Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Corner View 3

The southern part of Oman, where I live, is known as the Land of Frankincense and once great camel trains carried frankincense and myrrh across the desert from here or down to the Queen of Sheba's ports. As you can see, the camels still think they are kings of the road, but nowadays most people drive SUVs. They are more common here than in most parts of the world because there is a lot of off-road driving. I'm currently driving a Toyota Fortuner, which I must like a lot as I'm even taking photographs of it!

For those of you who don't know about it, the Corner View project is a group of bloggers around the world, who once a week post photos with a related theme. It was started by Jane in Spain who is first in the list of links below. This week's theme is modes of transport; next week's will be shopping. If you want to join in, you are more than welcome. Just post your photos and let us know your link.

These are the current participants in Corner View:

caitlin, joyce, ani, couturecoucou, kim, a day that is dessert, natsumi, epe, kaylovesvintage, trinsch, c.t., jeannette, outi, schanett, ritva, dongdong, francesca, state of bliss, jennifer, dana, denise, cabrizette, bohemia girl, ruth, dianna, isabelle, amber, girl in the yellow shoes, mister e, janis, kari, jgy, jenna, skymring, elizabeth, audrey, allison, lise, cate, mon, victoria, crescent moon, erin, otli, amy, ida, caroline, lisa, dorte, kimmie, la lune dans le ciel, nicola, malo, samantha, vanessa,

Thursday, April 23, 2009

26 A Cornered Animal


Room 316 smelled like a fox’s den. Tom wasn’t looking forward to tonight. He placed the fur hat on his head, adjusted it, breathed in its wild animal odour then took it off again. Even though it was freezing cold outside, he decided he wasn’t going to need it tonight. He placed the hat on the top shelf of the cheap plywood wardrobe, closed the door, took a deep breath and headed out of his room into the corridor. He looked down at his brown Timberland boots and blue jeans showing beneath his long beige raincoat as he walked slowly along the thin red carpet to the hotel staircase.

On reaching the bottom of the stairs, he turned right and crossed the lobby to leave his key with the receptionist. She took it without looking at him. Tom opened the door onto Peace Avenue, where the lights from the hotel windows picked out flurries of fine snow swirling around the grey statue of Lenin. He looked right then left and saw car headlights approaching; their beams filled with falling snow. The car slowed then stopped just in front of him. The wipers continued to move back and forth sweeping the snow from the front windscreen. The front passenger door swung open and Daphne looked out at him from the embassy Range Rover.

“Get in.”

Tom slid into the seat next to her, brushed the wet snow from his hair and fastened his seat belt.

“Thanks for coming to get me.”

Daphne swung the steering wheel and they skidded slightly as they turned out of Sukhe Bator Square and headed out of the city centre.

“That’s all right. You are part of the family now, so to speak.”

Tom raised his eyebrows and thought, am I?

The streets were dark and deserted. Even the soldiers were staying indoors tonight. Only the sound of the windscreen wipers and the purr of the Range Rover’s engine broke the silence as they passed through the long rows of grim, five-storey apartment blocks. There wasn’t a single light on in any of the windows.

Daphne tutted. “Another bloody power cut. The Soviets are pulling out, you know. They’re the ones who built the power stations. They’re breaking down more and more nowadays. It’s not just the lack of engineers; the problem is all of the spare parts have to come from Russia.”

“I hadn’t noticed at the hotel.”

“No, you wouldn’t. They’ve got their own generator.”

A red Number Sixteen bus approached and temporarily lit up the gloom. Tom wiped his window and looked out at the passengers who stared back at him. Nobody was smiling. They were cold, hungry and unsure of their future.

Daphne saw the apprehension in Tom’s eyes. She knew everything: Jim Lockey worked for her husband, after all.


He turned from the window to her. “Yes?”

“Where do you come from?”

“Henley.” Then he explained, “Henley-on Thames.”

“I thought so. You’re Jack Rawlinson’s brother, aren’t you?” A look of concern crept into her eyes before she added, “So tragic what happened to him.”

