Saturday, 16 February 2013

Remembering Aleppo

Aleppo is being torn apart by the Syrian civil war. The nightly news shows row after row of apartment blocks broken and open to the sky. To most, it is an anonymous flashpoint in a troubled region. But not to me

I arrived in Aleppo late on a November evening in 1994. I had been assured that my visa awaited me at the airport, and that I would be met. In the ramshackle arrivals hall, a bemused frontier guard did not believe that I was expected, despite a large envelope with my name on it being pinned to the wall behind his head. It was raining. The driver who had come to meet me had missed me. Finding no-one, I hailed a taxi, a bright yellow Pontoon Mercedes that was 40 years old even then. I knew a little Arabic, and directed him to the only hotel I knew of in Aleppo, the Baron (of which more later). The hotel gave me a room, albeit with some form-filling; Syria was locked down tight, I had not booked, and strangers were more welcome when you knew their business.  I was given a very basic room that needed work, but it was clean and the bed was comfortable enough. I had had a long journey. I slept.

In the morning they drove me out to the research farm I had come to visit, 20 miles to the south on the main Damascus highway. I gazed at the flat countryside, grey in the rain, scattered with half-completed houses and cement works. I had come from Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas, where I had been for over two years, and which I would soon have to leave.  I thought of the Thimphu valley, surrounded by high hills that sparkled in the sun below a bright autumn sky, the warmth of the sun, the surrounding snowpeaks, the great herds of yaks on the uplands, and the quiet river where I had recently seen an otter.

When I returned to Aleppo to take up my post in March 1995, it was spring, and life looked much better.

I settled right in the middle of the city. Although nearly 40, I was single and had no wish to immure myself in a comfortable but soulless flat in the University quarter, where most of the research centre’s staff, and the few other foreigners in the city, lived. I asked ICARDA’s accommodation officer if he could find me somewhere in the city centre. He was taken aback; no-one did that. I suspect the authorities liked outsiders grouped in one place, where they would not get too involved in the life of the city. But after a week or two he found a flat in in the romantically-named Kahlil Gibran Street, just off the main square.It was never really a comfortable flat, no-one I knew lived nearby, and parking was hell.

Yet in a way I liked it well enough.  There was a tiny balcony on which I could sit through the oppressively hot summer evenings, with a view of the art shop opposite, run by an artist whose precise, slightly kitsch work was displayed in the window. Below me was a print shop that used old-fashioned letterpress machines; when they were busy they worked through the night, and my bedroom shook from the thumping machinery below. Across the hall was a medical laboratory; they closed for several hours in the afternoon, and now and then I would come home at three o’clock to find a patient or two waiting in the hall for them to open at five. One sticky summer afternoon I found an old couple, in traditional dress, clearly rural, the husband ill, the wife frightened, lying back against my door. The wife apologised for blocking my doorway. I took a litre bottle of cold water out to them and she thanked me so profusely that it humbled me; her hands flew back and forth as she called upon God to remember my kindness. 

In the early spring of 1997 I moved to a far better-appointed flat in a French-built, mandate-era building in Azizieh, the Christian quarter, half a mile or so to the north, just behind the Latin Church. This was better, though I never grew to like its mazout stoves. Mazout was low-grade, dirty diesel; one filled a tank above the stove in the living-room or bedroom, and it dripped slowly through to the furnace, the glass door of which gave off a flicker of light and the illusion of a hearth. The fumes from the mazout brooded in the winter sky above Aleppo and there was a constant whiff of diesel, the end of which was a welcome sign that winter had ended.

From the beginning, I walked. There is no other way to see a city and sense its rhythms.

The first thing one noticed, oddly, was that Aleppo was a living motor museum. The import duties were high, and the most ghastly heap was worth several thousand dollars provided it had the coveted domestic licence plate. Syrians did not, therefore, scrap their cars; they updated them. One often saw a 30 or 40-year old Volvo or Vauxhall with a modern interior, and the engines and transmissions often bore little relation to the originals. The exceptions were the huge De Sotos and Buicks, mostly from the early or mid-1950s, that had huge “lazy” V8s; I learned to recognise their throaty burble as they drifted down the main drag, Shoukri-al Qouwatly Street. Each car was a riot of chrome, huge mirrors, fins and sumptuous paintwork that was often clearly original. My heart was stolen by a ’55 Buick that passed by one day, a deep dark blue with a white roof, its grille a huge gaping chromium and steel mouth that seemed set to swallow the pedestrians who scuttled across the street in front of it.

