Tag Archives: vacation

Eden’s Thrill Ride

11 Jun


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


Get off my %*&$ing land: Are trekkers a nuisance to landowners?

1 Nov

Research suggests that 70% of Britain’s land is owned by an extremely wealthy 1% of the population. This goes some way to explaining why trekkers and hikers have such difficulties exercising their right to roam.

Trek Holidays, Walking Holidays, National Trust, Trekking

Trekkers keep moaning about the lack of access. Image: Flickr/ Konrad Andrews

But, so the landowners counter, there are over 140,000 miles of Public Right of Way trails that lead to almost every corner of the country, so why do people who go on walking holidays keep moaning about lack of access?

Is this “baron versus vagabond” debate a waste of time or does it cut to the heart of a serious issue confronting modern Britain?


Hiking Sense

Those fortunate enough to own acres of beautiful and walkable terrain often cite the risks of vandalism and littering as good reasons to keep out the hoi polloi. In reality, though, the vast majority of those wanting to explore this green and pleasant land on foot do so with respect and care.

Many trekkers’ associations promote fairly strict codes of conduct such as the Countryside Code. This was established in 2004 but based on sensible ideas that date back to the 1930s, and explained more here on the National Trust website.

Hikers should leave no trace of their visit to the countryside, ensuring that they clean up everything from picnic leftovers to dog faeces. Failure to do so is not just an aesthetic consideration – it can cause hazards to wildlife too.

Above all, the Code advises hikers to cooperate with local people – especially those working on the land – at all times. Avoid herds of farm animals, listen to directions from farmers and, when walking on bridleways, give way to those riding horses.

Of course there are isolated incidents of idiots who abuse our natural environment, but in no way do they represent the overwhelming majority of people who visit the countryside.

Trek Holidays, Walking Holidays, National Trust, Trekking

Exercise your right to roam. Image: Flickr/ Tim Dobson

The Land is Ours

Another defence that landowners use is that they have worked hard to earn the money to buy their property, so why should they share it with people on family walking holidays and weekend jaunts?

Then again, others claim that the countryside is a national treasure for all to enjoy and to carve it up amongst a tiny elite is immoral, whether they can afford to pay for it or not.

But even if we take that argument on face value, many landowners belong to the aristocracy and so inherited rather than earned their personal meadows, valleys and forests.

In a modern democratic society is it really rational to cling on to outdated notions of birthright and lineage that essentially boil down to someone’s ancient forefather killing someone else’s ancient forefather, stealing their land and passing it down to their descendants?

A Draconian Future

According to Jeevan Vasagar of the Guardian, more and more public space in Britain – both rural and urban – is being privatised. This is bad news for hikers, as these new private owners are legally allowed to keep out whoever they like.

So what were once free and open community gathering places – a park or a beach, for example – are becoming mini-police states that criminalise citizens for simply wandering over an often invisible boundary.

Originally published on http://www.trekkingholidays.net/blog/2012/10/31/get-off-my-ing-land-are-trekkers-a-nuisance-to-landowners/

Tragedies of Exile Part I

28 Aug
Tragedies of Exile: Candid Encounters with Expats
27 August, 2012


During my two years in Asia, some of the most intriguing people I met were expats. Some were genial and intelligent, others were obnoxious, but not one was ever dull. Settling down for brief periods in India, Malaysia, and other places, I became an expat myself. I experienced a weird kind of dislocation, a confusion about who I was and what I was doing. Despite my keenness to integrate, I had many fears and anxieties. Such feelings were new to me; I wanted to understand them better.

I decided to interview a number of expats about their attitudes, motives, and desires. I became fascinated not only by their personal stories, but with the wider phenomenon of expatriation itself. I found out that expats are defined as migrants from economically advanced countries and that, while there’s much debate about immigration to such countries, there is less focus on emigration from them. I was surprised to learn that six million Britons (10% of the total population) currently live outside the country, while 5% of Australians and 2% of Americans have moved overseas.