The sound of the wiper blades moving slowly backwards and forwards in front of them seemed to get louder as they swept through the falling snow towards the yurt suburbs. Tom sighed and stared into the darkness that filled the Tuul Valley.There was still the lingering smell of a cornered animal in the air.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Corner View 2

The theme for this week's Corner View is breakfast. Well, to be perfectly honest I am an Englishman living abroad, and my breakfast is a rather conventional one of Weetabix, orange juice and coffee. The first part - just about the only part actually - of my breakfast ritual is to grind the coffeee beans in an automatic coffee grinder. But, as I live in Oman, I thought I'd try to show you what a traditional Omani breakfast looks like. I asked a colleague of mine, Ahmed, and he shrugged and said he just had tea. I must admit he is rather thin. I asked him, "Anything else?" He thought for a while and added, "bread." That is the local type of bread in the photo. Six loaves cost 100 baisas, which is less than 50 cents. You need to buy it hot and fresh and eat it immediately as it dries up very quickly. In the Arab world the father or one of the sons will go to the bakery first thing in the morning to fetch the bread back. After further discsussion with Ahmed, I was able to add two further items: dates and laban (buttermilk). These are really more typical for people who live in the desert.

Bread, dates and buttermilk are not exactly the most exciting breakfast in the world, so for my main picture I have two camels looking for their breakfast. You may think that camels just graze in the desert and don't need to be fed, but you'd be wrong. Camel herdsmen drive out into the desert with 50kg bags of animal feed to keep their animals fat and happy. They usually deliver this in white pick-up trucks. This means that whenever camels see a big white vehicle approaching early in the morning they start walking towards it looking for their breakfast! These two came up really close and looked at me appealingly through the window of my white SUV. Sometimes they'll lick the sides of the vehicle hoping to find salt deposits. Camels are lovely animals, but I have to admit I have eaten camel's meat and drunk camel's milk. I've also seen a camel race with nearly a thousand camels in it, but that's another story. Their meat is rather tough and flavourless. I only eat it when I have to at a wedding party. The milk tastes like cow's milk diluted with water. So, this morning, as usual, I had cow's milk with my cereal and coffee.

For those of you who don't know about it, the Corner View project is a group of bloggers around the world, who once a week post photos with a related theme. It was started by Jane in Spain who is first in the list of links below. This week's theme is breakfast; next week's will be modes of transport and the week after that's will be shopping. If you want to join in, you are more than welcome. Just post your photos and let us know your link.

These are the current participants in Corner View. Take a look at the wonderful world of breakfasts:

jane, ladybug-zen, ian, bonnie,esti, sophie, cele, modsquad,caitlin, joyce, ani, couturecoucou, kim, a day that is dessert, natsumi, epe, kaylovesvintage, trinsch, c.t.,jeannette, outi, schanett, ritva, dongdong, francesca, state of bliss, jennifer, dana, denise, cabrizette, bohemia girl, ruth, erin, dianna,isabelle, amber, girl in the yellow shoes, mister e, janis, kari, jgy,jenna, skymring, elizabeth, audrey, allison, mon,

Monday, April 20, 2009

Scenes from Romania

The last European country I lived in was Romania. It is what you might call an unspoilt country, relatively off the beaten path as far as tourism is concerned, but there are some wonderful places to visit. The top photo is a street scene from the small Transylvanian town of Sighişoara, which
was the birth place of Vlad Ţepeş, the historical figure on whom Dracula was based. The house where he was born is now a restaurant, which serves such typical Romanian delicacies as pan-fried brains. There is a plaque on the wall stating that Vlad Ţepeş's father, Vlad Dracul lived here and that his son was born here in 1431 and spent the first four years of his life in this house. Drăculea means son of Dracul. After suffering abuse as a prisoner of the Turks, Drăculea went on to exact his revenge by impaling Turkish prisoners on stakes, where they took up to 48 hours to die an agonizing death. Ţepeş means Impaler.

The second photo is of Piaţa Unirii in downtown Bucharest, which is where I lived.
You can see that capitalism is beginning to transform this once grim communist bloc city.

The third photo is of the fortified Saxon church of Biertan. You find fortified churches like this dotted across Transylvania. The villagers took refuge in them during the periodic invasions by the Ottoman Turks.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Write Away

I was invited to contribute to the WriteUp Cafe. I have posted an extract from The Mongolian Girl there. Please visit the site and rate and comment on it.