In the early evening I would stroll around Azizieh, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere; no veils here, just beautifully-groomed young men in bright, well-tailored coloured shirts, every bristle of the moustache trimmed to perfection. The women dressed smartly in fashions just a little from yesterday; younger women slipped by in twos and threes in jeans and blouses, big hair clouding their shoulders, wrists and ears hung with gold. But there were others, women with long, severe dresses, headscarves and headbands, and others still cloaked in severe black abayas. Sometimes these had horizontal bands for the eyes; but sometimes the black veil cloaked the eyes also, so that although the occupant could see you, you could not see them. The effect was frankly sinister. Once, and just once, I saw a woman so dressed lift her veil briefly; I caught a glimpse of a face that seemed pale and terrified. The veil dropped quickly.

 As a single man in Aleppo, I could not meet women outside my work. The Syrian and other Arab women met there were kind, funny, and sophisticated; some were professional scientists and were highly accomplished.  But a woman’s public reputation was fragile, and to have met them privately would have been tantamount to announcing one’s engagement. (Life for a single woman was of course even more constricted than it was for me.) There was thus no way of getting to know someone well enough to decide whether to proceed. In general, single men struggled, especially foreigners, for life was organised strongly around the family. Thus the city had many excellent restaurants, but a male group would be confined to the “non-family” room, almost always the least attractive area; otherwise, it was felt, we would ogle and pester women.

In this atmosphere, prostitution should have thrived, but I heard of little evidence.  But I am sure it was there. On two occasions, I did visit clubs. The first was a dingy basement to which a friend had procured an invitation; a few men sat and stared at a bored-looking woman who danced without enthusiasm. I left after a few minutes. On the second occasion an Australian friend, a postgraduate student from the centre, called by, and we decided to go out and eat. We had seen what looked like an open-air restaurant behind a high fence not far from the Baron Hotel.  We pushed open the gate and found ourselves in an open space with numerous tables, mostly empty, and a large stage at the far end. A waiter explained that it was not a restaurant but a club, but that we were welcome simply to eat. We were served shish tawouk (chicken kebab, with cooked tomatoes and unleavened bread) and a salad, a quite ordinary dish but of good quality, and bottles of local beer. 

After some time a slim woman in her early 30s approached us and sat down at our table. She spoke only Arabic, but I could understand her up to a point. She was a woman of great charm. I sensed that she might be available herself, but that her real function was to find out what we wanted. I explained that we were there simply to eat but told her that I thought her most attractive – which she was, with a pale face and delicate features and a well-tended head of frizzy black hair. She left us, but gracefully. Then a well-dressed man appeared on the stage, holding a microphone; music came from tinny speakers; and a large number of women processed onto the stage. They varied in size and shape, but most were young. They did not seem Syrian; Arab women can certainly be blonde, especially in the eastern Arab world, but these were very slim and pale and looked Slavic. They danced slowly and listlessly. Something was not right about them and I wondered if they were exhausted or even drugged. I had heard vague rumours of trafficking, but Syria was not a place where you asked too many questions. We finished our meal, which had been pleasant enough, and left; I never returned. 

But there were other places where single men were welcome. Early on, I started going to a cafe opposite the Citadel to join a colleague’s son for tea and a game of backgammon. The waiter brought the backgammon set and a hookah (also known as a nargileh; or hubble-bubble, as foreigners called it). The hookah is a sophisticated way to smoke; the heat is provided not by burning tobacco but by a glowing piece of charcoal. Inhalation draws the smoke from this downwards through the tobacco and the resulting smoke passes through a bowl of water to reach the smoker in purified form. The tobacco was usually from Bahrain and was infused with the scent of fruit, usually apple or apricot. Etiquette surrounds the water pipe. It is generally shared, and the nozzle passed back and forth; to do this with the nozzle pointing at one’s companion is the height of rudeness, as it has a phallic shape. Worse, the glowing charcoal is exposed in the upper bowl, a convenient place to light a cigarette – but to do so is to indicate to the hookah-smoker that one has slept with his wife or sister.  But a hookah was a pleasant habit, and we whiled away some pleasant afternoon hours with backgammon and the scent of Bahraini tobacco, in the shadow of the great square Citadel, a medieval structure on a site that had, it was said, been sacred or fortified since the third century BC, and upon which Abraham was said to have milked his sheep.

There were also restaurants where gatherings of men were welcome enough. One or two were in restored mercantile houses in the old quarter; the Sissi House and the Jasmine House, in particuar, were extremely beautiful – they were designed at least in part for tourists, but were none the worse for that. But I always liked Al-Andalus, a cheery local hangout on the roof of a four-storey building very close to the Baron. The restaurant was open but protected by awnings, and there was a cool and pleasant breeze on summer’s evenings, which could be insufferably hot in July, August and early September. The food was much the same as that served in most of the restaurants in the city centre, and in much of the eastern Arab world; the ubiquitous shish tawouk, tabbouleh salad, hummus and kibbeh (the latter being a ball of bulgur and minced lamb). Aleppo was known for its good food, and had its own takes on these Middle Eastern favourites. The region had a distinctive seasonal lamb dish, laham karaz, prepared with cherries (though I never found this in a restaurant, only in a friend’s house). There were also a variety of pastries. Two in particular were said to be unique to Aleppo: tosca and maria, associated with a well-known local restaurant. They were said to be named after two young women, who, fleeing from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, found refuge as dancers in Aleppo; one night when they were clearly very homesick, the restaurateur asked them to describe favourites that they missed from home, so that he could recreate them.

