Sunday, May 31, 2009

Corner View 8 The Beach

I'm posting this week's Corner View earlier than usual because I'm going to be travelling for the next couple of days. The theme is the beach, and Salalah has some of the finest beaches in the world. There are literally hundreds of deserted sandy beaches in the Salalah area, some of them palm-fringed; some backed by dramatic cliffs. Currently, there are just two resort hotels, the Hilton and the Crowne Plaza, which attract mainly Swedish tourists, but five more hotels are planned as part of the Salalah Beach Project.

Being surrounded all the year round by such wonderful beaches may be one reason why I'm not taking a beach holiday this summer. Instead, I'm heading for the Himalayan 'Shangri-La' of Bhutan, and I'm really excited about that.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Ghost Town in the Prairies

My favourite subject at school was Geography. I enjoyed every class, but the ones I liked the best were the ones about the Canadian Prairies. I come from a country where everything is small, including the landscape. So, the vastness of the Prairies seemed wonderful to me.The place that caught my eye on the map was a place called Medicine Hat.When I finally got the opportunity to go to Canada, I flew into Vancouver, hired a car and decided to drive all the way across the Rockies and the Prairies to Medicine Hat. I was not to be disappointed. The Canadian Prairies were everything I expected them to be and more. I got out of my car in the middle of a seemingly endless sea of flat wheatfields and savoured the moment. It felt as if the sky was so big that it was almost touching my head. It is something that I will never forget.

Just before I finally reached Medicine Hat, I came across a ghost town. Whitla is a truly off the beaten path place. It is a place that before I started my journey across the Prairies I had never heard of, but it is a place with a unique, wistful atmosphere. There was a heavy summer silence, broken only by the cry of a kestrel soaring above the grain elevators. I couldn't better this evocative description of the place: "Whitla is a whole street of abandoned buildings. Located 20 miles southwest of Medicine Hat, it is a real ghost town. The town began with the opening of the area to homesteading in 1908. It was named for R. J. Whitla, a Winnipeg merchant who visited the district in 1885 when it was a mere siding on the newly built Turkey Track Railway. In 1910 there was a general store followed by a lumberyard, a hardware store, a farm machinery firm, a Union Bank, several cafes, and three auto repair shops. During 1917 drought, dust storms, grasshoppers, and rabbits began consuming the crops and chasing the settlers away. The exodus from Whitla had been gradual throughout the 1920s and increased noticeably through the ‘30s and ‘40s. By the end of World War II, the town had all but vanished." H.B. Chenoweth.

Twenty years ago, when I was there, only two grain elevators remained. Now, even they are gone, but hopefully the descendants of that kestrel still patrol the Whitla wheat fields.

If you'd like to read more about the ghost towns and disappearing grain elevators of the Prairies, these are two of my favourite sites: Ghost Towns Canada and Grain Elevators Canada .

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Corner View 7 Cityscapes


The theme for this week's Corner View is cityscapes. Oman's only real city, with a population of one million, is the capital, Muscat, so I've selected a few scenes from here. Muscat means 'anchorage' and it is actually a string of villages, forts, souks and mosques wedged into a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea. Some people say, it doesn't really have a city centre, but I would say the harbour area of Mutrah, featured in the photos, around which the city grew, is it's real centre. If you were expecting an ultra-modern city full of skyscrapers, like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Manama, you'd be in a for a big surprise. Sultan Qaboos likes to conserve traditional Omani architecture, and any modern development is very strictly controlled.

Please visit the other Corner View bloggers for views of their cities:

jane, kim, ladybug-zen, ian, sunnymama, kyndale, samantha, karen, kristina, angelina, dorit, goldensunfamily, sophie, janet, nicki, ruth, mcgillicutty, desiree, di, travelingmama, aimee, bonnie, esti, sophie, cele, modsquad,caitlin, joyce, ani, couturecoucou, a day that is dessert, natsumi, epe, kaylovesvintage, trinsch, c.t.,jeannette, outi, schanett, ritva, dongdong, francesca, state of bliss, jennifer, dana, denise, cabrizette, bohemian 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, vanessa, britta, virginia, april, rebecca, b

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Has The Mongolian Girl Gone?

A few people have been asking me this question and I feel I owe you an explanation. I am sorry I didn't post one sooner, but I was still undecided about what to do next. Where shall I begin? Perhaps I should go right back to the very beginning. When I was a boy I told my favourite uncle, who had been a sailor in the Pacific fleet and was quite an inspiration to me, 'I have a plan: I am going to travel the world and then write about it,' and in a way I have been quite faithful to that plan. It wasn't really my own plan. I got the idea from Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Paul Theroux and other writers of exotic tales set in faroff lands.

