Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

South to Sur

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th February, 2019

59A74439-0048-477A-81BB-FF109212357BYesterday I went by local coach from Ruwi to Sur, a town I last visited about 20 years ago. It only took two-and-a-half hours this time, thanks to the four-lane highway that now cuts through the barren black hills before joining the coast. There has been quite a bit of new construction in Sur itself since I was last here as well, but I was pleased to see that much of the old centre is more or less unchanged and the heart of the souk district is getting some covers for its alleys. Sur was historically best-known for its boat-building — great wooden dhows (or variants thereof) that would sail down the coast of East Africa and across to Bombay in British India. I visited one of the few remaining boatyards 20 years ago; local craftsmen had been replaced by workers from Bangladesh, though the techniques were still the same.

A582E31F-0913-44AC-8A34-3DFAE0799280So I wasn’t surprised today when I walked along the sweeping corniche and then round the bay to the (restored) old watchtower, to see Bangladeshis out with boats. Even though the weather at present is delightful, unlike the furnace that is summer, one sees very few locals about, unless they are driving a car on largely empty roads or else men going into the mosque in response to the prayer-call. The variety of mosques in even a modest place like Sur is quite astonishing. When I was wandering round one residential quarter this morning, a small herd of goats came running over to take a look at me, as if surprised to see a human out and about, Much of the Omanis’ lives, especially for the women, takes place within the four walls of their residences, many of which are substantial, though rarely as grandiose as those in some wealthier parts of the Gulf. The shopping mall culture that dominates social life in the other GCC states hasn’t really caught on here in the same way yet. There isn’t even a Starbucks outside of the capital, Muscat, which would doubtless dismay some American travellers. But there are countless Indian “coffee shops” and juice bars, serving fabulous fresh fruit juices, my two favourites being mango and papaya.

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Ambling from Muttrah to Muscat

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th February, 2019

AD0CEBC9-6A94-43A9-BA4E-837C982579C2The short, winding coastal road from the port of Muttrah to Oman’s capital, Muscat, was the first in the country to be paved. Even the current Sultan’s arch-Conservative father recognised that it would be sensible if goods being brought into the country arrived in one piece. But the trucks bringing produce to Muscat needed to get there before nightfall as otherwise they would find the walled town’s gates firmly locked. That is all now all part of history, but I was in the mood for nostalgia as I walked from Muttrah to Muscat this morning — a cloudless blue sky and a temperature of about 23 degrees making it a very pleasant amble. The local bus from Ruwi, where I am staying, dropped me at the gates of Muttrah port, where memories started flooding back, as that is where I disembarked from a ship that had brought me from the Musandam peninsula (part of Oman, but separated from the rest of the country by a slice of the UAE) a quarter of a century ago. I was pleased to see that the modest Marina Hotel, where I stayed that night, is still standing. The Corniche has been widened, but it is still full of interesting little shops as well as the entrances to the Gold and General souks.

4239C53A-778C-4A5B-AA8C-F4373DB4A7DFThe great advantage of walking along the shoreline is that substantial chunks of the original road are still there, separated from the modern, well-landscaped four-lane dual carriageway sufficiently for one to savour the contours of the rocks, as well as the plants, trees and birds. Conveniently half way along the route is the tiny village of Kalbuh, where one get a coffee or a soft drink, or even bathe off its little beach, if one wishes. There was one Indian family doing just that this morning, but otherwise the place was deserted. Once one reaches the crown of the hill beyond Kalbuh, suddenly the great gate of Muscat is visible — now housing a museum — though the old gate to the intimate inner city is quite a lot furt(er on. Inside this inner city is the Sultan’s office complex, government offices and beautiful flower displays, but it’s also worth finding your way through a small tunnel in the cliffs to see the impressive hilltop fortresses that once guarded the entrance to the tiny, sheltered bay.

(This walk can be done from November to March, but summer is much too hot and humid).

