Living the pages of Revelations
Americas/USA
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Living the pages of Revelations

A naked man gyrates his arse in front of two masked men dressed as bishops, the tassles of his fig-leaf flapping as he goes.

A placard held high above the crowd spells out that “Roman Catholicism is of the devil”.

In what appears an ordinary, family restaurant, the television shows a woman suckling a young kitten.

A man lies prone, head back on the concrete step of the bar door where he passed out, his friends unable to move his drunken bulk.

Hulks of men, bedecked with enormous feather-dress fascinators trundle past in a parade fuelled by an ecstasy of plastic beads-necklaces and crowd-led cheer.

School bands march past, drummers swinging wildly at instruments battered near to broken, their rears followed by sequin-dressed women, their fronts proceeded by banners proclaiming school and state.

This is Mardi Gras, New Orleans: a melange of colour and noise, where crowds fill every street, every pavement and every bar. It truly is a place of wonders.

There is food aplenty to match the crowds. Soupy seafood gumbo; stewy seafood etouffee; seafood sandwiches called po-boys; boiled spicy crawfish known as crawdads, the heads of which must be sucked out for a shot of hot spice in a display of local manliness; deep-fried, creole-spiced prawns, alligator and chicken; and oysters – plenty of oysters.

The drink, too, is as varied as the crowd. With New Orlean’s open carry laws – referring here to the unusual ability to carry opened alcohol in the streets, not its relaxed attitude to guns – people slurped cocktails from large plastic beakers shaped to give rise to a puerile play-on-words. Mint Juleps, with real southern bourbon, were served up by long-time locals, whose closed-lipped half-swallowed accent formed words quite impossible to understand. A Tom Collins was easily ordered from many a local place, quickly made and packing punch.

But as New Orleans Louisiana (NOLA to those who know) traipsed from bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant, balcony to balcony, and crowd-filled street to crowd-filled street, a darker side could be seen despite all the superficial gaiety. In a bar that could have been plucked from the pages of Faulkner, Civil War-style muskets bedecked the hallway ceiling and blonde-haired southern women took turns in playing at a pair of copper-clad pianos while the crowd cheered to such staples as “Sweet Home Alabama”. But a quick peer through the atmospheric gloom at bar staff vs customer could lead the innocent to wonder if segregation had ever ended. It hadn’t in these crowded halls.

On the streets, too, there were signs that Mardi Gras might mean different things to different people. As if powered by the electric current, young men would leap to their feet to tap-dance jerkily on the pavement in front of a plastic bucket-begging bowl whenever someone passed. Elsewhere, young boys played drums on upturned buckets, their furious banging sometimes catching the ear of the swirling mass…and sometimes not.

For all of this, New Orlean’s French Quarter presented a most magnificent stage. Old, balconied houses with wonderful interiors provided a welcome contrast to the grim concrete blocks of the surrounding districts. This was a different slice of America to what I had seen before, but sitting in a café near the water I was reminded that this still was America. Where else would one order a plate of sugar-drowned, greasy, deep-fired beignet and be embarrassed not by one’s gluttony but by one’s restraint?

Dancing by the fire
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Dancing by the fire

They tightened the skins of their hand drums in the heat of our wood fire. They sang and drummed, and waved their dancing swords beneath the stars, their words rushing upwards with the warmth from the flames.

This special troupe of traditional dancers sang and danced a traditional welcome song. But in this so young country that has changed so much and so fast since its founding, it appeared the roots of this tradition were shallow indeed, easily pulled up from the dry sand of the desert. When I asked which tribe or region the song came from, I was told that it wasn’t quite like that. It was traditional, but it was also new.

But then it was over, and it was time to eat. Tables groaned under a weight of food no party could do justice to. Whole sheep lay draped over rice, the meat so tender that it was lifted from the carcass with a spoon: no knives needed. The swords long put away.

Looking out over the barbed wire
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Looking out over the barbed wire

From my sitting room window, I can see the evening drawing in. It isn’t dark yet, but the failing light lends the air that fuzzy timbre that can be mistaken for the haze of pollution: the smears of brown and grey that smudge out the distance on a morning drive to work.

Lights have come on, and their warm orange gives the buildings a gentle blush. Later, these same lamps will glare out as beacons of brightness, but for now, they seem rather to act as highlights, guiding the eye to details that might otherwise be missed. In this moment, all seems calm. Even the road, that streak of angry tarmac demanding a death-defying sprint across six lanes of traffic to get to the few shops on the other side, seems calm. The roar of engines has paused. Even the air is still, for this is a moment before the evening Isha prayer, and the call of the muezzin has yet to break the quiet.

