Reading the world has been exciting from the word go. However, sometimes there’s a book which is particularly gripping and keeps haunting me long after I finished it. And every now and then, there’s a book which really isn’t my cup of tea. In this blog post, I’m writing about both kinds of book. On my nightstand at the moment are Uzbekistan and Antarctica (still). Thanks to my parents who sponsored all three countries 🙂 !
168 Bahrain: Yummah by Sarah A. Al Shafei
The basic premise of the book (child marriage and a resulting life story) was good. However, sometimes really odd writing was off-putting, e.g. people ‘screamed’ very often and the only thing important seemed to be a beautiful woman with a rich husband. Better editing help might have been a very good idea for this inexperienced writer. I felt this book was a missed chance.
169 Equatorial Guinea: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono
I first heard about this book on www.ayearofreadingtheworld.com and was glad when it finally appeared in English translation. What a read! It is basically an exploration of gay people’s lives in the traditional Fang society. I started reading it while sitting in a dentist’s waiting room and was halfway through by the time the anaesthesia had worn off. The ending was a bit rushed, but apart from that it’s one of the best books I’ve read for this project so far.
170 Paraguay: Die Nacht der treibenden Feuer by Augusto Roa Bastos
Another book which is still haunting me! This collection of short stories managed to draw me into its pages from the very first sentence. The jungle, the river, the mid-day heat on the fields – and then invariably something horrible would happen. I had to take a break after each story because it was so nerve-wracking. Still, I’d love to read much more by the author who was a master of catching his readers and characters alike.
On my recent holiday in Europe I spent a handful of days in and around Lille in northern France. One of the days included a tour along the frontline in Flanders during World War I.
Starting point was the memorial to those who died in France during the two world wars in Lille. The dead of French wars in Indochina and North Africa have their honorary mention at the bottom of the monument. France doesn’t seem to be terribly good at dealing with that part of its history. But then, my guide was French and the driver was Algerian and they got along quite well.
We then ventured via Fromelles along the frontline. The road follows it for long stretches and you can see signposts to cemeteries and memorials every few hundred metres. In the past, the dead were kept separated by nationality (not religion though), but bodies are still found and these days all the fallen are being laid to rest together. Which I think is a good idea.
It was interesting to learn that there are also unexploded shells which farmers find when tilling the land. This ammunition is still live and so poses a real threat even after a hundred years. In Flanders, you don’t see remnants of the trenches though because of the geology of the area. The ground is very soft, hence the soldiers mentioning mud all the time, and after the war was over the farmers went back to their fields. If you want to get a feel for trenches, visit the area around Verdun.
After the fourth or fifth cemetery it all felt deeply gloomy despite it being a glorious day. I can’t even begin to imagine what the people back then must have gone through. But it was a relief to get to the Christmas football game memorial.
Last stop on the tour was Ypres which had been in total ruins after the war. Today, it’s all really splendid. Main points of call are the cathedral, a church run by the Church of England, the museum of the fields of Flanders if you’ve got ample time, and Menin Gate. This last structure has the names of more than 54000 soldiers inscribed on its walls whose graves are unknown.
I had booked this tour in the tourist office in Lille. At 260 euros for one person it was quite expensive (gets cheaper if you’re more people), but I thought it was really worth it. My guide was very good and I learned a lot. The thing is that being German WWII is never very far, but WWI has already kind of faded into deep history, unlike for British people for example. So it shouldn’t have come as a real surprise when my guide told me that although he’d been in this business for about 15 years, I was his very first German customer ever.
You hadn’t thought I’d given up on reading the world now, had you? Yes, it is going slower than in the first two years, but I’m ploughing on and keep making great discoveries. Some stats: the current count overall is 167 out of 257 books, and 71 of these were written by female authors, 11 by a mixed team and one book didn’t name an author.
165 Saudi Arabia: Daring to Drive: My Life as an Accidental Activist in a Kingdom of Men by Manal Al-Sharif
This book is an autobiography written by someone who hasn’t much experience of the craft, but her story makes more than up for it. If you thought that the KSA was kind of a hellhole for women, here several new circles of hell are added to the equation.