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Welcome to Muscat!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th February, 2019

D8954DF2-8EE7-4811-B6DA-72AB9C5C2BB1Since I last came to Oman a new airport is up and running, serving the capital, Muscat. It’s rather a splendid affair, toned in mellow browns and greys, rather than the usual garish international colours. The interior is extremely spacious, with travelators to ease weary passengers’ way, as well as an efficient and friendly immigration and baggage claim environment. These days travellers can apply for an Omani tourist visa online (valid for 10 days or one month), which has definitely smoothed the entry procedures. There is an exchange counter in the baggage claim area. The most striking difference for me, though, is that there is now a well-signed route down an escalator to the bus station below, with regular departures to Ruwi downtown — a 45 minute to one hour ride for the princely sum of a half dinar, not much over £1. You pay the driver on the bus. Ruwi bus station is conveniently located in one of Muscat’s most animated districts, only a five minute walk to the hotel where I am staying for the first few days, the Tulip Inn.

D1FE9D30-FD9E-4070-9B53-71DFD5664D45I initially stayed in Ruwi when I first came to Oman over 20 years ago, making a half-hour radio documentary on the country for BBC World Services, later travelling down to Salalah to cover ambitious plans for the development of its port. I was invited back in 2000 for the 30th anniversary celebrations of Sultan Qaboos’s assumption of power. He has overseen the transformation of Oman from one of the most isolated countries on earth (there were only 10 kilometres of paved road in 1970), shifting its dependence on oil revenues towards a more diversified economy and opening up the country to carefully managed tourism (not mass package holidays). In fact the last time I was here was leading a small tour group to Muscat, Salalah and Nizwa, site of Oman’s most impressive fort. There are lots of historic sites in the country, reflective of Oman’s former imperial and maritime glory and the rugged scenery as well as the desert in the south make it by far the most attractive of the Gulf States. The sun has now risen over the rocky outcrop outside my window, so it’s time to get out and about.

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Taking Oscar Wilde to Kazakhstan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th December, 2018

01D71BDB-BC00-4005-8EF1-0221582BB0EFEarlier this month I did a whirlwind lecture tour of Almaty, Taraz and Kulan in Kazakhstan, in the company of the Aitmatov Academy’s Director, Rahima Abduvalieva. The trigger for the visit was the 90th anniversary celebrations of the esteemed Kyrgyz writer, Chinghiz Aitmatov, author of Jamila and other novellas and short stories, as well as evocative memoir. I had prepared a lecture on interesting parallels between Aitmatov and Oscar Wilde, which I delivered at Al-Farabi and TIGU universities. Though the two writers lived in different centuries, thousands of kilometres apart, they were both outsider-insiders, who had moved from the colonial periphery — Ireland and Kyrgyzstan — to the metropolis (London and Moscow) and won literary success. That was all the more remarkable in the case of Aitmatov, whose father was a victim of Stalinist oppression as an “enemy of the people”.

9326E15F-E174-4CA8-A6F2-71AACBE68C7CIn Almaty I gave master classes on Wilde’s life and work to both Kazakh and Russian language philology students and presented copies of my short biography of Oscar Wilde to the universities. I was interviewed in Kulan by a local TV channel, and on my return to London took part, with Rahima Abduvalieva, in a full-length programme on Chinghiz Aitmatov for the BBC Kyrgyz Service. Oscar Wilde was of course a major feature of my contribution then as well, and I like to think that he would have guffawed with pleasure at the thought of having been transported to the Kazakh steppes.

The BBC Kyrgyz programme is available on YouTube.

