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?

 

Returning to Riyadh
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Returning to Riyadh

All through the flight, I wasn’t really sure what I felt.  Looking out of the aeroplane’s window, down at the bright gridded lights, I couldn’t pinpoint my response.  Waiting in the airport at immigration, at the luggage carousel and at customs, I wasn’t sure.

Sitting in the car, looking out at the darkness and the dodgy driving, I couldn’t put a name to my emotion.  Driving past my old office, shrouded now in darkness, perhaps to conceal that all these years late, it still remains unfinished, did nothing but mix up the feelings yet further.

The heat, the dust, the kaleidoscope of beige, the endless rubble and building.  How do I respond to this, the most peculiar of returns?

I am back in Riyadh.

Comfort food
Asia/Hong Kong
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Comfort food

Sometimes before a long journey, a little comfort food is needed.  Few cultures do comfort food quite as well as the Cantonese in Hong Kong.

Dim sum for lunch but pork for dinner.  And not just pork: a feast of pork. Four different types of pork for dinner: minced pork with beans, fatty belly with preserved vegetables, honey glazed barbecued pork, and crispy roast pork.  For there is something quite alluring about a restaurant with piles of glistening pork stacked up in trays or hanging from hooks in the window.

A swift rebuke
Asia/Taiwan
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A swift rebuke

Sitting in a Taipei taxi, I used the word ‘mainland’ in a sentence. My driver’s rebuke was swift and clear. ‘China,’ he said. Not the mainland. ‘Taiwan is Taiwan; China is China.’

It seems Beijing’s tactics have failed to win the heart of this man at least.

The sweetest thing
Americas/USA

The sweetest thing

In Washington to try and sort out some paperwork, I had nothing to do but wait.  Wait for clerks and wait for breakfast and wait for lunch.

Founded in 1856, the Old Ebbitt Grill describes itself as a tradition.  Certainly, it had the American tradition of a barman with something in common with every single customer.  As I eavesdropped on his patter, if he didn’t come from the same state as his interlocutor then one of his ever multiplying sisters surely did.  As I was leaving a woman began coo-ing over a little dog.  “Oh, that is so cute!” she said. “Isn’t he just adorable,” she said. “Isn’t that the sweetest thing,” she said. I looked around for the dog but couldn’t see it.  Locking eyes with the woman, I flushed a little as I realised that I was the sweetest, cutest, most adorable thing.  The waitress next to me could barely suppress her laugh.  I felt it time for a dignified exit.

At the Smithsonian museum on American history, I walked through a couple of exhibitions to kill time away from the sun.  One was on the treatment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War; the other was about the invention of the incandescent lightbulb.  Yet in truth neither was about their advertised topics.  Both were at heart about American greatness.  The exhibition on the internment of over seventy-five thousand citizens for the crime of ethnic ancestry was really about how great America was for apologising forty years later. It was as if the entire episode was merely a vehicle to demonstrate a people’s commitment to working for an ever more perfect union.

As my wait stretched into the evening I went to find a hotel for the night, checking into one I had been to before with nothing but my computer, book and a couple of sheets of paper.  I sat in the park across the road from the hotel to secure my discounted on-line booking. Almost as soon as I hit the confirm button a fight broke out. Two huge men threw themselves at each other, fists finding their mark with surprisingly definite, if squishy, sounds. As one bolted for the gate the other, in a phrase I didn’t know existed outside Hollywood films, shouted “I’m gonna #$%& you up every day if I see you in this park again. I’m a gonna #$%& you up ever-day!”.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I had made a mistake in my choice of hotel.