The first novel I started to write was set in Malaysia. It was called South China Sea Dreams and I had the whole story in my head, but somehow I could never seem to get past writing the first chapter. It's still there in my head and I hope that one day the pages will all come spilling out.

The idea for the second one came much later, after I'd been in Outer Mongolia during one of the most turbulent phases in its history. Out of this came The Mongolian Girl. I wrote feverishly day and night and finished the first draft in just twelve weeks. If the book gets published, I will tell you more about what happened to that first draft.

Recently, I decided to completely rewrite The Mongolian Girl and every time I finished a section, I posted it on this blog, where many of you were kind enough to read it and make encouraging comments, which really motivated me to keep going. Altogether I posted about 22,000 words, which is between a quarter and a third of the whole book. Everything was going fine, then one day I was surfing the internet and came across a blog post warning that if you post a novel on the internet, you won't be able to get a publishing deal. This made me really worried, so I started to look into the matter and found that this is essentially true.

Because it has been my life's dream to become a full-time writer, it really is important to me to get The Mongolian Girl published, so I cannot post the rest of the story online. This is not for any financial reason. Money has never been important to me. I just would love to see my novel in a bookstore. I'll probably buy every copy I see.

I know I owe you, my loyal online readers, a big thank you. So, when I finish writing it, I will e-mail you all a complete manuscript free of charge.

Since I stopped writing online, I have discovered just how much your encouragement meant to me. It is so much harder to write now. Perhaps you can help me finish writing it by telling me what you think is going to happen next and how you would like to see the story end. Here is a link to the last online chapter of-------------->

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Corner View 6 - Coffee

The theme for this week's Corner View is coffee. Now, when you mention the word 'coffee', the first place people think of is Brazil. The coffee beans in the picture, which I will grind for my morning coffee tomorrow, are indeed from Brazil, but they have, in a way, returned home, because like most of the world's best coffee beans they are Coffea arabica and as the name suggests, they originally came from the Arabian peninsula, just over the border from here, in Yemen, where coffee was first cultivated more than a thousand years ago. Arab traders took these beans to Indonesia and East Africa hundreds of years later and eventually they were exported to Latin America.

Last summer I was in Panama and learned a lot more about coffee when I was given a guided tour of the Kotowa Coffee Estate by Dutch coffee farmer, Hans van der Vooren. The first and possibly most important thing is, don't buy coffee that's already been ground. Coffee not only loses its flavour and aroma very quickly, it also absorbs smells and tastes from its surroundings. So, for example if you fry bacon and eggs near ground coffee, that's what it will taste of. Also, for the same reason, you should keep your coffee beans in a vacuum-sealed container. When buying coffee beans, what should you look for? Well, they should have a uniform shape and size as this shows that they have been properly sorted and graded; bigger beans tend to be more expensive. And they should be 100% Arabica as that is the best variety. Why, you may wonder, do farmers bother growing any other variety? The reason is that Coffea arabica is not easy to grow and requires very specific conditions: warm mountain slopes with a minimum altitude of 1,500m and light shade, which is usually provided by surrounding trees. The other main variety, Robusta (Coffea canephora), which is the basis for most instant coffee, is far easier to grow and can tolerate direct sunlight.

Now, with regard to how the beans have been processed, Hans explained that you don't want them burnt too much. Light roast beans (the pale coloured ones) will retain the greatest bouquet of flavours. These complex natural flavours can range from citrus fruit to vanilla and chocolate. If they are poor quality beans, they will also have unpleasant bitter flavours present. So, the cheaper beans are roasted for longer to get rid of the bitterness. Dark roast beans are invariably poor quality which is why they needed to be roasted for so long. The worst culprits are the French roast beans. They are from the cheap Robusta variety and have been burnt almost to a cinder in order to eradicate their natural bitterness. Medium roast is indeed a happy medium as it will retain much of the original bouquet of flavours, yet at the same time not be too bitter.

Panamanian coffee is currently considered to be the best in the world. Based on price and results in international coffee-tasting competitions, the world's best coffees are Panama's Geisha, Jamaica's Blue Mountain, Hawaii's Kona, Indonesia's Kopi Luwak, Guatemala's El Injerto, Brazil's Fazenda Santa Ines, El Salvador's Los Planes, Island of St. Helena Coffee Co. and Rwanda Blue Bourbon. They are all Coffea arabica. A kilo of Geisha beans from Boquete can cost more than $200.

For those of you who haven't ground your own beans before, you don't need a mortar and pestle. There are lots of cheap, efficient electric coffee grinders available in the shops. I particularly like the Kenwood CG100.