Between me and the lights is nothing. Though where I stand was empty desert just five years ago, it would be wrong to think of this ‘nothing’ as a place of pristine desert or of Lawrence-of-Arabia sand dunes. Really, it is just derelict scrubland. From where I stand it is not so easy to see, but walking along the road’s edge makes the ugliness obvious: discarded plastic bottles, ripped bags and the remnants of polystyrene food boxes. Even further out, the desert that surrounds the city – and in places still curls a tongue inside its limits – is littered with plastic. Whites and blues stiffly flap in the breeze: plastics half buried in the sand.

Plots of empty land are found dotted throughout Riyadh. The city has grown rapidly over the last few years but it has also grown haphazardly. Ever since a tax on undeveloped land in Riyadh was introduced around the end of 2015 in an attempt to ease a housing shortage, these plots of land have been turned into tax-avoiding pretend building sites. No actual development work is carried out, but the ground is dug over and mounds of rubble left strewn about. Ugliness proliferates. Unbroken ground like that before me is weirdly rare now. The city has taken on a damaged feel.

Rubble-strewn land; half-constructed buildings; a $20 billion metro project. Riyadh has become a city of massive plans, but of unfinished business as well. After the work-stopping government-budget austerity of the last couple of years, work is starting up again. The once-stalled King Abdullah Financial City again has workers; whole new districts have appeared where when I left in 2016 there was nothing but rock and sand. Across the city, there is a palpable uptick in the speed of progress. Still, there is work yet to be done: even the road from my compound ends in an all-terrain track, surrounded by builders’ rubble.

But as I look out from my sitting room window, across the now darkened land, these thoughts of construction, of mess, and of projects incomplete, fall away. For now, there is nothing. Just the barbed-wire fence, the desolate scrubland, the mosque, and the bright glow of lights reminding me that Riyadh is all around me. And that Riyadh is alive.

Trying out the local restaurant
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Trying out the local restaurant

Having ordered the usual plate of chicken and rice, I noticed a pair at my local restaurant eating a chickpea curry. It looked thick and rich and tasty, scooped up with hot fresh bread. I told the chef that next time I would have that, so good did it look. He said I should come the next night. I said I would. He said he would look for me.

As I entered the restaurant he looked up and smiled, bade me sit down and went to serve up the chickpeas. As I waited, sitting on the carpeted raised floor, I watched the other staff at their evening chores. Yesterday it had been placing plastic bags inside paper bags to make waterproof takeaway bags. Tonight, it was tying knots in flimsy plastic bags and, on my other side, throwing a handful of cut raw vegetables into little bags.

My chickpeas arrived, with bread and a plate of raw vegetables. I smiled and said thanks. I tore off a piece of hot hot bread and scooped up a mouthful.

It wasn’t thick and it wasn’t rich and it wasn’t tasty. It was a watery plate of tasteless, mushy pellets. It was beyond words. I superglued my smile to my face and shoved the mouthfuls down.

The sand between one’s toes
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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The sand between one’s toes

The sunshine was still bright, but the weather cool. The surface of the sand warm underfoot, but just an inch below already cold to the toes.

Enjoying a day out Saudi-style, we bounced up and down the sand dunes in Toyota FJ Cruiser. With air let out of the tyres to lessen the risk of sinking into the sad, the engine was gunned for ascents and throttled back to allow a silent sliding downwards on the other side.

We drove past what looked like crumbling mud fortresses but that were really old date farms, and past mighty desert palaces the gatekeepers of which dismissed as just one of their master’s little garages.

Scrambling up into an old derelict watchtower, I looked up into the clear blue sky, the shadows thrown by the walls protecting my eyes from the sun’s wintry glare. Only the mud brick walls remained; the floors and steps had long fallen away. A lone sentinel; a silent and empty mud column: the rock and sand of the desert stretching away to the cliffs on the far horizon.

We stopped by the roadside to have jugs filled with on-the-brew tea and Arabic coffee, and we ended the afternoon with a late lunch of spiced rice with camel meat.

From the Balcony
Asia/Hong Kong
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From the Balcony

As the aeroplane door closes, with its reassuring ker-thunk heralding the end of another little trip to Hong Kong, I cannot help but indulge in a little retrospective. Hong Kong is a place that seems always to pull me different directions. The views from the rooftop bars are inspiring, but the pollution wearying. The opulence of the big-name shop fronts is dazzling, but the relative limits and expensiveness of the place for ordinary shopping become boring. The markets still retain a little of their grubby allure, but distinctiveness has become smudged into an endless array of tat, the same across Hong Kong and, really, across China.

