of your tourist dollars end up in the hands of the government, but many feel (as I do), that small-scale tourism can be very beneficial to people on the street, not only financially but also in terms of bringing in outside knowledge and experiences and influences.

Mrauk-U and Sittwe

Mrauk-U is the old capital of the Arakanese kingdom, with many temples scattered around the town. It's definitely not on the main tourist trail and the area was recently closed off to foreigners due to fighting. Everyone was telling me that road travel was forbidden and you had to fly, but I'd heard word of some people that had made it through by bus, so I decided to give it a shot. Like many things in Burma, there are rules upon rules, but no-one really cares about enforcing them, and I managed to make it all the way by bus. It was a brutal 36-hour trip :bigshock:, including several checkpoints where I slid down in my seat and pulled my cap down over my eyes. Being Asian surely helped a bit there ๐Ÿ™‚

I was surprised at how developed Sittwe was, with paved roads, small supermarkets and internet cafes. If you squinted just right, it could just be another small town in country Thailand. No buffalo wandering the main road here. There is some tension between the various ethnic groups, and Buddhists and Muslims, and unlike most of the other places I visited, it was clearly visible, with parts of the town blocked off as Muslim-only areas, armed guards blocking entry.

But while checking out temples is fine, I always much prefer just walking around and getting out of town. People were lovely all over Burma, and noticeably honest. There weren't the blatant rip-offs and scams that infest Thailand, and I was happy ordering meals without checking the price first, and letting people pick their change out of my wallet.

And the kids were delightful... ๐Ÿ™‚

I also love visiting markets. They're noisy and crowded and chaotic and Sittwe's Central Market was all of that, and then some. Sittwe is on the western side of Burma, near India and Bangladesh, and there were an amazing number of different ethnic groups there. I haven't seen a market like this since the souks in the Middle East! Check out those fish!

Yangon (Rangoon)

Yangon was, until recently, the capital of Burma, when the government decided to pick everything up and move it all to Naypyidaw, although it's still the largest and busiest city in Burma.

The extraordinary rate at which things are changing is most apparent here. Most people have mobile phones, and smartphones at that; I saw only a handful of Nokia's during the entire trip. The roads are clogged with modern cars (motorbikes are banned [2] :shock:), and Western-style hotels and cafes and malls are going up all over the place.

I stayed in the downtown area, which is completely overrun with street markets. Cool! ๐Ÿ™‚


Mandalay

The name Mandalay conjures up so many images but in reality, it's a dusty, polluted, crowded city ๐Ÿ™

However, there was a huge market near where I was staying and I was there in the late afternoon, when the nuns were making their rounds.

Outside the city, on the other hand, is beautiful. U-Bein bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world and while the guidebook painted a picture of monks daintly crossing it at the break of dawn, the reality was that it was mostly joggers and other people doing aerobics and tai-chi, so the bridge was constantly bouncing up and down. Still very pretty, though... ๐Ÿ™‚

Bagan

Bagan is one of the tourist hotspots, with hundreds of temples dotted around the countryside. Many of them are still in active use and easily accessible on the small electric bikes that foreigners are allowed to ride. It's just as impressive as Angkor Wat, but there are hardly any people there!




 

 

As luck would have it, on my last night I saw a post from Ethan Zuckerman about a talk he had recently given in Yangon. Bugger, if I'd've known, I would've gone down. I've been following his work for quite a few years, and his blog is one of those that I recommend to new users of Awasu after they install it.

It was a great post, but I did find one thing that he wrote a bit odd:

... but I am most interested in the question of how the internet may change what it means to be a citizen. There have been great hopes for the internet and democracy, the idea that governments can listen to peopleโ€™s wants and needs more directly, that citizens might vote directly on legislation or help draft new laws, that we might have robust debates in a digital pubic sphere where itโ€™s possible for everyone to express their opinions.

I would've thought the more interesting question would be how the internet allows individuals to effect change. One can only assume that during the Arab Spring and other similar events, people weren't using the internet to discuss ideas or vote on new legislation ๐Ÿ™„ It's about people connecting with each other, spreading news and information and new ideas, without middlemen, with their agendas and spin, and this is one of the big reasons why I favor small-scale tourism in places like this. The government is slowly opening access to the internet and allowing foreigners in, but I suspect they'll find that once they let the genie out of the bottle, it will be difficult to keep it on a leash ๐Ÿ™‚


[1] Yes, I also can't get my head around Ho Chi Min City and still call it Saigon.
[2] The rumor is that a general's son was killed by a motorbike.

