The Conquering Hero Comes!

This is another day when I feel frustrated because I’d like to be out travelling, although I did get to have a great long walk on the South Downs on Saturday. But rather than post about that at the moment, I have a fancy to re-post this piece I wrote a few years ago:

I’ve never wanted to ‘conquer’ mountains.

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Or any other parts of the world, really.

I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think of a journey. It was ridiculous to think I could impose my will upon a mountain, or on a desert, or indeed upon any part of my route. That I could, perhaps, somehow bend it to my will.

I feel it is more a case of preparing as best as possible, including mentally, and then perhaps said mountain will tolerate my presence; will allow me passage.

‘Conquering’ also carries the implication of invasion, of fighting, of strife. That is not the sort of relationship I want with mountains, or with any other place I choose to travel.

Certainly, in the past I have travelled at least partly with that mindset at times.

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Some of you may recall I wrote about an extremely foolish journey I took in Oman when I lived there over thirty years ago (Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk). Although I was running low on water, I pushed myself to the limit to reach the final ridge of hills on the route I had decided I was going to achieve one day, nearly killing my stupid self in the process. And although I achieved my aim, I didn’t feel victorious.

Only a bit stupid.

I prefer instead to think of myself as a visitor. And as a visitor, I need to have some manners. You do not expect to find the visitors pushing through your house and demanding to see this or to be given that, so I don’t.

I am not out to break records, nor to prove how tough I am.

This does not imply a lack of ambition, nor a lack of determination. Indeed, I have both – it’s just that the mindset is a little different. In particular, I give myself different priorities. I want to reach my goal but if I don’t, it does not matter. I think I’m more attuned to my own safety, and perhaps that of others. I hope I can be receptive to the feelings of others, too.

A good example in the climbing world is that of the mountains in Nepal that climbers are forbidden to reach the summit of, due to the belief that they are the abode of gods. Theoretically, a climber will stop some 10 meters or so short of the summit. Opinion is naturally divided over whether a climber would, or wouldn’t, in the absence of any witnesses, respect that ban.

I would respect it every time.

The mountains, of course, are inanimate. They do not wish me harm or otherwise. Neither do deserts or oceans. Even the most inhospitable of landscapes is neutral. It does not care whether I succeed in my aim to reach or traverse a particular part of it, and it will not hinder or help me in the attempt.

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My feelings about a landscape are just my reactions to it, and if I should choose to give this landscape a kindly or vindictive character, I am only projecting my own feelings onto it.

This may give me comfort, or otherwise, but will make no material difference.

Maybe I am simply suggesting it’s good to travel with humility.

I have touched upon that before!

Grrr.

Grrr? Well, the reason I’ve been absent this last week or so is a trapped nerve in my neck that has been stupidly painful and stopped me doing most things I want to do. It’s on the mend now, but the last thing I’ve wanted to do up until now is work at a keyboard.

And Grrr! it’s a tiger.

Not a very good photograph, admittedly. It was taken over thirty years ago when I worked in Oman, and is of the butterfly known there as the Plain Tiger. What I remember in particular about it is the way it flies, or glides to be more exact. Unlike many butterflies that fly with continual, rapid wingbeats, the Tiger flaps a couple of times and then glides gracefully, as in the photograph. It is most impressive, and very lovely – especially where there is very little else in the way of insect life.

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It’s one of those butterflies that is very widespread, although it does not migrate. I’ve seen it in India, and apparently it is met with in South East Asia and Australasia, too.

I’ve got butterflies on my brain at the moment, as the weather has turned really lovely here and I’m suddenly seeing lots of them, even in the garden.

So on that note, I’m off to sit in the garden in the sun again for a while with a cup of tea and a book, resting my poorly neck and whimpering pathetically to myself.

Sad, isn’t it?

All Hail The Conquering Hero!

I’ve never wanted to ‘conquer’ mountains.

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Or any other parts of the world, really.

I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think of a journey. It was ridiculous to think I could impose my will upon a mountain, or on a desert, or indeed upon any part of my route. That I could, perhaps, somehow bend it to my will.

I feel it is more a case of preparing as best as possible, including mentally, and then perhaps said mountain will tolerate my presence; will allow me passage.