When not eating out, I cooked a modest meal at home and spent a while reading, then strolled out for a beer at the Baron Hotel. The Baron, in which I had stayed on my first night, had been built in 1909 by the Mazloumian family, which still ran it; the current Mazloumian, Armen, was always welcoming to me. The hotel had sheltered, amongst others, General de Gaulle, Teddy Roosevelt, Lawrence of Arabia (a portrait of whom hung in the lounge) and Agatha Christie, who passed through frequently with her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan. But that is all well-known, and has been much written about elsewhere. (The best account I have read of life in the hotel is in Charles Glass’s Tribes with Flags.) My Baron was the bar.  Sometime around eight I would enter, to be greeted by the cheerful Kurdish Aleppian who ran the bar and was generally known as Charlie.

The bar itself was an old-fashioned place of leather armchairs, and Charlie stood in front of an inset bar shelf that mirrored the high pointed windows in size and shape. On the shelves stood bottles that had probably not been touched for years. A leather panel with slots for bottles, long empty, proclaimed: “Underberg. After a good meal”. There were scattered advertising slogans from long ago; a large metal poster showed what looked like a Douglas DC4 flying above the clouds, with the slogan “Fly above the weather with Pan American”.  On the left of the bar, by the window, next to a dim table lamp, stood a foot-high Indian gentleman on a pedestal with AIR INDIA emblazoned on it; one of his hands had come loose from the wire framework that held him together and dangled down towards the light-switch. I liked the bar stool by the window. I wondered who had sat there before me; perhaps the spy Kim Philby, who used to call by when he was based in Beirut, and get wasted at the Baron bar as he drank his way down to his final defection.  I doubt if he did it on Shark, the cloudy and worrying local beer, or on the only alternative, a cheap export version of a German beer, which gave me a headache. No-one so colourful as Philby was there in my day. There was a young Italian who was riding around the world on a Vespa; he got very drunk and tried to fight me. There was a German engineer who got very drunk and tried to fight everyone. There were various contractors, expats, students of Arabic, scientists from the centre and the odd tourist, most from Europe (Americans did come, but they were rare). But if you half-closed your eyes, you could see Allenby or De Gaulle marching down the stairs, pulling on their gloves and barking orders; or Agatha Christie, writing Murder on the Orient Express on the veranda – which, I am told, she did.

***   ***   *** 

I did not feel oppressed in Syria, but there were constant reminders of the regime. Drivers pulled over quickly to let a black car pass; many subjects were taboo, and the city was strewn with posters of Assad and his two sons, his heir apparent Bashar, and the former heir apparent, Bassel, who had died in a car crash some months before I arrived. Aleppians occasionally referred to these posters as “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”. More often, they kept their own counsel. In fact, Aleppo felt very isolated.

But it had not always been so. In my day, few westerners knew of the city, before the recent fighting. But an educated Elizabethan would have done. Before I left for Syria, my mother copied out a quotation from one of the Three Witches in Macbeth:

Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger;
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

Shakespeare’s witch is expressing spite; she wishes to avenge a slight from the sailor’s wife. In fact, the verse is likely an indirect reference to the English merchant adventurer Ralph Fitch, who sailed for the Levant in the Tyger in 1583. Fitch, and others, had good reasons to make for Aleppo. For centuries it had been a key city at the western end of the Silk Road, a role it did not entirely lose until the Suez Canal opened in the late 19th century.  When it did, however, the city’s importance declined precipitously, to be further diminished by the loss of its Anatolian hinterland after Versailles, and then by the loss of its port, Alexandretta, which was transferred by the French to Turkey in the 1930s and is now Iskenderun. The coup de grace had been Syria’s isolation since then under a succession of authoritarian rulers, ending with Hafez al-Assad.  At times the city seemed to have a rather grumpy concept of itself, as do individuals when they have declined in importance.