Wednesday 14th May 2008 1:53 PM [General]

I've written quite a few times before about my travels in Asia and if there's one thing old Asia hands learn fairly quickly, it's that if you're not sure what it is you're eating, then don't ask. They might tell you ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

I love bread but good bread is really hard to find in Asia, except in Indochina where it's fantastic (score one for the French). You can buy wonderfully fresh and crunchy baguettes from the street vendors, packed with salad and a pate made from something that I really didn't want to ask about ๐Ÿ™„ The Vietnamese call them Bรกnh Mรฌ Xiu Mai and Phil Lees talks a bit about them here.

And in my last trip to the Philippines, I was introduced to balut which is basically a crunchy boiled egg. Now, if you think about it, there are only two ways you can have a crunchy boiled egg and no, it's not because you eat the shell :bah: If you really want to know, Wikipedia has an explanation here, along with some totally gross photos. Guys cruise the streets on bicycles late at night shouting "Balut! Balut!" and the eggs they're selling often have numbers written on them indicating how, um, crunchy they are :blink:

I guess they go out late at night because after a big night at the pub is probably the only time you would ever want to eat one. The waitress at one bar I hung out at kept telling me how yummy they were and that I should try one and I eventually broke down and ordered a round (yes, I had had more than a few beers). All I can say is that I'm glad I saw the Wikipedia photos after I'd done it since I probably wouldn't have tried one otherwise ๐Ÿ˜

Also from Vietnam is snake wine. This is from when I was there in '98.

Hoi An is something of an anomaly in Vietnam, a small town full of genuinely friendly, cheerful people, with none of the hassles that one has to put up with just about everywhere else in the country. Lying on the bank of a peaceful, meandering river, Hoi An was once an important port and old wooden trading houses and Chinese temples are tucked away in every backstreet, simply oozing nostalgic charm. The main part of town barely fills one square kilometre and the visitors almost outnumber the locals, yet it rarely feels overcrowded, there is such a good vibe in the air as you wander around the narrow lanes. The town has gone to great lengths to preserve its character and heritage, and also to ensure that everything runs smoothly for its guests. The payoff for the town is apparent and Hoi An is everyone's favourite place in Vietnam. In a country where the average wage is less than a dollar a day, people are clearly doing well for themselves.

After hours, the place to be was Treat's Same Same Cafe & Bar, run by a genial young man with a big smile and his Mom in the backroom, frying up plates of chips for us all. A few years ago the place had been a restaurant but Treat had decided that in a town overflowing with fabulous food, it was probably better to be doing something else. It was a dimly-lit place, not much brighter than the dark of the night outside, with an open-air courtyard and a few beaten-up musical instruments hanging on the walls. The requisite pool table sat at the far end of the bar, surrounded by an array of electric fans strategically positioned to give the players some relief from the muggy Vietnamese nights. Dripping sweat onto the pool table was considered to be somewhat less than dignified.

People came mostly for the music and behind the bar was what could possibly be the coolest drawer in all Vietnam, filled with a jumbled pile of cassettes that people had sent Treat from around the world with some of the funkiest, rockingest, hippest music that you could ever want to hear. Frustratingly, most of the tapes and their cases had long gone their separate ways and those that hadn't were obscurely labelled in a dozen languages, so most of time we had little idea of who or what we were listening to. Still, we had a good time bopping along as we waited our turn on the pool table.

On top of the bar sat a huge jar of snake wine, vodka, actually, but the jar had been filled to the brim with a variety of dead snakes and topped off with an evil-looking bird, feathers and all. It looked like something out of every schoolboy scientist's wet dream. Apparently, snake wine is supposed to be good for one's virility and the bird is a crucial ingredient. No right-thinking Vietnamese would ever dream of drinking this stuff without one. Of course, no right-thinking person would ever dream of drinking this stuff, period, and we spent several nights sitting at the bar clutching our reassuringly ordinary beers, warily eyeing this imposing bottle of pickled wildlife.

