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just enough to be dangerous

The Nicaragua incident

I'm sitting in the back seat of a taxi in Nicaragua with my beloved beside me. There are five other people in the taxi with us, three of them squashing us, holding us down in the back. A man is reaching around Rachel, jabbing me in the neck with a knife, not hard enough to break the skin but enough to leave a mark and let us know they're willing to hurt us. They're shouting, "solo money", only money, slapping us, pushing our heads back into the seat. They are managing to frighten us.

About half an hour beforehand we jumped on a bus in Granada, heading north to Masaya Market. We only had a couple of days left in Central America, and we planned to buy gifts for family and friends. The local buses have been great so far, friendly people, cheap fares, and a view of what might count as real life in Nicaragua.

A guy behind us tried to make conversation. I'll call him Limpy, since later we see he has a limp. His English is probably worse than our Spanish, which is hard to imagine, but adding in some sign language we managed to communicate a little. He told us that this bus doesn't go straight to the market, but he's going there so he'll show us the way. We were actually on a smaller "Express" bus, a big minivan, a kind we haven't taken before, so this seemed plausible.

The bus dropped us by the side of the road and we caught another, this time one of the more familiar chicken buses. This is a local bus, Limpy said, that will take us close to the market. A big, friendly woman who was already on the bus confirms it, and says she's going as well. The ticket guy couldn't change our 200 cordoba note, and Limpy paid the 5 cordoba fare for each of us. It's very little money but a kind gesture. I had the same thing happen to me when I was in Iran.

Eventually, Limpy asked the driver to stop, and Rachel and I got off with him and Friendly Woman, and a couple of other people. Apparently it's now just a short walk to the market. As we walked, Rachel had a chat with a woman who introduced herself as Helena. They walked ahead of me, and Limpy walked slightly behind me, silently. I tried to listen to Rachel and Helena's conversation.

After a short time, Limpy started excitedly saying that the four of us could share a taxi right to the market for just 5 cordobas each. We'd found some change, and tried to repay him for the bus, but he indicated he'd be happy if we just take the taxi with him. It didn't sound like a terrible idea, so he flagged down a passing taxi and the four of us got in. Driving down the road a bit further, we stopped and Friendly Woman and Knife Guy jumped on top of us and the world erupted in sound and fury.

Anyone who's done much travel would have been shaking their head for at least a couple of paragraphs. Why did we get off the buses? Why didn't we ask a bus driver or ticket guy if this was the right way to the market? Why did we trust these complete strangers? All good questions, and I've asked myself many times since. Besides the fact that there always seemed to be someone else with Limpy confirming what he said, I think we'd been lulled into a false sense of security by a safe couple of weeks in Costa Rica, and the few stops we'd had in Nicaragua; relatively safe places, San Juan del Sur, Ometepe, Granada. We simply let our guard down.

They drove up and down the highway, turning around at what felt like roundabouts, going through our stuff. Shouting, slapping, jabbing with the knife, forcing our eyes shut, a bit more shouting and slapping. Once they found our credit cards the game changed to shouting demands for our PINs. They seemed to believe me when I told them Rachel's card didn't have a PIN, it was just a credit card, so they concentrated on mine. Say it, write it, say it in Spanish, type it into a mobile phone, I suppose to make sure it was the same every time, that I wasn't lying.

Rachel was even more squashed in than me, with Helena sitting on top of her, and Limpy holding a knife at her hand, threatening to cut her if we didn't cooperate. The windows were all wound up, and it was hot. Confined spaces are never great for Rachel and, unsurprisingly, she had a panic attack. They could see something was wrong, and thankfully we knew the word for drugs from warning posters in airports, and we managed to find Rachel's drugs in her bag.

Satisfied I'd told them the right PIN, they dropped Helena off at an ATM and continued driving up and down the road. I actually hoped she'd be able to get money out, as I thought that would increase the chances of them releasing us, but when they picked her up again the shouting and slapping started again in earnest. No money. I suspect the problem was that the card was a MasterCard, which only works in one bank's ATMs, but I didn't think of that at the time. I was saying in English things along the lines of, "I swear that's the right PIN, and there's money in there." Of course, they couldn't understand me at all, but I think they believed I was earnest.

