All posts by jpgorvett

Jungles and Demons: Trekking in the Laotian Hills

dscf8695“Everyone is born with a license,” says our Hmong guide, Chuaher, as we toil up the steepening slopes out beyond the central Laotian village of Long Lao. “And on that license,” he pauses for breath, “everyone has an expiry date.”


In the heavy mist of this Mekong mountain morning, our party of five has already trekked past stands of thin rubber trees and skirted fields of bright green sacha inchi-nut bushes. Then, after passing a last, solitary bamboo lean-to, the jungle spreads out its protean shadow ahead of us, up beyond the shiny green leaves and twisting vines of the raggedy forest edge.


“Only the shaman can know what date is written on those licenses,” Chuaher continues, as we move into the gloom of vegetation, the path behind us quickly vanishing. “Only they can journey beyond to the Otherworld and ask the spirits how many years a person has left.”


In the shadowy depths of these ancient, jungled hills, 50 miles south of Luang Prabang, there seem to be plenty of ways that expiry date might be brought forward, too.


First of all, there are the dab qus – the wild spirits of the forest – whose feelings towards humans can be decidedly malignant. Most dangerous of these is the Mos Hlub, a fantastical, bigfoot-style, flesh-eating giant, that bounds about the jungle “like this,” Chuaher demonstrates, striking a pose a bit like a kangaroo. The Mos Hlub grabs you by the wrists and then looks up at the Moon; when he looks down, he eats you. “That’s why you must wear the bamboo amulets,” our guide warns, “so you can slip out of them while he is looking up, and run away.”


Yet, in your flight you still might fall foul of the Poj Ntxoog, a spirit that manifests in these dense forests in the form of a small girl with her feet on backwards. Then there is the Phim Nyuj Vais, a giant, psychotic monkey with the skill of disappearing in one place and then suddenly reappearing in another.


As we pause for a moment under a giant, old growth mango tree, Chuaher tells us how it is almost impossible to kill this beast. Yet, “He hates the smell of chilli,” our guide adds. “He doesn’t like it and runs away fast if he smells it!”


Suddenly, a giant birdwing butterfly flits through the deep shadows to our left, startling us with its white, skeletal markings. All around there is the deep smell of the forest floor – of monkey-ear mushrooms and wild sweet potatoes, strewn like cannonballs amongst the gullies of long dead streams.


“In any case,” starts up Chuaher, whose grandfather is a shaman, “that’s what we Hmong believe.”


Later though, it seems those beliefs may have caught on elsewhere, deep in the heart of this mystical jungle.


After lunching on the banks of a crystal-clear sacred spring, just north of the Kuangsi Falls, I notice something missing.


Where Chuaher had earlier left us a pile of small, plastic packets of chilli powder to pep up our noodles-wrapped in banana leaves, only one remains.


Hesitating at first, I then pick it up and surreptitiously sneak it into my pocket.


Just in case, you understand, just in case.



Taxi to Waziristan


poet's gun

With its skyscraper canyon, sci-fi metro stations and eight-lane highway, Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road could hardly be further from Pakistan’s Tribal Areas if it were a place where the sky was green and people talked backwards and the meek had inherited the Earth.

Indeed, a cab fare from outside the Rolex Building, where I first pull over Rokhan’s Toyota taxi, to his farm on the border with Waziristan would not only cost slightly more than a few hours work for a fund manager in the nearby international financial centre – yes, really that much – but would also involve a tardis-like change in time and dimension, a turning inside-out of worlds and spaces.

Yet, there it is. For a few dirhams and half an hour of time, such a translation, a bilocatory experience, can be had for the taking – provided you get Rokhan’s battered orange and white cab when you stick your hand out into the ceaseless flow of the giant conveyor-belt highway.

He wears a weirdly paramilitary uniform for a cab driver – perhaps understandably, given the story that then emerges – and this khaki-clad son of Waziristan, Pakistan’s most violent and dangerous frontier province, first tells me how he now feels a bit safer these days, whenever he makes the trip back home.

“I’ve handed over my rocket launcher,” he says, “and the light machine gun, my revolver, the grenades…” he pauses for thought; “Oh yes, and the shot guns, the explosives, the mine and the bullets.”

He says this as we head out into the traffic, turning to shuffle back along Sheikh Zayed in the direction of the Palm Jumeirah. He tells me how he recently presented this NRA award-winning arsenal to the Pakistani army, back home in Latti, a few miles from the Waziri border and Afghanistan beyond.

