At Schiphol Amsterdam Airport there was a problem with geese.
A decent sized flock of geese in the air can present a real danger to planes landing and taking of, but compounding Schiphol´s problem was this: The Netherlands is a paradise for geese. You’d almost think that centuries ago, when the Dutch began reclaiming their country from the waters, they did so in order to create Goose Paradise: a flat land with a surfeit of water and grass.
Water where the geese can flock together and keep safe from enemies.
Watery grass they can eat: the richest, the greenest grass in the world which feeds the cows which provide the milk which produces some of the best cheese in the world.
And smack bang in the middle of this flat watery grassy land – Schiphol Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world.
The geese weren’t bothered about the constant roar of jets taking off and landing at one of the world’s busiest airports. What they saw was lots of flat grassy land lying vacant, not being farmed or cropped or used – empty.
As their numbers proliferated, they became a part of our modern globalised world in ways which were truly remarkable….
In early 2012 Anya and I went on a river cruise on the Nile.
We went as a part of an organised group.
Normally we much preferred to travel on our own, as individuals, determining where we went and where we stayed. But there was little choice in the matter.
Egypt was embroiled in a political crisis.
Two years before, not long after our first visit to Egypt, a wave of popular protest in the Middle East known as the ‘Arab Spring’ arrived in Egypt and led to weeks of protests and the fall of the dictatorial Mubarak government. Free and fair elections were organised, but this led to the resounding victory of the Islamic fundamentalists – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Party – whose agenda was to turn Eygpt into a Sunni version of Iran. They wanted to base the constitution on the Sharia and furthermore, were equivocal towards Egypt’s ancient past which they regarded as heretical.
In the euphoria of the Arab Spring, western journalists had failed to see that in Egypt there was a huge discrepancy between the people living in the cities and those living in the rural areas. In the case of the former, there were high levels of education along with the widespread use of social media and the internet; in the case of the latter, who constitued the big majority of the population, matters were very different. The women were burka clad slaves whose prime function was to produce children; illiteracy rates were high and the villages were controlled by fundamentalist imams.
Religion, low education and gender oppression provided the back drop for the spectacular success of the fundamentalists at the elections.
In the meantime, the army became restive and the very urban dwellers, who had brought down the dictator Mubarak, were determined not to accept government by religious fanatics. The country slid into anarchy as its irreconcilable contradictions rose to the surface. There were strikes, attacks, and violent episodes. Tourism, the life blood of the economy, plummeted.
It was only on the Nile that the safety of foreign tourists could be guaranteed by the army. This was a far cry from the Egypt we were familiar with, where one could travel almost anywhere. Nevertheless, we went, drawn by the lure of the greatest outdoor musuem in the world, a country with a history like no other….
After 5 weeks of travelling in Southern Italy, I ended my trip in Palermo, Sicily, where I was due to get on a flight to Rotterdam. On arriving there, I wandered from the bus station down a busy road, looking for a place to stay the night. Most of the hotels were booked out. I finally found a small hotel in a narrow side lane off the main road.
I didn´t know anything about Palermo and it didn´t matter; it was a stop on the way to the airport. But Palermo turned out to be far more than that.
It was memorable experience – and a quintessential Italian experience.
When we read in our guide book that it was a former Portuguese trading outpost located on the south east coast of India, we imagined something akin to Goa and Dieu (their antecedents also Portuguese) on the west coast – only without the tourists.
We thought we had found a hidden gem.
And well, the few lines in our guide book about Vailankanni were written by a travel writer who had never been anywhere near the place.
So there it was; after a long day travelling on local buses, hot, overcrowded, sitting on hard wooden bench seats or standing in an aisle crammed between people, we were expecting to arrive in a place with deserted pristine beaches fringed by palm trees….
And were met by a sight which left us momentarily in a state of utter bewilderment……
It took us a day to get from the Austrian border to the Hotel Zamecek in the west of the Czech Republic. We had to catch two trains and a bus to reach the town of Kaplice, from where we walked to the hotel. We followed a road out town. The traffic wasn’t too bad but our rucksacks were heavy and it was a warm day.
Late in the afternoon, tired and jaded, we saw it: the Hotel Zamecek.
Our spirits lifted.
It was beautiful, like a small castle.
It was surrounded open grassy fields and pine forests.
Our room was on the third floor. Whilst ascending a wide, stone staircase with a high stone balustrade we noticed that the original decorations on the ceiling and walls had been freshly repainted. The hotel, obviously old, had been beautifully restored.
In a large open area at the top of the stairs, there was a polished wooden bookcase with books left behind by departing guests. After putting our rucksacks down and showering and putting on fresh clothes, I went to the bookcase. Anya loves maps and I love books; whilst I was perusing the books, she was in the room pouring over a map of Bohemia; we planned to do some walking in the area.
I found a few books in English. There was one which caught my attention.
‘The Metamorphosis’ written by Franz Kafka.
I grabbed it and put it in our room.
Then we went downstairs to order a meal. We were famished.