11 January 2007
North-western Scotland in December is not an ideal destination for a summer holiday. When my parents first moved to Gairloch at the age of sixteen, I had recalled the mythical land of Narnia, cursed so that it always feels like winter and never feels like Christmas. Yet now it was Christmas, and bizarrely it was also my summer, and there is something indisputably nice about sitting in a warm lounge beside a twinkling Christmas tree while rain and darkness drench the windows outside. After several months during which the people of home were little more than occasional messages in my inbox, I was also glad to be surrounded by family and friends. However, I did my best not to spend time outdoors.
All that makes the Highlands' awful weather enjoyable is the days when it is really, really awful. The days when the atmosphere tears and strains at the landscape, wrenching trees by their branches, flexing window panes and causing cars to shudder on their axles. The days when clouds of mist and hail shriek past the houses like demons on the run from hell. The days when you could stand at the top of a cliff and throw your weight into the wind in the reckless knowledge that you wouldn't fall.
Walking along the beach in the direction of my old school, I felt as if I had stepped onto an alien planet, one barely fit for human habitation. Driven by a force eleven storm, the ocean was hurling water at the land with shattering ferocity, detonating white explosions on the pinnacles of rock jutting out into the sea. Flecks of spray drifted like snow, and along the beach the shoreline was ankle-deep in suds. Floundering in the foam were broken splinters of driftwood, tangles of bladder wrack, the remains of a sizeable tree, and a lone onion that had somehow been lost at sea.
Wanting to experience the weather at its worst, and unused to the idea that a mile's journey could be done by any means other than on foot, I had insisted on walking to the school. Despite warnings that I would arrive drenched, the storm dried me faster than it soaked me, though my lips were left smacked with salt from the spray.
Gairloch High School was much as I remembered it. The people were smaller, teachers included, but the building had scarcely changed. It was here that my journey to Vanuatu had begun, on the grey August morning (yes, Scottish children go to school in August) when one of my teachers had played his class a video promoting the idea of volunteering abroad. Now, I was here to share that idea with another generation of schoolchildren.
The new headmaster (it is doubtful whether the old one would have trusted me to give a responsible talk to thirty impressionable pupils) sat me down in his office after I arrived and chatted to me about school life. Gairloch High may not look much like Ranwadi, but its problems were similar: new but poorly-designed buildings, a lack of telephone lines, and difficulties in recruiting new teachers as old ones left. In Gairloch, like on Pentecost Island, local people with qualifications don't want to stick around: they are drawn away to the bright lights of town. The school - and the village as a whole - must therefore rely on adventurous English immigrants for whom Gairloch's wildness and isolation are an attraction rather than a reason to leave.
In spite of the Highlands' malicious climate, in many ways this remote corner of the country is closer to Vanuatu than any other part of Britain. Physically it is closest, a mere 9500 miles away. (This is contrary to what you'd expect from looking at a flat world map, but measure it on Google Earth if you don't believe me.) In its landscape, it is closest - Captain Cook didn't name Vanuatu the New Hebrides for nothing - although only in a black-and-white photograph could you mistake the greying yellow coastlines of Wester Ross for the blue-and-green South Seas. In its culture, too, it is similar - there are people here who still speak a native language other than English, people who still believe with genuine passion that their lives are directed by God, people who cling to ancestral lands and customs, and people who seldom if ever take the long journey into town.
In the history and development of the two areas, there are also great parallels. Both Vanuatu and the Scottish Highlands were ruled by warring chieftains until the regions were forcibly 'civilised' a couple of centuries ago. Both were then exploited by imperialistic landowners who presided over (though were not always directly responsible for) the near collapse of the native population. By the Second World War, the regions were virtually uninhabited except for a scattering of subsistence farmers who continued to live without mains electricity or paved roads. In Vanuatu's balmy environment, it is relatively easy to be comfortable without modern conveniences, but how the Scots coped I have no idea. Today, both Vanuatu and the Scottish Highlands make much of their money from tourists, who come to admire the beauty of the awkward landscape and needn't trouble themselves with the problems faced by those actually living there.