The pickled wildlife just eyed us back as if daring us to partake of their juices and so, naturally enough, on our last night in town when we were all rolling drunk, we decided that we had to at least try a little of the old snake wine. Shot glasses were lined up and Treat poured each of us our share. Salt and slices of lemon were provided for those who wanted it, although personally I felt that that was getting perhaps just a little too weird for words. We toasted the memory of those animals that had died so that we may drink, and knocked back our glasses.

It's difficult to find the words to describe how it tasted, like dead snake, I guess, with a gut-wrenching after-taste of dead bird. Being Guys, we manfully stood our ground but after we had all finished boasting about how virile and studly we had suddenly become, I was horrified to hear Treat say that he was going to shout us a "going-away" round. I could hardly refuse and so had to bravely down another glass of this whiskey most foul. The second shot was a killer and I was forced to invent a bus that had to be caught oh so early the next morning and staggered off home, ruefully wondering why I keep letting myself get talked into doing these things. If this be the price of virility, then point me to the nearest monastery, please!

Wednesday 25th July 2007 6:12 AM [General]

Following on from yesterday...

Finding new ways to fill my stomach is one of the better reasons why I travel so much and most countries have at least one dish that can send you into raptures of gastronomic delight, some culinary magic that makes you want to settle down, marry a local girl and have kids just so that you can keep on indulging yourself until your dying days. You can find sate fit for a king on the streets of Indonesia, Philadelphia cheesesteaks in the U.S. while in Thailand, just about the entire menu would qualify.

Here in Turkey, it's the bread. Or rather, it used to be the bread. During the time I was here, the country was in the midst of a public uprising against new laws regarding the distribution of bread. Previously, you could pick up your loaves, still warm from the bakery, from large bins at most stores but to meet new E.U. sanitation standards, bakeries were now required to wrap them in sealed plastic bags after having let them stand for at least six hours to avoid any condensation in the packaging. No more fresh bread. Turks were being forced to eat cold, lifeless bread just like the rest of us in the modern, sanitary world and they weren't happy about it!

At three in the morning, however, no-one bothered with such nonsense and we were able to get our bread straight from the ovens. After the gig was over and the last customer had staggered off home, one of us would order bowls of soup from a kitchen around the corner while another pedaled off to the bakery on a rickety old bicycle to get a bagful of loaves, timing it so that the two would arrive back together.

And while the soup was good, the bread was sublime, enough to bring tears to the eyes of even the most jaded World Traveller. The hard, shell-like crust crackled satisfyingly as we broke open the loaves, releasing clouds of steam into the cold night air. It was quite a shock to our poor noses, long frozen over during the lengthy wait and the aroma of fresh bread - there's nothing quite like it, is there? - swirled around, teasing us. The bread was far too hot to eat and we waited impatiently for it to cool, using the time to prepare our soup, adding dried chilli, salt & pepper, slicing up tomatoes, breaking apart fresh onions.

A frantic silence fell over the table as we plowed into our food, broken only by the slurping of soup and the occasional groan of sheer delight. No-one said a word since opening your mouth to speak would require you to stop stuffing food into it. There was a constant buzz of activity as people reached over one another for bread, more onions, more chilli, more bread, until every last bit of food was gone and we were left staring at the debris on the table, wondering if we could possibly persuade someone to go get more bread. Sated, we would sit back and give thanks to our respective Gods that life could be so good. One can only imagine what Paradise must be like but surely the soup kitchens of Heaven are run by the Turks. Now all I have to do is find me a nice little Turkish girl.

Monday 9th July 2007 12:37 PM [General]

I've written several times before about some of the places I've traveled to and there's no doubt it was enormous fun. Having big gaps in my work history has sometimes made it a bit hard finding a gig when coming back home, but certainly when I'm looking to hire people, I see this kind of thing as a plus, not a minus. If you can arrive in a strange country in the middle of the night and not have a clue where anything is, not be able to speak a word of the language, not know how the public transport works (whether it be bus, taxi or camel), but you can still find a roof to sleep under and something to eat, quite frankly, anything that might come up in the office is probably going to seem pretty minor in comparison. And traveling through the third world really gives you a perspective on how good we have things in the West, how trivial most of our day-to-day "problems" really are.