166 Taiwan: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin
While listening to the audiobook version of this story I found it somewhat tricky to follow the many characters. I think it might have been better to read the printed version. Content-wise, I felt with the Crocodiles of the story. It’s good to see that Taiwan has now legalised same-sex marriage.
167 Kenya: Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Revolution! This book is a call to arms and takes a broad aim: colonialism, sexual predation, big money, tribalism, corruption, religion and the list isn’t finished. It’s not exactly subtle in its stance but not without a sense of humour. The denouement came as a surprise to me and the heroine of the story … , well, read for yourself.
And what’s coming next? I’m in the middle of Bahrain, Antarctica and Kazakhstan and just got a big present from my parents including Uzbekistan, Paraguay and Equatorial Guinea. Thank you 🙂 .
On the third day of our trip to Tamanrasset we went to Assekrem. For foreign tourists, this is the only spot in the area where one can stay overnight outside of Tam because there’s an outpost of the gendarmerie. A permit has to be organized in advance and ours was sorted by the travel agency and our marvellous guide.
The track to Assekrem is marked and leads through a varied landscape. Quite often it appeared moon-like.
We didn’t go to Assekrem immediately but had a stopover with picnic at one of Algeria’s Ramsar wetlands. It’s a pretty odd feeling to have been through parched valleys and hills and then suddenly there’s a river and ponds and plastic bottles and bags.
If you look at the sign you can marvel at its linguistic complexity. Arabic, French, and English are easily recognizable. The signs that look a bit like runes are Tifinagh, the writing system of the Amazigh (Berber) languages. It’s one of the oldest writing systems still in use and because the Amazigh are matriarchal the women are responsible for teaching it (or so I read in my guide book).
With the area being full of water, there was of course lots of wildlife. We saw kestrels and martins, plenty of dragonflies and brilliant grasshoppers with red wings underneath their grey ones. There was a lot of humming in the air.
We arrived in Assekrem in the afternoon. There was ample time to climb from the refuge to the mountain top, from about 2600m to 2800m – and I certainly felt the height and had to stop every few steps to catch my breath. Well, it gave us time to admire the house bunting.
Once we had made it to the top, we were welcomed by the local Catholic priest … yes, you read that correctly. Assekrem is famous because at the beginning of the 20th century a French astronomer, Foucauld, built his hermitage on the mountain to observe the weather and the stars and to possibly do some spying for the French military. He also erected a tiny church which can be visited these days. The priest also told us that we were really lucky because it was a very fine day with great visibility and almost no wind. Really balmy.
We made it down just in time for darkness to cover land and plastic and had dinner followed by some of the coldest hours I’ve ever experienced (I spent a winter on Iceland). And there wasn’t even any wind blowing! I went to sleep dressed with my woolly hat on and crawled under three thick blankets.
In the morning, the whole sky was covered in an orange glow, seeing which was well worth the freezing night, but I didn’t climb up the mountain. We went back to Tam and admired some camels on the way. We also had our last picnic of the trip. The flights to and from Tam are always in the middle of the night so we tried to nap once back in our hotel. It was an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the Sahara.
On our second day in Tamanrasset, our fab guide (and the three vehicles of the gendarmerie) took us north-east of the town, passing through fields of plastic rubbish into an area that is best described as boulder country. I don’t know the geological processes which shaped the rock formations to make them look like they do, but it was an awesome place to see.
At some point, our driver stopped near some boulders and we were told to venture in between them and eventually under one of the big stones. There, on the ‘ceiling’ above us, we saw some rock art which is a few thousand years old. I was very tempted to touch it but managed just about to behave myself. I couldn’t resist though feeling in the hole where the old ones must have mixed the paint.
While our guide prepared picnic and tea, we had a look around and admired the landscape and whatever wildlife we could find in it. I was amazed at a fairly vibrant insect life.
Back in the hotel in the afternoon, we spent some time in its garden where we saw more birds. An Egyptian vulture flew by and several silverbills and firefinches had made their home in the garden’s trees and were just lovely to observe. At this point, some thank yous – to the birders on birdforum.net for their help with bird IDs and to our colleague Narimene for making endless phonecalls!