The Highlands, of course, have come further than Vanuatu in the last few decades. Gairloch remains a village of a mere thousand people, seventy miles from the nearest cinema or shopping centre, and when I show photos of it to my friends in England they are appalled at the place's isolation. However, when my students in Vanuatu see the same photos, they regard Gairloch as an impressive town. Pacific islanders have no difficulty accepting that foreigners in towns and cities live in relative luxury, but the idea that a country could afford to run ashphalt roads, power lines, telephone cables, water pipes and sewers to virtually every isolated homestead in every tiny rural village is beyond them. Gairloch has roads that you can drive a car on, and the houses are built of cement rather than wood and bamboo. Where else but a major town would people have the means to construct these things?
In my old classroom at Gairloch High School, I told the S5 students (Year 12, to anybody unfamiliar with Scottish education) how school life in the South Pacific compared with their own. I then talked about how I had come to be a teacher in Vanuatu, and about the many opportunities available for working abroad. Compared with the awkward silence of a senior class at Ranwadi, the teenagers were a lively bunch, but they sat through my slideshow with what I'm told was attentiveness.
I concluded with a quote from a Robbie Williams song: Youth is wasted on the young.
"Take advantage of opportunities while you can," I implored them. "Don't waste your lives in front of the television."
I asked if there were any questions, and realised then that I hadn't inspired the students as much as I'd hoped. All that I'd experienced in the South Pacific was nothing compared with what I'd done on an afternoon in a dull London suburb three years ago: appeared on television.
"Were you the guy who was on The Weakest Link?", one of them asked.
The day after leaving Scotland, I woke up in one of the world's great megacities. Out of the window I saw nineteenth-century colonial architecture, surrounded and encased with creaking twentieth-century infrastructure and decorated with the occasional flash of twenty-first century glass and steelwork. Cars were pulsing like blood cells through a grid of streets, while a fluid mass of human beings seeped along the pavements to either side. People surged in and out of concrete alleyways and neon tunnels. The air seethed with money and ambition.
I stood jammed on a train full of businesspeople, everyone stiff and silent in the presence of strangers, and felt alone. I thought about the millions of people who do this daily, cramming themselves like cattle into long metal boxes to get from the brick boxes where they live to the concrete boxes where they work. Space in these boxes is finite, yet the ambition of those who wish to use them is seemingly limitless, a situation that has forced prices in every great city up to ludicrous levels - the economy's attempts to redress the balance of supply and demand by squeezing people back to their villages. Yet still they come. For those whose lives are spent jostling their way to the top of their vast social hierarchy, there is no limit to the urban discomfort they are prepared to endure, so long as their competitors are prepared to endure it too. How many extra hours must be spent shuffling papers in a pale room smelling of coffee and carpet cleaner, and how many extra miles must be spent staring out of the window at the blurred wall of a railway tunnel, in order to earn yourself a shinier set of business cards or a seat nearer to the managing director? Plenty, if you are among a million other people willing to do the same.
The city seemed alien and foreign. This would have been a natural and harmless thought - indeed, a source of excitement - if this actually was a foreign country (or for that matter an alien planet). But this was London, an hour from where I grew up.
It's bad enough to glimpse your home country only for a few hours in an entire year, but to glimpse it and hate it is deeply unsettling.
I shouldn't judge England from London in the rush hour, I told myself, thinking of village lanes and blackberries and bunny rabbits in meadows by the riverside. But I've visited rural England in the past couple of years, and that too is becoming a mass of dual carriageways and harassed commuters.
At Heathrow Airport, one of the world's busiest, the overcrowding had reached truly Third World proportions. Planes there must take-off and land there with twice the frequency that most airports deem safe, in order to cope with the demand on the runways. The check-in area was an ugly human labyrinth of queues and checkpoints, and before boarding the plane I had to convince a series of guards that I wasn't plotting to blow anybody up with my toothpaste or shampoo. (It made an unpleasant change from Vanuatu's airfields, where the check-in guys decorate luggage with fluorescent "Security Checked" stickers without making any actual attempt to see what's inside - a knife, usually, and litres of pastes and fluids on the occasions when I've been shopping in town.)
Are these rules on liquids going to be upheld for ever, I wondered, or are the security staff eventually going to be trained in how to spot the difference between a 125ml tube of Colgate and a terrorist bomb? I had already emptied my water bottle, knowing that even if I offered to swig it in front of the guards, rules were rules and it wouldn't be allowed on the plane.
"What drinkable liquid could possibly be dangerous on an aircraft?", I thought. Then I passed into the departure lounge and the answer was in front of me, for sale, in bottles labelled 'vodka' and 'whisky'.