Now, running a startup is hard enough under the best of circumstances but Adam Benayoun writes here about the added pitfalls of trying to do it in a war zone.

One problem is that business owners are obligated to give employees leaves-of-absence for their reserve service [in the Israeli army], up to 30 days at a time. This especially impacts start-ups, where every employee has a key role. Try to manage a month without your lead developer or VP of marketing! Best case: you lose days of development and customers who canโ€™t wait through a product delay. Worst case: your employee gets hurt โ€“ or doesnโ€™t come back at all.

Man, I fret about getting online to take care of customers when I'm on the road but these guys had it a bit harder.

I had to tell [clients] that their projects wouldnโ€™t only suffer delays. Our clientsโ€™ projects would stop all together untilโ€“and unlessโ€“we both made it back. Eran and I would have no cell service, no Internet, no contact even with one anotherโ€“much less with our customers in the outside world.

There wasnโ€™t much we could do for them from the back of a Humvee on the northern border, under fire.

It was stressful.

Part 2 is here. I wonder if any of this appeared in their project plans... :blink:

Wednesday 28th March 2007 6:53 PM [General]

Paul Graham has another crackerjack article where he talks about some of the common reasons people give for not launching a startup, and then proceeds to knock them all down ๐Ÿ™‚

He points out that now his startup incubator company has been going for a while, they're probably the world experts on people who aren't sure if they want to start a company or not, and as someone who's always been intrigued by what makes people do what they do, it was a fascinating read.

You need a lot of determination to succeed as a startup founder. It's probably the single best predictor of success.

For a while, RSS readers were becoming the new instant messaging client. That is, every kid in junior high and his dog wanted to write one and the developers' forums were full of questions like "i wnt 2 wr8 rss prgrm. wr 2 start?!!!" Lots of feed readers have come and gone since then but Awasu is still going strong, churning out features and definitely no shortage of things for the next couple of releases. Stick-to-it-iveness is definitely an essential quality! ๐Ÿ™‚

One side effect of being determined is that if you work hard, it doesn't really matter what you happen to be doing, you'll probably achieve some kind of success at it. And Y Combinator are taking this idea to a whole 'nother level:

[W]e're so sure the founders are more important than the initial idea that we're going to try something new this funding cycle. We're going to let people apply with no idea at all. If you want, you can answer the question on the application form that asks what you're going to do with "We have no idea." If you seem really good we'll accept you anyway. We're confident we can sit down with you and cook up some promising project.

This is pretty amazing :blink: but also a really intriguing idea. The people you've got are always the most important ingredient for the success of a project [1] but this is really putting yer money where yer mouth is :clap: It hints at something Paul doesn't mention in his article but Joel Spolsky has written about many times: the importance of being able to get things done. This is a definitely a critical skill to have (his other key criteria is "be smart" :roll:) and if you're the kind of person who's perpetually "95% done" on the task at hand, you're not going to last very long trying to bootstrap a company. Ditto for the perfectionist who has always got "just one last thing to do" before releasing something. But if you're smart and can get things done, you'll have at least a reasonable amount of success at most things you try [2].

Paul also talks about a "need for structure" and the fact that getting a job is the "default" action.

I'm told there are people who need structure in their lives. This seems to be a nice way of saying they need someone to tell them what to do. I believe such people exist.

I can definitely agree with that ๐Ÿ™‚ and his story about the Real Madrid soccer team is a telling one.

[David Beckham] said [the many different languages spoken by the players] was never an issue, because everyone was so good they never had to talk. They all just did the right thing.

As a musician I see this all the time; a bunch of great musicians get together and start banging out some fantastic music, even though they may have never played the song together before (or even met each other :o). But they're good enough to know instinctively what everyone else is doing (and just as importantly, are actively listening to what's happening). Again, it's the difference between sitting around waiting to be told what to do and taking a bit of initiative and making things happen.

But I think the big reason people don't take the great leap is here:

Perhaps some people are deterred from starting startups because they don't like the uncertainty. If you go to work for Microsoft, you can predict fairly accurately what the next few years will be likeโ€”all too accurately, in fact. If you start a startup, anything might happen.

