With nothing much to do, I decided in 2012 that I would travel. The last purely personal target I would like to reach in my life is to have visited a hundred countries, and I realized that the intense work of the previous years had precluded any significant progress in this ambition. I had been to a few countries in the preceding years, including thankfully to Syria before the West set about destroying it, while at the Peace Secretariat and in Parliament. But in 2013 I thought it was time to travel more intensively.
I went to ten new countries in 2013, beginning with Bhutan over our New Year holiday period in April. I had a SAARC Travel Permit in my passport, which meant I did not need a visa. I had been told travel in Bhutan could otherwise be expensive, since tourists were expected to spend quite a high amount every day, but in fact I found the prices quite reasonable in the very comfortable inns at which I stayed.
I went with an Indian friend, and had a programme arranged through a contact of a cousin who did some work with Druk Air. We had an excellent driver, who was quite game to travel all over the country, though he noted that most tourists saw only about half of what we covered in the week we were there.
The Dzongs, monasteries that were also fortresses, were spaced at convenient intervals through the country. We saw half on the way east from Thimpu, to Tashiyangtze, and the other half on the way back. The monks who lived in the Dzongs were delightful and friendly, many of them students who were quite uninhibited in their playtime. Football was a favourite pastime, and I have some lovely photographs too of youngsters pushing each other in a wheelbarrow. But their serious side was also impressive, wonderful chanting in richly decorated shrine rooms, and occasionally drumbeats that reverberated in the courtyards.
The scenery too was fantastic, snow covered peaks and waterfalls, and yaks in abundance. We would have lunch at small wayside cafes, rather as I used to do with Ena in our meanderings at home. I rather enjoyed the cheese with chili that we had at every meal, but I’m afraid my Indian friend was not so adventurous and preferred chips whenever we could find them. In the evenings we would huddle with our drinks near the fires all the inns provided, though often of a morning I would brave the balconies with my coffee to watch the sun rising over the hills.
Very different was Tunisia to which I went in May, celebrating my birthday in an extraordinary underground hotel at Matmata, where we sat in a sunken courtyard with a bottle of wine. The range of things to see there was enormous, from the ruins of Carthage, a short journey from Tunis, to the Islamic splendours of Kairouan, supposedly one of the most sacred towns for Muslims. But it was not only mosques, for the place also had an extraordinary set of pools for storing water, dating from mediaeval days, and a well still operated by a blind camel who walked round and round a little room in a tower above the well, to draw up the water.
The country’s second city, Sousse, was an old walled city, with well preserved residences within, including the ancient Palace Hotel where we stayed. There were a host of Roman remains, including one of the best preserved amphitheatres at Jem, and the best collection of mosaics outside Italy in the El Bardo museum.
Tourists however were few, and many of the Tunisians we spoke to bewailed the consequences of the Arab spring. They did not regret the change of their regime, but what had happened in Libya, with the unleashing of violent fundamentalist forces, had upset the balance in their country too. How prescient these worries were became clear with the attack on the El Bardo Museum, the rejection of all elements in the country’s history that did not fit within a narrow sectarian framework.
In 2008, visiting Iran, I had realized from the celebration of its pre-Islalmic history too how wonderfully civilized and inclusive the country and its people were. Another litmus test I also use is the position of women, and it was clear that Iranian women were on a par with men in terms of education and employment opportunities. Though the hijab was seen in many public places, there were also many women with just a headscarf, many of them glamorously dressed. The same had been true in Syria too, and even more so in Tunisia. The failure of the West to see similarities in values, and to concentrate instead of getting its own way everywhere, has lain low the standard bearers of inclusive civilization in the Islamic world, and the consequences are horrendous for all of us – including in for instance the laid back world of Bangladesh, which is now also prey to murderous extremists.