The more interviews I conducted, the more I realised that my troubles weren’t unique. An expat life seldom runs a smooth course.


I first meet Annisa at the University of Malaysia. She is performing an experimental dance routine drawing on African and Asian styles. She lurches around the stage as if possessed, her face pinched with terror. Afterwards, she sits down with me, exhausted.

Her beauty suggests she is younger than the “late 30s” she claims. She has caramel skin, sleek black hair and small elliptical eyes. These looks are typical of Cape Malays, she tells me, the descendents of Javanese slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch. But while her ancestors were forcibly expatriated, Annisa has freely chosen to return to their country of origin five centuries later. She belongs to a genre of expat called “the returnee.” As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe in Brits Abroad, other returnees include British-Jamaicans who opt to go back to the Caribbean in later life. They are not always impressed with what they find. “It’s a foreign culture for us,” complains one man. “Now it is Americanised and strange.”

Is Annisa impressed with what she’s found? “It’s not how I imagined,” she sighs. “I was hoping for more gamelan music and fewer shopping malls.”

Does she spend time with other expats? “Apart from my English husband, not really.” She inverts Aesop’s adage: “Divided we stand, united we fall.” Fellow expats are “too inward-looking; they have little to do with the locals.” She has touched on a big theme: the problem of integration. In one school in Spain with a majority of British pupils, teachers protest the refusal of these Brits to learn Spanish. While living in Manila, a Filipino friend accused me of hiding in a gated community: a tower of rich outsiders guarded by natives poor enough to be sacrificed in an armed robbery or kidnap attempt. I pointed out to my friend that this was the only accommodation available to foreign workers like me; I hated it as much as she did.

However, some expats don’t feel welcomed to integrate. In Knowles and Harper’s study Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys, British teenager Jess complains that Hong Kongers won’t sit next to her on the bus. When she enters a clothes shop they giggle at her Western physique. Knowles and Harper link this hostility to the colonial past, when local coolies had to ask special permission to enter whites-only neighbourhoods such as Victoria Peak. “There is a whole other life here which is very different from ours,” Jess concludes miserably.

In contrast with Jess, Annisa has learned fluent Malay and is founding a theatre company here in Kuala Lumpur. I ask her why she chose the expat life. “I was a professional actress in South Africa for five years, but the work dried up. I thought I should travel and better myself as a writer and performer.”
Annisa belongs to a long tradition of creatives who have sought inspiration and ideas abroad. As Malcolm Bradbury puts it, “by virtue of his dedication, creative anguish, and distinctive perception, the artist exercises his freedom and his powers by existing in a displaced relationship to his national culture.” Bradbury goes on to examine the great American writers who moved to Europe, from Henry James to Washington Irving, Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot, Henry Miller to William Burroughs. Many of them went to Paris and joined a United Nations of artists: Irish playwrights, Spanish filmmakers, German painters, and so on.

Has Annisa been an expat anywhere else? “I’ve lived in San Francisco, Jakarta, Mumbai, and Yeovil.” “Yeovil?” I wonder if I heard correctly. “Yes,” she laughs. “It’s where my husband’s from. We didn’t last long there.”


I sit with Lily in a peach-coloured bar that used to be a Portuguese villa. Her peroxide blonde hair and sequined dress recall a femme fatale from a film noir, except she may be too old for the part. We are waiting for a band to tune up.

I ask Lily how she came to live in Goa. She looks over at the band, tears filming her heavily shadowed eyes. I seem to have upset her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, catching a tear in a napkin. “It’s been a while since somebody asked me that question.” She composes herself and begins her story.

Lily used to be a “workaholic miser,” running old people’s homes in Auckland. When her 20-year-old son Doug died in a car crash, she stopped caring about her career, money, New Zealand, and a lot else besides. She moved to Australia and lived on a houseboat. She threw lavish parties for her neighbours, enjoying this “new feeling called generosity.” A typical party would start with steak and champagne for breakfast and end with skinny dipping in the Timor Sea.