Starting a company requires an enormous amount of faith in yourself, in your ability to step into the unknown and deal with whatever comes your way. I guess my background in jumping out of aeroplanes and bumming my way around the world was good training for that but most people just don't have that kind of self-confidence. Thing is, you're not just born with it, generally speaking, the only way to get it is to test yourself, deliberately drop yourself right into the middle of it and see if you can get out :whistle: Sometimes you won't make it but as they say, what doesn't kill you can only make you stronger :unsure:

I think a lot of people, deep down, know they don't have the drive and determination needed to make things happen, at least, not to the degree needed to get a company up off the ground and coupled with an unwillingness to dive into the unknown, end up taking that safe and secure 9-5 job at the bank ๐Ÿ˜ Starting a company is a pretty tough ordeal to put yourself through, on many levels. You need to be really good at what you do and at least moderately competent at everything else, work incredibly hard, be even more determined, be able to deal with the million-and-one things Fate will throw at you (and throw them at you, she will :roll:) And I guess a lot of people aren't willing to test themselves to that degree [3].

Come to think of it, maybe it's not that surprising more people don't start their own company. It's a lot of work and as I'm always telling my students, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it ๐Ÿ™„

[1] Of course, everyone says this but if you watch what they do, very few actually back it up with their actions.
[2] On the flip side, I'm reminded of an article that made the rounds a while back that talked about incompetence. The authors pointed out that the less capable someone was at doing something, the less likely they were to be aware of it. In other words, the old saw that "the more you know, the more you realize how little you know." The guys at the top of their field know enough to realize that there's so much more left for them to learn and it's those at the bottom end of the curve who think they can write 100% bug-free code, 100% of the time or are Yngwie Malmsteen re-incarnated. A commonly-seen corollary of this in the I.T. field is top-flight programmers who don't see themselves as anything more than merely competent but are bemused as to why everyone else around them seems to be so incapable ๐Ÿ™‚ I suspect a similar thing holds for techies who might be thinking about starting a company; they simply can't believe that more than a few people would actually pay money for what they do ๐Ÿ™„
[3] Although even fewer would be willing to test themselves to this degree (a bullet-proof vest maker demonstrating his product :blink:).

Monday 24th April 2006 8:54 AM [General]

Continuing on from yesterday...

Overlanding from Yemen to Oman, I had it all figured out. Sana'a to Ma'rib would be the easiest leg, a mere 150 kilometres by shared taxi along a paved road. From Ma'rib I would have to cross the Ramlat as-Sab'atayn desert to reach Wadi Hadramaout - for this, I would have to arrange for a Bedouin guide to take me since there are no roads or public transport across the desert. The eastern-most town in the wadi is Tarim where I would hitch a ride to the coastal town of Al-Ghaida. This is about as far east as the guide books go since no-one gets even this far but apparently the Yemeni are trying to build a road of sorts along the coast to the Omani border. Since there is currently no road, there is no traffic for me to hitch a ride with but I was told that smugglers often make runs across the border and might be willing to take a passenger for the right price. Then all I had to do was bullshit my way across the border, somehow get to Salalah, the nearest Omani town, where I could then get an overnight bus to Muscat, the Omani capital. No problems.

Ma'rib to Say'un

I had arranged for a driver to take me across the desert to Wadi Hadramaout and Ahmed turned up depressingly punctually - 4am is an un-godly hour no matter where in the world you are and I blearily crawled out of bed and loaded my gear into the Land Cruiser. We left town and made our way down the highway towards the twinkling lights of Safir, a service town for the oil wells and the end of the road before the desert. I was hoping to be well into the desert by sunrise but instead had to be satisfied with the far less romantic image of the sun coming up over the truck parked by the side of the road, bonnet up, driver poking around under the hood. I hadn't realized it earlier but we were actually already in the desert and I amused myself by making footprints in the sand dunes until Ahmed popped out from under the hood and cheerily informed me that we would have to go back to Mahata, wherever that was.

Mahata turned out to be a garage by the side of the road where Ahmed pulled over, grabbed his rifle and went in search of the owner and some spare parts, leaving me to hang around with a young hitchhiker that we had picked up along the way who kept trying to reassure me with "No problem! No problem!" I eventually found out that we had a broken fan belt and given that there were no spares around, we had to do a quick fix on the old one and set off into the desert like that, hoping that it would hold...