He handed his weapons over “because now is safe”, he says, “ilhamdulilallah”, but perhaps more importantly, because “Army came my house and say you do bad, you no do good, we see anything, we kill you.”

That would do it, I surmise, and so, “Now is peace. Now is good,” Rokhan says, and, like many thousands of other Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Filipinos and Nepalese, he then left home and headed back to work, here, a thousand miles away, driving a cab in Dubai.

In this ‘now’ too, we’re also heading through sluggish traffic past the Dubai Mall, the giant SUVs in the other lanes nudging in and out around us. A slant of sun, far less fierce than the 50C it managed a few months ago, still lands a white-hot block through the cab’s dusty windows onto my be-suited legs, burning like a giant, malignant, interplanetary trouser press.

“It so bad before army,” he continues. “One time I go Waziristan and my tire broke and I have to stop. Then they come, local people, they come with gun and say, ‘Give me tax!”


“Yes! I say what tax? You just people, like me. You no government. I no give you tax. Why not I ask you tax? We same! You give me tax!”

He laughs at this memory, and by now we’ve passed the Business Bay metro station and are coming up to a line of glitzy car showrooms. Mercedes, VW, Hyundai, a giant billboard advertising Bentley-styled apartments, their roofs surreally quiffed in the shape of giant engine cowlings.

“But,” he adds, “then Taliban came and kill them all,” he says.


“Yes. Pakistani Taliban. They very bad.”

By now, we can see the giant sail of the Burj al Arab, the emirate’s iconic seven star hotel, shimmering on the washed-out horizon – the sky itself wilting in the endless heat. It stands far off, on the other side of a seemingly endless building site.

“Afghan Taliban, they not so bad. Afghan Taliban give you two chance. They say, ok, I smell alcohol on your breath, you did something bad, so now you have one chance left. You do again, we kill you.”

“Kill you?”

“Yes. They give two chance. But Pakistani Taliban, no. No two chance. They smell alcohol – they kill. You do wrong thing – they kill. Simple.”

“Wow,” I say, stunned by such a drastic application of zero tolerance policing. “And now the Pakistani Taliban are there, in Waziristan?”

A giant tank of an SUV with blacked out windows and Saudi plates rolls dangerously close on the offside, then veers away again.

“No. Now army come and kill them. Now safe. Now I give my LMG back. And bombs, you know, bomb you throw?”


“Yes. I give them because now army kill Taliban and now safe my house and if army see you with LMG, rocket launcher, they kill you.”

So, all’s well that ends well, I muse, as we pick up speed towards the Mall of the Emirates – once the largest emporium of global retail brands in this sector of the galaxy, but now eclipsed by the Dubai Mall, just back up the road. That in turn is about to be eclipsed by the Mall of the World, also on this road… and so on and so on. I start to think about dinner. Fried haloumi and fresh tabouli salad looms large.

“You ingiliz?” he starts again.

“Yes, kind of,” I answer. I’m travelling on my Irish passport, but when I use it, I still feel about as fake as a be-shamrocked airport pub.

“Ingiliz. So many ingiliz here and everywhere. There is one man in my country, I see on TV, he ingiliz, he 70 years old!


“He teach all the big people in my country – the president, the general, all the big people he teach.”


“He could have big house and big car and money but he live in small old house, he marry there and have children and small, small house. They say why you live in this? He say, I prefer old house, small house!” he laughs. “I prefer, he say!”

“Well, the old ones are the best,” I say, lamely.

“Yes, old!”

There’s not much ancient around here, though. The city is like a mirage that came to stay, a fata morgana in concrete and steel, with the oldest architectural residents on this street still in their 20s.

But now we’re approaching the Palm Jumeirah, as Rokhan continues on his theme of the ingiliz.

“You know what I ask all my friends?”


“I ask, where you want to go?”

“Well, you are a taxi driver,” I quip, rather lamely.


Outside, the highway flips up and curls with undeniable grandeur in a long and leisurely loop before heading out up the trunk of the Palm, the giant land-fill in the shape of the tree, a fossilized-at-birth arecaceae jutting out from the shore into the Gulf’s shallow waters. On its fronds hang heavy lumps of villa and hotel, dangling onto beaches that look like the emptied contents of a billion cement bags. In its dark, dark heart, perhaps where the dates should have been, lurks a massive fiscal black hole, left by Dubai’s 2009 financial meltdown.

“Sorry – you ask them where they want to go? You mean, what country?”