Lily then lived on a houseboat in Thailand for two years before sailing on a cargo ship to Goa. She admits to “running away from something,” but doesn’t mention her son. Her latest act of generosity was to buy instruments for the band, which has just started playing.

“Doug loved music,” she shouts in my ear. “Really loved it.” For the first time this evening she smiles. Some other expats join us, kissing Lily on the cheek. She keeps smiling for the whole of the gig.

Read part two in next month’s issue of The Expat.
This article was written by Tom Sykes for The Expat magazine.

Source: The Expat August 2012

Excerpt from Fog in Channel…

22 Mar

Island Monkeys and a Hidden


As we neared Budapest, I felt like I’d been the subject of an experiment depriving human beings of sunlight, fresh air and basic comfort. Well maybe I exaggerate with retrospect. I’d got my ‘coach legs’ the previous year on an A-Level tour of Eastern Europe, when marathon crossings of entire countries were punctuated by marathon wodka sessions. As some of us hallucinated, some of us copulated and others passed out head-first into toilet bowls, I’m sure something trite like you can take the kids out of England but you can’t take the England out of the kids crossed the minds of our teachers. On the same trip I was berated by a fellow student for giving the price of a sausage (about 8p in English money) to a child-beggar. “You’ll only encourage them to be lazy,” she scoffed, as if people dress in rags and contract skin diseases because it’s easier than getting a job. It turned out that her sole purpose for travelling 650 miles across the continent was to buy a Levi’s T-shirt she could easily have bought in Portsmouth City Centre.

Whether it is an English trait to behave abroad exactly as you would at home I don’t know. My experiences are bagatelles when compared to Club 18-30, when Spanish communities were invaded by English idiots and forced to lay on English beer, English fish and chips and English music.

I hoped I took a different approach to Ms Levi. I was interested in the history of the region, especially the tumultuous Cold War period, and tried my hardest to see things from the standpoint of Eastern Europeans. I came to respect and admire the people of Prague and Krakow and the former East Berlin; they had emerged optimistic from a long dark night of authoritarianism.

When my three friends and I staggered out of that coach in Budapest we encountered the best and worst of attitudes to foreigners. We were greeted by a spivvy, slick-haired taxi driver wearing Aviators and looking like an extra from Grand Theft Auto Vice City, ready to extort shopkeepers and shoot cops. In our lethargy we foolishly got in his car and explained what hotel we needed to get to. When we found ourselves cruising through the countryside it became clear that the driver had absolutely no idea where he was going … and the meter was racing like a Telethon total. We were finally dropped off in a field and forced to part with a third of our collective budget. This was bad. Half-dead from the coach trip and the Mediterranean heat. Ripped off and stranded Christ knows where.

After some walking we spotted a woman washing a car outside a plush house. We asked her where roughly in Hungary we had ended up and how on earth we might get to our hotel.

She looked troubled and said, in pretty good English, “You see this hill? We are this side of the hill. The hotel is right over that side of the hill.”

Amazingly, and I will never forget this act of generosity, she not only gave us cold drinks but drove us all the way to the hotel. I tried to imagine an equivalent scenario in Portsmouth, us as Hungarian visitors. We probably would have been told to fuck off.

For a long while I believed the EU to be the solution to xenophobia. Just as the mounting presence of black and brown faces on British streets have made the Alf Garnett position untenable, I thought greater exposure to other Europeans would stop us hating them so much.

But people are losing faith in this artificial Union. Positive social measures such as the minimum wage have been outbalanced by corporate imperatives – ‘integration’ has simply made it easier for business to exploit and expropriate. After all, the EU evolved from a Franco-German trade agreement over coal and steel in 1950. The autocracy of the Commission and the manner in which failed politicos are booted there (Kinnock, Patten, Mandelson?) should concern anyone who believes in democracy. Eurocrats hypocritically denounce corruption in the Third World while ignoring the corruption on their own doorstep.