Anybody who thinks that claustrophobia and agoraphobia are opposite things has never been trapped in Terminal 3 on a busy morning. The departure lounge resembled a department store on the weekend before Christmas, with weary passengers shoving past one another in narrow aisles whilst trying not to knock overpriced designer goods off their shelves with their shoulder bags. Most of the people who could actually afford such items had already retreated to private lounges.
I slumped on one of the few seats that didn't appear to belong to a coffee bar or food stall, next to a boy who was probably British but was screaming at his parents in a language I didn't recognise. In front of me, a patch of space that could more humanely have been left empty had been filled instead with an uncomfortable-looking but very expensive car (how do they get those things indoors?), which punters were being offered the opportunity to win at a 'mere' twenty pounds a ticket. (The financial obesity of London and its inhabitants never fails to amaze me.) This wasn't for any charitable cause, as far as I could gather - just another way to squeezing profit out of customers held captive in an absurdly limited space. Signs forbidding children from playing in the car eliminated any opportunity that the thing might have had (in the kind of words that would be used by the kind of person who put it there) to make a positive contribution to the airport experience.
Give me a shady patch of grass under a tree beside the airfield any day.
Visiting a country purely because its national airline is offering cheap tickets to the other side of the world is not the best basis for a holiday. However, since nobody else could beat the price offered by Malaysia Airlines, this year's stopover on the way back to Vanuatu was in Kuala Lumpur.
My travels in Asia have so far been a Goldilocks experience. Singapore was too Westernised, China was not Westernised enough, but Malaysia is just right. One legacy of the British Empire that its founders may or may not have intended is that their efforts made a quarter of the world far easier for their great-grandchildren to bum around in. In Malaysia, English is widely used, and even when signposts are in Malay they are written with the Western alphabet, so I can have fun trying to learn words from signposts instead of feeling helpless and illiterate. Traffic drives on the left, plugs are fat and square, and people are polite but seldom pushy. The country is peaceful and prosperous (though that may have more to do with oil wealth than with a legacy of good government), and on the streets there is a safe and pleasant atmosphere.
The Brits were not the only ones to come to Malaysia: people of Indian and Chinese descent inhabit the country in their millions. As a result the country feels like Asia in microcosm, encompassing the continent's entire range of languages, religions, cultures and cuisines (including, sadly, McDoanld's).
In one important respect Malaysia does not take after its former mother country, however: its main international airport is beautiful and spacious.
As I was whisked into the city centre by express train (London Heathrow has an express train too, but I couldn't afford to travel on it), green plantations of oil palms passed under a searing blue sky, and tall modern buildings reflected the sun with cool intensity. After a month of grey winter landscapes, I was back in the tropics, and seeing in full colour again.
Although Kuala Lumpur has the buzz and energy of a major city, the Malaysian capital is in fact small by Asian standards, and is padded out with lush green spaces. Unfortunately, the city was not designed for exploration on foot, and after a morning of wandering amongst flyovers and multi-lane highways, I felt like an ant in a bigger creature's world.
Peeking above the Kuala Lumpur skyline are the twin tips of the Petronas Towers, a monument to oil money, whose corrugated edges give them the appearance of giant drill bits gleaming with expensive metal. A symbol of Malaysian pride and status, the towers taper to their summits in a shape that Freud would have found most insightful. The Petronas Towers are described in my guidebook as the tallest buildings in the world, but have since lost their title to Taiwan's Taipei 101. If you want to claim that you have visited the world's tallest building, you need to get there fast. I have now seen three former tallest buildings, but have yet to catch the world's tallest while it is still number one.
I was not in the mood for the city, and promptly escaped to Pulau Pangkor, a jungle-covered, beach-rimmed holiday island off Malaysia's western coast. Having watched The Beach and similar movies, my mental image of South-east Asian islands was heavily populated with alcoholic Brits and Australians, yet most of the holidaymakers on Pulau Pangkor appeared to be local. Apart from a few Germans and the inevitable gay Dutchman, there were no other Westerners to be seen.
The accommodation I chose was a two-metre-square box the shape and colour of a Toblerone segment, complete with a light, a fan and an electric socket. Although essentially a wooden tent, it was better equipped than most houses on Pentecost. I settled into my Toblerone box, got out a couple of good books, and prepared to enjoy a couple of days of genuine summer holiday.