Then things quietened down. They'd given up, time up. We'd been driving up and down for less than half an hour, but it seemed much longer. Not so much slapping and shouting, but still making us close our eyes, they started to drive us down a small dirt road. We were both thinking, either they're going to let us go now, or they're going to kill us. Rachel was convinced it was the latter, I was pretty sure it was the former, and was trying to find out from Friendly Woman what was going on. I caught some of what she was saying. "Camina," I think she said, you walk. "Salida Nicaragua," leave Nicaragua. "Disculpe, nino infirme," sorry, sick baby. She then slipped Rachel enough money to get a bus back to Granada. Maybe Rachel's panic attack had helped.

They stopped the taxi and dumped us out. Of course, they took our cameras and cash, and anything else of real value. Bizarrely, in addition to the cash, they gave us back our bags and Rachel's credit card, but they kept her art materials and a bracelet made of bone Mahjong tiles that we'd bought in Shanghai.

The further away from the incident I get, the more it just seems bizarre. It's good to be alive, and when we have bad travel experiences in the future we can say, "It's not as bad as the Nicaragua Incident."

Sun and kookaburras

It's the most beautiful time to be at the farm. The sun is shining, there isn't any wind, at least in the morning, and the nights are cool enough to have a fire. First thing this morning we went for a walk in the hills, and were greeted by two kookaburras, sitting in a tree not ten metres away and laughing their heads off. If you've never heard a kookaburra laugh in the wild, you're missing something special. Same goes for magpies, which are bountiful at the moment. There are also lots of galahs, and while they're amazingly bright pink, they make a horrible screeching noise.

There was a fire in the hills a couple of years ago (which was pretty scary, as a wind change would have taken out both the houses), and there's a lot of regeneration. By far the most active regrowth is the prickly acacia. They're not a particularly attractive tree and they're wickedly, well, prickly, but they're native to the area so we're happy enough. And their green foliage looks pretty good amongst the burnt black trunks of the big old eucalypts.

From the very top of the hills we could see to the gulf, which is about an hour and a half drive away. That's close enough that we should get over there more often. I'm supposed to be holed up doing research coding but we might take a day off and drive over there.

The old roo is still up there too. He stared at us as we walked by, a hundred metres away, but it was obviously too much hassle to hop away like most of them do. I hope to take some cues from him this week; breathe slowly, relax, don't get too worked up over things.

The missing father-in-law and the grey pod

The beloved was convinced he was dead or dying. He is usually very punctual, and after two hours of waiting, I too was beginning to fear that something untoward may have happened along the hour and a half drive from the farm to the airport, though my melodrama gene is somewhat less developed. So we were stuck at Adelaide airport, worrying for the health of the beloved's father, who I will call Slap for the purposes of this story. And I won't explain why I'll call him that.

We spoke to a couple of cops to see if they had any advice. The first guy was really unhelpful and said "I'm a federal police officer." Um, okay, great, thanks. The second guy was a federal police officer too, but he told us we'd have to ring the state police, and they'd be able to at least tell us if there'd been an major car accidents.

The first state police officer was equally unhelpful, and actually lectured me. "We are the police department, you know. If there's been an accident, we do everything we can to track down next of kin." Thanks, very reassuring. He said there hadn't been any accidents, but I didn't trust that he was actually looking at more than the daily tabloid. "Have you tried his mobile phone?" He hasn't got a mobile phone. Stunned silence.

I tried the RAA (nice people who help you with your broken down car and campaign rabidly in favour of freeways), but they were unable to tell me if a breakdown had been reported. "I'm sorry, the Privacy Act prevents us from telling you that." What if I ask questions and you say "no" or nothing? The beloved is freaking out here! "I'm sorry sir, the Privacy Act prevents me from doing that." He was friendly enough, but this was not helpful. "Have you tried his mobile phone?" Do I look like an idiot? Ok, I know you can't see what I look like but ...

The beloved tried the police again an hour later and got a woman, who was also a police officer, from the police department, but much more helpful. She said the old man had not been found in a car wreck as far as their records went but we should try the police in Elizabeth, the major town on the way down. The Elizabeth police (woman again, there's a trend) was also really helpful, but still no accidents. And he doesn't have a mobile phone, thank you. This is all good, of course, but brings us no closer to knowing what the hell is going on.

