Malta: Knights’ Treasure

FROM my restaurant terrace, I can look out over Grand Harbour towards the fortifications of Valletta. Intimidating even now, in the age of aerial assault and cruise missiles, the massive walls must have seemed impregnable when they were first built. Made of the same honeyed sandstone as the island of Malta itself, they grow organically out of the rock. It is hard to believe they are the work of mere men and best not to think of the suffering endured by the slaves who built them here under the searing Mediterranean sun. Continue reading “Malta: Knights’ Treasure”

Alberta: Calgary Stampede

THE TRIO of steer and two horses explode out of the box at a hard gallop, throwing dust as they chase across the dirt arena. In an instant, the first cowboy has lassoed the steer’s head, then keeps tension on the rope so it is presented in proper position for his partner to lasso the back legs. Continue reading “Alberta: Calgary Stampede”

Sierra Leone: Rough Diamond

I HAVE been in Sierra Leone only an hour and am already having a party. I am staying at the airport hotel, following the advice of the guidebooks and British Foreign Office who advise against making the long crossing to Freetown, the capital, by night: “None of the options for transferring between the international airport at Lungi and Freetown is risk-free.” Continue reading “Sierra Leone: Rough Diamond”

India: Tiger Roar

“SHOULD we get rid of the tiger? No, that would not be right. He has the right to live just as we do.” The quiet words seem unremarkable, except that they are coming from the mouth of a 17-year-old whose mother was killed by a tiger. “The last time I saw my mother alive was in the morning before I went to school,” says Jyoti Meshran, a shy girl whose sudden smile when we meet lights up the bright day even more. “When I came back in the afternoon, my mother was not there. She had gone into the forest to cut firewood. They took her body home. The tiger had taken a bite out of her neck – that was the only part that was missing.” Continue reading “India: Tiger Roar”

Morocco: Imperial Cities

IT IS always easy to get lost in Fes. The narrow alleys lined with shops at the center of the medina give way to even narrower cobbled paths that meander, take sudden right-angled turns or end suddenly at a wall. Of course I can ask anyone for directions and they will happily point me the way or even show me to my door – perhaps at the cost of a detour to their cousin’s shop. A cousin who will not take “no” for an answer. “If I didn’t try to sell a carpet to everyone who says they do not want one, I would never sell a carpet,” as one salesman says. Continue reading “Morocco: Imperial Cities”

Cayman Islands: Lion Hunting

“WE WATCHED them coming through the Bahamas, which they just devastated,” she says. “They lay 25,000 eggs every four days and have no predators here. They will literally eat everything on the reef.”

I am sitting on a shady terrace in the Cayman Islands, watching the sun ripple off the Caribbean and sipping a fruit punch, while Nancy Easterbrook tells me about the threat to local coral reefs from the invasive lionfish. She is a dynamic bundle of energy who, with her husband, runs local diving company Divetech and their livelihood depends on preserving some of the best diving in the Caribbean. Continue reading “Cayman Islands: Lion Hunting”

Dublin: Irish Pubs

“WHEN you have everything, what do you want? What else will make you happy?” I’m in the Palace Bar in Dublin’s Fleet Street discussing the meaning of life, via football and young Russian oligarchs with enough money to buy English football teams. My philosophical companion, supping a lunchtime pint of Carling lager, possibly not his first nor even his third of the day, is a complete stranger and his thick Dublin accent means I understand only every other word. The Palace is a long, narrow but high-ceilinged room that opens into a larger, bright, glass-roofed space, filled with regulars who all give me a glance as I step in before going back to their pints. The only noise is a quiet hum of conversation and the clink of glasses. Continue reading “Dublin: Irish Pubs”

Panama: Canal Zone

THE TRUCK, belching black diesel smoke, slithers and slides as it struggles up the steep incline of the wet road. It is not much of a road, although it used to be once, sure. Then the weather and the jungle got at it, patiently aiming to outlast it. Now this stretch is a collection of potholes stitched together with some tar, tiptoeing past dramatic gullies washed away by landslips.

Continue reading “Panama: Canal Zone”

Uzbekistan: Golden Smiles

MANY YEARS have passed since I was last in Bukhara and the change is marked. Around the central Lyab-i Hauz pond, the ancient mud-brick buildings have been heavily restored, losing much of their character. The traditional cafés shaded by the pool’s trees from the bright Central-Asian sun cater to camera-snapping coachloads of tourists, rather than chattering groups of local men resting on topchan table beds. And the markets that once sold spices and sausages, antique jewelry and authentic karakul hats now offer cheap souvenirs and gaudy plastics. Has Bukhara changed, or has my memory over-romanticized it? Continue reading “Uzbekistan: Golden Smiles”

Zanzibar: Island Life

THE STREETS of Zanzibar’s Stone Town are a maze of meandering alleys that lead you in circles. The best you can hope for is to emerge from their dark shadow, squinting against the bright sun, at an unexpected corner of the shore. Around the central tourist area, they are lined with shops whose shaded interiors hide mostly crafts – beads, paintings, fabrics and souvenir T-shirts. Further back, they start to supply more local needs: charcoal, soap powder, shoes and bread. Continue reading “Zanzibar: Island Life”