‘Conquering’ also carries the implication of invasion, of fighting, of strife. That is not the sort of relationship I want with mountains, or with any other place I choose to travel.

Certainly, in the past I have travelled at least partly with that mindset at times.

IMG_0005

Some of you may recall I wrote about an extremely foolish journey I took in Oman when I lived there almost 30 years ago (Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk). Although I was running low on water, I pushed myself to the limit to reach the final ridge of hills on the route I had decided I was going to achieve one day, nearly killing my stupid self in the process. And although I achieved my aim, I didn’t feel victorious.

Only a bit stupid.

I prefer instead to think of myself as a visitor. And as a visitor, I need to have some manners. You do not expect to find the visitors pushing through your house and demanding to see this or to be given that, so I don’t.

I am not out to break records, nor to prove how tough I am.

This does not imply a lack of ambition, nor a lack of determination. Indeed, I have both – it’s just that the mindset is a little different. In particular, I give myself different priorities. I want to reach my goal, but if I don’t it does not matter. I think I’m more attuned to my own safety, and perhaps that of others. I hope I can be receptive to the feelings of others, too.

A good example in the climbing world is that of the mountains in Nepal that climbers are forbidden to reach the summit of, due to the belief that they are the abode of gods. Theoretically, a climber will stop some 10 meters or so short of the summit. Opinion is naturally divided over whether a climber would, or wouldn’t, in the absence of any witnesses, respect that ban.

I would respect it every time.

The mountains, of course, are inanimate. They do not wish me harm or otherwise. Neither do deserts or oceans. Even the most inhospitable of landscapes is neutral. It does not care whether I succeed in my aim to reach or traverse a particular part of it, and it will not hinder or help me in the attempt.

154

My feelings about a landscape are just my reactions to it, and if I should choose to give this landscape a kindly or vindictive character, I am only projecting my own feelings onto it.

This may give me comfort, or otherwise, but will make no material difference.

Maybe I am simply suggesting it’s good to travel with humility.

I have touched upon that before!

Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk

I have been posting a bit about walking, recently, what with my frustration at being unable to do a great deal of it after my foot operation.

Foolishly, I made reference to the following episode in a reply to someone on one of the ‘walking’ posts, and admitted I might write about it sometime. Well, take this as a Warning From Someone Who Learned The Hard Way.

Thirty years ago I lived and worked in Oman. I was a seismologist, working on seismic data for an oil exploration company – but before you all shout at me, my conscience is clear. I don’t think I was particularly good at it, and I don’t think my efforts contributed to anyone finding any oil.

*phew!*

I do worry that as a result of this post, though, someone will now contact me and say ‘Hello, Mick. I was a geophysicist in Muscat when you were there, and I remember that one of the projects you worked on found absolutely stonking amounts of oil!’ But I doubt it.

Anyway, let me set the scene.

I lived near Muscat, the capital, which lies on the north coast of Oman. Behind me, towards the interior, ran a line of high hills

It is a massive simplification, but just at this point the hills run east to west, parallel with the coast, and consist of a series of ridges (jebels) and valleys (wadis). So to cross them from north to south (or in the opposite direction) the traveller has to continually climb up and down for the entire journey.

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I bet you can already see where this is going.

When I had a few free hours, I would often walk out of my house, and up into the hills to just wander around and explore. As a result of this, I knew the first couple of wadis and jebels pretty well. There was a high, prominent jebel to the south, though, which was the final ridge before the land fell away to a wide stony plain, and I had never gone that far on foot up till then. This ridge was easy to spot, however, as there was a large microwave (radio) transmitter on top, and I knew it was the final ridge as we would often drive past it on the south side.

I had a day off.

I don’t know exactly what time of year it was, but it must have been in the ‘cooler’ season, because even I wouldn’t have been stupid enough to try when it was really hot.

Surely?

I didn’t even have a proper rucksack, I had a small roll-bag, which I slung uncomfortably over my shoulder. Inside, I had a single bottle of water, and a dozen small packaged juice drinks. I had a compass, but no map. I had a hat, I had a camera.

So, well-equipped and well-prepared, I set off.