A European Union along cultural and social lines, designed for the good of European people rather than small sections of those people, is far more desirable.

As a teenager whenever I met French, Germans or Dutch of my own age there was a supranational understanding between us. We liked the same music, we wore the same clothes, we ate the same food, we had similar progressive outlooks on politics and society. You might call this globalisation but it runs deeper into the fabric of our respective languages and cultures. And deeper still is a common human reason which can allow you to empathise with strangers miles away from your home town or offer lifts to desperate foreigners.

First published in Fog in Channel…, 2009.

Dangerlust: An Interview with Tony Giles

3 Mar

Tony Giles has done a remarkable thing. 80% deaf and completely blind, he has travelled solo across the US, New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia. His account of the trip, Seeing the World My Way, veers from tragedy to comedy, disaster to epiphany, near-death experience to life-affirming moment. By the end of the book, I felt more exhausted than if I’d actually travelled the route myself – but also uplifted.

My first question is, ‘How on Earth (no pun intended) did you do it?’ While there’s plenty in the book about concentration, fortitude and trusting the senses he does possess, I still can’t get my head around his achievement. ‘My cane was essential,’ Tony tells me. ‘Without that I would have been run over many times. Spare parts for my hearing aid were useful too, as was learning how to count money by touch.’ He makes it sound easy.

Having lived and travelled in Southeast Asia myself, I know that the infrastructure isn’t really geared towards disabled people. How did he manage in Vietnam and Thailand? ‘It was definitely harder, and the language barrier was a real problem. But when I got into trouble, I knew that people would look out for me.’

Indeed, the kindness of strangers is crucial, with everyone from Irish backpackers to Saigon pimps helping him out. Random people tell him train times and describe famous sights. More seriously, he puts his life in the hands of guides when trekking in the Outback and hiking up treacherous mountains. It’s enough to restore one’s faith in humanity!

Robert Byron wrote that the traveller ‘can know the world only when he sees, hears and smells it.’ With that in mind, I ask Tony how exactly he experienced the places he visited. ‘When you’re deprived of one sense you improve another,’ he says. ‘My sense of taste and smell were highly developed – not always a good thing!’ Food is certainly a good thing in the book, and it’s rendered in lavish detail. When he tucks into a bowl of Vietnamese pho (noodle soup), the reader tucks in too. Tony learns to make character judgements according to tone of voice, scent, even by feeling the features of someone’s face. He navigates busy cities by counting the roads he crosses and feeling his way along blocks.

This self-reliance plus the altruism of others sees him safely across 280,000 miles.

Even so, there are near misses on almost every page, compounded by Tony’s hard drinking and dangerlust. In the States alone he knocks himself unconscious, unwittingly gets into a fight, almost crushes his leg and nearly gets shot. The crisis point comes in Melbourne when a doctor tells him he has acute kidney damage. ‘I guess I was in a Jimi Hendrix/Jim Morrison sort of mindset. I didn’t care if I lived or died then.’ But he adds, ‘If I’d known a bit more about kidneys I may have come home!’

Instead he goes to Cairns and takes a 14,000 foot skydive. This, however, is not as thrilling as his favourite moment of the whole journey: bungee jumping off a bridge in Taihape, New Zealand. He writes, ‘the danger, the fear, the madness – I loved it all and wanted more’.

Tony’s self-destructive streak began in his teens as a reaction to ‘the stigma of blindness’ and the loss of his father. Travel offered ‘a way of escape’ that made sense of his life and the world. It’s still his main passion, and he’s given up drinking to stay healthy for future adventures. Next spring sees the release of a sequel, Seeing the Americas My Way, and soon he’s off to Africa. Mind how you go, Tony!

First published in the Bristol Review of Books Summer 2011.