Yet there were sudden reminders of the glories of the past. The great souk of Aleppo was one. It was many miles of vaulted stone passages, lined by the shops of merchants in cloth or copper, jewellery or other goods; an extraordinary community with its own ancient souks and baths. I passed through it often, for at its heart was one of the world’s oldest inhabited houses, the former Venetian embassy and later the Consulate of the Low Countries. The house was a strange and intricate place lined with aged books of likely great worth. I had friends living in the house – an Australian researcher, and later a Danish poet whose presence puzzled the security police, the Mukhabarat. The souk was a place of pulsating life. One day, as I walked past the Hamam al-Nahaseen, the baths in the copper souk, I saw a man in what looked like a Western suit, standing slightly lost amid the cheerful din of shouting shopkeepers and clattering mules. On his head was a Kyrgyz cap. It was a sign of an ancient route that had reopened. A century earlier the Hejaz Railway had been built at least in part to carry pilgrims south through Syria to the Haj. Today, with the fall of the Soviet bloc, they had resumed their journey; not by train this time, but in broken-down old buses, financing their journey with whatever goods they could sell along the way. Sometimes these were carpets, and the merchants in the souk had new stocks from Bukhara and suchlike to sell alongside the local products, themselves very fine.

There were more modern links with the outside world. Many Syrians had worked in South America, and the groceries sold packets of maté for those who had kept the taste; when the World Cup came round in 1998, someone hung out a huge Brazilian flag that dominated the next street to mine. There was an international jazz festival. The British Council organised the odd tour. (A Reduced Shakespeare Company take on Macbeth, however, left the locals bemused. One of the actors wore a large codpiece. An elderly Syrian next to me whispered, “Genitalia?” He left at the interval.)  A young photographer, Issa Touma, was pioneering a festival of photography. We had mutual friends and I met him on a number of occasions; 15 years later he has not given up this dream, and managed to organise an exhibition of sorts in 2012, despite the chaos around him. Young Syrians did not want to be isolated by politics or by anything else.

Yet it was hard to avoid the feeling that Aleppians were constrained, not just by distrust of their government or of outsiders, but of each other. One did not discuss religion but was aware of its importance. Aleppo was home to people of many faiths; Christian as well as Muslim, and from many subdivisions of those faiths.  Alawite, Druze and Yezidi people were also present, although not in such numbers as elsewhere in Syria; their belief systems are complex and sometimes secret, and their relationship to Islam is not always clear. Other people were Armenian, descendants of those who had fled the terrible events that befell them in the First World War. I always felt that their relationship with other Aleppians was cordial; still, one did not discuss such matters.  In general, everyone seemed to get along well enough, certainly as individuals, but one sensed tensions and I wondered, as I have in other countries, if there was any real sense of shared identity, and what it was.

***   ***   *** 

The centre I worked in, the International Center for Agriculture in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA, was a curious island, with its international staff and the sound of English in the corridors. It was also 30 or 40 minutes’ drive south of Aleppo. It was a journey I made every day in my smart Peugeot 405 Break, either alone or with a car-pool partner. It was not a journey I enjoyed. Driving in Syria was dangerous. A scientist had been killed on his commute two years earlier; a few weeks after I arrived, a popular research student died on her way home from a field trip. I got used to it, but never grew to like it. 

I started a magazine, Caravan. It was to be a communications tool for ICARDA. The first issue had an article in it called When sheep’s tails had wheels – a reference to the local Awassi sheep, whose enormous tail stored fat for the winter. We had found an 18th-century account of Aleppo by an English trader that recounted how farmers tied these huge tails to boards, to prevent damage, and now and then put little wheels on them to ease the sheep’s movement. 

I loved editing Caravan. It was all about what, to me, mattered:  feeding the world without wrecking it. ICARDA had achieved much in its 20-year existence, helping to develop new varieties of chickpea and lentil and wheat and barley, finding new ways of improving pasture, devising crop and livestock rotations and doing much else. It had had a hard beginning, being founded in Lebanon just as that country’s long and miserable civil war was beginning. The Syrian government had invited it to move to Aleppo instead, and had provided the land. Now, as Syria’s own civil war develops, it is being run once more from Lebanon. I hear that ICARDA’s campus near Aleppo has been looted; its work, I hope, is being continued by its many friends amongst the scientists in the countries around the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

The research centre was on a low hill with a view down the Orontes valley towards Hama. The fields were a bright beautiful green and the scrubby, rocky hills in the countryside were scattered with small bright flowers. To our west lay the coastal mountains of Syria, an extension of the Anti-Lebanon chain; lower, but still over 4,000ft in places.  To reach them, one drove south then south-west to Jisr Al-Shughur, then turned south into a long, narrow valley between two spurs of the mountains. Some 20 miles down this valley, a small country road opened to the right and one followed its vertiginous twists and turns, climbing over 3,000ft above the valley floor, which was lush with crops. Driving back into the valley one spring afternoon, I suddenly realised what it was; it was the final stretch of the Rift Valley, come from Kenya and beyond, and stretching north for some 50-60 miles more before its long journey was brought to an abrupt end by the mountains of Anatolia. 