The first couple of hours went well. I crossed two or three ridges and felt fine. I guess I should say at this point, that I was pretty fit. The project probably wasn’t an unreasonable one, by any means.

Certainly not for someone with the right equipment and supplies.

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I was probably just beginning to feel a bit hot and tired when I crested what I thought would be the penultimate ridge, only to find I was looking down on another two smaller ridges that I still had to cross before reaching the final large one.

And the large one was looking very large indeed!

I can be ridiculously, unreasonably, stubborn, at times. I remember that on the final ascent I had to force my legs to bend and stretch, to take each step, but the top was getting nearer and nearer and I wasn’t going to give in.

I made it.

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I enjoyed the view and the moment. It was, admittedly, very impressive and I knew I’d done pretty well to get there.

And really, all I needed to do then was to carry on down the south side of the ridge, walk another kilometre or two to the road I mentioned earlier, and hitch a lift back to Muscat.

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Have I mentioned I can be unreasonably stubborn?

I turned around and started heading down the north side towards home.

I could draw this out into a long dramatic story of my walk, but I’ll give you the abbreviated version.

I found I was in difficulty as soon as I had to go up the next hill. especially as I had finished all my drinks by then.

It took me several hours and more energy than I realised I had at one point, just to get to the final ridge. But at that point, I knew I no longer had the energy or strength for that last climb. I could not do it. Fortunately for me, I knew I could follow the valley for a mile or two east, where it would come out to the coast plain. So I turned and stumbled that way. By now, I was desperate to find some sort of shade, just for a moment, but there was nothing.

But I staggered along, and as the hills either side dropped down, I came to a cluster of buildings. I don’t know what exactly they were, but I staggered in through a doorway and an Indian working there took one look at me, sat me down and brought me water.

‘Slowly!’ I remember him saying, as I poured it down my throat. ‘Not good to drink too quick!’

I didn’t care. I drank it like a camel on steroids given twenty seconds to fill up. I got through an awful lot of water, but he made me sit and rest for a while before I went off again. I think he offered me food, which I refused, and I think he offered to find someone to drive me, but I don’t really remember too much from that point on. I did walk home eventually, though. I just hope I thanked him sufficiently.

It was not one of my more intelligent adventures.

The Travel Bug Bit Me – part 3

When I lived in Oman, the land around where I lived and worked was all stone desert; hills and valleys of razor sharp broken boulders, water worn stones at the bottom of dry valleys, with occasional villages and settlements and old, crumbling, mud brick forts dating from the time that the Portuguese were there. Almost invisible tracks used by goats and nomads wound their way through this wonderful landscape, or simply followed the routes of the wadis, the dry river valleys. I had a very small scale map of the country, as well as a few very large scale maps that I had pinched from the office where I worked (I did return them when I left). These would consist largely of huge areas of blank paper, with the occasional ‘tree’ or ‘large boulder’ helpfully marked, although they did show the main wadi courses and mountain ridges.

I was very tempted to write ‘here be dragons’ on them occasionally.

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Never before had I quite understood what silence was. And it was the first place (to be followed by the Himalaya) that I was to truly see a night sky. I was periodically astonished by the desert’s outbursts – blasts of hot wind like an opened oven door; flash floods that appeared from a blue sky in minutes, to ferociously drench the unfortunate climbers on the top of a previously baking jebel (hill); and tiny earthquakes and landslides – I was no doubt fortunate never to witness a serious one. I would overnight in the desert with friends and we would lie on our backs to watch the unbelievable night sky with its thousands of stars, satellites and shooting stars, before ascending a 10,000ft mountain in the morning, or exploring a stretch of uninhabited coastline.

I spent almost every spare hour that I had out in that desert, either trying to find my way across trackless ridges in my jeep, or just walking; walking everywhere within walking distance and discovering just how much there is actually to see in a desert. I was supremely happy in that environment, and some 20 years later when I had to change aircraft in Muscat, I found myself looking out at the purple tinted hazy mountain lines with something very close to homesickness.

