You seem to be a very avid traveller – do you have a ‘normal’ life as well, or are you a full-time traveller?
Since 2013 I have been renting out my house in the UK to fund my travels, so apart from a few weeks back home each year to give my friends the impression I haven’t completely forgotten them, I am a full time traveller. I will continue until I get fed up with it but no sign of that happening at the moment.
Graham, you have a very particular travel viewpoint, perhaps we could call it ‘political tourism’. How so? What fascinates you about bizarre places?
Politics shapes life everywhere in the world so there is no reason why it should be excluded from travel blogging. Although most of my writing is about the social and cultural aspects of life this often demands at least some passing comments on political situations. As an example, my recent post on the Tea Ladies of Sudan: these women are often from regions affected by military action from the government and are then subject to abuse by police and policies designed to curb their laudable attempts at earning a living in difficult circumstances.
You hardly need travel to lesser known destinations like Sudan to be aware of the importance of political events. How a traveller can remain oblivious to the situation in say, Egypt or Thailand is a mystery to me but to judge by the travel blogging world you’d think both were solely peaceful havens of sun, sea and historical sites. To ignore the very real plight of large sections of their populations seems to do a disservice to the people.
However, I hope I am aware that a travel blog is not necessarily the best place to push political matters all the time so I limit the overtly political posts and hope that I inject enough humour into them to make it accessible to more readers.
The appeal of the more bizarre places is probably best answered in my response to question 4 but I am sure all great adventurers must have been inspired by a thirst for the unknown and I’d put myself in that category, after removing the adjective, “great”.
Tell us of a country that surprised you, being entirely different from what you had expected.
Bangladesh was undoubtedly the most pleasant surprise because of its wonderful people. The country itself could charitably be described as a basket case, mostly thanks to its power obsessed and corrupt governments but for hospitality it beats everywhere else I’ve been, including Iran which is often cited by travelers, and quite rightly so, as being so welcoming. The rich and the poor alike invited me into their homes, never giving me the sense that they were motivated by anything other than their religious and cultural duty to treat strangers with respect and kindness. This notion of hospitality is what Islam means to me, as I have found it in various forms throughout the Islamic world.
You have a blog, ‘inside other places’. What are you trying to achieve through it? Do you consider yourself a ‘professional blogger’?
For me travel is all about experiencing life and cultures that are different to our own, hopefully learning something in the process, so I hope this is reflected in my blog. Other places doesn’t simply refer to a geographical sense but a psychological one, where we have a sense of the “other”, something we don’t really know much about or understand. People construct false images of places, often from news headlines, which in reality have little to do with the culture or everyday life. The brutality of authoritarian regimes is almost never reflected in the character of its people, but the news doesn’t always convey that fact. Even though most people are intelligent enough to realise their image is a simplification, the mind likes to fill in the blanks with preconceived ideas. Rwandan people, for example, cannot be defined by the genocide, they are no more prone to violence than anywhere else but people still ask me, “is it safe to go there”? Of course this works both ways, anyone would think that my own country, England was almost entirely defined by Manchester United FC, if you went by the comments I’ve received on my travels.
Hopefully my efforts with the blog make a modest contribution to broadening the perception of places that either never appear on anyone’s radar or if they do it’s because of the wrong reasons.
I don’t regard myself as a professional travel blogger in the sense of making any kind of living from it, in fact I don’t want to make money from it. As far as I can see the monetising of blogs is usually the kiss of death to originality and quality – the endless quest of social media optimisation demands the constant churning out of material, where quantity often trumps quality. However, I do make a conscious effort to improve the standard of my writing, whether for serious posts or the solely humorous ones, like The Top Ten toilets of Tajikistan.
You won best travel blog in 2014. Which aspects of the blog made for this success?
My award was from the far more famous, Derek Freal of Holidaze blog, who has been very supportive of my work, for which I am most grateful. I think he recognised that I was doing something different to other travel blogs and I hope that’s true.
The ‘Europe’ section of your blog is only represented by 3 countries, Albania, Moldova and Ukraine. Why so little on this part of the world?
I have actually done a lot of travelling in Europe but mostly when I was younger, as far back as the 80’s and I haven’t felt like writing retrospective pieces. Also western Europe feels like a well known and understood quantity as we are familiar with many aspects of the culture. The internet is awash with all kinds of information on Europe so I don’t feel inspired to add my own, minor variation to it. Quite why some bloggers insist on writing about the Top Ten things to see in Rome or restaurants in Barcelona remains a to mystery to me.
Which of the places you have been to would you really say was challenging?
I would say Guinea in West Africa is not for the faint hearted or beginner. There’s no polite way of saying it but it’s completely fucked, tempered only by some of the most welcoming people you could ask for – another Muslim country. Endemic corruption; roads that are more holes than asphalt; painfully slow and unreliable transport (the average wait for a shared taxi to fill up and leave was 4 hours and the average speed was 30km/h, excluding the all too common breakdowns); lethal driving abilities (one taxi driver hurtled the wrong way down a busy motorway for 5km honking his horn to deter the oncoming traffic); exceedingly erratic water and electricity supplies; wretched accomodation standards (see The worst hotel in Guinea); dire poverty; stifling heat and humidity in Conakry; sewage running in the streets etc etc. Actually I quite liked it but not tempted to go back in a hurry, particularly as I unknowingly went right through the middle of the ebola breakout when it was in its early stages. Don’t even think about asking if there’s wifi.
Which of the places you haven’t been to highly intrigues you and why?
I would love to go to Yemen but think there’s a good few years before it will be safe enough unfortunately. The decorated, high rise, mud buildings look like nothing else I know of so to see the Saudi Air force, with US and UK help naturally, flattening so much of its ancient history is yet another tragedy to add to the man-made disaster that is going on there.
I am rather fascinated by Saudi Arabia, not because I think I will particularly enjoy it but too see behind the image of it that we are regularly sold. Alas, I think it is probably out of my budget range.
What are your travel plans for the next 6 months or so?
After my current location of Ivory Coast I am going back for another taste of slum dwelling ( see How the other half live) in Burkina Faso with a friend I’ve made from previous trips. Not been to Niger before so will probably check that out before going to Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. All part of my plan to get round most of the world’s Muslim countries to write a book on how Islam actually is for its followers, not the media impression we are familiar with.
Finally, a question we ask many travellers. If you could invite 4 people from any time in human history to an imaginary dinner, who would they be and why?
The great Arab, Muslim traveller, Ibn Battuta has to be at the top of the list: to have covered 75,000 miles, from Africa to China and back again in the 14th century could only make for a fascinating conversation. Rabban Bar Sauma would be my other traveler choice as he was a Chinese Christian who traveled to Europe before Marco Polo returned from his travels and we never hear his story. Jimi Hendrix would liven things up and provide some after dinner entertainment. As we could do with a bit of a laugh and a men only night isn’t my idea of a good social life, I’d include the comedian Katherine Ryan as most subject matter wouldn’t be off limits for her. Mind you, can’t see her getting on too well with Ibn Battuta.
The photos in this article are from Graham’s personal collection. They show him in Benin and Turkmenistan, followed by one of his exhibits in ‘The Best Toilets in Tajikistan series’, Graham with a fellow human in Papua, a photo from Togo and finally with some culinary delights of Sulawesi (Indonesia).