Yet the wealth and the poverty, the order and the chaos, the tidiness and the dirt, the crowds and spaciousness: these are the contrasts that bedevil (or enliven) every city and they are not the true source of my unease with the place. For there is something else, a more particular story, that is being told in Hong Kong. A peculiar unravelling of a social story that, as I sip a long drink on a balcony overlooking the Johnston Road in Wan Chai, I may not be able to see, but I can yet still feel.

For Hong Kong is a city where its government has become something that is at times seemingly truly unrepresentative of, and unmotivated by, its people. Though the government may claim to be responsive, it feels at times it is only responsive when responding to local concerns aligns with responding to high politics. For many of the locals I meet, futures narrow and hopes dim. Yet a vibrancy still remains, be it corralled into ever smaller pens.

On Saturday 2 December, a demonstration took place. It was cheerful and orderly; the police were out in force with metal barricades, berets and their little whispering plastic earpieces, but there was no anger or animosity in the crowd and the uniformed youngsters (as they seemed) just looked a little silly when they ran with their backpacks full of banners, ready to unfurl messages of warning, dismissal and, even, imminent arrest to the collection of students, parents and grandparents.

It wasn’t a large march, though they carried their placards determinedly. Perhaps a thousand; perhaps five hundred? It is always so hard to judge numbers just from a casual untrained look. Joshua Wong was there, out on bail and awaiting his next sentencing. And this was what the protest was about: a shout at the authorities that Hong Kong should not be a place with political prisoners, that Hong Kong should not be a place that fills its prisons with young citizens merely because of the workings of their conscience. But for the people in the march, this is what Hong Kong has become. Through the courts, the political parties opposing increased control by, and harmonisation with, Beijing have been shattered, their members either imprisoned, awaiting sentence, or banned from running for office. By-elections have been delayed until March 2018 (the seats fell vacant in July 2017) amid on-going appeals, leaving the pro-Beijing camp with a veto-busting majority in the city’s Legislative Council.

Of course, the government denies any undemocratic tendencies, but it is hard to take their spokesmen seriously when their playbook is so artlessly copied from you-know-who. Court judgements that talk of social harmony and worrying trends of civil disobedience: of the importance of citizens obeying the law (but not of the law being just). Government officials that deny government interference despite it being the government that has called for retrials and more stringent penalties. There has even been talk of retroactive application of the to-be-implemented law penalising ‘disrespecting’ the national anthem with imprisonment. And everything cloaked in Beijing’s ultra-shriek that any comment by a foreigner is an insult and interference that is not to be borne.

This shriek has been heard much less than it should have been. Britain has been powerless and voiceless, perhaps also spineless; the EU apparently simply uncaring; America distracted by an executive with priorities quite different from championing the rights Americans are meant to cherish. The voices within Hong Kong have also been muted. The city’s system of functional constituencies (also known as entrenched vested interests) grants real power to various business groups that look beyond what might be right to what might merely be profitable. The executive too, mindful that ultimate promotion and success are increasingly in the gift of Beijing, look beyond the city’s shores for guidance. Everything is wonderful, officialdom smiles fatly. Only the young, the elderly, or those with families might wish to worry about a future they are in danger of being priced out of.

In the first-floor dining room of a shabby branch of a once favourite dim sum restaurant chain, I found an odd parallel with Hong Kong’s wider malaise staring at me from my food. I remember my first trip to Dim Dim Sum, with its delicious dumplings and cute pig-faced custard buns. I remember too my second and my third trip. But over time the delight faded, and this last time will likely have to be the very last. For while the pig-faced custard bun was as cute and piggy as ever, I couldn’t help but notice the encrusted grim and filth that coated the dish they were served in. The table too was stained with dirt; the ceiling low and the room cramped. But most of all, it was the dried (but now soggy) detritus of dumplings long past lurking at the base of the serving dish that made me think that this was a restaurant living on a reputation borrowed from an earlier time. Walking through Causeway Bay, reading the desperately formulaic English of the supposedly spontaneous anti-Falun Gong and anti-Japanese street protests (exhibitions that dripped with an arms-length official hand), one cannot help but wonder if Hong Kong too is living on a reputation borrowed from an earlier time.

But now my time has ended once again. The door is shut, the aeroplane is pulling away from the gate. My phone, switched off, is no longer bleeping incessant warnings about the toxic air I spent hours taking great lungs-full of as I walked along the streets. Soon the aeroplane will turn onto the runway, take off and climb into (or is it out of?) the dingy, dirty, grimy, noxious air that has coated the city throughout my stay.

Oh, Hong Kong! Until next time?

Desert walks
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Desert walks

Against everything else in life, the desert seems never to change. As I stepped from the car the memories sprung back to life. My feet crunched over the same crackled rock. My lungs filled with the same hot, arid air. My ears bathed in the same silence. My eyes took in the same sweeping, majestic landscape.