“Yes,” Rokhan replies. “And you know what they say?”


“All my friends – all of them – I ask where you want to go and they all answer: London. Every single one. They all say London. They all want to go to London.”

The image of a bunch of LMG and RPG-armed Waziris walking down Oxford Street suddenly springs to mind – and actually, it’s really not that difficult to imagine.

“I don’t know why they say that.” Rokhan shakes his head in puzzlement. “Why want to go be under ingiliz control again? After we fight and ingiliz go home. Why they want to leave Waziristan? Now is safe, now is peace, army kill you if you try something. Is very strange, yes?”

Yes, Rokhan, it is very strange – or maybe not remotely strange at all. If I were a Waziri, I would probably be climbing wire fences, dodging border guards and trying not to freeze to death or drown, or get left to starve, die of thirst, or suffocate by some evil trafficker, just so I could have some slim chance of getting out and going somewhere where safety isn’t just that you’ll get shot by the army if you try to do something bad.

Or maybe I’d be here, in Dubai, behind the wheel with some gobless prostate of an ingiliz sitting in the back, wondering when I was going to shut up and let me dream of fried haloumi.

All of it possible, in some other iteration of the multiverse, in some other intersection of time and space, but not here, not now, where the cab is finally halting and I’m fishing for the fare.

And then he’s gone, probably forever, out of my particular timeline and back into his, spiralling over the Al Sufouh Road, past the Dubai Pearl and Internet City, over tram lines and metro lines and road lines and all the way back, one day, to some split sharp morning in Waziristan, where Autumn has started and I see its ominous winds[1]For there is always home – that knot of timelines and stories, that place you always end up – even if no one else can understand why.

[1] From a poem by Shams ul Qayyum Wazir, a tribal leader in South Waziristan and father of Maria Toorpakay Wazir, who became one of Pakistan’s most successful squash players, although only after disguising herself as a boy.

At Stansted


Image 1


Still stumbling in semi-shock and air fug and facelessness, we spill into hanger space turned holy and modern, and follow our leaders to the black-brick road, twisting and turning through Givenchy-soaked souk. The duty-free sales drones line this sparkled path, their faces long lodged between boredom and desire. They’re like lizards tensed, but still; eyeing a prey that has no chance of escape. They know the scent of dead mammal walking and are certain of our taste – but they’re certain too, that while this will be a necessary kill, it will also still not quite do it; still not be enough.

We began on the black-brick road, too, just a few moments before, just after the line of interrogation cells, there to greet you at passport control. The cells are named after the trees you can or could have seen, out there in the distant Essex countryside – the emerald woods that once engulfed this low cost carrier enclave. Nowadays, thanks to so many improvements, you can get deported in Silver Birch, or detained without trial in Horse Chestnut.

But past all this we go, reduced to tight, ectoplasmic bundles of holiday frustration, carry-on bags and shorts, thinking of nothing but the just-finished ordinary humiliations of the airport check-in, the lines of consumer-prisoner-tourists unpacking their sex toys and rubber rings before the indifferent clerks, always ready to charge small fortunes for any extra kilo.

And then there is the very ordinariness of a smiling thug to contend with, machine gun and kevlar, there amongst the balsamic chicken and avocado sandwiches at Pret a Manger; or there’s the slicked-back brill-creamed lout by the interrogation rooms, dark suited descendent of the Cray twins, now with government papers. The echoes of glamour, of international travel as a mark of the cosmopolitan, the adventurer, the spy, have all now been trodden down to the last, pathetic grape, squished between the fat toes of an all-day breakfast gouging PR hack, as he burps up the images of long-dead voyagers into suitable, low-cost packages.

We passengers, we many now cowed to behave like the few, are the enemy of this airport, a status made painfully clear, time after time after time. A war is going on, a war of daily, quotidian terror, waged by the drones and the gunmen, the suspicious and the racist, the uniformed and the arrogant, against the huddled masses, the faceless numbers of the departure rooms, herded into pens, then out again, stripped of our money, our dignity, our humanity, and all with a hideous, estuary laugh. “There’s another one got two different socks on this morning!” roars one of them to his mates before a humiliated, mortified prisoner, waiting for his boots to be x-rayed, his humanity handed back, crumpled and bruised by the guard’s meat pie fingers.

They are the dark forces and lizard kings that run our land now, own it and have sex with it. They are Stansted. They are the ‘stony place’. Yes, that is really what it means. And yes, on reflection, of course it does.

