Tag Archives: travel

Bristol Festival of Literature Appearance 22nd Oct

12 Sep

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I’ll be discussing my new travelogue of the contemporary Philippines, Realm of the Punisher, at the Bristol Festival of Literature on 22nd October. My good friend Mike Manson will be present too, riffing on his new novel Down in Demerara. Click here for tickets and further details.

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Bradt Guide Review in Travel Africa Magazine

15 Nov

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My deepest thanks to Travel Africa Magazine for this generous review of The Bradt Guide to Ivory Coast:

‘With this guidebook, the author puts the largely unexplored Côte d’Ivoire back on the map, following a period of instability. As well as being a celebration of the country, the book also offers a lot of practical information and background that any potential traveller will find invaluable. Personal stories and anecdotes are intertwined throughout, which add some fascinating texture and observations.’

Book launch for Ivory Coast: The Bradt Guide

11 Jul

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When: 11th August 2016, 6.30pm-8pm

Where: Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, WC2E9, London, UK

Hosted by: author Tom Sykes (New Statesman, The Scotsman, Private Eye) and photographer Alexander Sebley (VICE, BBC).

You’re cordially invited to the launch of the very first full-length English language guidebook to Ivory Coast. The country is a stunner, from the cream-hued beaches of Assinie in the southeast to the crimson savannahs of the north to the awe-inspiring mountains of the west and a wealth of wildlife-rich national parks (500 bird species, chimps, crocs, hippos and even lions and elephants can be glimpsed). At weekends the nightspots of the largest city, Abidjan, boom with the sounds of home-grown musical genres like coupé-decalé and zouglou alongside US hip-hop, French free-form jazz and Latin American soca. If Ivory Coast’s music is the envy of Africa, its traditional art and craft scene is the envy of the world. In the north, jewellers, blacksmiths, weavers, potters and wood-carvers use ancient techniques to create unique artefacts. Aside from the usual practical information, the book includes reportage, interviews and political, historical and cultural analysis.

 

Interview with bradtguides.com

8 Jul

Just two weeks to go before the Ivory Coast book comes out and here’s me chatting about it alongside pictures by Mr Alexander Sebley.

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Bradt’s Exceptional Visits 2016

24 Jun

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My upcoming Ivory Coast guide is featured in this article along with big-ups for Iran, Senegal, Shropshire and the Basque Country.

Eden’s Thrill Ride

11 Jun

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My travelogue for of the delightful Pagsanjan Falls in the Philippines is right here, right now on the Selamta site:

http://www.selamtamagazine.com/stories/edens-thrill-ride

Portsmouth the Global City

3 Jun

There’s a popular perception of Portsmouth as a monocultural, jingoistic and reactionary city. Taking a very different angle, University of Portsmouth lecturer and foreign affairs commentator Tom Sykes discusses Portsmouth’s role as a global city with social and cultural connections to almost every other part of the world. This article is based on a lecture Tom delivered as part of the nationwide Being Human festival last year.

A few sunny Saturdays ago, I was having a beer with friends in the garden of a laid-back Albert Road pub. To the left of us was a lively group of heavy-set and mostly bald men. All were dressed in black, some wore jackboots in addition. When they’d finished their pints of pissy lager they put on black masks and lined up for a group photograph. ‘Fuck the immigrants!’ they chanted several times before piling outside to, no doubt, repeat this hate crime somewhere else.

When I tell friends from outside Portsmouth about this incident, they tend to smile dourly and say, ‘Well that’s Portsmouth, what do you expect?’ They have a point, as nastiness of this type has been oozing out of our city for a long time. In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists would descend here to spread racial hatred, although they’d often be challenged by thousands of protesters. More lately, their political descendants – the EDL, BNP, Pie and Mash Squad, Hitler-loving publicans, Islamo- and homophobic football coaches – have hit the headlines a little too frequently for comfort.

Our elected leaders – from the mainstream “respectable” parties – appear to fan the flames of such bigotry rather than pour sand on them. Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt was recently accused of lying and ‘dog whistle politics’ when she claimed that EU member states have no veto over Turkey joining the EU and that such an eventuality would make Britain vulnerable to foreign criminals and terrorists. During last winter’s European refugee crisis, Donna Jones, leader of Portsmouth City Council, declared the city closed to her fellow human beings desperately fleeing war, penury and persecution.