Please visit the other Corner View bloggers:

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, bohemian 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, vanessa, britta, virginia, april, rebecca, b

Saturday, May 16, 2009


I'd always wanted to see penguins in the wild and last year, for the first time in my life, I did. They were Humboldt Penguins on the rocky Islas Ballestas off the coast of Peru and it was such a thrill to see them. To be honest, they are not the most attractive of penguins, certainly not in the same class as Emperor Penguins, perhaps because they spend their lives covered in guano, which is, as you know, basically sh*t.

Humboldt Penguins breed on rocky islets off the coast of Peru and Chile, where in order to lay their eggs, they burrow into guano left by other birds. Because of man's over exploitation of the local fishing grounds and the guano for use as fertilizer, they are an endangered species, and there are now only 10,000 pairs left in the world.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Locals Turn Out to Greet Me

I was given a warm reception in Peru when my bus was hijacked by angry demonstrators, who surrounded it with rocks and burning tyres. How did they know I was coming?

You might also like: The Country with the Highest Murder Rate in the World.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Corner View 5 Salalah

The theme of this week's Corner View is the great outdoors. The Salalah region is almost unique in the Arabian Peninsula for its lush greenery. In summer it is affected by the Indian monsoon, which brings cool weather, cloud, mist and rain. At this time, the Dhofar mountains, with their winding country lanes, woodlands and rolling fields full of wild flowers, remind me of the European countryside.

This region is known as the Land of Frankincense, and frankincense trees dot the landscape. Like rubber trees, they are periodically bled for their resin, which is the source of the incense. Myrrh treees are also common here.

Right now, this is a remote, unspoilt part of the world, but because of its dozens of beautiful deserted beaches it is beginnning to catch the eye of the European tour companies. There is rich marine life here and whales, dolphins and turtles can all be seen close to shore. Before I took the third photo I was swimming with six dolphins just in front of that headland.

Please visit the other Corner View bloggers:
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, bohemian 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, vanessa, britta, virginia, april, rebecca, b

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is a place I'd always dreamed of going to - it seemed so unimaginably exotic- and last year on my six-month odysssey around Latin America I finally made it. It is the largest lake in South America and at an altitude of more than 3,800 m above sea level, one of the highest lakes in the world. But what I found most interesting were the islands and the people who live on them. The first photo is one of the forty-two Uros islands made of floating reeds tied together in bundles. The second photo is of two of the three hundred Taquile people who live on Isla Taquile in the middle of the lake. The third photo is of the kitchen in the Blanca family farmhouse I stayed in on Isla Amantani. The food was very simple: boiled potatoes, and served by candlelight as there was no electricity. Finally, Lake Titicaca is a great place to watch birds, including the Puna Ibis, which is on the Red List of Threatened Species.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Fastest Lizard in the World

Nobody could accuse this fellow of being a lounge lizard because the Black Spiny-tailed Iguana can really move. In fact, with a top speed of 21.7 mph or 34.6 kph, it even has its own spot in the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest running lizard on earth. They are native to Mexico and Central America and have also been introduced to southern Florida.

I took this photo in the Mayan ruins of Tulum in Mexico on May 31st last year. He was over a metre long and, incredibly, after donning my running shoes and chasing him along the Mexican coast for twenty minutes I eventually caught up with him. No, I just made that last bit up. Fortunately for me he was sunning himself on the rocks or my photo would have just been of a blurry dot in the distance.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


One of things I enjoy on my travels is getting close to wildlife. In Africa, I learned not to get too close to the crocodiles as they can come shooting out of the water like a rocket and drag you in, but in South America I was able to get really close to some members of the crocodile family, caimans, which although they are up to three metres long and have teeth like razors, eat capybaras and fish, not people (well, at least that's what I thought at the time).

I took the first two photos of Yacare Caimans, last year, in one of the largest swamplands in the world, the Pantanal. I was sleeping in a hammock in a hut in the middle of the swamp, was soaked in sweat, got bitten to death by mosquitoes and chiggers (small insects which burrow into your legs) and couldn't sleep so I walked out at dawn and there were hundreds of caimans all around me. The one in the first photo was standing on the path right in front of me. After a while he slipped back into the water and carried on fishing.

The Pantanal teems with wildlife. As well as hundreds of caimans, I saw Capybaras, Swamp Bush Deer, Black Howler Monkeys, Green Iguanas, and a fantastic variety of colourful birds, including Hyacinth and Red and Green Macaws, Toco Toucans, Greater Rheas and Jabirou Storks. I went fishing for piranhas, which although they don't have a great deal of meat on them are delicious. They also have razor-sharp teeth, a bit like the caiman's.

