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Special Feature

Travelling Contrasts

by Matt Thomas

Not every travel experience is intentional. It is perhaps these occasions where despite the poignant, or even aggressive atmosphere, one learns a little about the real fabric of the nation, or the effect of a recent issue or historic event on a country and its people. Sometimes these can be purely coincidental and unprepared for, alternatively you may have travelled to that particular place for just that purpose – to learn and draw your own conclusions.

Walking around Kuta in Bali one evening in October 2003, probably looking for a bar, I came across a sobering memorial parade and vigil for victims of the nightclub bombing that had taken place exactly a year previously. In the subsequent years, this inevitably had a very serious effect on the island’s tourist industry, and with visitors at a premium, I recall street hawkers and stall merchants being understandably a little over insistent in their approach to tourists.

Onto Israel in 2007. I had studied Israel’s recent history, and had researched logistically from a travel point of view, but not especially with regard to what to expect when visiting the West Bank from Jerusalem. Going from the Arab bus station, we passed through one of the checkpoints that are situated along the wall that separates Israel from Palestine. I noticed the violence themed graffiti, and similarly the youthfulness of the armed soldier checking our bus and belongings. Walking around Ramallah, I was the only non-Muslim, but did not particularly sense any tension or hostility, (aside from when I ate a snickers outside during Ramadan – as a shopkeeper kindly pointed out to me).  An interesting and enlightening experience.

Remaining in the middle east – in Iran last year, while in the southern city of Shiraz, my guide told she me that she wrote poetry, and had indeed had one of her poems sung and released by a male Iranian singer and it had made the Iranian charts. There was clearly frustration that legally she was not permitted to do this herself.

On a lighter note, in South Africa in 2010 I visited Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela had been kept prisoner. Being soon after the World Cup, the country was in the global spotlight, and the tour guide was revelling in this – he had a real sense of purpose and pride in what he was doing, as if hoping to educate foreign visitors as to the arduous journey that his country had been on, and the hope for the future.

In Cambodia in 2014, I visited the country’s second city, Battambang for a largely uneventful couple of days. While there, the most notable moment was leaving my guesthouse one day as a demonstration place just outside. I got chatting to a young man about it, who explained that these were frequent, and took place across many cities nationally. They were in opposition to the current government – the accusation being that they were highly corrupt and nepotism was rife. He said that many university graduates were unable to find jobs because of this. He went onto tell me that the shadow of the Khmer Rouge still loomed over the country, as for the most part the ringleaders are yet to be brought to justice.

In Sao Paolo, Brazil in 2014 (just after another World Cup coincidentally) I met up with an old friend for a night out. In an example of unless you live there, this is something one would never know, as on the surface everything seems fine, he told me that people in certain places literally take a taxi one block for fear of being robbed. His car also had bullet proof windows.

Finally, and to finish on a positive note, jumping back to Iran in 2016. My Tehran guide, although he was only paid to be with me for one day, was kind enough to turn up at my hotel and escort me to the bus station. He helped me with my ticket and then even asked a fellow passenger to keep any eye on me and help me with a taxi at the other end. This was typical of my welcome and experience in that particular country.

These anecdotes perhaps indicate that one should always scratch the service, talk to locals, and that it can add gravitas and meaning to a trip to visit a location at a seminal period in their history. Similarly, it perhaps shows that occasionally with a bit of boldness you just get lucky and learn something unexpected.