Doha Hotel

Doha twilight


Glimpsed through the doors in the partition screen that marks the border between the banqueting-slash-conference hall and the break out-networking, lobby-style area at the Radisson Blu, Doha, I see a dozen, large, round tables around which are seated many large round women in red jackets, listening to a speech. It’s Christmas, and clearly the Santa spirit may be behind this sartorial display, particularly as this is Christmas in the Gulf and so people tend to go a bit nostalgic.

Suddenly, the Filipina gentlewoman addressing the gathering ends her disquisition and there’s a hearty round of applause from the internationals. Meanwhile, out in the lobby/break-out area, on the acres of carpet, it is not only Christmas in the Gulf, but also salat az-zuhr, time for mid-day prayers. In a corner, three Muslims are on their hands and knees, one in a white thoub topped by a red and white chequered ghutra, while the others are in grimy work clothes, the local Keralan chic. They are on the floor down at one end of a long, white table clothed refreshment table, while up at the other end, the non-Muslims – a white chef and two Filipinas – stand oddly huddled together, as if trying to get out of the way of a speeding car and finding no way out except to stand right in each others’ personal space. They look round awkwardly as I go past, wondering, perhaps, if I will try to squeeze up with them in an equally desperate attempt to get out of the way of this awkwardly public display of religion.

I go on past though, out into the baking hot corridor that runs down the side of the building, then into the main hotel reception area. Waiting for the lift, I catch sight of an elderly white man, fawn jacket, tan slacks, travel bag in hand, embracing a younger, Western-dressed Arab guy. They hug passionately, stepping into each other almost, the fevered clasping like that of two lovers who cannot stand to be parted, one of them likely never to return. It is a moment of rare, odd emotion in the shiny lobby, where the bored doormen stand by the gargantuan glass frontage, and the shoe shiner gloomily muses on his distant Nepalese homeland.

The following day is Qatar National Day, and thus the entirely non-national female staff are all required to wear “Qatari national dress” – a Bedouin style garb of gold-embroidered blue and red djelabias, and a head-dress of gold coins. The Filipina girls in particular look very far from home. The hotel is also largely empty, except for a party of large, over-stuffed Saudis who appear mid-afternoon, whooping down the hallway.

At breakfast, the Filipino maître d’, Rony, explains he has not been back home for Christmas for 16 years. “Skype is a great thing, though,” he says. In Saudi, where he worked for five years, “you would put money in the slot of a phone and a meter would tick round faster than a taxi.” He remembers home – Coron – principally as being a good place to leave in order to get to Palawan; “There’s a fast ferry. Very nice. Only ever half full.”

Later, I pass through the same reception area, down the same baking hot corridor, and come once again to the doors of the conference/banqueting hall area. Yesterday’s gathering was indeed a Women’s Breakfast Club, as a slightly stranded looking sign now says, parked next to the entrance door.

I go through then suddenly am pulled up short; on the other side, everything has changed.

The partition separating the dining hall from the lobby has been ripped out, the carpet on which the devout were praying has been torn up, and the concrete floor underneath has been drilled into in several places, breaking it down into whatever lay beneath. What transpired here really only hours ago – the praying and the huddling and the speechifying and the Santa spirit and the good wishes and charitable deeds of the Women’s Breakfast Club, have all been completely erased.

Instead, there is the smell of dust and cement, the fawn stretchings and blank rock of the desert, the same sand and crushed aggregates of a million building sites all across Doha. I listen: in the background, there is the long, burring growl of generators, the steady, android beeps of reversing lorries, the rhythmic banging of metal hammers on wood, nailing together the moulds for the concrete of a thousand mixed-use complexes; a slap clanking of chain and pile driver.

And here before me now, in what was the conference hall, the drilled out concrete and mashed up pale brown rock looks like the desert exposed, revealed to lie just where it has always been – a moment beneath the surface of the five star, international hotel.


Letter from Dhofar


For a steel bar to glow with the fiery orange of a setting desert sun, you need to heat it to just under 500C.

 Apply that near-molten bar then to human skin and the result is a sudden, terrifying shock – a sizzling evaporation of flesh and nerves, a jolting, apocalyptic pain that leaves a lifetime’s scar.

 But that’s not all it does, says Salam Salimun Al Mahi, an octogenarian Jebali Bedouin practitioner of the dying art of wassm – branding – as we sit in the shade besides his house, here in the isolated village of Rabkut, in Oman’s southern province of Dhofar.