Mat Sellahs with Typewriters: Malaysia in Western Fiction

3 Mar

Gu Hongming, Arena Wati, Usman Awung, Abdullah Hussain, Tash Aw, Preeta Samarasan, Rani Manicka, Shamini Flint. The roll call says it all: over the last few decades, Malaysian fiction has well and truly arrived on the world stage. Many critics have identified its unique tropes, sentiments and imagery. But fewer critics have examined those Western novelists who have taken Malaysia – and especially its political, military and colonial history – as subject matter.

The earliest books had a fixation with piracy. G.A. Henty’s In the Hands of the Malays (1905) tells of a dashing Dutch lieutenant who escapes from the clutches of a bloodthirsty buccaneer known only as ‘The Sea Tiger’. Although he sold 25 million books in his lifetime, Henty has since been castigated for his pro-imperialist stance and racist depictions of pretty much anyone not English. By contrast, in The Tigers of Mompracem (1900) by the Italian writer Emilio Salgari, the heroes are Malay pirates resisting the oppression of European empire builders. In a sequel, the protagonist Sandokan squares up to such real-life figures as James Brooke, the first White Raja of Sarawak.

It was around this time that Joseph Conrad was drawing inspiration from the region. Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895) concerns a Dutch merchant who sets up a disastrous trading venture in Borneo. In Lord Jim (1900), a young British seaman becomes a white raja, defending the orang asli from an evil chieftain. Although Conrad’s work is way more cerebral than Henty’s penny dreadful pot-boilers, the two men shared a fervent faith in the imperial project that is hard to swallow today. They were, after all, products of their time and place of origin.

Some years later, British expats such as Jessie A. Davidson, were penning such novels as Dawn: A Romance of Malaya (1926) about plantation life and colonial skulduggery. A granddaughter of Francis Light, founder of Penang, Davidson died an untimely death in 1928. The Straits Times reported that her passing ‘leaves a gap in the ranks of those few novelists who have chosen Malaya for their theme.’ Similarly, The Soul of Malaya (1930) by Henri Fauconnier focuses on the exploits of two morally-dubious Frenchmen trying to make their fortune with a Klang Valley rubber plantation. The novel won the Goncourt Award, France’s equivalent of the Booker Prize.

After 1940, World War II comes to dominate Western novels set in Malaysia. The wife of an agriculture official, Agnes Newton Keith was living in Sandakan when the Japanese invaded. Her novel Three Came Home (1947) was based on her traumatic experiences in an internment camp. On a similar tip, Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice is about a British secretary who survives the Japanese occupation of KL thanks largely to her integration with local tribeswomen. After the war, she donates her inheritance to a well-building project for her hostesses: ‘a gift by women, for women’.

Before stirring controversy with A Clockwork Orange (1962), Anthony Burgess taught at the prestigious Malay College during the Emergency. His Malayan Trilogy (1956-9) begins with Time for a Tiger (1956), the tale of a love triangle of colonials who get embroiled with Chinese terrorists. Learning fluent Malay and embeding himself in the culture, Burgess aimed to become the Western authority on British Malaya, as Rudyard Kipling had been on India and George Orwell had been on Burma.

In recent years, Western authors have tended to put a new spin on the old themes. The American author C. S. Godshalk began writing Kalimantaan: A Novel (1998) while living and working on the peninsula. Although ostensibly concerned with the life and times of James Brookes, Kalimantaan transcends the historical novel genre with its experimental fusion of factual research, mythology and the fantastical imaginings of its characters.

More recently, The Eloquence of Desire (2010) by Amanda Sington-Williams revisited the Emergency, using it as a backdrop to the emotional self-destruction of a British colonial family.

No matter how much Malaysian society changes, it seems that Western novelists like to return to the same events and personalities: pirates, James Brookes, the Emergency, the plantations, World War II, etc. Does there have to be this time lag? How long will it be before mat sellahs start setting their novels in, say, the sectarian tumult of 1969 or the prosperity years of the New Development Plan? Only time will tell.

First published in The Expat December 2011.