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Faro (Algarve)

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 5th November, 2018

035A9793-0B17-4A9A-B40A-62102583C97BProbably like many Brits, I have always thought of Faro as an airport: the gateway to Portugal’s Algarve region (or Orpington-on-sea). And as Lisbon and the Estoril coast have been such a magnet for me over the last 20 years or so, I never really thought about coming here. But the serendipity of having to get from Lisbon (for an autumnal long weekend) to a conference in Madrid in a few days time, meant that I thought well, why not have a day in Faro en route? I duly took a coach from Lisbon this morning: a smooth 3-hour ride through ever drier countryside, with many lovely trees, while outside the thermometer rose slowly but surely to 18C. Blue skies in abundance on arrival, and a relaxed lunch of delicious ravioli washed down with red wine in a small, friendly restaurant near the bus station at a modest price I haven’t encountered in the capital for years. (N.B.: Lisbon, having been totally off the tourists’ radar when I first started going there has now, alas, been “discovered” big time, and the locals are not entirely happy, thanks to crowded pavements, rising prices and young people being excluded from renting downtown studios as so many have gone Airbnb).

5D7E1E79-93CF-4C5B-93FD-743AC415910F.jpegSo, back to Faro. Well, it was a good idea to come off-season, when the (predominantly British) holiday-makers have long gone. Sure, there are still some of the European equivalent of “snow geese” (Canadians who flee their harsh winters to enjoy some sun in Florida or Cuba), but wandering around Faro’s Old Town this afternoon, I virtually had the place to myself. To be honest, I had no idea that Faro had an Old Town, let alone a walled one, but it is a little gem, with lots of beautiful buildings, as well as quaint, winding streets and intriguing nooks and crannies. In fact the whole town (ignoring the IKEA suburbs) is full of little architectural glories, from late medieval throughrococo to Modern-Style. So although I only gave myself under 24 hours to enjoy it this time, I suspect I might be tempted back before too long.

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Anjouan, Comoros

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 3rd September, 2018

BC56FAF2-CE6D-471D-BD09-723AEB789992Though more heavily populated than Moheli, Anjouan is the most attractive of the three main islands that make up the Union of the Comoros. The capital, Mutsamudu, has a number of characterful buildings with screened first floor balconies and there is quite a long seafront road that is interesting to explore (if one can ignore the rubbish-strewn beach; garbage disposal is a huge problem throughout the islands). There are a number of glorious sandy beaches — most golden, but some volcanic black — in other parts of Anjouan, and on Sundays many young local guys head off on their motorcycles, with bouquets of flowers on the front and their girlfriend on the back, to Moya, where there are a number of cheap, basic hotels and lodges, as well as plenty of crayfish, shrimps and octopus — the latter a Comorian speciality, often cooked in coconut milk. One rather weird but popular attraction nearby is the island’s only road tunnel, which is not very long but which is a favourite spot for people to hang out.

874A30F4-1DE4-45AD-8A26-2658D9F6D994I didn’t get to see the nature reserve round Lake Dzialandze, nearly 1600 metres up on Mount Ntrigui, but those who have the time and stamina to make the long trek and climb to get there can see lemurs and other wildlife in abundance. At lower altitudes it’s mainly lizards, birds and bats (some huge) which cross one’s eye-line. A lot of the island is mountainous and although some of the forest cover has been removed as a result of human activity, this is nothing like on the same scale as in nearby Madagascar. The main crops are cloves and ylang ylang, which is the base of many perfumes produced by Chanel among others. In colonial times, owning plantations could be a risky venture, as the British Consul, William Sunley, discovered. His abandoned plantation house is atmospherically extant, but empty, and would make a wonderful boutique hotel with the right degree of investment and improved local infrastructure. As it is, the large, blackened swimming pool sits as an eerie memento of a leisured mid-19th century existence built on the backs of slave labour.