 Taking the foot-long steel bar he has used for generations, he demonstrates excitedly how holding its glowing end against a person’s scalp is also a cure for headaches.

 For back pain, too, a burn to the lower calf muscle will do the trick; for shoulder aches, three slashes of the branding iron across the middle back. For leg pain, here and here – he flashes the steel rod – you hold it across the ankle of the opposite foot.

 “The more it hurts, the better the cure,” Salam’s grandnephew, Mohammed, says, provoking a nod of approval from his great uncle.

 Around us, the afternoon wind has begun to pick up, blowing mercifully along the sandy tracks that separate the town’s houses, and rustling the slight leaves of the solitary ghaf tree in Salam’s yard.

 We have just travelled from Salalah in Mohammed’s giant SUV, rolling over the lush, green mountains of the Jebel Qarra – still foggy in the almost miraculous mists of the khareef, the tail-end of the Indian monsoon that touches along the coast of Dhofar.

 From there, we have travelled on across the rocky desert that comes next, heading further inland, as the increasingly despairing landscape bleeds into the engulfing sands of the Empty Quarter.

 “Out here, in the old days, there were no doctors,” says Mohammed, “so my great uncle was the doctor, the healer. He uses wassm, which is not called wassm here, but kowey in Arabic, or mashat, in the local, Mahiri language.”

 Salam has two steel rods – the thinner one he uses on people, the thicker one is for camels.

 “It’s the same?” I ask.

 “Sure,” they both nod.

Salam learnt his craft from his father, who learnt it from his grandfather, and so on back. He makes a circle with his hands as he describes the endless passing on of this knowledge, propping himself up with a wooden stick as we sit on the shaded, hard ground. There is a slight smell of frankincense mixing with the dusty-dry desert air.

 “Do your grand children know about kowey?” I ask.

 “No, not so much,” Salam answers. “The young are a bit afraid of the pain.”

 “Sometimes, nowadays, they only do a small touch, quickly,” adds Mohammed. “But it’s not as good,”

 After they have both shown me their scars – white streaks across Salam’s old, balding scalp, and black wounds across Mohammed’s back – we are silent for a while.

 “Do you have any pain you would like my great uncle to fix?” Salam’s grand nephew then asks me.

 I look at the blackened steel rod before me. Suddenly, the ache in my left foot seems to have completely gone away, and paracetamol seems such a friendly invention.

 “No,” I say. “Perhaps it’s time we headed back?”


Taking the Omani Elevator


In the lobby of the Platinum Hotel, Muscat, there are two elevators.

 Right now, the one on the right isn’t working, so the one on the left is crowded with passengers, and in amongst these very short-haul travellers – also expecting to be upwardly mobile any moment – stands myself, be-suited and sweating.

 The others crammed into this tight, yet glittering space, all work at the hotel. Thus, they are not wearing jackets and ties, like me, nor carrying briefcases, nor wearing wholly-climate-inappropriate socks and clunky dress shoes. Instead, those off duty are in t-shirts, sweats and flip-flops, those on, in thin, silky-looking jackets and trousers. They have also not just come from a meeting with the Readiness Committee of the new airport free zone, either, and in consequence, they all look quite calm and relaxed.

 As we stand stuffed together, awaiting departure, I notice that the sweat stains on my shirt have begun to join together into an aerial map of something resembling the Great Lakes, complete with salty waterways, rivuleting from my right nipple to my left breast pocket. Götterdämmerung, sweat gland style, has come in the transition from 35C street to icy, air conditioned lobby.

 But now, it’s time for greetings.

 “Hey, Ahmed!” the Indian hall porter says to the guy with a small child squeezed into the far right corner. “Late shift?”

 “Yes!” the guy replies, smiling. I realise he is the Keralan receptionist I had earlier and completely unreasonably remonstrated with when the internet went down – and at this point too, I realise that even though we are pressed close enough together to smell each others’ lunch, none of the hotel staff is going to look me in the eye.

 But now we’re off.

 “Going Up!” sparks the cheery, somehow Filipina voice of the elevator. Then, “First floor reached!”

 The doors swish open and there we suddenly see the black-robed, fully-veiled forms of two women, clutching at smartphones. On seeing us, they jolt backwards in a kind of shock. Their eyes, which seem to exert an inexorable pull on my gaze, also seem to be black – though darting and somewhat frightened-looking.

 They are women and in the lift we are all men.

 In the elevator too, all the cheery greetings and smiles seem suddenly dissolved in the heavy, fetid air.