Next stop, the hospitals. Just as the beloved was launching into the explanation once again, up pulls a madly waving Slap. He was not driving his white Subaru Forrester, but a tiny grey hatch. If it had been yellow with spots, I would have expected a couple of dozen clowns to burst forth. Much relief! Joy, even! And all he would say was, "Rats!" We piled into the car and headed back to the farm. On the way, he told us what happened.

He'd left home with plenty of time to spare, being a punctual sort. About 30 minutes into the trip the temperature gauge skyrocketed, so he immediately pulled over. Investigation revealed a most uncharacteristic overheating. He waited for the car to cool down, replenished the water in the radiator, and limped very slowly into the next town, Roseworthy, where he called the RAA. The RAA told him they couldn't help him because of privacy reasons ... wait, no, they didn't, they sent a fellow out to look at the car, and if they'd been able to tell me that that's what they'd done the day would have been a lot less angsty. Said fellow was friendly and competent, and towed the car to Slap's garage in Gawler, 10 minutes away. A quick look revealed that the water pipe had been eaten through. "Rats," the competent and friendly fellow said, "This is going to take a while."

At this point in the story we pulled over and bought some fish from a woman named Madonna, who was selling it out of a refrigerated trailer. It's true.

The mechanic said he knew the owner of the local car rental place, and he gave him a call. The car rental chap happened to be nearby, so he picked Slap up in his BMW and drove him to the car lot, where Slap was able to hire a Suzuki Swift, in surprisingly good condition considering it was approaching 300,000 kilometres, at a very reasonable price. Showing much determination and with great haste, one might even say swiftly, Slap drove to the airport, arriving a little over two hours late, and not dead or dying.

A call from the mechanic a few days later revealed that the rats had eaten an enormous amount of the accessible non-metallic parts of the car. Who would have thought that a rat would get hungry enough to eat a car?

We're currently in the market for a mobile phone with large buttons and easily accessible speed dial. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

Out West

I've been to Western Australia about half a dozen times, sometimes flying and sometimes driving. Flying is a damn sight cheaper than it used to be, thanks to the death of the Qantas/Ansett duopoly, and only takes around four hours. Driving is a damn sight more expensive now that petrol is more expensive than really expensive things, but the trip across the Nullarbor is something that every Australian and visitor to Australia should do. It's a humbling experience.

Things are big in Western Australia. The spaces are big, the houses are big, the cars are big. When we're there we stay in a huge converted factory in Fremantle, owned by Rachel's sister and her family. It's a big free for all, chaotic and active and wonderful. They've got a big dopey spanador called Popcorn, whose only ever called Poppy. We fell in love and wanted to take him home, but Victoria is not so big, the houses are not so big, and our house in particular is not big. So we're on the lookout of a medium sized dog to extend our family to three.

One thing that isn't big is the population density; it's 0.83 people per square kilometre, four-fifths of the state being desert. If it was a country, that would put it second last in the world, in front of Greenland, a desert of a different kind. Perhaps unfairly, it's been called a cultural desert too. In all the times I've been to Western Australia, I've never made it all the way into Perth, the capital, and I'm told I'm not missing a lot, but Fremantle has stuff happening all the time, and if you're in the know you can find good places to see music, art and eat good food. It is pretty small though, and it doesn't take too long before I start to miss Melbourne's diversity.

So many people forget that Australia has a west coast. It's definitely worth visiting.

The crash and tumble of Iranian traffic

The traffic in Iran is different to that in East Asia, though both are daunting to someone who's grown up in outback Australia. In Asia the traffic is like a river, it flows in a smooth line, moving easily around most objects. To cross a road as a pedestrian, you have to take a leap of faith, look straight ahead and step out into the traffic. Walk steadily across and don't make eye contact with the drivers, because as soon as you do they'll think you're a crazy loon of a whitey who doesn't have a clue, and then no-one will know what anyone is doing and you're likely to get cleaned up.

In Iran the traffic is more like an avalanche, crashing and careening about, cars almost—and in some cases literally—bouncing off each other. It's a jerky, stop start affair. To cross a road as a pedestrian, you have to take a leap of faith and step into the traffic, making sure you make eye contact with the drivers of oncoming vehicles in the hope that if they look you in the eye they'll be more inclined to stop or go around you and not mow you down like a little bunny.

I actually prefer the Iranian way, perhaps out of some irrational feeling that I have more influence over the situation. In both cultures, the interaction is mostly without aggression or passion. In the most part, people are just getting from A to B, and traffic is just traffic, it's not out to get you personally.