Living on Pentecost Island, with its relatively poor and isolated flora and fauna, I had forgotten the wonderful diversity of life that exists in the tropics. Most noticeable were the hornbills - large birds resembling mutant toucans, which would have made for excellent photos if they could be seen doing anything other than raiding rubbish bins. At low tide, fat brown sea slugs lay glued to the rocks on the promontory at the end of the beach.
One morning, I found myself sharing a bathroom with an insect resembling a horsefly the size of my big toe. Not knowing what it was (which shows how useful a degree in Zoology is), I reacted the old-fashioned way. After my first attempt on its life failed, the insect got angry, and began to buzz menacingly around my head. After a shaky few seconds, I managed to swat it out of the door, and it flew off into the jungle.
At breakfast, I asked one of my fellow travellers about the giant insects.
"You should catch them gently and stroke them underneath," he told me. "They make a lovely buzzing sound."
Forgive me for not trying that with every strange insect I encounter.
"The island is well suited to exploration on foot," said the Lonely Planet guidebook. Perhaps, if you get a thrill from dodging the youths who speed around blind corners on hired motorbikes that they haven't quite got the hang of yet. In the absence of sidewalks, I warily crossed and re-crossed the tarmac, trying to stay on the side where I seemed least likely to get hit.
In between beaches, the road was desolate and hemmed in by the jungle. Stray dogs wandered hungrily along the verges, and I had the feeling that the birds of prey overhead were watching me. On one bend I caught sight of a large and carnivorous-looking reptile - a Malaysian relative of the Komodo dragon. The giant lizard scuttled away from me, but the large monkey I encountered further along stood its ground, baring its teeth and growling when I came too close. I bared my teeth and growled back - the monkey was in my way. My show of aggression didn't have much effect. The monkey knew I had no intention of actually biting it, whereas I wasn't so sure about the monkey. In the end, I was forced to cross to the far side of the street, annoyed at having to submit to the dominance of a primate a tenth of my size.
After a couple of days on Pulau Pangkor, I returned to the mainland and headed for the Cameron Highlands, in the centre of the Malaysian peninsula. A mile above sea level, the landscape here is steep and drenched with rain, and the mountainsides give the impression that they are perpetually on the verge of sliding down into the valleys. Once upon a time the roots of the jungle could be relied on to hold them in place, but deforestation has taken its toll, and many patches have now had to be shored up with layers of concrete or elaborate terraces. Polythene sheeting prevents the rain from hammering down on the fields, and cement-lined ditches sluice water away into mud-coloured rivers. It's hardly surprising that the towns downstream suffer devastating floods.
For European tourists, the cool, damp weather reminds them of home. European fruits and vegetables feel the same way, and the Cameron Highlands are filled with small farms growing everything from strawberries to cabbages, which thrive all year round in the frost-free climate. Tea also does well here, and some of the valleys are striped with labyrinthine rows of the dark green bushes. The settlers who came to the Cameron Highlands to plant their strawberries and drink their tea built beautiful mock-Tudor houses, some of them complete with roses climbing the walls. This bizarre transplantation of rural England onto a jungle-covered tropical mountain range works surprisingly well, and now attracts large numbers of visitors, who come to tour the farm shops, rose gardens and apiaries and to try cream tea with scones in the local cafés.
Against the Lonely Planet's advice, I checked into a lodge on the outside of town, a pleasant-looking place where a chilled-out group of backpackers sat on comfy chairs on the veranda drinking beers and chatting about which DVD to watch that evening. "F**k the Lonely Planet", said a large sign at reception.
"That book has too much power," the guesthouse manager complained. "The things they write are not true, but they nearly drove us out of business."
The assembled backpackers nodded and looked awkward. I suspected most of them had Lonely Planet guides in their rucksacks.
Lonely Planet is to the travel industry what Rupert Murdoch is to British politics: it's hard to fall out of favour with it and survive. People accuse it of printing rubbish, yet so long as the same people continue to buy the stuff and to believe what they read, its power is assured.
"We know the Lonely Planet makes mistakes," said one bearded American, speaking for all of us. "But it's good to have some information to get you started, even if it's not always right."