 We wait for the doors to close again, awkwardly and in silence.

 The women too also wait, also silent, eyes now downcast.

 Finally, the doors swish shut and the women vanish, much to everyone’s evident relief.

 “Going Up!” chimes the Filipina elevator, and the conversation resumes.

 “I’m glad to see you are still here,” the porter says to a fourth man, a slightly stooping Pakistani maintenance guy, who has charge of the floor buttons, his hand being closest to them amongst the press of bodies.

 The Pakistani smiles back, slightly bashfully. “Ilhamdulil’allah,” he says. Everyone smiles. Ilhamdulil’allah.

 At the second floor, the door opens to reveal a tall Omani guy in long white dishdasha and government-service turban. The maintenance man leaves, and the Omani gets in, pressing the button for the sixth floor – the rooftop pool and restaurant.

 “A-salam walaikum,” he says.

“W’alaikum a-salam,” we all say back.

 There is a quiet though now, as we pass through the higher levels. At these, the lift starts thinning out, each passenger departing for their anointed floor.

 Indeed, only the Omani remains when my time to leave the sweat-box also finally comes.

 “Fifth floor reached!” the Filipina elevator says.

 The Omani and I nod to each other. The door opens. I leave, and then the door closes.


Live from the Crystal Suites



For the purposes of an assignment on writing about where you know, I’m going to have to pretend that this hotel is my hometown.

That’s because after journeying through some 54 different countries, the place from where I first set out has become about as vague to me as the details of some old, Jim Bean-fuelled transgression. Where was it exactly? when did travelling begin? The first holiday, or the first foreign tax bill?

But there were trees back then, I recall, and a beach. And it rained – often.

At this hotel in Oman’s capital, Muscat, there are none of those things. Instead, there’s a range of Martian-bleak mountains tight up behind, and the beach here stretches for about a thousand miles inland.

And no, there’s no rain. Almost ever.

And instead of clay cliffs gradually sloughing off big chunks into the English Channel – much to the consternation of the cliff-top local golf club – the place where I am now clings close to the feet of the Al Hajar mountains, squeezed between them and the Indian Ocean’s rolling turquoise.

I’m here in Muscat to write about Oman’s now-booming economy, courtesy of an English publisher of business guides, and for that reason, I am on my way now to meet Nidheesh Nair, the hotel’s GM.

The hotel/hometown he presides over sits amidst a tumble of houses and low-rises, rather than lining up in the long rollout of baby-boomer estates, retirees’ Dun Roamins and mock-Tudor pubs where I grew up. The smell here is of dust and rogan josh, cardamom coffee and dishdasha sweat – not chips and Sunday roasts, salt air and damp.

As the boss, Nidheesh is a bit like the mayor of my hometown – except he’s from India, rather than Bournemouth. But in any case, he is friendly, apologetic for his perfect English, and recovering from a bout of chicken pox.

“People look at my face” – it’s spotted with sultana-sized freckles – “and don’t know what to say,” he muses, as I fight back the urge to gawp. “But really, it’s quite common here, with the sun, the dust. Sometimes people even catch it twice.”

The name of our hotel-hometown is the Crystal Suites, something that conjures up an odd mix of images for me, from meth amphetamine to ‘70s disco. The latter thought is aided too by the fluctuating multi-coloured neon that traces the hotel’s name, in both Arabic and English, above its solid frontage.

I cast an eye over the newspaper on the desk. It’s open at an item on the chances of a plague of locusts hitting the nearby farms. And as for that other apocalyptic horseman, war, well, this is the Middle East.

To my surprise, Nidheesh then explains that my hotel/hometown is just six years old, rather than six hundred. The faded lack-of-grandeur of the MDF furniture in my room is more to do with the harsh Arabian air than old age.

“Life is pretty relaxed here,” Nidheesh then adds, after what seems to have been a long time. “Slow and steady.”

And then, there’s another long pause. The silence slowly suffocates the time – enough for us to lose track of what it was I’d asked, and even, what it is exactly that we’re doing here.

But eventually, Nidheesh stirs in the tepid office air and concludes: “We like it that way.”

We both smile.

I think I like it that way too.

And maybe that’s why I’m here, why it’s ok for those real ‘hometown’ memories to fade away.

Right now though, the afternoon sun is sitting heavily on the city’s chest. It’s 42C outside, no rain, no trees. Slowly and steadily, I get up and go.

Time for some more of taking it easy.

Nidheesh agrees.