Sunday, June 27, 1999

Jeremy Atiyah column

Jeremy Atiyah column

It's a great feeling, riding in one of Dhaka's colourful rickshaws. Shame it's such a dangerous way to get around
Sunday, 27 June 1999
Welcome to Dhaka, Bangladesh, the rickshaw capital of the world! But what luck that I'm not planning to do any driving myself, of either rickshaws or other vehicles. Last night I took what was supposed to be a casual drive round town, in a real car, and the experience amounted to a two-hour dodgem car session in which the penalty for hitting anyone was permanent unemployment for them, their children and grandchildren.
As any manufacturer of dodgy bicycle brakes will tell you, rickshaws are not easy beasts to steer - or stop - especially when your back-seat contains a small proportion of the population of downtown Dhaka. Frequent minor collisions are inevitable and local car drivers have (literally) bounced the problem back onto the rickshaws by fitting their vehicles out with special bumpers, along the lines of kangaroo-bars in Australia. Rather worrying for those whose rickshaws represent their entire livelihood.
A crash involving a car and a rickshaw is usually bad news for the rickshaw, which is about as solid and substantial as a mosquito. Essentially, it comprises a bicycle with a trailer attached. The trailer in turn comprises a seat on wibbly-wobbly wheels, backed by a raisable hood. It's the hood that gives the apparatus an unlikely suggestion of class, despite the slight danger of death through encrumplement. Yesterday I noticed grand ladies in saris stepping into rickshaws with the pride and dignity of Victorian duchesses. I wanted to jump out of my car and join them.
What is it about a rickshaw? Having a personal driver is important. And a driver who actually has to pull you using his own brawn - and getting rained on while you remain dry - is even better. But that isn't the end of it: a personal driver who has spent half of his life meticulously designing the artwork on his rickshaw is the best guarantor of his passengers' dignity that any citizen of Dhaka can possibly offer.
As far as I can see, every single rickshaw in town has been decorated with more detail than a maharajah's palace. Designs range from Bollywood- style film hoardings of dark handsome heroes and swooning maidens, to Koranic calligraphy to tin-foil representations of Hindu gods and goddesses. Some of these skinny men in head-wraps - to judge by slogans on the sides of their rickshaws - even seem to have signed contracts with advertising executives of the world's largest corporations.
In a hundred thousand rickshaws the detail varies, but the style - a kind of Bengali Sergeant Pepper - is essentially the same. I wonder what would happen if some inventive rickshaw owner got out of bed one morning and decided to paint his vehicle differently. Say, gleaming white all over? The White Album of rickshaws?
I very much doubt it would be good for business. Rickshaw drivers are expected to be artists but not radical individualists. Having a local version of John Lennon as the driver, I fear, would not impact well on the dignity of the passengers.

