Category Archives: Travel

Never mind about bao


We spent a couple of unforgettable weeks in Tanzania for our Christmas holiday, this year. Our family of two adults, one ten-year old and one fourteen-year old spent a few wonderful days in the Serengeti, Ngongoro and Lake Manyara national parks, followed by a few equally wonderful days in Zanzibar.


It wasn’t the first time Richard and I had been to this part of the world. Twenty years ago, we spent part of our six-month honeymooning backpacking round-the-world trip in Tanzania. We had dipped into that country as part of a safari tour of the Masai Mara – buffalo skulls marked the border – crisscrossed it on a Tanzara train and then, on arriving in Dar Es Salaam, sort of stumbled on the port and decided to go to Zanzibar: the Lonely Planet East Africa guide said it was a wonderful place and we were completely free agents. So we went, and I  fell in love with the place totally and irrevocably.

I think that part of the reason I succumbed so quickly was the charms of Stone Town – I guess it was the first “old” or “traditional” Arab town I had visited (I hadn’t travelled to Northern Africa or the Middle East then) and I loved everything about it. The famous Zanazibari doors, the fact that you got hopelessly lost but always ended up where you wanted to go, the enchantment of the Forodhani gardens after dusk, with all the vendors selling street food, the friendliness of the people, the superb beaches, the obligatory spice tour, the sheer exoticism of the place, all these things entranced me.

We both loved it so much that we returned three years later, with a very different budget, back in double-income-no-kids-yet mode. Zanzibar was as magical as ever, and boasted a few welcome additions: there was paving rather than dirt in some of the roads in Stone Town, electricity had reached certain villages on the East Coast. I’ll never forget all the people crowded round a television screen in Jambiani’s main street, cheering the Croatian football team. We were told they were fancied for the forthcoming World Cup that year and we remembered the Jambiani football fans when we went to the third-place play off in the Parc des Princes a few months later…


Last December, there were four of us and for me, the excitement before the trip was tinged with a little low-level anxiety: would it be as good as I remembered it? I’d heard that there had been considerable development, in terms of hotel construction, around Zanzibar and although I was confident that the archipelago would still be a magical place, I did wonder what 18 years had done to it.

Photo: Richard Wilkinson

It was SO much better than we remembered. The parks first. We saw such an abundance of amazing scenery and wildlife that we all felt nothing could ever quite measure up to it again. And this time, we did what we had not been able to do, as funds hadn’t quite stretched to a tour in a 4×4 in 1995 – we had travelled in a group in a combivan – which is compulsory for entering the Ngorongoro crater, surely one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Our very knowledgeable guide made sure we absorbed a lot of information and took as many photos as we liked. I won’t attempt to describe this wonderful place, it’s just amazing.

A huge bonus was how prosperous the country looked, how far it seemed to have come in the past twenty years. I felt almost angry: truly, we only hear the bad news about Africa. Here, everywhere we looked, there was evidence of infrastructure development; we were lucky enough to be able to stay in nice hotels; guests were locals as well as foreigners. I never heard a Tanzanian waiter say “Sir” or “Madam” to a fellow country man or woman in even the lowliest hostels and fleapits we stayed in 20 years ago.

It felt like a middle class had sprung up in our absence and the entire country seemed to us to much more spruce, more organised and in generally in better nick than we remembered. I’m not kidding myself, I’m sure that Tanzania has its problems and severe poverty subsists, especially, I suspect, in rural areas. I remember briefly locking eyes with a woman, as our Landcruiser sped through a township just outside Lake Manyara national park. She might have been my age, and she was bent almost double under the weight of a huge stack of sticks on her back. She remains in my mind a vivid example of “there but for the grace of God go I”. But depressing though it is, this is not going to be the main thing we will take away from our trip, because we really rejoiced to see so much positive development in this country.