All of which implies that tolerance and diversity aren’t Portsmouth’s strong suits. But there is a different story about our city not often enough told. It’s a story of highly successful immigration, integration, assimilation and exchange.

Throughout the industrial era, Portsmouth’s role as a sea port guaranteed ethnic and cultural diversity. The 1851 census shows that the Irish – most of whom were skilled dock labourers – were then the largest minority in the city. They worked alongside so many Russians, North Africans and Southern Europeans that the historian James H Thomas speculates that rarely would you have heard English being spoken during those times at the dockyard – that most potent symbol of English economic and imperial power.

Today, the 270-year-old graveyard on Fawcett Road is the only obvious trace of Portsmouth’s oldest and arguably most influential ethnic minority: the Jews. In 1749, the Portsmouth and Southsea Hebrew Congregation was founded, followed by the building in 1780 of the synagogue at White’s Row (now Curzon Howe Road). During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), large numbers of Jewish businesspeople came to Portsmouth to lend money and sell clothes, watches, jewellery and silver trinkets to soldiers and sailors. By the end of the wars, Portsmouth was home to one of the four major British-Jewish populations outside of London.

Compared to other parts of the UK, Portsmouth was sympathetic to the struggle for Jewish civil and political rights of the early 1800s. Leading gentiles accepted invites to dine at the Hebrew Benevolent Institution and, by 1841, Portsmouth had elected its first Jewish councillor. There were three more by the end of the decade. To this day, four Lord Mayors of Portsmouth have been Jews: Emmanuel Emmanuel (1866-7), Abraham Leon Emmanuel (1894 & 1901), Harry Sotnick (1963) and Richard E Sotnick (1978). The former two were not related; the latter two were father and son. For more detail on the compelling history of Portsmouth Jewry please see Dr Audrey Weinberg’s two-part essay here.

Some people believe that the first significant Polish community in Britain was established after EU freedom of movement policies were relaxed in 2004. In truth, it happened in Portsmouth two centuries before. In 1834, 212 Polish soldiers fled Russia after their plot to overthrow the then Tsar was foiled. They came to Portsmouth where the residents not only welcomed them but raised money to pay for their food and shelter. As a contemporary journalist noted, ‘Not the rich and great alone have contributed, but perhaps many a hard-earned shilling has been dropped into the subscription boxes by the artisan or labourer.’

After World War II, Portsmouth’s three major ethnic minority groups were Hong Kong Chinese, Indian and East Pakistani (later Bangladeshi). The Chinese population spiked in the 1950s when a growing demand amongst sailors for Chinese food prompted the opening of dozens of new restaurants in the Portsmouth area.

According to the 2011 census, 205,400 people live in Portsmouth. Council figures from 2014 show that 16% of the city’s population is BME (Black Minority and Ethnic). The largest BME communities are Bangladeshi (1.8% of residents), African and Indian (both 1.4%). Other notable groups – presented here in order of size – are Chinese, mixed white and Asian, white and black Caribbean, and Arab.

Over 100 languages can now be heard around Portsmouth, with Polish the most commonly spoken non-English tongue (1,914 speakers or 1% of the city population). 1,517 residents speak Bengali (including Sylheti and Chatgaya), 1,180 Chinese languages other than Mandarin and 979 Arabic.

The headline here – and a happier one than the hateful headlines above – is that Portsmouth’s BME population doubled between 2001 and 2011.

This article was originally published here.

Travel Writing: Thrills, Spills, Risks and Rewards 15/02/2016

26 Jan

What makes for good travel writing? How do you get into the profession? What practical, ethical and political challenges come with the job? Who are the great travel writers and what can we learn from them? Can an outsider ever fairly and accurately represent a given place, society or culture?

University of Portsmouth lecturer, travel book author, foreign affairs journalist and Star & Crescent Co-Editor-in-Chief Tom Sykes and writer-photographer Alexander Sebley will explore these questions and more in their event taking place on the 15th February in Eldon Building, University of Portsmouth at 6pm.