Today, even waiting on the station to get a train to go to the next stop, a coffee in hand, a bag over my shoulder with a book in it, I am on a journey. And that journey feels clearly related to the longest journeys that I have ever taken. There can still be the same sense of travelling, of departing and arriving. The search for food and shelter… I think that it shows just how much a journey largely exists in the mind. Often our perceptions of a journey seem to differ from that journey’s reality (as many things do, I suppose). A long, difficult journey can seem to be over quicker than a short, easy one.

Just packing a rucksack, even an overnight bag when I used to have to occasionally stay over where I once worked – a wash bag and towel, sleeping bag and clothes – I feel as though I’m off on a journey. There is a certain amount of excitement…

And I know, too, how smell is such a strong, evocative, sense. Just with the kitchen window open, at 10pm on a slightly rainy October evening, I suddenly catch a scent of something – something cooking nearby, or a hint of smoke, perhaps – and I am instantly transported to Nepal, high in the mountains, remembering an evening with sherpas and villagers beside a river where we ate and then sat around talking and drinking and listening to those sherpas and villagers singing.

Okay, I’m ready to go and pack, now…

An Alien Culture?

More people travel for leisure purposes today than have ever done so in the past. And many work abroad on short- or long-term contracts, often with a certain amount of leisure time available to experience the culture that surrounds them there.

And this will result in these travellers meeting the people that make up the indigenous society where, for a while, they find themselves. Will there then be a meeting of minds?

Having lived in an ex-pat society, as I have referred to on here before, I am familiar with the laager mentality that often pervades it. I won’t go into all the permutations, but there is frequently a combination of arrogance and fear that leads to a strong feeling of ‘us and them’.

Many travel with the firm conviction that their own society is superior to any other, and are unwilling to see any good at all in any others. Some who go away to work resent being uprooted, and arrive with that resentment packed in their baggage. Some find the experience to be fearful, if they do not understand the language being spoken around them or assume that this alien society has values that somehow threaten them.

And they can either lock themselves away and peer over the barricades, or they can embrace the experience and learn from it.

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Travel broadens the mind, it is said, but sometimes it seems to just cement prejudices more firmly in place.

And how easy it is to travel around just looking for things to justify prejudices!

One of the more infuriating things that I come across occasionally is a bigoted and ignorant letter or article in a local newspaper (it often tends to be the local ones) where someone’s idiot views are justified by the phrase ‘I know; I was there’. I imagine them living their entire time in a foreign country in a compound that they rarely leave, yet thinking that they now know exactly how the society functions beyond their walls.

I’ve met one or two of them, over the years.

I spent three years in Oman, working, and I’ve travelled fairly extensively in India, but I do not imagine or pretend that I really have much more than a superficial experience of these places. I knew little of the local culture in Oman beyond what I could see in the streets and villages and markets that I visited. I didn’t know anyone well enough to spend time at their homes or in their social circles. I went with groups of other westerners to places of interest. I did spend a lot of time exploring the desert and the nearby towns on my own, but I was effectively still inside my own little bubble. It is a huge regret that I never got deeper under the surface.

I have, perhaps, managed to learn a little more about the real India, especially through spending time on a project in a village, although I cannot pretend, even to myself, that I really have any idea of what it is like to actually live in an Indian village.

During the later days of the British Raj, the rulers took the approach that their civilisation was naturally superior, and that there was nothing in Indian civilisation worthy of their consideration. The irony of this is that around the end of the eighteenth century, and the first years of the nineteenth, many of the British in India had taken a keen interest in Indian history and culture, themselves doing a tremendous amount to unearth much of the history that had been lost and forgotten. For that comparatively brief period, it would seem that many of the British treated Indians and their culture with a deep respect.

The reasons that this changed are probably deeper than my understanding, but two things stand out. Firstly, that from the beginning of the nineteenth century, many British women came to India in search of husbands, bringing with them what we tend to think of as Victorian attitudes, and secondly, there was an upsurge of evangelism in Britain, which translated itself in India as a movement to convert the ‘heathens’ to Christianity. These combined as a new feeling of superiority, and contempt for a society that was now seen as inferior, especially when much of it resisted their overtures.

With this, the British as a whole seemed to become more intolerant and arrogant, and less respectful of sensibilities. This culminated in the horrors of 1857, which could be said to be caused directly by these attitudes.