I managed to see two accidents in the two weeks I was in Iran, both minor bingles resulting in broken tail lights. I hear that Iran has an extraordinarily high road toll, but I didn't see what we saw in Vietnam, a burning bus that had driven off a mountain road. Ah, travel, full of adventure.

Surprising Iran

Travel is always surprising. That's what makes it so rewarding, and it was one of the reasons I chose to travel to Iran. Having worked closely with an Iranian for five or six years, and partaking of regular political and social debate with him (though we agreed most of the time), I felt I was better prepared than most for my visit to Iran. Nonetheless, of course I was still surprised, and more often than not it was my biases that got me.

First off, Iran is not a developing (or third world) country. I guess I hadn't really thought too much about it, but I was expecting it to be a bit more like travelling in South East Asia or Africa. The reality was quite different—the airport was efficient, roads were well-maintained, everything was clean, there wasn't rubbish lying around, and while there was certainly evidence of poverty, there was also evidence of a thriving middle and upper class. Iran is not short of cash.

Driving into Tehran from the airport.

While Tehran is mostly a mass of concrete, it does have a pretty groovy feel about it, and I'm sure if I'd spent a little bit more time there I would have found some fantastically interesting tea houses and other gathering spots. Regretfully, I didn't get much of chance to delve into the contemporary art scene—that might have to wait until the next trip—but some stuff jumped out, such as the sculptural art in Tehran Gardens, made out of hundreds of little glass lanterns.

The gardens were fairly packed with young couples sitting on seats, chatting, flirting and courting. They were mostly on their own too, no aunts or uncles hanging around making sure they didn't get up to anything untoward.

Of all the places outside Tehran that I visited, Shiraz felt the most interesting and edgy, and apparently it's always had a reputation as being the cultural centre of Iran. Several major poets hailed from Shiraz, and most people I talked to spoke of the wonderful Persian poets, particularly Hafez.

While some parts of the country were dry and dusty, the cities were mostly unexpectedly green. Esfahan, a UNESCO world heritage site, was especially lush and beautiful.

The main street of Esfahan.

The quality of the produce was surprising. Fresh fruit and vegetables of the highest quality were available pretty much everywhere I went. I'll write more about food in another post.

Check out these huge pomegranates (called anar in Iran).

Finally, the extent of the hospitality I was offered was nothing short of extraordinary. I had been warned that it might seem a bit extreme, especially for a pretty laid back Australian, but nothing could have prepared me. I was unexpectedly picked up from the airport—well out of town—by a friend of Saied's family, and taken to my hotel, which had been booked for me. When Saied's father in law and his brother visited me later in the afternoon they asked if I would come with them to their holiday house in Lavesan, in the foothills of the Alborz mountains, north of Tehran. The whole family, including grandparents, came up the next day especially to meet me. Over the course of my stay various members of the family bought me about eight meals, and gifts of books and CDs, despite my protestations. I was even taken out to dinner by another contact of Saied's for my birthday in Shiraz, and had wide-ranging conversations with her and her two sisters. A Dutch friend joked that he knew what it was like to be a hostage in Iran, they'll feed you and ply you with tea for days and days!

Sunrise at Lavesan.

And it wasn't only people I had some connection with. I had a stranger buy me a bus ticket without me knowing, another leave his family in a restaurant to help me find suitable food, another walk around for an hour to help me find a hotel, and many offer assistance on the street when I stood around looking dumb with a map.

While the image we see of Iran in the media is all goose-stepping military and anti-imperialist pig dog scum marches, the reality is quite different. Everyone I met made the distinction between people and their government, so it was no stretch at all for them to not blame Americans (or Australians) for their government's actions in the Middle East. Having said that, if the US is stupid enough to invade, with the pretence of rescuing the Iranian people from a repressive regime, they will find that most people will be in the streets blocking their way.

Did Lonely Planet err in selling to the BBC?

One of the stated reasons for the Lonely Planet sale to the BBC earlier this year was to expand the "digital" aspect of the business, an area where they had so far failed to leverage their reputation. For digital we really have to read online. After all, the Thorn Tree is great, but it's really just a forum. The recent story about technology issues at the BBC (via) make one question whether it was the right partner for online innovation.

Here's Tony and Maureen Wheeler talking about the sale.

