A young travel journalist was recently whining on his blog of how lonely he expected to be on a three week trip to America. In response, I felt like saying you don’t take your best pal to work do you? So if travel writing is your chosen metier, please fasten your safety belt and stop complaining.
In fact there is a huge gulf between travel writing and travel journalism. The former sees you away - often for months at a time - in an alien society with no infrastructure other than your wits. The reverse is a quick press-trip with colleagues to Majorca, or wherever, when you’ve barely closed the door and you’re back again.
Real travel writing by its nature, is a solitary occupation as the authors of great narratives will confirm. Missing home and dining alone are inevitable downsides and while grateful for a capacity to be alone, I find that spending your birthday without a companion exacerbates the sense of social isolation.
In a lifetime of travel writing I`ve awakened on 17th October in Sydney, London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Nairobi, Dublin, Tahiti, New York, Marrakesh, Muscat, Provincetown and Algiers. I`ve also seen out three birthdays in Pakistan: my 39th up the Khyber, my 40th in Islamabad and my 41st in Sukkur, an historic town on the river Indus in Sindh.
Knowing I’d be alone in Sukkur, I was determined not to let it get me down. I bought a big bag of sweets for local children that morning and normally skipping lunch, I opted to celebrate with a meal - albeit it in my room as it was Ramadan.
I’d ordered catfish masala, but since my air conditioning wasn’t working and the electric fan had stopped, I called reception to send up an electrician.
In a few moments a sharp knock heralded a short man in navy overalls holding a giant screw-driver. ‘Electric,’ he said and coming in, he switched the fan on, then off, spun the blades (its cage was missing) announced ‘fan heat,’ and picking it up out he marched out again.
A second knock had signalled a waiter with my lunch and taking the tray, I placed it carefully on the bed and pulled up a chair, but before I could take a mouthful, there was another rap on the door. No surprise that it was the electrician.
This time he kicked off his sandals and stepping over the tray, he stood on my pillow and placing a foot against the bed-head, he yanked the air conditioner off the wall, splitting its timber frame and showering my lunch with dust balls.
‘Check,’ he said and taking it into his arms, he had disappeared down the corridor.
Moments later he was back dragging the fan through the door which I had left ajar in anticipation.
‘Wire,’ he declared and kneeling down, he plunged his giant screw-driver into the wall socket.
‘Don't do that!’ I shouted, picturing an incinerated corpse.
‘Problem fix,’ he said and flicking a switch, the fan had started up like a turbo-jet, blowing my birthday curry all over the bedspread.
My official press pass to visit Zambia in 1994.
Breakfast with Bedouin while researching my first book The Gulf States and Oman (1978).
With houseboat children on the Indus river in Sukkur on 17th October 1981.
17th OCTOBER IS INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR THE ERADICATION OF POVERTY