Zanzibarian Men Playing Bao
Zanzibarian Men Playing Bao March 1996 Stone Town, Zanzibar, Zanzibar, Tanzania

I did notice one change in Zanzibar that made me feel nostalgic, but not for long. One thing I remembered well from my earlier visits was the popularity of the bao board game, a version of the mancala seed game, widespread in many parts of East Africa. Richard and I learnt how to play it, with the help of printed rules, but mostly from watching endless games being played just about everywhere you looked. We bargained for and purchased a small board. It turned out to be a worthwhile investment: long train trips were our favourite mode of transport and a few games of bao were a wonderful time killer when we got bored with the scenery…

This time round, and it took me a few days to work out what was nagging me, and then I got it: I didn’t see a single person playing bao. Twenty years ago, people were playing it everywhere, anywhere, whenever they were hanging around or waiting for something. Today, bao boards have been replaced by smart phones. Everyone seemed to have one and, as in Europe, everyone seemed to be glued to them. Who am I to begrudge people smart phones, even if part of Zanzibar’s fabled culture seems to have more or less disappeared? I was discussing this with a friend who said that it was a bit like some Americans who are disappointed when they come to France and see no one wearing berets. She is so right. I remember talking to an American gentleman in the queue we were both in at St Lazare train station in Paris; he was asking me where I suggested he visit in the South of France. He had a couple of days for a trip somewhere special and he hadn’t made up his mind where to go. I suggested Arles, a favourite of mine and the lady behind me agreed enthusiastically. Warming to the task of selling Arles, I extolled the virtues of the Roman ruins, the wonders of Saint Trophime, the light that had bowled Van Gogh over and so on. The gentleman thanked me and asked: “Will I see people wearing berets?” I can still see his crestfallen face when I explained that he might see someone wearing a beret, but not to count on it, berets were worn mostly by my grandparents’ generation and occasionally by rugby enthusiasts…

So, the game of bao may be sliding into oblivion or at least be far less popular than it used to be. But, given that a computer has now beaten a human at the game of go, it is clear than humankind has moved on to other things, including smart phones. How can that be a bad thing?




Somewhere in Istanbul …

It was time to change the photo on this blog. Our fabulous summer of 2013 family holiday in the US has finally been replaced by our fabulous 25th-anniversary-of-living-together long weekend in Istanbul last October, in terms of the number of photos of fantastic places taken per day of visit.. This particular photo is of somewhere near our hotel, I forget even the district name and can’t be bothered to check Google Maps just now.

A gorgeous city, with beautiful tiles and mosaics everywhere. Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Chora Church, the bazaar, the streets, and that’s just the man-made stuff. I haven’t mentioned the people or the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn or the food or …

the museum of innocenceI read The Museum of Innocence by Ohran Pamuk, a recommendation from my Mum, while and after I was there. There’s not a lot to say about that book except that I loved it. It definitely has a dream like quality and it literally entrances you. It’s the life story of man, with an almost exclusive focus on the great love of his life. It was a very different reading experience for me with My Name Is Red which left me a little cold. The writing style seemed so different, notwithstanding the different setting (time wise, from memory My Name Is Red is set in 16th century Istanbul, whereas The Museum of Innocence is also set in Istanbul, but mostly in the – nineteen – seventies), that I thought I should check whether they had been translated by the same person.My  name is red They haven’t but as I don’t read Turkish, I have no idea whether the translation styles were different or whether the original texts’ were.

My Name Is Red purported to be a bit of a mystery novel, but I felt it was mysterious in unintentional ways… It should have had all the ingredients that would in theory make a good book for me: it was about a manuscript, there were reflections on art and religion and freedom, snapshots of a fabled city at the height of its power and influence, but the details are now all hazy and I remember that it left me feeling puzzled, not in a very satisfying way.The Museum of Innocence, on the other hand, was just like gliding on the Bosphorus, with all the time in the world to take in what lies on either side of the Strait…

A friend has now lent me  Istanbul, Memories and the City. I’m really curious about it.

On coffee

I made an awful discovery this summer. My husband, the father of my children, the light of my life, the man I’ve been with for 24 years, Richard likes sock juice. Sock juice is my literal translation of the derogatory French term for what others – not culturally sensitive people like me, obviously – might call American coffee.
So here’s the story. I went on a fabulous three-week holiday with my family, composed of said husband and two daughters in the US. We had a wonderful time, I discovered many beautiful places on the East Coast and in New York State,  indulged in nostalgia on Amtrak, which was our preferred mode of transport when Richard and I crisscrossed the US as part of our honeymoon backpacking trip, fell in love again with Chicago, discovered more beautiful places along the road between Denver and Las Vegas and got a fresh dose of exhilarating New York. And I came away full of admiration for the great nation that offers as a matter of course fabulous launderettes with free wi-fi and, mark this, spotless toilets. Yes, in not one but two launderettes in Moab. Oh and amazing national parks and genuinely lovely friendliness and hospitality.Anyway, I’m not going to do my American Top Five Loves and Hates, because I’m not going to succumb to the current trend of boiling every thing down to highly subjective lists formatted to fit the ever shrinking attention span of the reading and surfing public. I’ve hinted at things I loved and I’m now going to focus on something I hated. Yes, I’m back on coffee.