The talk will reference their travels across four continents and their recent collaboration on the upcoming Bradt Guidebook to Ivory Coast. They also offer practical advice on the craft and explore the various sub-genres of travel writing from guidebooks to service articles to narrative travelogues.

Tom Sykes’s travelogues and foreign affairs features have appeared in The Telegraph, New Statesman, Scotsman, New Internationalist, London Magazine, Red Pepper and New African. He is the co-editor of the successful No Such Thing As a Free Ride? series of travel anthologies, the first of which was named the Observer‘s Travel Book of the Month. He is the author of the Bradt Guide to Ivory Coast and is working on a travel-inflected novel entitled Blood is Not Thicker in Manila. Tom teaches travel writing, amongst other genres, in his capacity as Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Living in London, Alexander Sebley is a writer, photographer and label manager who has worked for VICE, the BBC, Bradt Travel Guides, London Fashion Week Magazine and many other publications and organisations.

New Bradt Author Page

12 Dec

My silly mug and some bio data about me is now available on the Bradt website. Just need to get on and finish the book now.

Blokosso: Where Angels Dare to Tread

20 Mar

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The Ebrié tribespeople of Côte d’Ivoîre traditionally believe that the land is protected by the ghosts of their ancestors and a large pantheon of deities. Historically, ritual offerings of human blood, spider’s webs, gunpowder and alcohol were made to such figures as Nyangka, the god of the earth. Although these days tribal values have broadly been supplanted by Islam and Christianity, Ebriés still retain a healthy respect for the spirit world and its influence on the material world.

Once an important Ebrié village, now an attractive district of Côte d’Ivoîre’s capital city Abidjan, Blokosso (sometimes called Blockhauss) is widely regarded as sacred territory ruled over by the spirit of an eminent king. The power and ubiquity of this belief is such that, during the Ivoîrian Civil War, neither the rebels nor the government forces would go anywhere near Blokosso. It was a surreal sight: while the rest of Abidjan was bombed and burned, Blokosso’s hovels, churches and maquis restaurants remained intact. Death might come from a bullet, so soldiers on both sides reasoned, but a far worse fate would befall anyone who damaged the property of the sovereign in the sky.
This is not to say that Blokosso has never had its troubles. After the economic failure of the late 1980s during which the number of citizens living below the poverty line trebled, Ivoîrian politicians began to exploit ethnic and religious divisions in society. Although in the 1960s and 1970s people from Burkina Faso and other nearby countries had been invited to work on Côte d’Ivoîre’s cocoa plantations, in the 1990s laws were passed to rescind the basic rights (such as suffrage) of these migrants and their offspring. Indeed, the man who is currently the President of the nation, Alassane Ouattara, was originally barred from standing for office due to his Burkinabé extraction.
Such tensions visited Blokosso in 2001. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least six people were killed when armed apparatchiks of the RDR party attacked the district for its apparent support of FPI leader Laurent Gbagbo, who had just won a contested presidential election. Eyewitnesses saw men with machetes cutting the throat of a Guinean café owner and locals lying on the ground, their heads smashed with boulders. It seems that for one frenzied day only, Ivoîrians stopped caring about the consequences of damaging this holy domain.

These days violence is a rare occurrence in Blokosso. Arriving there myself on an overcast July day, I find it to be a gritty yet friendly working class community, the kind of place that wealthy visitors to Abidjan never see, confined as they are to a shiny micro-world of shopping malls and deluxe hotels. Such malls and hotels are staffed by poor people – some from Blokosso – who themselves are invisible to the wealthy because they travel to and from work on buses rather than in private cars and serve behind the counter rather than buying products on the other side of it.

Other Blokossans run businesses in the district itself. Fans and refrigerators are arranged outside a shack with a corrugated iron roof, prices written in felt tip on a piece of card nailed to one of the beams. Lebanese men sell sachets of Milo hot chocolate and packs of Hollywood chewing gum through the prison-style bars of a prefab convenience store. Sheltering under big black parasols, teenagers vend mobile phone top-up cards to passers-by. Taller concrete buildings painted yellow and indigo house pharmacies and photo booths. On the roadside, women in flowing dresses carry all kinds of objects on their scarved heads: small pieces of furniture, buckets of shrimps, sacks of fruit. They take it slow and easy, never breaking a sweat.