To return to the present day, it seems that many travellers have attitudes no better than their Victorian predecessors’. I wrote a post a few months back that mentioned a number of westerners I came across in a Himalayan hill resort, https://mickcanning.co/2015/10/25/the-mad-woman-of-the-hill-station/  should you wish to view it, whose behaviour and attitudes were just downright arrogant and disrespectful. They were doing no more than confirming their prejudices as they travelled, and at the same time I daresay they were confirming many people’s views of western travellers.

Yet there are many people who travel with open ears, open eyes and an open mind, and their rewards are far greater than those of the blinkered traveller. They have the wonderful opportunity to experience and learn about different cultures at first hand, speak to people who hold different beliefs and ideals to them, and perhaps learn a little of what drives them. In return, they have an opportunity to enlighten others, perhaps, to things in their own society that might not be understood by those others. In a small way, each and every one of them can choose to contribute either to different societies coming to understand and become more tolerant, or to the further spread of tensions, mistrust, and misunderstandings.

And all of these little interactions, added together, are as important and influential as the contacts between politicians and diplomats.

By Popular Request (2)

First of all, a huge ‘thank you’ to all of you who contributed to the comments thread on my post earlier this week, ‘Religion or Philosophy.’

I thought it made it the most interesting so far, and all of your comments certainly given me much food for thought about what I had written and my feelings around the subject.

So, today, a couple more paintings. I didn’t paint much when I was in Oman, apart from a few sketches and watercolours, so these ones were worked much later, from some of the photographs I took.

It is in the desert that I have been most aware of the contrast between light and dark, and that is something that I wanted to bring out in these paintings.

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Oman #1 Acrylic on board. 24 ins x 36 ins

There is something about ruins, by their very nature, that is stark. They have been shaped by human hand, but are now broken. Designed and built for a purpose, but now with that purpose gone. There is a sadness, or at least a feeling of melancholy.

There is a sense of emptiness, which is frequently a feeling that comes upon the traveller in the desert.

And in the desert, there is not that softening growth of ivy, for example, to soften the harsh and fractured edges of ruins.

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Oman #2 Acrylic on board 37 ins x 23 ins

The second painting, Oman #2, was also an exercise in the use of triangles in composition.

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Prior to 1970, Oman was, in many ways, still a medieval country. There were no more than 3 miles of tarmac road in the whole country, the gates of the capital, Muscat, were still closed between the hours of sunset and sunrise, and it’s exports were largely confined to dates, limes and frankincense. Oil had first been discovered as far back as 1956, and then in commercial quantities in 1962. Production began in 1964 and led irrevocably to massive changes, although these would not come about until 1970.

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This launch (Omanis never use the word Dhow) was on the shore at Yiti, just east of Muscat. It would most likely have been used for trading and was probably still seaworthy when I took this photo.

Mindful of these changes that had happened virtually overnight to other Middle Eastern states when oil had been discovered, the then Sultan, Said, was determined that Oman would not go the same way. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, his solution was to stash the proceeds in the royal coffers, whilst the country and its people remained poor. It was a situation that could not last for long, and in 1970 his son, Qaboos, overthrew the old Sultan.

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Old fort at the village of Baushar, near Muscat.
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Carved wooden door in Baushar Fort

I lived there between 1985 and 1988, during which time the country was making large strides towards being a modern state, although many parts of the country still felt as though they belonged in another century. Around Muscat and along the Northern coast, there were new towns springing up, modern shops and hotels, main roads, and much of the development that might be expected. There did appear to be an emphasis on the building of facilities such as schools and hospitals, however, along with a good deal of restraint, which was a refreshing change from the way that many other states used their oil wealth.

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Pottery kiln at Bahla.

Bahla has good quality clay and produces large numbers of pots, which are thrown on simple foot-operated slow wheels and fired in large mud-brick kilns, which are fueled with brushwood.

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Newly-fired pots

Away from the towns, to visit most of the villages was like stepping back in time. Buildings were often still mud brick and palm thatch, and many of the traditional cottage industries were still followed.

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Falaj.