Not long before that point, where the valley had become shallow, a curious ruined church sat just above the valley floor. In the nave was the stump of what had once been a high pillar. This was the basilica of St Simeon Stylites, and the pillar was the one upon which he had perched for 37 years until his death in 459; in the words of Tennyson’s rather terrible poem:

In hungers and in thirsts, fevers and cold, 
In coughs, aches, stitches, ulcerous throes and cramps,
A sign betwixt the meadow and the cloud,
Patient on this tall pillar I have borne
Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow 

Which is I suppose what one expects if one sits on a pillar in all weathers. I visited often, but it was not the sacrifice of St Simeon that drew me to that spot; it was the location above the valley, with its wildflowers and fig trees and the ruined basilica’s naked arches of honey-coloured stone against a bright blue spring or autumn sky.

The basilica was not the only remnant of the Byzantine world. Stretching south towards Hama and Homs, scattered across the scrubby hills with their thin soil, were the abandoned cities of Syria; houses, halls, olive-presses and storehouses, wrought of beautifully dressed stone, their rooves gone but otherwise laughing at time.  A civilisation as good as ours, but gone.  As to why, no-one was sure;  some said that the soil had been worked out – others, that the tide of the Arab invasion, driven north by the fire of their new religion, had blocked the people from their Byzantine markets and wrecked their economy. Like so much in Syria, this was political. A message about soil erosion? Or a negative slant on the coming of Islam?

My favourite reminder of Byzantium – actually, of Rome – was a steeply-arched bridge across a river in a deep green valley in the Kurdish country to the north of Aleppo, close to the Turkish border. Driving across it took some courage due to its steep apex, narrowness and absence of guardrails, and the uneven cobbles; I did it several times in my official Peugeot, mindful of a space of barely a foot on either side of the car. Yet trucks appeared to cross frequently, sailing merrily to the apex and drifting down the other side at three times the speed I dared do it. The bridge was, in fact, a favourite spot, as there was a shallow pool in the river and one could swim there. To reach it one drove for 40 minutes or so north of Aleppo along country roads until one reached a town called ‘Azzaz. The town was described in the Lonely Planet guide as “a windy little dump” and indeed it did not impress, the wind catching the discarded plastic bags and tossing them around the unkempt narrow streets. But ‘Azzaz is contested now, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in north-west Syria. I wonder where most of its people are; and I wonder whether the bridge is still there.

The mountains were a border between worlds. To our west, across the mountains, lay the Mediterranean world. To our east lay the great plains that ran eventually into the eastern border of the Fertile Crescent, to  the Tigris and the Euphrates, beyond which lay Central Asia – Iran, Afghanistan, and the former Soviet republics to the north. These plains were an ecological zone of their own. A colleague defined them for me as areas where there was sufficient rainfall for pastoralists, but where settled agriculture was not viable in most years although it was sometimes tried – an experiment that sometimes met with brief success, but then failed, having destroyed the native vegetation that might have supported camels or a few sheep. We called these plains the steppe. The traveller and colonial administrator Gertrude Bell, who crossed the region in 1905, had a more romantic name for it, titling her book Between the desert and the sown.

I had thought I did not like flat places. The steppe converted me. It was not completely flat; there was just enough relief in the land to give long perspectives. It was semi-arid and in the hot season, the grass struggled to survive, barely shielding the grey baked earth. But once I went out there in spring; there was grass, there were wildflowers there too, and clouds that billowed across horizons so vast that they freed and fed the soul. I did not need to ask why people made their life there – the Bedouin, who had shifted from camel to sheep but still ran their own lives and kept clear of each other, lest a dispute over scarce grazing be settled with a 19th-century musket or worse. 

*** *** ***

I left Syria in 1998. I had not really been there long – less than four years – and I had lived there as a foreigner, with a superficial understanding of the country and its people. Since then I have lived in five other countries; I have been busy, and I thought little about my years in Syria until the civil war began two years ago. Even then, it seemed for a while as if Aleppo would escape more or less unscathed.

As we now know, it hasn’t.  I was finally prompted to write this piece by the shocking deaths of scores of students as they sat their exams at Aleppo University. Of course, nothing I write can illuminate what is happening now; neither can I suggest any way of bringing this conflict to an end. What I can do, I hope, is to point out that this city is not a place on a map or a name in the news; it is a real city that has hundreds of thousands of people trapped in it, and some of them are getting killed. Even those who have left for the safety of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have little to look forward to, as aid agencies struggle to provide them with shelter through the winter.