Lucky to earn enough for food each day, life is hard for these local entrepreneurs. But rather than nurse grievances, they show solidarity with their neighbours and warmth towards outsiders. I realise that I must look like the ultimate outsider to them: a chubby, sun-burned Westerner taking notes and photos of every corner of the neighbourhood. When I go into the fine-smelling Boulangerie Sibopa de Blokosso, the owner smiles, takes a little bow and says, ‘Bonjour monsieur. Enchanté.’ As my mouth waters over hot, fresh croissants, brioche and pains au chocolat, other customers treat me with the same degree of respect. In fact, everyone else I meet in Blokosso – from kids playing football on the street to elderly passengers in a shared taxi – exhibits the kind of placid decorum that disappeared from most Western cities a long time ago.

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The mood changes as soon as the sun goes down. Taking a seat in the open-air, speakeasy-style Sex Boss Bar (the name sounds more salacious than what actually goes on inside it), I hear the babble and the laughter grow as the men sink Flag beers and the women Smirnoff Ices. Waiters slam down bowls of steaming Sauce Claire, a slow-cooked chicken casserole that owes its rich yet tangy taste to a distinctively African spice called akpi; Sauce Graine, an aromatic stew made with palm tree grains; and cassava and plantain dumplings known as foutou.

As soon as it’s dark, the stereo starts playing a polyrhythmic Afrobeat song by Magic System, one of Côte d’Ivoîre’s biggest bands. The lyrics, so someone tells me, are about Ivoîrian men who marry European women and are shocked when they are expected to do household chores they were brought up to believe were the responsibility of females.

It isn’t long before girls in the Sex Boss Bar are bending over and shaking their behinds in a dance style called the Mapouka, which the Ivoîrian government tried to ban in 1998 in case it corrupted the youth. The Mapouka has since mutated into what the non-African world now calls “twerking”. One of the dancers grabs my sleeve and points to the floor.

‘I can’t dance,’ I protest. ‘I don’t know how.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she says. ‘Just do what you feel.’

Knowing that I’d need a lot more beer to find the courage to join her, I stay in my seat while two women in skin-tight clothing howl with joy and dance the Mapouka around me. I begin to feel like even more of an outsider, more of a square than ever before in my life. But I’m happy enough to listen to the music and watch the others do as they feel.

Early next morning, feeling a little worse for wear, I take the tugboat ferry to Blokosso across the Lagoon Ebrié. Spreading 300 kilometres across the eastern part of Côte d’Ivoîre and all the way up to the border with Ghana, the Lagoon is protected from the rough swells of the ocean by a large coastal landform. From the boat I watch the sun rise over Abidjan’s attractive skyline, its rays sparkling against the iconic Hotel Ivoîre and the ornate metalwork of Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium. The beauty of the sight belies the environmental damage being done to the Lagoon itself, which for time immemorial has provided Blokossans with abundant fish and seafood. As the Francophone magazine Jeune Afrique reports, wastewater, household rubbish and scrap metal are regularly dumped in the water, causing a hazardous build-up of sediment. Twenty years ago, the Lagoon was sanitary enough for people to practise watersports on it. Only the brave or foolish would dare do that now. However, in March of last year, the government decided to act. It began a collaboration with the Eco Africa NGO to clean up 125 acres of the Lagoon over the next four years. So far the project appears to have been successful.

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Once ashore at Blokosso, I breakfast in the Maquis la Pirogue des Grandes, a humble, unpainted brick restaurant serving real food to real Ivoîrians. Its locally-caught tilapia and capitain fish are charcoal grilled to perfection, dressed in garlic butter and accompanied by tomato and onion salad, attiéké (a cous-cous-like dish made from grated, fermented cassava) and alloco (fried plantain chips). The Maquis’ piѐce de resistance, though, is agouti, a field rat served in a creamy gravy that tastes like a cross between venison and suckling pig. Other kinds of bushmeat available include hedgehog, snake and jungle rabbit. Along with these traditional African delicacies, you can order French favourites that were introduced during the colonial era: rare steaks, fresh salads and juicy brochettes of snail, chicken and beef. Overall, the Maquis is doing a good job of contributing to Côte d’Ivoîre’s reputation as one Africa’s gastronomic centres.