The Falaj system of irrigation originated in Persia and was spread throughout the Arab world. I have even seen examples in Spain. The system consists of a series of underwater channels bringing water from where it arises, usually in the mountains, to where it is needed, where it is distributed by overground channels. These channels, both underground and overground, have been built on a very gentle gradient and show astounding technical skill, being built only with primitive tools, often very deep underground. Many of the Omani Falajes are reckoned to have been built by 500 BC.

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Dates spread out to dry near the town of Quriyat.

Dates are an important crop in Oman and were the main export until the discovery of oil there. They are still dried in the traditional way – in the sun.

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Boy on a donkey with sharks. The sea has also traditionally been a major source of food for Omanis. I passed this boy just outside Quriyat.

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Coastal mountains, SE of Muscat.

For a long time after I finally left Oman, I harboured a strong wish to go back there. But recently I watched several videos on YouTube, which have cured me. Many of the places that I knew as small settlements with dirt roads and small houses, have become places of great wealth with wide boulevards, modern houses and cars, and tourist hotels. It is, no doubt, a development that is welcomed by the majority of the population, but it is not the Oman that I knew.

Oasis

There you go. A picture of an oasis.

I Could Have Been a Travel Writer

Once (upon a time), I had ambitions to be a travel writer.

I’m sure you know the type;

Just twenty minutes after the wedding vows have been exchanged, the long-suffering partner agrees to the explorer high-tailing it out of the conjugal nest for a couple of years, so that they can retrace the steps of some medieval alchemist-poet-knight who drove three thousand goats across six mountain ranges, converted four heathen princes to the True Faith, and conquered Alsace and Mordor on the way.

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Unfortunately, I quickly decided that I was unlikely to ever have the experience to write a travel book. I have never met the Dalai Lama, interviewed an Imam in a mosque in the mountains of Persia, or chatted intimately to local leaders in remote places. I have met very few people in the aid sector, people who have done particularly brave or daring things, or celebrities.

Indeed, I’m not even a celebrity myself, which seems to be a good travel opening nowadays. I’ve never had the resources to spend years at a time living with villagers in remote Angolan jungle clearings, and I’ve not been able as yet to persuade any large companies to sponsor my meanderings.

And this is a great shame, because travelling and getting paid for it is an attractive proposition. I rather got the appetite for it in the years that I worked abroad. Oh sure, most of my time was spent working, but I did get to travel around and see much that I would never had had the chance to see otherwise. In the 1980’s, Oman was pretty well closed to western visitors, other than those like myself who worked there. It was my first real taste of a society that was very different to my own, in a climate also far removed from anything I had experienced before. I loved it, and I got paid well for it.

It did, unfortunately, instil a slight expectation that I could continue to experience this as long as I wished, and like all good things, it came to an end.

Now, when I do travel, I keep a journal. On the other hand, so do most other travellers. And it only takes a quick glance through mine to see that there is not the basis of a best-selling travel book there. It does sometimes seem that to read most published accounts of journeys, unless they were accomplished with the maximum amount of discomfort then they don’t count. Certainly, I’ve had a few uncomfortable long distance bus rides, been too cold or too hot at times, and passed the odd night in some pretty crap hotel rooms, but I don’t think that’s enough to fill a best seller.

On the other hand, I’ve never set off with just a passport and a change of underwear to travel single-handedly across the amazon jungle, or attempted to unicycle around the Mongolian plateau juggling a bowling ball, an egg and a carving knife, so maybe it is my attitude that is at fault.

But I have a plan!

I shall daringly attempt a five mile walk through the English countryside, non-stop and all by myself! No support team, no camera crew, no convenient lift for when the going just gets too hard to bear. There will be nothing other than my own courage and steely determination to get me through the ordeal, except for the prospect of a cold beer at the end of the trail, possibly a pub sandwich and a short ride home on the bus.

I’ve got waterproofs (just in case), a bottle of water, a map, a few snacks, my notebook and camera (for interviewing any gnarled old villagers that I might happen across) and a mobile phone just in case I find myself in any situation that I cannot talk or buy my way out of.

And so, having persuaded my beloved to give me leave of absence for the time it takes me to complete the expedition, I’m off into the comparative unknown.

If this is my last blog post, you’ll know it all went horribly wrong.