Coffee – huh! Brownish water is what you get, gallons of it, and boiling hot. Plastic beakers, polystyrene ones, they were all too fragile to handle, being too full of the too hot beverage. I did call it coffee at first, because you see, I wasn’t prepared. My previous trip to the States had been 18 years ago and we were on a tight budget. And I was still drinking coffee with either milk or sugar in those days. And things can change in 18 years. And I’d forgotten, OK? I’d forgotten the unfulfilled promise of something that smells nearly right but is so drastically wrong when you finally risk burning your lips. I’d forgotten the marketing talent of people who try to convince you the stuff you are hoping to enjoy is extra-caff, robust or kick-ass (lies, lies, all lies). I’d forgotten there’s only so much you can expect from a machine that only pretends to be a coffee machine and that instead mixes a steady stream of boiling water with weedy squirts of something meant to contain caffeine.

I got grumpier and grumpier as a) I contemplated the awful possibility that there was no decent coffee to be had in the US at all, anywhere b) I realised that Richard got along just fine with the stuff available. He hotly denies that this frankly worrying trait is incompatible with normally drinking a famous brand of capsule coffee at home. This is also what I do, on the basis that it’s very nearly as good as an expresso of the served at-the-counter variety. The rest of the time, I deploy extreme cunning in making sure I make the office coffee (my boss shares my tastes, so she doesn’t get tactfully shooed away from coffee making tasks), but if I say to you the coffee is markedly better from the vending machine in the building I’m NOT in (huh, typical), you can tell the dire state of our ground coffee budget. Anyway, you’ll never get an expresso from a filter machine.…
Needless to say, I have discussed this problem with various people. Whereas the most common reaction is sympathy, I discover to my astonishment that a few other people, undeniably French ones included, are OK with jus de chaussettes. And I also heard a couple of times that coffee is better torrefied in Italy than France and therefore smother and generally nicer there. I have been to Italy several times and can’t say I noticed particularly, but that might be normal, because everything’s smoother and generally nicer in Italy. I will pay more attention to the coffee on my next trip, and not just sigh with contentment on Piazzo San Marco, taking in the lapping water, the glories of the winged lions and the dazzling mosaic clad basilica, the smartness of the waiters (then faint on seeing the bill for my cappuccino).

Wait, there is a happy ending to my coffee horror story set in the US (blast, I should have written this as a Halloween piece, I’m thinking evil witches brewing tasteless hot liquid stuff and jack-o-lanterns weeping light brown tears). I got to New York. And hit on a place that sold Decent Coffee. Ta  da! (Frantic googling proved this to be an Australian chain. When they say that Ozzies and Kiwis punch above the weight of their geostrategically challenged countries, they’re not kidding. Fancy opening a breakfast chain in the US! This one sold pies, an Australian speciality I’m afraid I’m not that fond of – the pastry’s not to my liking, generally – but this place is forgiven EVERYthing for having saved my life with caffeine-aided resuscitation techniques). The joy, the relief, the revelation! There is a God after all!  I had, led by my nose, completely abandoned my family who were wandering down Broadway in search of breakfast, to satisfy my own craving. When we caught up, Richard had thoughtfully bought me a bagel (“Wonderful, thanks.”) and a cup of – thing. A homeless person seemed pleased to take it off my hands. That very evening, a New Yorker who had every sympathy with my need pointed me to more caffeine heaven. Thanks Ann, the macchiato in Chelsea market was wonderful too.

Let me pre-emptively protect myself from potentially irate comments by saying that I’m fully aware I must have missed plenty of great coffee opportunities in X, Y and Z (I mean, c’mon, the whole of Chicago can’t be caffeine-challenged, can it?) All I can say is that I missed them, badly.