Ancient places

I’ve never been to Syria, so I shall never see the great ruins of Palmyra.

But their senseless loss, at the hands of extremists who don’t value human life or human achievement, has reminded me of some of the ancient or very old wonders that I have visited.

These sites are, thankfully, still there and continue to inspire us. I’ll post more pictures of these and other places that I care about — and we should all care about — in the days, weeks and months to come.



Phone home … but not now

I’ve already had a rant here about the poor standards of driving in the UAE.

One of the worst behaviours, around the world, is drivers talking on mobile phones, or sending text messages, while behind the wheel.

Some studies say this more dangerous than drunk driving. I hate it when I’m at the mercy of somebody who is on the phone — but I recently, almost, made an exception for one cab driver who was talking to his young child in another country.

That piece — which also includes some of my family history, in case you’re curious — is here.

Cats of Bangkok

People make the place

I’m always suspicious of lists.* For example, who is actually qualified to name the top 100 movies of all time? Surely the starting point would be to have seen every movie ever made – which, of course, is impossible.

So I approached the Travel + Leisure magazine list of World’s Unfriendliest Cities with my usual caution. To be fair to T+L, they make it clear that it’s based on a poll in which readers were asked to rank 266 cities. (This also resulted in a World’s Friendliest Cities list, but how much fun is that?)

I assume that none of the respondents had been to all 266 cities, but I guess if the sample of respondents was large enough (again I don’t know if it was), then some sort of reliable pattern would have emerged. Or at least a snapshot of what constitutes a warm welcome to the readers of T+L.

What worried me was that the losers included some places that I like a lot — Moscow, St Petersburg, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Frankfurt.

It took a while, but then I realised why I liked those places — in each case I was travelling with someone who was a local, or was able to introduce me to locals. So, rather than the hit-and-run approach  tourists often take, I was at least a little immersed in these places.

In Philadelphia, I was staying with an old university friend and his wife, and we went together to New York.  In Cambridge, near Boston, I was staying with friends of those friends, and we went to some out-of-the-way places (along with the compulsory “Cheers” bar, the Bull & Finch).

I visited Moscow and St Petersburg with a friend from Belarus, who not only spoke Russian, but was able to secure us cheap, cheerful, apartment-style accommodation in residential areas away from (but close to) the tourist traps.

Some of my worst travel experiences have been when I’ve stayed at those hotels where there’s a kind of false welcome from people who know they are never going to see you again.

My point here is that your perception of how “friendly” a city is very much depends on the people you meet. And that’s always a lottery – especially when you’re travelling solo or on a package deal.

*Apart from this one, which calls me an “influential journalist”.

Safety first

When I was a child, my grandfather used to come and visit our family every Sunday morning.

He and my father would catch up over a root beer (actually it was Horehound, a then-popular non-alcoholic beverage) and, when he left, Grandpop would let us — my brother and me and the Campbell kids from across the road —  jump into the back of his old ute (what Americans would call a pick-up) and travel to the bottom of the street. We’d then  jump off and run back home.

It was all good fun, but I wouldn’t have dreamt of allowing any child under my care to do something as risky as that that 20 years later, and I certainly would not approve of it happening now.

For me, the defining moment in understanding the importance of road safety was when I was 11 and one of my school friends died in a car accident. He was not wearing a seatbelt, and his body was propelled through the windscreen of his parents’ car. A whole community mourned his death and, I hope, learned a lesson.

I will never drive with children in the car unless they are restrained. If the seatbelt comes off, the car stops.

But it’s not just me. In the 40-something years since I was a child, the common understanding of what is safe, and what is not, has changed in Australia, and across most of the developed world.It has not, sadly, changed where I know live — in the United Arab Emirates.

Normal, safe, sensible ways of driving simply do not apply here. I know that’s a blunt statement to make, but it is true.

Almost nobody uses their indicator lights — a fact so well recognised that it’s become fodder for satire — speeding is endemic, almost every driver tailgates, mobile phones are commonly used while driging and, as a consequence, the road toll in the UAE is unacceptably high.

A World Health Organisation report reveals that the road-fatality rate in the UAE is more than twice that of Australia and almost four times that of the United Kingdom.

That is unacceptable in a country that aspires to — and had achieved — a very high standard of living.

Even casual observers will witness extreme speeding, drivers talking on their  phones and children who are unrestrained within vehicles — and sometimes even hanging out of vehicles, via the windows or the sunroof.

The authorities need to drill down into the reasons why people do not obey simple road rules. Are they not aware of the potential consequences, or do they simply not care?

The question that needs to be answered — and quickly — is how we can drive the message home? I just hope that it won’t take until everyone suffers the pain of a friend dying unnecessarily.


Write and wrong

I guess it must be a great relief to many in the self-promoting business that death is no longer a barrier to building your fame and fortune.

“Colonel” Tom Parker, the long-term manager of Elvis Presley, famously said on his star property’s demise that it “didn’t change anything”. Indeed, Elvis still regularly tops the list of the richest dead celebs. Thankfully, Col Parker has also passed into the next world and is no longer benefitting from that fact.

My attitude that money ain’t worth having if you’re not around to enjoy it is, apparently, not widely shared. There are still plenty of people who want to cash in on the work of people who no longer have a say in how their intellectual property is handled.

In the past few days, it’s been announced that there will be a new installment in the Millennium trilogy of books by Swedish writer Stieg Larsson. This is despite the fact that there are already three books in the series — generally the limit for a trilogy, unless the author’s name is Douglas Adams — and Mr Larsson has been dead for many years, and will remain in that state for the foreseeable future.

Not so long ago, we saw a “new” novel by the very elderly and unwell Harper Lee, who never saw fit to publish the work during her 50 or 60 lucid years since writing it.

For goodness’ sake, can’t we just let sleeping authors be?