Old tech travel journal

When travelling, I keep a journal. I've been doing this for almost eight years now, with varying degrees of commitment, and have filled a couple of moleskines. This last trip to Iran is the first trip I've done since I started blogging and using Twitter, but I realised that I've been doing both for years, albeit low tech paper based blogging and tweets. Typically I'll have a couple of entries like, "Mannequins are freaky enough but someone got an import deal in Iran for extra freaky mannequins" and "Found veggie soups!" and then a longer entry about somewhere we've visited or what we've done for the day.

So - and I suspect isn't just me - my blog and Twitter are fulfilling specific and different writing needs, needs that I've had for a long time. I wonder if the people behind Twitter were conscious of this, or was it just a random lark?

Why Iran?

Almost every time I told people I was going to travel to Iran for a holiday, the response was an incredulous, "Why Iran?" Very few thought it was an exciting and interesting proposition. I believe the question reflects a successful demonisation of Iran, and while there is plenty wrong with the country, it's all too easy to overlook the great things. So, I'll try to answer the question, and when I get back I'll post about what it's really like here. I'm not going to pretend that this is a well-researched politically-aware piece of writing; just my very humble opinions and observations.

Cultural reasons

I love travel. Experiencing different places, different cultures, different food, talking to people on the street, and seeing how they live, broadens the mind, and can make you a better person. It's obviously no simple task - even an impossible task - to understand another culture, but gaining some understanding is a gift.

I've travelled extensively in south east Asia, and because of geography Asia has a strong influence in Australia through proximity and immigration. Over the last four years I've worked on a computer science education project in Africa, travelling there often, and working closely with many Africans. I've travelled to Europe and the USA.

There are of course, huge chunks of the world that I haven't visited - Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, South America, South Asia, to name just a few - however the Middle East's rich and turbulent cultural history, both ancient and recent, was certainly a big drawcard. There are also a lot more Muslims in Australia than there were 10 years ago, and they seem to be getting the blame for all sorts of society's ills, as they are in many parts of the world, from largely uninformed commentators.

Finally, and importantly, my good friend and colleague Saied is Iranian, and I've had many thought-provoking discussions with him about Iran over the years. This was probably what initially piqued my interest in Iran in particular in the Middle East.

Pragmatic reasons

Some of the reasons are very prosaic. Thanks to my work in Africa, I had a lot of frequent flier points with Emirates, and these were about to expire. With the Emirates hub in Dubai, and not a lot of time to go gallivanting around the world (must ... do ... research) the Middle East makes perfect sense, close enough that I don't have to spend days travelling (damn Australia's remoteness).

Due to work, Rachel wasn't able to travel with me. I love travelling with Rachel, so I wanted to choose somewhere that I was interested in but that wasn't on the top of Rachel's list, not somewhere we'd be likely to rush off to together. The Middle East is of course harder for women to travel in than other parts of the world (but more on women in Iran in another post), so Rachel wasn't especially keen (though I think that changed as I learnt more about Iran in preparation for the trip). Another plus for deciding on Iran for my trip.

Political reasons

In a geopolitical sense, Iran is incredibly important at the moment. With its opposition to the state of Israel and its active nuclear program, Iran is making much of the rest of the world nervous. The USA is busy flexing it muscles and chest beating, and they have "refused to take any options off the table," including military action against Iran. Boy, do I hate political weasel words. The media is full of reports on Iran at the moment, and very little of it is positive. According to the international media, Iran is a country of violent demonstrations, vicious oppression, military marches. Everyone is a religious fanatic, and the country is a dusty desert. In fact, the Middle East in general gets a pretty poor showing in the international media. I've seen this before, specifically in Africa, where all the news is either about poverty or corruption, and yet there is so much more. Most people talk about Africa as if it's a single country, not 53 incredibly rich and diverse countries.

Then there are things like the government travel warnings. The Australian government travel advisory web site says:

We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Iran because of the threat of terrorist attack against Western interests. We continue to receive reports that terrorists are planning attacks against a range of targets in Iran, including places frequented by foreigners.

But, as far as I know, there haven't been any terrorist attacks in Iran, against foreigners or otherwise. So, quite frankly, I don't believe the hype about Iran. I wanted to see for myself.

Saied has said, "The first step to mischief is dehumanisation," meaning that if the people don't know each other, governments can do what they want. But that's the wrong way around. We're dehumanised and anonymous to start with, and we need to try to know each other.