All the dishes at the Maquis – and many other products sold in Blokosso – are surprisingly cheap compared to the more touristy areas of Abidjan. Those Ivoîrian commentators who have been complaining about the rising cost of living (some goods and services are near enough Western prices now) ought to spend some time – and some money – in Blokosso.
The colourful Fête de Generation (Generation Festival) takes place in Blokosso every August. It is a crucial rite of passage for young Ebrié men and women who must prove that their generation is qualified to lead the village into the future. In the past when the Ebriés were constantly at war with the sixty or so other tribes in the region, aspiring warriors would lead the new generation through the streets of Blokosso, overcoming obstacles such as snakes with their fighting skills and avoiding hidden traps with the assistance of shamen.

Conceptions of age and lineage are particularly important to Ebriés. In a somewhat scientific manner, each generation is sub-divided into four units: Gnando, Tchagba, Dougbo and Blessoué. Children born within fifteen years of one other belong to the same generation and are expected to treat each other as brothers and sisters whether they are blood-related or not. A generational cycle elapses after the passing of four generations (or sixty years).
The modern day Festival is more symbolic than it was in the past. After weeks of painstaking rehearsal, young Blokossans dance from one end of the district to the other, metaphorically progressing from childhood to adulthood. Men are selected as warriors according to their bravery and intelligence, but they are expected to lead the dance rather than to fight. Women put on their finest clothes and jewellery and take presents to the homes of these titular warriors.

The preoccupation with war is perhaps appropriate for a tribe that, in the eighteenth century, was violently forced out to the West African coast by the Ashanti people of what is now central Ghana. In fact, it was this ignominious defeat that gave the Ebriés their name, as it means “filthy” or “humiliated” in the Abouré language. Before that they were known, more flatteringly, as Achan, meaning “chosen ones”.

A century before the French colonisers built Abidjan, the first wave of Ebrié immigrants settled along the shores of what was soon to be known as the Lagoon Ebrié and established villages like Blokosso. Aside from fishing in the Lagoon, Ebriés became subsistence farmers, growing the sorts of plants the French would later export as lucrative cash crops: cocoa, coffee, rubber and sweet potatoes. If contemporary Ebriés are welcoming toward strangers such as me, their forebears were too. Over the years, Baoulés and Dioula tribespeople from other parts of Côte d’Ivoîre as well as Mossis from Burkina Faso have moved in to Ebrié lands and integrated peacefully with the locals.
At present, Ebriés are to be found living in and around Abidjan, the Lagoon Region and the subprefectures of Bingerville and Dabou. There are thought to be 57 Ebrié villages, 27 of them in the vicinity of the capital. Around 0.7 % of the population of Côte d’Ivoîre are Ebrié.

While the Generation Festival has always been a vital element of Ebrié identity, other facets of tribal life have changed significantly. In the early 1960s, the American sociologist William Kornblum was living in Blokosso when the community had its first ever experience of burglary committed by outsiders. “It was not the goods themselves that they missed, for these could be replaced,” Kornblum recalls. “It was a loss of a way of life, a social world, that they lamented.”

From that moment on, Blokosso could no longer regard itself as an isolated fishing village based on clan ties and communitarian principles. In a short time it had been swallowed up by a vast modern city driven by relentless commerce and technology. Ebriés were suddenly under pressure to buy consumer goods and sell their produce at Abidjan’s markets. Hitherto unknown concepts such as greed, envy and profligacy infected the community. There were more incidents of robbery. Monsieur Joseph, a community leader who was despairing over his wives’ jealousy of one another’s possessions, led prayers to ancestral spirits asking for help in confronting this scary new world.

Whether these prayers were answered or not, the attitude of Ebriés ever since has been one of acceptance and adaptation. They now tend to work in the service sector rather than in fishing and agriculture, and have witnessed the palm forests and plantations around them morph into business centres, apartment blocks and chic restaurants. They have stepped into modernity, but they have not lost sight of the past.