Also, Jade Meng kindly invited me to write a guest article for her site Dream of Jade. Please take time to pay a call there too and leave a comment. Thank you.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

25 The Contortionists


The automatic doors opened, Sarantuya’s arm slipped away from Tom’s. “Er, er..” He just didn’t know what to say. Sarantuya moved forward towards the door. Only the two old ladies with their loaves of bread wrapped in brown paper were in front of her now. She opened her handbag, took out a pencil and a small address book, scribbled something quickly, ripped out the page and handed it to Tom. He watched her step up into the bus and disappear in a forest of coats and hats. There was standing room only and the windows were covered with ice, but Tom thought he caught a glimpse of her blue coat as the bus pulled away into the night.

He immediately looked to see what she had written. Even though he knew the Cyrillic alphabet now, he couldn’t understand much, but when he saw the numbers 7.30 next to the words “xagva garig” and “cirk,” he felt both elated and alarmed. She wanted to see him again, but where?

He hurried back along Peace Avenue towards the hotel, lost his footing on the on the ice, fell and grazed his knuckles because he didn’t want to let go of the tiny sheet of lined paper clutched tightly in his hand.

Two days later, Tom walked up a broad avenue towards a circular concrete structure. Shishmishig had confirmed what he’d found in his dictionary: Wednesday at 7.30pm. As he got nearer to the massive building, his heart beat faster and he could hardly breathe. There was a small crowd in front of the entrance. He walked faster, then he saw her big grey fur hat and her beautiful smile. She was standing to one side of the entrance with the tickets in her hand. Once inside, they were ushered to ringside seats. Tom, being the only foreigner there, felt conspicuous, and bent forward in an attempt to make himself small, but he could still see the people all around them pointing and staring.

The first performers to appear were a pair of clowns. They stood at the centre of the ring and talked for about ten minutes. He could hardly understand a word of what they were saying, but the rest of the packed audience seemed to find it hilarious.

He turned to Sarantuya, and enquired, "What are they saying?"

She replied with a word that sounded like, "Politik."

He wanted to continue the conversation. However, his knowledge of the Mongolian language was so limited, that any attempt to converse inevitably faded out after one or two simple utterances. But, nods, smiles and gestures helped to fill the awkward silences. He wondered how much they could possibly know about each other. He hung onto her every word and gesture. She really did seem perfect.

Tom felt the warmth of her arm pressed against his as they watched the clowns leave and six small horses gallop out onto the sawdust-covered floor, with a girl standing on top of the first one. She did somersaults on the horse as it led the way around the arena.

Next, a black leather-clad Mongolian rock group appeared bearing white, V-shaped electric guitars. They stood, feet spread wide apart, and postured. The frenetic efforts of the drummer and the loud strumming of the guitars drew no more than a polite ripple of applause from the family audience, many of whom seemed more interested in the tall, red-haired ‘Russian’ sitting with a Mongolian girl than in the circus acts.

After the amplifiers had been removed, and the last member of the rock group had made his exit, the audience suddenly came alive. They clapped and stomped their feet in unison. Tom looked at Sarantuya.

"Uran nygralt," she explained. Tom hurriedly looked up the word "uran" in his pocket dictionary. There were several meanings: "skilful" or "artistic" or "cunning".

The noise from the audience was becoming louder; some of them were even shouting. Tom referred to his dictionary once more. He couldn't find "nygralt", but there was an entry for "nygralaa". Three alternatives were listed: "deviation"; "bend"; "fold".

"Ahaa," he said,” Skilful deviation."

"Yes," she laughingly replied, as two scantily-dressed contortionists emerged to thunderous applause. They were the "uran nygralt."

The contortionists were two teenage girls, both less than five feet tall. They walked on their bare hands up to a small platform, where they twisted and contorted their tiny muscular bodies in unimaginable ways. They were wearing silk slippers and skimpy two-piece gold satin costumes that twisted and turned with them, but amazingly did not tear asunder. Tom watched incredulously as they thrust the backs of their heads between their thighs whilst tucking their feet under their elbows, and walking on their hands.

Sarantuya pointed to the one on the right and said, "Sister." Later they went backstage to meet her. Her name was Gerelchimeg, and she was beautiful, but she was not as beautiful as Sarnatuya: nobody was.