Several hours and a few more breakdowns later, our hitchhiker had changed his tune, pointing vigorously at Ahmed's head, saying "Problem! Problem!" By now, we were being forced to improvise temporary fan belts from old rope, bits of coat-hanger, whatever was at hand and it wasn't until early afternoon when we finally limped into Al-Abr. About halfway between Ma'rib and Say'un, this was one of the largest settlements in the desert but nevertheless it still wasn't much more than a collection of tin shacks clustered around a petrol pump. Lunch was a few boxes of those wonderfully cheap and nasty Abu Waleh Sandwich Biscuits (15 cents for a packet of 8 and kind of cute in that they have "Yemen" stamped all over them) washed down with a bottle of water. We also picked up a few spare fanbelts although none of them were the right size, and so we left Al-Abr still hacking together repairs every twenty klicks or so - at one point, Ahmed even tried cutting one of them open, trimming it down to the correct length and then nailing the two ends together!

But despite all the problems, travelling through the desert was a wonderful experience, not exactly Paris-to-Dakar-bouncing-over-the-sand-dunes but pretty good nevertheless. The defining characteristic of desert travel, I found, would probably be this: you get a lot of sand in your shoes. The stuff was incredibly fine, easy enough to walk over when firmly packed until it gave way beneath your feet and then it was like trying to walk on water. Another thing was the silence, a huge blanket of it covering the desert expanse - it was perfectly quiet save for the sound of Ahmed banging away with a stone, trying to nail another fanbelt together and the only thing that gave away the crows circling overhead were their shadows criss-crossing over the sand dunes.

The battery finally gave out just before sunset. It was certainly picturesque, the sun setting behind the desert mountains as the camels gently pad-padded across the sand on their way home but as the first stars began to come out, it was starting to look kind of bad. Fortunately, the car had expired near some kind of a settlement where we could see house lights but Ahmed found himself in something of a quandary: he couldn't leave me alone while he went to get help in case something happened to me yet he couldn't take me with him and leave the car un-attended. And so we waited. A few trucks passed by but no-one was willing to drive to the next town to get parts for us and so, after a few hours of this, he locked up the car, said a quick prayer and off we set, across the sand and towards the lights.

The farmer there was initially reluctant to help us out but after some serious bargaining (begging, actually) on the part of Ahmed and the right price negotiated, he eventually relented and agreed to go pick up what we needed. He also brought out some food for us - dates and dry bread never tasted so good! - before we headed back to the car and waited for him to return. I tried to catch a few z's on the back seat but that proved to be impossible as Ahmed had got stuck into the qat again. Having tried some myself earlier in the afternoon, I knew that it was good stuff (I was obviously paying him too much) and it made him go quite silly, humming along with himself and occasionally breaking out into song. By the time Farmer Mohammed and his son returned three hours later, I was ready to strangle the lot of them but had to satisfy myself with watching Ahmed put in the new battery and fanbelt and get us back on the road again.

We didn't roll into Say'un until 2am, 22 hours after leaving Ma'rib and a mere 13 hours late. Luckily, being Ramadan, everyone was still up and so it wasn't too hard finding a hotel. Besides, Ahmed had to get his paperwork signed off by the manager of whichever hotel I checked into and so I made sure that we drove around to look at every place in town before deciding where I was going to stay. I collapsed into bed and wondered how much more difficult this trip was going to get.

Find out how it all ended here...

Sunday 23rd April 2006 3:04 AM [General]

I've been watching Michael Palin's Sahara series and people, I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, it's giving me seriously itchy feet! :-(. I've been in and out of the Middle East quite a few times over the years and seeing all the African mud architecture and Arabs yelling at each other brought back strong memories of when I was last there.

As I did when travelling through S.E.Asia, I did a lot of writing and so for your Sunday afternoon reading pleasure, I've dug up some old stuff I wrote when I was in Yemen at the end of 1998...