One day, one way or another, the conflict in Syria will come to an end. Meanwhile I will remember Aleppo and the region as I last saw it; bolts of cloth in an ancient souk, flat rooves studded with domes, men in bright shirts, water-pipes and backgammon, shish tawouk and laham karaz; great open plains with billowing clouds; farmers with donkeys; lines of olive trees marching to the horizon and the border with Turkey, the hills of Anatolia rising in the distance; an old-fashioned bar with leather armchairs and ancient bottles; the breeze and the scent of spring at the Basilica of St Simeon, the valley floor ablaze with green; an ancient Buick burbling past below my balcony through the warm evening air.

Early in 2013 the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, declared Syria a Level 3 emergency, which means that the resources of the entire organisation may be mobilised. Other UN agencies and international NGOs are also involved. This piece has in no way been written for or on behalf of UNICEF or approved by it. However, it would obviously welcome any help it can get. Donations can be made through the main UNICEF web page (, from which there are links to the appropriate page for your country of residence. 

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Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Atlantic crossing

I spent Christmas 2010 in England; it was fiercely cold and the country was blanketed in snow. On January 8 I travelled from my sister’s home in the Oxfordshire countryside to my flat in New York’s Harlem district. It seems a routine journey, but the Atlantic is never routine for me; my first memory in life comes from that journey, and the ocean has always fired my imagination. I jotted down random thoughts that spilled out on the Atlantic crossing, on the nature of travel and the movement of people. This is what emerged. If it makes no sense, don’t worry; it wasn’t meant to.

10.15am GMT
The blue sky is so pale in winter;  everything was thrown into delicate relief, the intricate patterns of the bare twigs, and the ridges of grit on the country road.  It was getting warmer, and the road surface was damp and black between the banks of snow on either side. I came round the bend at the bottom of the hill that leads out of the village of Combe and there was a magpie. I looked at once for its mate but it was alone. One for sorrow.

Over the brow of Stokenchurch Hill, and into the Chilterns. I was thinking of another journey to Heathrow on a November day nearly a quarter of a century ago, sitting beside my father in his silver Saab. Then as now I did not want to go. I'm mad. I can't do this. I can't go to Africa. Hubris. Idiot. The weather was dull, with a low thin cloud stretched over the landscape. Then just for a minute a small patch of very wan sun lit lit up a field to the left of the road, and I saw that there was a dip in the land towards the far side of the field, the little island of sunlight lifting it from the dull landscape around. Then the sunlight was gone, and we were surrounded by murk again. For some reason I never forgot that patch of sunlight on a dip in the field. It did not seem random. But I never could find that little hollow n the land again, and could not remember where I had seen it. Now this morning, as I hurtle over the crest of Stokenchurch Hill and down towards High Wycombe, I saw it again. The snow had melted here, and the field seemed greener than before; perhaps then it was fallow or rough pasture.  Then I looked back towards the road and see the traffic ahead dividing to the left and right round an object in the carriageway, and I veered quickly to the left myself. It was a swan. A swan was lying in the middle of the road, on its breast, its wings spread to either side, its neck twisted and arched. Then a small wooded valley opened up to the right; it was hemmed in by busy roads, and there was a white Georgian manor standing there looking oddly out of place.

4.00pm GMT
Sitting in Gate 40 of Terminal 3, looking out at the aircraft drawn up beside us, the aluminium gleaming dully in the thin yellowish afternoon sun, a little desultory activity beneath the wings, a yellow cart scurrying here and there and the odd chap in orange dayglo vest walking purposefully across the tarmac with a clipboard. There didn’t seem to be many passengers (there weren't; I would have a row to myself, with lots of room for long-flight detritus – books and jackets and customs forms and empty plastic glasses and little packets of biscuits that I would end up throwing away when I get home).

Once, this journey had a sense of occasion.  I was remembering a previous crossing; it was August 1968, I was 11 and we were on the boat train. I wonder which was the last boat train, and when did it run? This one began at Euston and ran straight through Liverpool and into the dock. We got out of the train on one side of a huge shed-like building; on the other side of it I could see a mighty white wall that seems to stretch right across the horizon, studded with windows. It took me a while to realise what it was, then the round portholes give it away. The shed was a heaving mass of steamer trunks and children and loud cheerful voices. There was a festive atmosphere. Lots of families had come to see people off.  Looking back, I suppose many of our fellow-passengers were actually emigrating. These were the last days of the Assisted Passage, when “ten-pound poms” made the six-week voyage to Australia for that sum. Others went to Canada and would certainly have been aboard; there were no wide-bodied jets then, and flying was still extremely expensive.