In the middle of December, husband and I visited the town and area of Tamanrasset, which is about 1600km south of Algiers right in the middle of the Sahara desert. From Tam to the south, Mali or Niger, it is about 500km and the next bigger Algerian settlements are Djanet, at a distance of roughly 700km east and In Salah, the same distance north.
Tam is on a volcanic plateau at an altitude of circa 1300m, which makes it mild in winter during the days and bearable during the summer months. The nights can get freezing. The views are amazing and much more varied then I had expected. The volcanic area is called Hoggar and it is a National Park.
If you’re Algerian, visiting this amazing place is expensive but not complicated. As foreign nationals, there were some bureaucratic hoops for us to jump through. This is unfortunately rooted in recent history. About a decade ago, several tourists were kidnapped in the area. The government eventually stopped the kidnaps and introduced a policy of escorting foreigners. I’d love to show you a photo of our dozen or so guards but it’s not allowed to photograph anything relating to police, gendarmerie or military so you’ve got to take my word for it. The escort was organized by our travel agency and our fabulous guide, Mouloud, did the daily communication – meeting in the morning, confirming places to go, making sure we got back to the hotel in the evening.
To be able to do so, we had to provide all our paperwork a fortnight or so in advance – in our case residency permits, work permits, passports, flight details and hotel reservation. If you’re planning to visit anywhere in the wilaya (district) of Tamanrasset, you have to do this. Your travel agency should tell you what paperwork needs to be done and you need to be good at doing things in advance and possibly chasing up. Algerians are lovely people; the red tape, however, is atrocious.
The basic rule is you go on a day trip and you’re escorted back for the night. We even had the guide taking us out for dinner and souvenir shopping. It was a wee bit like North Korea but having said that – I think it’s great that one’s being protected. The only place where one can go for an overnight stay is Assekrem (more about that in a future post) because there’s an outpost for the gendarmerie.
If you want to do anything special like birdwatching, be aware of a few things regarding optics. Don’t bring binoculars into the country. If you can afford it, buy a pair in Algiers or Oran – I don’t think you could get them easily anywhere else. I’ve been assured by a local judge that possessing binoculars isn’t an offence but I’m not a legal authority so exercise caution. Regarding lenses for the camera, my longest is 300mm and so far no one has complained. However, when it comes to anything bigger you might or might not get into trouble with the authorities and I’d go to great lengths to avoid that. The rules with the escort might also influence early morning hours – you need to be either a really skilled negotiator to get sunrise observation or accept that this is something you do in Djanet, Ghardaja or Bechar.
When it comes to food and drink of course you need to be aware that you’re still in a predominantly Muslim area although there’s a very different feel compared to the north of Algeria. There’s no alcohol available in restaurants. For vegetarians, Algeria can be slightly problematic: Aw, there’s just this little bit of minced meat on the egg, so it’s not really meat, surely not a problem? Thankfully, Mouloud the great guide was also really good at keeping us fed!
Another typical experience is Sahara tea which is green tea boiled and mixed with sugar. Health and safety warning: a lot of sugar. My estimate is 100ml of tea contain two or three heaped table spoons full of sugar. The tea is prepared on acacia wood which smells divine. If you’re feeling tired after a long day’s work or a few minutes’ stroll in the heat (the tourist experience), this is the best thing to revive your spirits.
We were not an official team for World Cleanup Day because the person I had contacted, well, didn’t seem to care much about cleaning away all the rubbish or to actually be involved. So my husband, some friends and I went out into the forest next to where we live to do our bit (which we do pretty much every weekend anyway).
We spent about two hours cleaning away plastic bottles and bottle tops, wrappers, wet wipes and vast quantities of styrofoam. We were seven to begin with, but some members of the public decided to join us on the spot and helped to collect rubbish and to carry it out of the forest.
The photos are maybe a bit odd because it was overcast, late in the afternoon and I wore gloves. But anyway, we had fun and did something good.