The next stop on my journey back to Pentecost Island was Perth, Australia. (I've become so used to telling people I'm going to "Perth, Australia" - carefully distinguishing it from the gloomy Scottish town of the same name - that I've become almost incapable of saying the city's name on its own.) Perth Australia is officially the sunniest of the country's major cities - and in Australia, that's saying something. The sky was impeccably cloudless when I arrived, and the air was thick with warmth. The heat here was dry desert heat, not steamy tropical heat, which was pleasant in the shade, but when walking out into the sunshine I got the feeling that I was about to catch fire. To describe at as like stepping into an oven would be wrong: ovens are dark inside, but on a bright afternoon in Perth Australia the light is so strong that it's painful to take off your sunglasses. The sun seems almost physically closer than it does during a European summer. In fact, technically it is, due to a feature of Earth's orbit that brings the planet a little nearer the sun at the time of the southern summer, but the effect of this is only slight. What really makes Perth Australia hot is its location on the edge of one of the world's great deserts.
If you wished to argue that human beings don't really like each other much very much, you could hold up Perth Australia as a good illustration. The city is well over a thousand miles from any other, surrounded by unimaginable expanses of empty wasteland, yet it attracts people in a way that few other places manage. And like Australians everywhere, the city's inhabitants have the manner of fractious thirteen-year-olds, mocking one another in attempts to make themselves look cool and compulsively shortening any word longer than two syllables for fear that they might be seen displaying intelligence in front of their friends.
To argue that Perth Australia is an anti-social place would be the opposite of the truth, however. The real reason that sun-seeking immigrants choose to live in Perth Australia is not that it's isolated; on the contrary, they go there because it's the only place in the state that does have a significant number of people. Western Australia has a land area the size of Western Europe, but less than a hundredth of the population. If it weren't for Perth and the surrounding suburbs, that figure would be closer to a thousandth. As for the city's inhabitants, I'm told by Englishpeople who have lived there for some time that they are actually very friendly; one expatriate described it to me as "the world's largest village". Presumably it simply takes time to desensitise yourself to Australian manners and to learn the subtle cues that distinguish playful-spirited rudeness from genuine contempt.
Perth Australia has a weird atmosphere, which stems partly from its isolation and partly from the fact that it has an overabundance of the thing that most cities have in desperately short supply: open space. Although scenic photos of Perth show a cluster of tall towers (people like taking scenic photos of Perth because a local parkland on a hill provides an easy vantage point), closer inspection reveals that the buildings are not really that large - only two or three could remotely be regarded as skyscrapers - and that the same few buildings appear in every shot. For the most part, the city centre has the low buildings and breezy, open streets of a rural town. The sight of businesspeople striding about with briefcases seems odd until you look up at the two or three skyscrapers and remember that you are at the hub of a city of a million and a half people, the most populous place for two thousand miles around.
January 26th was Australia Day, commemorating the anniversary of the occasion in 1788 on which the first European settlers landed in New South Wales and the white invasion of the island continent began. Australians celebrate their national day by doing what most of them would do on every day of the year if they could get away with it: skipping work, filling an 'Eskie' with cold beer, getting together with their mates and heading down to the beach. On the streets of Perth, the more patriotic revellers draped themselves with big Australian flags; a few appeared to be wearing nothing else. With the sun blazing and temperatures touching the 40s (100°F), I wasn't surprised.
The Europeans who landed in 1788 were not, of course, the first to visit Australia. In the early 17th century, Dutch traders making their way to the East Indies began to take a new route: instead of following the coast of Asia (a long and torrid journey), they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and struck eastwards across the open Indian Ocean, turning north at what they hoped was the right point to reach Indonesia. Since in those days judging distances at sea was more-or-less a matter of guesswork (you can't measure your longitude by the stars unless you have an accurate ship's clock, and those had yet to be invented), many ships missed their turning and struck the western coast of Australia. Some of them struck it hard. In Fremantle, the attractive harbour city downriver from Perth, the Maritime Museum contains the partially-reconstructed wreck of the Batavia, one Dutch vessel that foundered on a reef off the Western Australian coast. The ship's exhumed timbers are black and ghostly, and exhibited beside it are the skeletons of some of the sailors on board, "among the first Europeans to reach Australia".
The Dutch concluded that the great southern land they had encountered was a useless desert, whose native people were primitive types with little to trade, and made no attempt to settle there. The western half of Australia was not colonised until the 1820s, when the British found a patch of greenery around the Swan River and established three towns there: a farming settlement upriver (now known for its wineries), a port at the river mouth (Fremantle), and a capital in between (Perth). Immigrants flocked to the colony (especially after gold was discovered there), ignoring the fact that most of the region was still a useless desert and the Aborigines were still around. The resulting debates over water shortages and indigenous rights continue to dominate Western Australian politics to this day.