100 Lessons from 100 Countries

Posted by Jonny Bealby 18th November 2019
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100 Lessons from 100 Countries

You don't hit your 100th country without learning a lesson or two (or 100) along the way...and that's just what Jonny felt compelled to write about after visiting his 100th country this year. Starting his lifelong journey in Spain (where else?) and by no means ending at Lebanon, Jonny's repertoire includes travelling the Silk Road on horseback to a motorbike adventure across Africa and everything in between...

1.       That places with a dangerous reputation are rarely as dangerous as they are perceived. Learnt in El Salvador, Afghanistan, Congo and Angola.

2.       That strangers can be incredibly generous, part 1 - while going to pay my bill at a roadside chaykhana – or café – in Pakistan, I found it had already been paid. And that has happened not once, but twice.

3.       Since the Lebanese civil war, in order to prevent one group taking control, it has been written into the constitution that the president has to be a Sunni Muslim, the prime minister a Shia Muslim, the speaker of the house a Maronite Christian, the head of the armed forces a Druz (local Islamic sect) and the head of the central bank, Greek Orthodox. 

4.       That  rice generally doesn't grow too well above 800 metres, learnt in Indonesia, and that coffee generally only grows above 800 metres, learnt in Kenya. (There are a couple of excptions to these 'truths', most notably the ancient Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines which reach an altitude of 1,500m, and in one region of Costa Rica, where coffee production starts at 600m)

5.       That the malaria parasite can't survive over 2,000 metres, learnt in Ethiopia. And that the term comes from the French mal aire, meaning bad air, as it was thought noxious gas being released from the earth while digging the Panama Canal was responsible for so much fever and death. It was not until many years later that the truth about mosquitos was discovered.

6.       That coffee was discovered in Yemen by a shepherd who saw the energising effect eating the beans had on his goats.

7.       That you should never ask a yes/no question to a stranger in India. They will always tell you yes. Even if the answer is no. Or even if they’re not sure of the answer. Or even if they haven’t understood a single word you’ve said. Learnt getting on a supposed train to Mumbai.

8.       That the terracotta army was only discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well.

9.       That in Nuristan the way to embarrass your neighbour is to kill your neighbour's guest. The only time that I have actually been shot at. Learnt in Afghanistan, a few minutes after this photo was taken.

10.       That it's still common practice in Kyrgyzstan to steal your bride, whether they want to be your wife or not. It happened to a friend of mine, Nazira, in the mountains near Tash Rabat. No longer will the man throw his victim onto the back on his horse, she was forced into the back of his old Lada car and driven off to his yurt. They now have 4 happy kids.

11.       That in Kalash society, a woman can marry as many men as she wants, as long as the new suitor pays twice the dowry (normally number of goats) to the cuckold former husband. But the children belong to the men, meaning once children are born, few couples divorce.

12.       Trust in people, but trust your instincts as well. Learnt turning away a very dodgy looking rickshaw driver in Lahore at four in the morning. 

13.       That the acronym of the world’s most famous gun, the AK47, stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova, named after Mikhail Kalashnikov who invented it, and the year it went into production, 1947. Renowned for its simplicity and durability, it has been an icon of revolution ever since. Learnt in Afghanistan with a mujaheddin who loved the weapon.

14.       That strangers can be incredibly generous, and will always help a traveller, part 2 - while hitchhiking north up the Gold Coast from Sydney to Cairns, a woman leaving Newcastle heading south stopped and picked us up. She explained that unfortunately she had to go to Sydney, but she'd drop us off at her flat, which we were welcome to use as long as we liked. There was wine in the fridge and videos under the TV she informed us. Extraordinary.

15.       That Iran is the nose job capital of the world, Istanbul is hair-transplant central and Cuba does more international plastic surgery ops that any other country per size of the population.

16.       That Iran has more female engineering students than male, that 94% or Iranian women are literate, and Iran has more female cabinets ministers than the United Kingdom.

17.       That Panama hats are not made in Panama but actually come from Ecuador.

18.       That you are legally allowed to own a drone in India, but it is against the law to fly one. (One of these days I'll get arrested)

19.       That Christopher Columbus was the first person to take sugar cane to the West Indies and the New World – his father-in-law was a sugar cane farmer on the Portuguese island of Madeira – and his crew were the first in the New World to distill rum. Learnt while doing a rum tasting in Cartagena, Colombia.

20.       That the first potato came from Chiloé Island, off the coast of Chile... it was black.

21.       That the only Hindu temple dedicated to all three major Hindu gods – Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma – is located in Indonesia, not India and called Prambanan. (As seen below in a photo I took in April 2019)

22.       That one of the most important figures in Buddhism, Guru Rimproshé, was born in the Swat Valley, Pakistan.

23.       That Cyrus the Great of Persia was the first known ruler to introduce maternity leave, nearly 4,000 years ago. Learnt in Iran. (The following is a photo I took of the great man's tomb at Pasagardee in March 2018)

24.       That Cambodians ate tarantula, scorpions, locusts and other bugs to avoid starvation during the time of the Khmer Rouge. They have now become a staple.

25.       That it's great to travel with the French... you'll always drink nice wine and eat good food. Learnt in Africa.

26.       That if you’re not given tea by a host while travelling in Afghanistan, unfortunately you've been kidnapped and you're a hostage and not a guest. Learnt in the Nuristan village of Kanitwar.

27.       That Jericho lays claim to being the oldest city on earth, Damascus to oldest capital on earth and Byblos, to being the oldest town on earth that has been continuously inhabited. Learnt in Lebanon.

28.       That it’s best not to try to have a romantic dinner outside in the Corrientes wetlands. I tried this with my wife (then girlfriend) and ate more insects than lamb. Learnt in Argentina.

