Here’s a fun little web widget if you enjoy visiting new places, getting your passport stamped, if you ever collected stamps or watched a succession of famous international landmarks flash by at the beginning of a news bulletin and checked them off: the Eiffel Tower, London bridge, the Empire State building, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China etc. , noting which ones you’ve seen.
I just stumbled on it and found it irresistable.
The list of countries is shorter than that used by the Traveler’s Century Club — for people who have been to 100 or more countries, but I’m sure that islands make up much of the difference, as well as things like counting England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as separate entities.
It doesn’t seem entirely rational that Liechtenstein looms larger than Texas, say, on this map, but there you are. I’ve visited Australia several times but never been to Tasmania, which is filled in anyway, and it looks bigger than Denmark which, unaccountably, I’ve never been to. In contrast, I’ve been to 44 US states. So the whole thing is a bit meaningless really.
Nevertheless, it is somehow pleasing to look at a map and think of places you’ve been, people you’ve met, friends you’ve made whom you’d like to visit. Back in the early days of the Internet I kept a record for a time of what countries we’d received mail from (at work) on a map like this.
On this map, the grey areas here remind me of places I want to go on my own time (I’ve been lucky to travel widely as part of my work) and, eventually, of my own mortality.
Mozambique and Madagascar next. And Costa Rica and Indonesia. And Turkey. And then all the rest!
My most cherished memories, however, are of anything but monuments and landmarks.
Looking at the Sudan, for example:
I visited Wad Medani with a senior colleague, a colourful character named Ghazi, a Syrian. We stayed in a little hotel that he had visited many times and where he was known. When news of his arrival spread a little boy came running with a letter for him to translate. Dr.Ghazi! Dr.Ghazi!
The letter had been sent from Australia many months earlier by a young pilot who had spent a season in the Gezira region, between the White and Blue Niles, flying crop duster airplanes. We had passed an airfield with dozens of them that day — all with dilapidated World War I vintage biplanes apparently. The letter had to await the arrival of someone who could read it.
We sat in the garden and Ghazi proceeded to translate by candlelight for the wide-eyed, excited little boy, reading it also in English for my benefit as he did so. A man of expansive mannerisms who reveled in having an audience, he conducted the translation with a forefinger in the air
Do you remember the time I asked you to go get me some cigarettes?
the letter began. Of the rest I remember only the feeling the recollections evoked, and the atmosphere as Ghazi read. It was clear that the little boy had run errands for the pilot, someone he looked up to, even hero-worshipped. The pilot was nostalgic for his young friend and his very different, far off life in Sudan.
It was mundane, but incredibly touching.
The little boy’s delight in the letter, the exotic, impossible distance of Australia, Ghazi’s effortless bridging of two worlds, the absurdity that those planes should still be flying, the affection of the pilot for the little boy, all gave me a tingle that I can tap into even now.
Around us crickets chirruped and there was an occasional suppressed laugh from another table somewhere in the garden. The breeze-block spartan hotel was a honeymoon destination, the Ritz of the region. It had electricity, i.e., electric lights not TV or air-conditioning, and cold Coca Cola.
Traveling with Ghazi was often memorable. As a former professor of agriculture whose students were scattered far and wide, he was well known and liked in the region. Doors opened wherever we went.
Because we shared some experiences on the road I would get a personal tour of the promised land. Stay at his house. Nothing but the best. And a wee dram; he liked a drop himself. (Show me where it says in the Quran that you cannot drink whisky!).
Always he said
When I retire, when you come to Aleppo, I will you show you. You will see… You will not believe, you cannot imagine…
I got to Aleppo finally, a couple of years ago. Alas, Ghazi, already retired some years earlier, had died not long before. All I could do was reminisce about him with a few mutual friends. But you had to have traveled with him and heard his stories late at night, seen him slipping money to beggars surreptitiously, heard him translate a letter…
Here are some travel proverbs. I’ve just discovered “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled” (Mohammed). I like it, though I might have said “tell me of your experiences of the kindness of strangers.” Some of the kindest of all I have met in my travels were in some sense displaced people themselves, and this tradition of hospitality to strangers, so prevalent in the Islamic world, is surely one of the most humbling of experiences.
The Arab idea that the only thing that you can take with you is what you’ve given away is a wonderful reminder, whether there’s a next life or not, of how lacking in compassion we often are.