Whoops! I just did some online research: although caiman attacks on humans are rare, they do occasionally bite humans. "The force of the bite itself produces crush injuries, fractures and soft tissue injuries. Bite force is proportional to animal size and complicated by head thrashing. The teeth often leave puncture wounds, and the animals tend to thrash once they have bitten down, leading to skin tears and further injury. The location of caiman habitat and attacks could lead to drowning." Whoops again. You can read more about caiman attacks here: Wilderness Medical Society. Perhaps if I'd read that before, I wouldn't have got quite so close to that caiman. He was a big one and from what I saw of him in the water, liked thrashing too. That reminds me of the time I went swimming with sharks.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Corner View 4 Shopping

The theme of this week's Corner View is shopping. Salalah has three types of shops. Firstly, there are the traditional souks. I buy my fish in the souk shown in the first picture. As you can see, shopping in the traditional meat, vegetable and fish souks tends to be an exclusively male affair. Secondly there are the rows of small shops, which open out onto the street. These are especially popular with Salalah's large Indian community. Finally, modern shopping malls are beginning to appear and they are, unlike the souks, frequented by Omani women. The one in the third picture is Centrepoint, which is where I buy most of my clothes.

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, bohemian 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, vanessa, britta, virginia, april, sunnymama, samantha, karen, kristina , angelina, kyndale

Friday, May 1, 2009

27 Another life in Another World


“How did you know Jack?”

“My best friend at school used to go out with him.”


Daphne laughed. “No, Cynthia.”

Tom thought back to the time when his brother was still alive. It seemed like another life in another world now. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

Daphne’s smile faded. She had been going to say, “Bit of a ladies’ man, was he?” But thought better of it. She sighed. “Such a tragic loss of life.”

Tom stared ahead at falling snow picked out by the headlights, nodded and mumbled a barely discernible, “Yes.”

The Range Rover turned into a dark lane. Tom couldn't swallow. His throat felt dry. He knew they were nearly there.

The frozen gravel crunched beneath the car wheels as they stopped in front of the embassy. Daphne took both hands off the steering wheel, pressed them hard against her breasts and took a deep breath. Tom watched her bare hands. He could see traces of blue veins throbbing beneath her white skin. Her fingers were all arched upwards with tension.

They opened the car doors and stepped out into the cold night. There was no moon; only the candles flickering inside the embassy broke the darkness. Daphne turned her key in the lock and pushed open the front door. Tom smelled burning candle smoke as his shadow danced in front of him with Daphne’s. They felt their way along the corridor, their fingers brushing against the rippled wallpaper.

Daphne led the way into the kitchen where three candles dripping wax onto saucers either side of a sink filled with dirty crockery illuminated their path to the back door.

As she led him out into the back garden, Tom's eyes looked just above the back of Daphne’s green Wellington boots. He hadn't noticed the firmness and muscularity of her legs before.

He followed her into the Steppe Inn. The ambassador stood behind a bar lined with candles, which gave his long, gaunt face a ghostly appearance.

Olof , Gerald and the Lockeys were huddled together in front of the bar, glasses in their hands.

“Hello Tom”

“Hi Olof, Gerald..” He hesitated before nodding to Jim Lockey and smiling faintly at his wife, Jenny. Jim’s freshly-shaven face shone in the candle light. The smell of his Old Spice aftershave dominated Jenny’s flowery perfume

“So what have you been up to this week, young man?”

Tom really didn’t want to speak to Lockey, but shrugged and said, “Nothing much.” Then added, “What about you?”

Jim Lockey’s eyes widened. He quaffed back a mouthful of beer from his pint glass, swilled it around in his mouth, gulped it down, placed the glass back down on the bar, exchanged looks with the ambassador and answered in a slightly-raised voice, “Embassy business.”

Olof broke the tension. “What would you like to drink?”

“That’s very kind of you. A pint please.”

The ambassador pulled the beer pump, handed Tom his drink, then turned round and poured himself a malt whisky.

Olof raised his glass. “Cheers.” He looked at Tom through his big, black-framed spectacles. “There’s been some trouble in U.B, I hear.”

Tom looked surprised. “What sort of trouble?”

“Clashes between anti-government demonstrators and the army; people being arrested. Have you seen anything?”

Jim Lockey leaned in, intensely interested.

Tom thought before answering, “Not much.”

Olof added, “Well, I haven’t seen anything. I’ve been working out at the site all week.”

“What exactly is it that you’re building out there?”

Gerald pushed his spectacles up and chuckled. “You’d never believe it.”

Jim stepped forward until his face was just a few inches from Tom’s. “I’ll show you to the library. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Two thoughts bolted into Tom’s mind: money; integrity. He chased them away. Everything was clear to him now.