Saturday, June 26, 1999

The Book That Inspired Me

The Book That Inspired Me

Jeremy Atiyah 
Saturday, 26 June 1999
UNTIL I was 14 I thought of Spain as a hot, foreign place where the women gabbled, the men were unshaven and everyone consumed too much olive oil. Then I read this book for the first time.
It took me several more years actually to get to Spain, but in the intervening period - a couple of chilly holidays in Scotland later - an overwhelming desire had taken root in me to find myself on a dusty road beside orange and olive groves under an enormous white hot sun.
Laurie Lee's freedom was the key to my fantasy: to be 19, male, alone, self-supporting. Busking for a living, sleeping under stars, staring at Andalucian dancers in candle-lit barns. What greater freedom could there be? Freedom from school, freedom from the 1970s, freedom from rain, freedom from one's peers, freedom from the growing suspicion that yes, it really did matter where people went and what they said and did (I had always hoped that adulthood would mean the opposite).
Writing 30 years after the event, Laurie Lee managed to overlook trifling banalities such as the need to organise his life - or even to organise his trip. What about his career? Did he have a job to come back to? Did he indeed have a return ticket? Did he know about ferry crossings and the intricacies of time-tables? Did he check the rates of exchange? Was his mother worrying about him? Was anyone telexing him emergency sums of money? Or did he really wander open-mouthed across the plains of Old Castille, from village to village and town to town, without maps, without plans, without concepts or expectations? Probably not. But as a sheltered, small-town boy with an identity crisis I found the notion of stumbling into unknown walled cities at dusk quite appallingly seductive.
What was this great, hot exotic continent of a country that they called Spain? A country that took months to cross on foot? A country where 16- year-old girls with bosoms stomped their feet in fury and sang like women? A country where sunstroke, poverty, repression and even the tragedy of impending war were all hung about by a mysterious beauty? It seemed so unimaginably different from the country of petty rules, ugly suburbia, dreary skies and tormented human beings that I was accustomed to.
I finally got to Spain about the age of 20. It was mid-summer and the streets of Toledo were every bit as white and hot and empty as I had hoped that they would be. I perspired alone at the railway station bar and shouted pretentiously for glasses of brandy (or was it sherry?). Outside, the landscape of El Greco shimmered under the brutal Castillian sun. I clung to the walls of churches, sticking to the shade along with the lizards and the sleeping mangey dogs. Eyes peered out at me through closed shutters. The only thing that moved was a drunken soldier shuffling towards me asking for cigarettes.
As far as I could see then, and as far as I can see now, Laurie Lee had got Spain exactly right.
Jeremy Atiyah
Published by Penguin at pounds 5.99

Sunday, June 13, 1999

When cruises are bargains

When cruises are bargains and luxury villas look like good deals, what does it take to blow real money on a holiday?

It is a God-given truth: not everyone wants a year's supply of beer or even a family car. But everyone wants "a luxury holiday for two". Or do they? The winner of the luxury holiday in Australia described on the front page of this section seems to have had a moderately good time, though not as good as you might have hoped. Was his holiday not expensive enough?

I've been wondering what I would do if I was forced to take the most expensive holiday in the world. A cruise perhaps? How about a ride on a ship called the Crystal Symphony, due to set off on a 104-day journey next January from Los Angeles to Southampton via Asia and Africa? The brochure price is given as "from" pounds 25,000. Plenty of money - but still only pounds 240 a day. The amazing thing about cruises is how disappointingly cheap they can be. A 127-day cruise on the Ocean Explorer I, travelling over the millennium, starts from a mere pounds 7,455, which (at less than pounds 60 a day full-board) sounds little better than a poor-house.

A rather quicker way to get through the same amount of money would be to rent a luxury villa on an island like Mustique in the Caribbean. Glancing through brochures, I have found a nice looking place called Frangipani with an 18-metre swimming pool, four acres of landscaped gardens, "unparalleled" views over the Caribbean Sea, four cars and a staff of six. The rental price in high season is around pounds 15,000 a week which is slightly less than the purchase price of a small cottage in Wales.

But even this strikes me as surprisingly modest - after all, the villa has seven bedrooms and can house up to 14 people. If you have a large family, this brings the price down to only just over pounds 1,000 per person per week. I've probably been on holidays as expensive as that.

To move into the super-league of really expensive holidays, do you then have to move away from luxury and get more into the expeditionary line of holiday? I've just received an extraordinary brochure from a company called Adventure Network (tel:             01494 671808      ) which offers holidays to the South and North Poles.

It may sound like a bad joke at the expense of Captain Scott, but it is even possible to book a holiday which involves travelling on skis all the way to the South Pole from a base camp known as Patriot Hills. The trip lasts about nine weeks, takes place under the midnight sun, and is apparently quite safe given the availability of instant relief from light aircraft which can land anywhere on the ice.

According to the brochure, smoked salmon, chocolate mousse, Mexican tacos and Roquefort spinach ravioli are all on the menu, as well as fresh fruit, vegetables and "excellent local wines" flown in from Chile. The price? Well blow me down with a 60-knot wind. Even this extravaganza will only cost about pounds 28,000 (starting and finishing your journey in Chile). Barely more than a cruise.

To spend more than this it looks as though you would have to risk your neck climbing Mount Everest or being blasted into space. I think I would rather take a luxury holiday for two.