We rid ourselves of a huge mound of luggage, all of it plastered with labels that said CANADIAN PACIFIC NOT WANTED ON VOYAGE (yes, really; we had those labels). Two or three hours later I was standing by the rail somewhere near the stern, sensing a growing motion as the great white wall moves slowly away from the quay. The water in the widening gap was churned up, probably not by the screws – tugs  were pulling us out – but by the current flowing in to replace the 50,000 tons of steel as it pulled away. On the surface of the grey-brown water a solitary steamer trunk bobbed up and down; it had fallen in during loading, and now a trio of dockers peered down at it from the quay, waving grappling hooks. "I gather the chap's DPhil thesis was in it," says a jocular voice behind me. Someone else chuckled: "I say, I do hope he has a carbon copy!" I' was hemmed in on both sides by fellow-passengers taking their leave of those on the quay; many are clutching the ends of long thin brightly-coloured paper streamers, the other ends held by their friends many tens of feet below. As the gap widens, the streamers part, sometimes dropped, sometimes broken, and fall onto the rising and falling water below.

We went below. In the morning I went back on deck. We had come up the Firth of Clyde in the night and were lying off Greenock. The engines had stopped and the late-summer morning was dead calm, the Clyde estuary miles wide and as still as glass below a huge blue morning sky, greenish-brown mountains across the Clyde, an extraordinary feeling of light and space. All that moves is the tender, a small launch that noses out towards us from Greenock with mail and a few last passengers for the New World.

It was almost the end of the North Atlantic liners. The Empress of Canada already sailed only in summer, and a year or so later the first wide-bodied jets entered service and the historic service from Liverpool to the St Lawrence was abandoned.  The last two White Empresses fell into the twilight existence of cruise liners; but the Canada was one of the last survivors, and lived on, long-forgotten, until the end of 2003. Then she went to Pakistan, to Gadani Beach. This must be one of the strangest places on earth. They just run the ships straight onto the beach at full speed so that they plough deep into the sands, and then an army of thin men in white swarm aboard and break them with hammers and axes and the sweat of their brows.

I'm looking at the aircraft outside; there's a little more activity; a few more people with clipboards, a whine as a cargo door is closed. They won't break her. They will send her to the Boneyard. The Boneyard is in the Arizona desert and hundreds of ghostly aeroplanes stand there, preserved in the dry desert air; vast Boeing 747s, 777s like this one, B52s, jumbos, transports from Vietnam, Northrops that once dropped napalm.

9.30pm GMT
There is an eerie tranquility in an aircraft in mid-flight at night. The lights are off and people are dozing; one or two are working on laptops; others are watching the screens set into the backs of the seats in front. Few read nowadays. I do though. I once devoured almost all 600 pages of William Woodruff's Nab End duology on a 12-hour slog from São Paulo to London. Tonight I had an anthology of the best American travel writing from 2010 and it was rather good. It included a very intelligent piece by Simon Winchester and I was reminded that he had recently written a 'biography' of the Atlantic. I haven't read it; I should, but I'm thinking about the Atlantic anyway, that great labile treacherous mass of water 40,000 feet below my arse.

I was trying to imagine that first flight in a fragile biplane, ending in an Irish bog. (I think it was probably just a field really. But it was in Ireland, so everyone decided they'd landed in a bog.) Leather jackets and thick woollens and leather flying-helmets, thick goggles; wind tearing through the strut wires; wooden propellors; engines forged from metals crude to us and badly fitting, sprays of oil in the slipstream, that sound from undamped exhausts that they used to say was like ripping calico, only nowadays no-one knows what ripping calico sounded like so perhaps there should be a new simile.

Some journeys on this ocean always have ended badly. You are in your cabin; it was a five-day voyage before, but now it's three weeks as you limp along at the pace of the slowest ship, and you zigzag and dogleg, and destroyers and corvettes fuss around like smoky sheepdogs. It's early morning and you're still in your bunk when there is a soft thud and a jolt and the ship falters and seems to have come to a stop. There is an odd silence. The lights flicker but stay on. You can hear the footsteps of a steward clanging on the steel floor of the passage outside so you open the door. No, probably nothing to worry about, but perhaps you wouldn't mind going topside, sir, do you have warm clothing? – good, sir, if you can get it on quickly. On deck everything's quite calm, but the other ships have moved on ahead, leaving a black smoke stain on the horizon; and you're alone in the early morning between a still, solid grey sea and a gunmetal sky, and there's a cool breeze. It's very calm and it must be only your imagination that the ship is settling slowly to starboard. In fact everything is so calm that you cannot envisage the jagged hole below and the cold water streaming in across the hot boilers and the lascars and stokers screaming in agony from the superheated steam.

When I was young, many older people hated the sea.