To be contd.


Friday, April 17, 2009

The Country with the Highest Murder Rate in the World

Most first time visitors don’t want to arrive in San Salvador late at night. It has a very bad reputation, especially after dark. “The U.S. Embassy warns its personnel to drive with their doors locked and windows raised, to avoid travel outside of major metropolitan areas after dark, and to avoid travel on unpaved roads at all times because of random banditry, carjackings, kidnappings, criminal assaults and lack of police. Most fatal traffic accidents or robberies and assaults occur during the evening or early morning hours. Travelers with conspicuous amounts of luggage, late-model cars or foreign license plates are particularly vulnerable.

The U.S. Embassy considers El Salvador a critical crime threat country. Violent and petty crime are prevalent throughout El Salvador and U.S. citizens are often victims. Travelers should avoid carrying valuables in public places. Armed assaults and carjackings take place both in San Salvador and in the interior of the country. Criminals have been known to follow travelers from the international airport to private residences or secluded stretches of road where they carry out assaults and robberies. Criminals often become violent quickly, especially when victims fail to cooperate immediately in surrendering valuables. Frequently, victims who argue with assailants or refuse to give up their valuables are shot.”

The Australian Government advises its citizens,“Violent crime including armed robbery, banditry, assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, and carjacking is common, including in the capital, San Salvador. Downtown San Salvador is dangerous, particularly at night. Criminals are known to target the road between San Salvador and the international airport.”

The violence is the legacy of a 12-year-long civil war, poverty and the deportation of thousands of Salavadoran gang members from Los Angeles back to San Salvador. There are now 25,000 gang members active in El Salvador, many of whom belong to MS-13, considered by the FBI to be the most dangerous gang in America.

The UK Government's Foreign & Commonwealth Office warns, "You should take great care travelling anywhere in El Salvador at night. You should take particular care if you need to travel to downtown San Salvador."

So, as I looked out from the plane window at the sparse lights of El Salvador, the country with the highest murder rate in the world, I gave more than a passing thought to how I was going to get from the airport to downtown San Salvador along the infamous dark road targeted by carjackers and armed gangs. One of the things you notice on arrival in a poor country is the darkness.

The plane touched down just before 9pm. All of my fellow passengers appeared to be Salvadorans. The airport was poorly lit and surrounded by a black night. This was where my journey began.

The top 20 countries listed by annual murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants. I was about to visit half of them:

Country ↓ 2000 ↓ 2001 ↓ 2002 ↓ 2003 ↓ 2004 ↓ 2005 ↓ 2006 ↓ 2007 ↓ Most
recent ↓
Flag of El Salvador El Salvador 37.3 34.6 31.1 32.7 41.0 54.9 55.3
Flag of Venezuela Venezuela 37 40 49 59 45 42 49
Flag of Jamaica Jamaica 34 44 40 36 54 64 49
Flag of Guatemala Guatemala 25.8 25.2 30.7 35.0 36.3 42.0 45.2
Flag of Honduras Honduras 49.92 53.72 55.89 33.57 31.89 35.06 42.91
Flag of South Africa South Africa 49.6 47.8 47.4 42.7 40.3 39.6 40.5 38.6 40.5
Flag of Colombia Colombia 62.7 64.6 65.8 51.8 44.6 39.3 37.3
Flag of Belize Belize

30.8 30.8
Flag of Trinidad and Tobago Trinidad and Tobago 10.0 12.58 14.33 20.69 20.07 29.69 28.53 30.38 30.38
Flag of Brazil Brazil 26.7 27.8 28.4 28.9 27

Flag of Ecuador Ecuador

15.07 18.33

Flag of Russia Russia 19.80

18.0 16.5
Flag of Swaziland Swaziland 88.61

13.05 13.63

Flag of Mexico Mexico 14.11 13.94 13.04

Flag of Mongolia Mongolia

13.51 12.81

Flag of Paraguay Paraguay 12.05

Flag of Haiti Haiti

11.5 11.5
Flag of Suriname Suriname

15.10 10.30

Flag of Panama Panama
10.56 9.56

Flag of Argentina Argentina

To be contd.