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Writes the author: "History", said T E Lawrence when pulled up by his biographer on a point of fact in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, "is all lies anyway, so why worry". Why worry indeed, but I did worry: I wanted to be sure that ostriches didn't use their tails as sunshades (as one 18th-century travel writer would have us believe), and that Nile crocodiles were indifferent to the religious persuasion of their dinners. So began thirty years of independent travel that has taken me to 84 different countries on four different continents.
Which is my favourite? Well I have fond memories of being lost in a rain forest in Costa Rica and nearly losing a leg in Panama; of beetles hatching in police custody in Sudan and the art of micro-copying in Pakistan; there was a wayward camel in Xinjiang and editing of books on Indonesian travel modes at the University of Hong Kong. I have slightly less fond memories of riding with herdsmen in Mongolia ? or at least of the wooden saddle: after that, the long trans-Siberian crossing through a grey Gorbachov winter, being pinched all night by Cossack women in pink nylon vests, was a 'standing room only' experience.
But, in the great tradition of travel literature, I digress. If I had to choose a favourite country it would have to be England. A raw day in winter, with copper light on the beech trees of Surrey to be exact. As everyone knows, it's only when you've been to one or two other places that home and birthplace wins the top spot. A close second, however, would have to be my second home of the past 7 years, the Sultanate of Oman. Apart from its raw natural beauty and legendary hospitality, this is where, after six months travelling the silk route compiling a book on contemporary artists, I met my beloved husband. It is also where, while sitting eating egg sandwiches on a windswept escarpment in the Hajar mountains, I thought "What a lonely planet". It was only logical, then, to write up the experience for the publisher of the same name in Middle East (4th edition) and Arabian Peninsula (1st edition).
All in all, I've had a long association with the Middle East: entomological field trips with parents in Saudi; a dissertation on Doughty and Lawrence (BA, Stirling University); a thesis on the perception of the Arabic Orient (MPhil, Oxford University); milking goats in Syria; watering poppies in Jordan; covering Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait for Arabian Peninsula. The connection continues with an off-road driving guide of Oman, for Motivate Publishing, and an academic writing skills course, akin to the work I produce for Oman's Ministry of Health, due for publication in 2006.
So did they have sunshades? Did they eat heathens? "Actually yes"; factually no. But who's worried? My top travelling tip would be to pack some "willing suspension of disbelief", and be surprised when it delivers some universal truths.