1.30am GMT, 8.30pm EST
Yellow cabs have this floaty motion, the big heavy old-fashioned bodies swaying across bumps and centrelines and potholes. A thick bulletproof steel wall divides you from the driver, but there is a sliding glass panel in it and it is always open. On the back of the steel wall is a little video screen, like the ones you get in planes. You can touch it to zoom in to the map and see your position, but mostly it plays a loop of what-to-do-in-NY and restaurants and cookery. Its clatter in the background merges with the sanitised rapping from the driver's radio and the murmur of his voice as he talks on his cellphone. He's talking to another cab driver, a friend or maybe a relative, and clearly a beginner, a fellow-African probably from Mali or Senegal, no you gotta take the other slip, the second slip for La Guardia, where're you anyhow, no the second slip, the second you listening to me? and just then La Guardia drifts past on our starboard bow. A little later the cab slows for the tollbooths before the Triborough Bridge that links Queens with Manhattan. It's very long, the Triborough Bridge, and if you look left you can see the spires of Manhattan stud the skyline in the distance, lights shimmering in the great expanse of the East River that lies between.

Most times I do look left. I don't know why but I looked right that night. Another, unlit, bridge runs parallel to the Triborough Bridge, a thousand yards or so to the north. It's an old-fashioned bridge, desolate and lifeless; gantries show that it is a railway bridge. It rises to an elaborate iron cantilever that reminds me of the Forth Bridge; this must carry the central span, and then it runs downward to the shore, where its great length finally merges with the mess of sheds and concrete on the Manhattan bank. As it runs down it passes through an archaic arch and pediment, surmounted by ornate stone or concrete globes, just visible against the night sky. That night, nothing stirred on this old bridge.

I was looking through a wormhole. Any moment, I would see sparks and smoke, and steam white against the night, and an enormous engine with four or five driving wheels on each side would issue forth onto the cantilever, followed by dimly-lit carriages with slatted wooden benches packed with tired and sullen Swedes and Sicilians and Galicians, rocking gently with the movement of the train, fresh from a grimy floating coffin that has brought them to try their luck in the homesteads of Oklahoma and the stockyards of Chicago and the orchards of California. Then the cab floated and swayed across the ramp at the foot of the Triborough Bridge. The wormhole closesd.  We were surrounded by bright lights again, and brightly-lit and deserted pizza parlours, furniture wholesalers, shoe repairers, small piles of grimy ossified snow, crushed hamburger cartons, liquor stores, overhead railroad tracks in latticed iron cages, congealed posters on boarded windows, short nuggety Hispanic men on bicycles delivering takeouts, and lots of African-American men in parkas and earphones, hunched against the bitter cold.

In November friends went to Sudan on business. "You must see the Mogren, where the Blue and White Niles meet," I said. "Especially at sunset. It's a huge expanse of water and there are oxen ploughing near it and date-palms, and it's where the big silver Short Empire flying-boats landed from 1937 to 1947 on their way from Southampton to the Cape." After a week, I got an email. They were sharing a modern flat near the airport, and every morning a car came to collect them and drive them from one side of the airport to the office on the other, past rows of identical modern flats lining wide treeless streets under a white-hot sky. "It isn't really charming," says my friend. At the office they worked 12-hour days, then did some more when they got home. "The Nile's only 300 meters away, apparently," my friend writes. "We haven't seen it." So it goes for six weeks, and then the day before they leave they finally get to the Mogren and stand beside it for five minutes. There's a picture, of two graceful but rather tired young women standing squinting beside a sheet of blue-grey water, the scene bleached of all detail by the midday sun.

If I look for long enough I see the sun start to set over the Mogren. Details emerge, trees, fields, the odd oxen driven across loamy earth by a chap in a white headcloth and djellabiya. Orange rays lance across the water from the setting sun. There's a big silver flying-boat on the water, and someone is leaning from the nose with a grappling hook to push it away from the shore. On the jetty stand great tin drums from which aviation spirit has been poured into the tanks, very slowly and carefully, filtered through muslin. There's one hell of a roar as first one engine, then the other three, start, black smoke jetting from crackling exhausts. The boat turns and taxis away, leaning down a little by the rear, its tall tail-fin standing up against the dark blue sky. After a mile or so it turns; the engines pick up and it lumbers forward and the hull lifts slowly from the surface, and thin sheets of silver water cascade off the shiny aluminium surface, and drop away, leaving a few flying drops to catch the setting sun behind. Then the plane goes higher and further away until it's just a dot, droning south towards Lake Victoria across Kordofan and the Sudd and great herds of animals and men with spears who stand on one leg in the shallows.

The future has yet to be created; it does not exist – but the past does. Those who came this way before are all around you.  If you stop and close your eyes for long enough you can see them flowing past you like a river, and if you think hard you can make the river flow backwards so that aeroplanes rise from bogs and ships reassemble themselves on beaches strewn with steel detritus, and men and women stream back across the midwestern plains, through Ellis Island and back into steerage, and if you go back far enough you can see us all cantering backwards across the steppe on small, stocky, shaggy horses, back to wherever we began.

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Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.