 

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Moheli, Comoros

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 1st September, 2018

6E4F7BFF-0C57-432F-A345-8D95C454E17CFew countries not in conflict have managed to stay off the tourists’ radar, but the Comoros, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, between Mozambique and Madagascar, is one. This is partly because the necessary infrastructure is not there, unlike on the island of Mayotte, which is geographically and historically part of the Comoro Islands, but is administered by the French (the former colonial power), which is a sore point with locals in the independent nation. Of the three other main islands in the archipelago, Moheli is the smallest and least populated, as well as the most verdant. Much of the terrain is still covered in forest, but elsewhere there is clove production and distilleries processing the ylang ylang that plays such an important role in the global perfume industry. Though much of the island is mountainous, there are also many glorious beaches; where one will often be the only person there, apart from the odd fisherman or farmer. I guess that idyllic situation for visitors prepared to rough it a bit won’t last for too much longer — Madagascar is now rapidly developing its tourism potential, for example — but in the meantime Moheli, like the rest of the Comoros, offers a respite from the modern world, as well as a source of inspiration for writers like myself.

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Easter in Rome

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th March, 2018

D0E180F4-0506-45E5-8BAD-FD50B5A051DEHaving spent more than half a century travelling around Europe — most of it for work, including eight years based in Brussels (the subject of my next memoir) — I’ve been just about everywhere, except Kosovo since it declared independence. But of course there are some “experiences” I still have to have — not exactly a bucket list, but nonetheless things that it would be nice to have notched on my belt before I pop my clogs. So here I am in Rome for Holy Week, the Easter palomba cake on the kitchen table at my friend’s flat off the Piazza di Spagna. I’d expected the city to be super-crowded, but apart from the occasional crocodile of Chinese chugging down the pavement, this part of town is relatively manageable. The Piazza del Popolo at the end of the street was packed on Wednesday for the funeral of the  much-loved TV presenter Fabrizio Frizzi, but otherwise I have been able to wander and when the mood takes me, to sit in the Spring sun on a cafe terrace. Mind you, I have kept well away from the Vatican, which I imagine will be heaving, especially as the Easter weekend progresses and the Pope appears. I shall leave that to the devoted, as I abandoned organised religion decades ago. But a priest is coming to a fish supper at the apartment this evening, so we are sort of entering into the spirit of things.

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Shopping as a Lifestyle

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th February, 2018

1C3D254A-2708-44A8-9596-37E596D4DF3CIt has often been noted that we live in a materialist age, where we are increasingly judged by what we own, rather than what sort of person we are. Advertising pressures us to build up our self-image by buying more; indeed, the proponents of free market capitalism would argue that by boosting consumption we grow the economy and therefore become richer as a society. Or at least that’s the theory, though the growing numbers of homeless rough sleepers on both sides of the Atlantic suggest that the post-War economic model has not been an unqualified success — and that’s before we consider how sustainable the consumer society is, given rising population and the earth’s finite resources. I’ve been prompted to these musings by being based for the past week in Dubai, which is a city that has become almost symbolic of the “more is better” approach to global living. Over the three decades I’ve been coming here the place has been totally transformed from being a rather charming medium-sized trading hub, still enjoying the revenues from its twilight years of oil production, to an in-your-face post-modern multicultural city, constantly expanding. Dubai has astutely diversified its economy much more effectively than most places in the Gulf, including building up light industry, financial services and tourism. Partly to keep the flow of tourists coming, Dubai has also branded itself a shoppers’ paradise; even outside the annual shopping festivals, people are urged to buy, buy, buy, with all kinds of discounts and special offers. Shopping malls have proliferated, with new ones often vaulting themselves as the biggest and best. You don’t even need to go to Korea for the Winter Olympics at the moment, as there are malls in Dubai where you can ski and ice-skate, no matter how high the temperature outside. At the height of summer, when the temperatures reache the high 40s centigrade, the air-conditioned malls are of course an oasis, but in fact they are busy all year round. Moreover, they are one of the few places where you can see Emirati families, who make up only about 10 per cent of the city’s population. They have certainly bought into the shopping dream, to the extent that it has almost become a lifestyle. Even if the emirate’s economy is reportedly not doing quite as well as it was and some companies have been laying off staff, the message is still loud and clear: go to the Mall and shop till you drop!

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Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

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