Gaddafi too had done much for female education, and indeed education in general in a context in which the monarchy before him had kept the country in a state of feudal ignorance. And I thought again then how criminal the Western powers had been in getting rid of him for their own purposes, without bothering about what would follow. Recently Barack Obama has expressed his own regrets, and blamed the British who he suggested pushed him into that adventure. But it is clear that there are still people in key positions in his administration who will continue with the same wicked approach to other countries, in their determination to get rid of rulers who have stood up to the West. The recent effort to get him to concentrate on destroying President Assad of Syria is a mark of how myopic those who advise on Foreign Policy can be, even with their knowledge of the ruthlessness of the forces they have already unleashed.
Before Bhutan and Tunisia I had also spent a week travelling in Karnataka, for I also thought it necessary to see those areas in India which I had not previously visited. I had been invited by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development to a seminar in Chandigarh, and I took advantage of my stay there to go up to Amritsar, to see the Golden Temple. Then I flew down to Bangalore, where a cousin of my Indian friend had arranged a car to take me round the state.
This was the time at which some Sri Lankans had been attacked in Chennai, and the Indian government had given me security in Delhi, including at the very small hotel at which I usually stayed when I was there, a location that I think they found strange. In Karnataka the Foreign Ministry had advised the local head of police to look after me, but he and I both decided that it made no sense to have a policeman trailing around behind me as I drove to various historical sites.
The driver was knowledgeable and happy for me to spend as long as I wanted at the different places we went to, first Halebid and Belur for the 11th to 13th century Hoysala temples, then to Badami for its 6th century Chalukyan Buddhist and Hindu and Jain caves around a picturesque reservoir, and finally the magnificient monuments of the 14th to 16th century Vijayanagar Empire at Hampi. I was even able to visit less celebrated sites, such as the even earlier monuments at Aihole and Pattadakal while I was at Badami, and the Chitradurga Fort on the way there.
Willing though the driver was for such adventures and long drives, he was I think a bit disappointed that I stayed at the State Tourist Development Corporation Hotels in the different towns we visited. I had however found them comfortable and good value when I first began travelling in India over 40 years previously. In those days indeed I thought them comparatively expensive (and still remember the squalid place I stayed at in Jaipur in 1970, which charged me just one rupee for the night). But by 2013 I could well afford the relatively modest rates of the Tourist Development Corporation hotels in each state. Bathrooms were clean, there was generally beer of an evening when I came in exhausted, and the food was perfectly palatable. In any case I love the different breads Indians produce, nan and chappati and in particular puri, and the potato and cauliflower mixtures they make to accompany these are always delicious.
The other Asian country I visited that year was Brunei, though I have to admit that the main reason for going there was, as a friend put it when I went to Bangladesh in 1990, to tick it off my list. But I had found Bangladesh fascinating, in particular the village of Sonargaon which had grown rich on cloth until the British ensured that the textile mills of Lancashire had a monopoly, cutting off the fingers, legend has it, of the expert workers of Bengal. I was also enthralled by the Buddhist remains in Bangladesh, and the port city of Chittagong where an old man talked at me in sonorous sentences at the hotel I stayed at about the wonders of English Literature. And most beautiful of all was the daylong journey down the Brahmaputra in the Rocket, the old paddleboat. It drifted slowly past the Sundarbans, though alas I saw no tigers.
Brunei was not quite in the same league, but for an aficionado of Conrad it was a joy to travel along the wide rivers into the interior. The jungle crowding the river banks roused memories of the distant trading posts he described so vividly, both the menace and the sense of adventure that found its apotheosis in my favourite novel, ‘Lord Jim’. ‘Kim’ I should note comes very close, and that perhaps explains my fascination with the great trunk roads of India, the railways and the old ruins where monkeys play and spies hide messages that could convulse a country. Of course that never happens, for the resourceful British always come out on top – even in times of famine, with Kipling never noting their responsibility for the regular disasters that occurred in that sphere. Much as I love him as a writer, I suspect he would have found excuses too for the Bengal famine during the war when the British in effect starved the population there in ensuring that their own requirements were met during the war.
Ceylon Today 15 July 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=3321