Yes, I had to look it up as well. Located on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen must be one of the world's most isolated countries, cut off from the rest of us by the impenetrable bulk of Saudi Arabia. Djibouti in East Africa is actually not all that far away, a short 50-mile hop across the mouth of the Red Sea although, of course, one has to get to Djibouti in the first place. And to the east, there is a land border with Oman - this was by far the most intriguing: it lies in the Ar-Ruba' al-Khali (or "Empty Quarter"), the largest sand desert in the world. There are no roads, no public transport and I was determined to cross it even if I had to buy my own camel and navigate by the stars to do it.

Believe it or not, Yemen was once one of the world's great super-powers, albeit some three thousand years ago. It was an important stopping point on many of the major trade routes between Egypt, India and across Arabia and was also a major producer of frankincense and myrrh. However, the rise of Christianity around the Mediterranean led to the abandonment of such pagan ritual fragrances and as the Greeks and Romans learnt how to use the monsoon winds on their voyages to India, the once great kingdoms of Arabia began to fall into decline.

In more recent times, the importance of Yemen's seaports reasserted itself, the south of the country being occupied first by the Portuguese and then by the British. It was only until the late 60's that the last of the colonialists were forced to leave and even then, the country was left divided, the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south going to war with each other at regular intervals. In the mid-80's, the discovery of Yemen's first (and only) oil field straddling both sides of the border between the two did much to help the reunification of the country and despite a few lapses, the country is once again whole. Nevertheless, marked differences remain between the north and south, towns in the south being noticeably more European, better maintained and with a higher standard of living than those farther north.

The Yemeni

There are two things that make the Yemeni unique amongst Arabs: weapons and qat. There are an estimated 45 million guns in the country, not bad at all for a population of less than 20 million. Men and boys are armed to the teeth with one or more automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, supplemented with a full complement of pistols, ammo belts and jambiya, the traditional Arabian curved dagger.

The other Yemeni passion is chewing qat, the leaves of a small bush that gives a slight narcotic high. The chewed-up paste is not swallowed but pushed to one side of the mouth, forming a bulge inside the cheek (giving rise to the common Yemeni question: "Are you a lefty or a righty?" - most people seem to be lefties and dangle cigarettes out of the right side of their mouth, the nicotine giving a real kick to the hit). Chewing qat is very much a post-prandial activity and most of Yemen closes down after lunch as people crash out for the afternoon, chewing qat and smoking water-pipes. As a result, the Yemeni are some of the fastest eaters on the planet, lunch being a purely functional affair as the food is shovelled down so that they can hurry off and get onto the real business of getting high.

Qat parties take place anywhere and everywhere, on the floor in a shop, out on the street, in moving cars. It can sometimes be a bit of a shock to walk into a room and find a dozen guys slumped up against the walls, discarded qat leaves and branches strewn all over the floor, cigarette ash everywhere, goats poking around for scraps to eat although if you're taking part, you don't really notice it too much - pretty much like college parties, I suppose (even the bit with the goats - I'm told that we had some great parties back then).

Another thing about the Yemeni is their long tradition of kidnapping each other. Yemen is still very much a tribal society with tribes banding together to form loose alliances and disputes are often settled by one side taking key members hostage from the other. In these modern times, the practice has been to extended to foreigners being kidnapped, especially by the poorer Bedouin, in an attempt to force the government to provide basic services to the less fortunate parts of the country. There have been some one hundred or so cases over the past few years and while no incident has lasted more than a few days and no-one harmed to date, it was still something to keep in mind while travelling around the country. Shortly before I arrived, a group of European tourists had been captured and held for an unusually long time. It was a bit frustrating trying to keep an eye on the situation when the English-language newspapers only came out once a week but it didn't seem to be too serious and no-one really expected any harm to come to them.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday 15th November 2005 4:29 PM [General]

...is, of course, through his stomach. Definitely true, at least in my case ๐Ÿ˜ณ

I've often said that the real reason I spend so much time travelling, especially in S.E.Asia, is so that I can find new things to eat :-). And now I can get it via RSS!

Good grief. It's bad enough I get distracted by all the tech news flowing in from Awasu, I have to get megabytes of pictures of the most amazingly delicious-looking food as well?! ๐Ÿ˜ก It's kinda ironic though, that the biggest thing that stops me from working on Awasu is, erm, Awasu ๐Ÿ™„

I wonder what it must be like working at Valve... ๐Ÿ˜•