There is something about the desert, even this close to Riyadh, that cannot but impress, swell the imagination and fill the soul. In its sameness, its stillness and its expanse, it is like nowhere else. If vistas of brown rock and beige sand will never be homely, nor as restful as lush green or as welcoming as the yellows and greens of the English countryside, there is something endlessly special in the deserts of Arabia. Something that holds us captive and makes us yearn to return.

Comforting food
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Comforting food

It is said of Hong Kong, not entirely unfairly, that it is a food lover’s paradise. Cuisine from across the globe can be sampled in restaurants big and small, fancy and simple, good and bad. From the appalling flavours dished up by hate-filled waitresses in the local restaurants near my flat in Mongkok, to the lavishly expensive, intimately indulgent and quietly excellent restaurants hidden in the nooks and crannies of Central, Wanchai, and Causeway Bay, Hong Kong has it all. One need never be bored: there is the best of East and West and everything in between.

In contrast, the cuisine in Riyadh is a little simpler. Rice and chicken dominate in most Saudi-style restaurants while American chains serve up underwhelment-on-a-plate. Regional highlights can be found with Lebanese, Morrocan and Yemeni restaurants that hide surprisingly delicious food behind astonishingly bland presentation and a complete lack of atmosphere.

But in truth, Riyadh has great food, if only you stoop to join the queues at the local, neighbourhood restaurants. Here, with plastic tables and chairs, with disposable wafer-thin plastic tablecloths, with flies buzzing from one table to the next, is where the truly tasty can be found. Here, without a menu in English or even a menu at all, is where wondrously warm service can be found: not just service with a smile, but impassioned service with grin, a babble of welcoming words and a delight that sets the scene for food that is simple, comforting, enormously filling and just what is wanted.  From the freshest falafel to tangy shawarma to authentic locale-specific curries to barbecued meats and chicken.

Far from fancy, it is the sort of food you always wished your local had.

The 106th Double-Tenth Day
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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The 106th Double-Tenth Day

In the quiet of gardens, water splashes from fountains, an eerie tinkling in otherwise silent air. In the cool of dusk, lamps cast their electric glow on the underside of the leaves in trees, their ever-stretching branches thrown into fluorescent dances of shapes and of greens and greys.

106 years ago, disgruntled soldiers near Wuhan in China faced arrest after details of an anti-Qing plot were leaked to the authorities. The men turned mutineer and by the next day, by the morning of 11 October, had established a military government.

Away at the back of Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter an empty street slowly fills with cars. Their graceless hulk crunches over dusty tarmac. Figures start separating from the gloom and drift to the end of the road.

The Qing struck back as winter began to take hold of China. Imperial forces slowly gained ground against the mutineer-revolutionaries. Yet progress was too slow. Soon Sichuan, Ningxia and Shanxi were slipping from the Emperor’s grasp. The winter of 1911 was to be the winter of the Qing.

Golden light spills out of a single gate where smiles gather and hands are shaken. A red carpet runs up to the porch and into the house. From the back, voices drift over food. It is 10 October: Taiwan’s National Day, also known as the Double-Ten Day. We are standing in the garden of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. The links between Taiwan and Saudi Arabia are celebrated, as are the links between Taiwan and the region. The hospitality cannot be matched: all are made to feel special, all are made to feel uniquely welcome. We have gathered to celebrate with Taiwan, the Riyadh autumnal cool the perfect blanket to a feast. And as we leave, happy and delighted, it is we who are thanked even when it is we who must do the thanking.

On 1 January 1912, Sun Yat-Sen proclaimed the foundation of the Republic of China.

Under the spell of the watchtower
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Under the spell of the watchtower

Summer is sputtering its last in Riyadh; the burning heat of memory and of August is slipping away and a relative cool pervades the mornings and the evenings.  By nine in the evening, the temperature is barely above thirty-five celsius, the sun having dipped below the horizon a little before six.

In the darkness and the cool, a calm descends.  Around the secure compound I am staying on, lights flicker on.  Smoothed curves alternative with ramifying diamonds in Arabic designs crawling up the front of the porches facing the empty streets. In front of each house stands a watered lawn; a lone, proud and tall-standing palm; and a single lamp.  Away in ordered ranks they stretch: house after house, lawn after lawn, palm tree after palm tree, lamp after lamp. And over it all spills the gentle pinky-orange light of the compound’s lights, as gentle as the air is still.

My evening run takes me past each one. A cat stirs. A lonely fellow jogger smiles as we pass. But life is hidden behind the drawn curtains.  I am alone, caught in the spell of a compound watchtower, its bright flood lamp washing over me.  And as I run in this new compound with this new job, do I feel the old being washed away?