29.       While we’re on the subject, mosquitos love bananas but hate garlic, so order the garlic chicken for dinner and not the banana shake.

30.       That there are no large predators in Madagascar except for man and the fossa, a lynx-like cat about a metre in length. That probably has something to do with the fact there are 105 different species of lemur.

31.       That Madagascar was first populated not by Africans, but by Malay and Indonesian boatmen around 1,500 years ago.

32.       That Ethiopia is green and lush. Travelling there only 5 years after the famine of the mid-80s I had assumed it would be a dust bowl. How wrong. The Highland region of the north is a stunning emerald land with extraordinarily beautiful mountains. (Photo of yours truly at the Blue Nile Falls in May 1991)

33.       That what they say in Chitral is generally true, you should never trust a clear sky or a smiling woman.

34.       That said I have also found it to be the case that one should drink with the men of the family but listen to the women. Learnt in Central Asia, where most of my best tips on animal welfare and looking after my horse came from the women I met and not the men, but boy did I have some good drinking sessions with the guys!

35.       That as a woman, it's not a good idea to squat for a pee in long grass while out on a horse ride on the Laikipia Plateau. Ticks can lodge themselves in very awkward places... ask my wife! Learnt in northern Kenya.

36.       That in Mayan society the captain of the winning team of a bizarre ball sport, something like a cross between basketball and rugby, was willingly sacrificed to the gods directly after the game.

37.       That Nazurulla Khan's favoured method of dispatching his enemies in 19th century Bukhara was to take them to the top of the Kalan Minaret, stitch them in a hessian sack, and throw them off.

38.       That Uzbek women still get married with 42 dresses... legend goes that a woman who was sentenced to just such a death, having been wrongly accused of adultery, wore all her dresses and when pushed off the edge, floated to the bottom. It’s therefore considered good luck.

39.       That clove cigarettes smell delicious and always remind one of Indonesia.

40.       That ancient Aztecs didn't use constellations of stars to count time, and know when the season were changing, as the Egyptians did. Instead they used patterns derived from the dark spaces in between, that to them were shaped like the fox or the lama.

41.       That the Blue Nile isn't blue, and the White Nile isn't white. Learnt in Ethiopia and Sudan.

42.       That the largest gorilla is the Eastern Lowland gorilla found in the Eastern DRC.

43.       That in Iran, doors often have two knockers, one for male guests and one for female guests, so those inside will know who to send to the door to greet them.

44.  That in Potosi the Cerro Rico mountain – or rich hill – that once made the town the richest on the planet, has been reduced in height by as much as 50 metres, due to all the silver that has been extracted. It was said a bridge of silver could stretch from Potosi to Madrid, and a bridge of bones could lead back the other way. Some estimates say that 'the mountain that devours men' has claimed 8 million lives.

45.  That after 16 days in the saddle, you really need a shower. Learnt in Turkmenistan.

46.       That if you're going to get caught by an ash cloud, you might as well be in a tropical paradise. Learnt in Mozambique.

47.       That every village home in India has a neem tree, as the leaves are a cure to many ailments.

48.       That if you drink pure vodka you won't get a hangover. Learnt in Kyrgyzstan.

49.       That over the past 10,000 years the world really hasn't changed much. On a trip to Syria in 2011, I visited a newly discovered 'library' burried in a hillside, that was home to some 70,000 tablets. On these tablets was information about a medical conference that had taken place there over 7,000 years ago. Some were explaining the timetable of the event, others were advertising olive oil and medicinal ointments or the services of young ladies. People had come from far and wide to attend... just like today.

50.       That crossing a snowbound pass is better done in the middle of the night when the snow is frozen solid, and you walk on the top of it, rather than during the day when you would sink up to your knees with each step. Learnt crossing the Shandur Pass in northern Pakistan.

51.    That the Sahara Desert really was a sea, and seashells can be found there on top of the dunes in the Ténéré Desert. And going by 12,000-year-old rock art in the Libyan desert elephants, giraffes and crocodiles all once lived where today there is only sand.

52.       That dance is a great way to study anthropology and human migration. Look at the 3,000-year-old rock art in the Central Indian UNESCO World Heritage site of Bhenbetka and you'll find pictures of tribal groups dancing in exactly the same way that the Kalash, a pagan tribe in the Hindu Kush, dance today.

53.       That the baobab tree is the oldest thing on land... (I believe coral reefs can be older). Learnt while stuck on the Niger/Nigeria border where there was a 3,500-year-old specimen. Its radius was so large, the locals have carved a bench out of part of the base and were using it as seating for a café. Unknown to me there was a national census going on in Nigeria and the authorities had closed all the borders. I was stuck there for 5 days!

54.       That chapati dough makes great bait for fishing. Learnt on the Shandur Pass, Pakistan.

55.       That Georgia is the birthplace of wine, with evidence of viticulture dating back 7,000 years.

56.       That caviar makes a good bribe; not a whole pot, just a teaspoon full. Learnt getting across the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia in 1999. I had bought half a kilo for $20 at the fish bazaar in Turkmenbashi on the shores of the Caspian Sea. I had no idea what a deal that was until in Frankfurt airport flying home a week later!

57.       That it’s hard to cross international borders on horseback. The authorities generally just don’t know what to do with you. On the Tajik Uzbek border the Tajik border guards just said give us $10 and you can cross illegally a kilometre up the road. Learnt across Central Asia.

58.       That in Romania there are still descendants of Saxon people that were brought there in the 12th century under the King of Luxemburg, the then ruler of the region, to farm the land. They still speak an old German dialect though most have now returned to their homeland.

59.       Colombia is the third largest producer of coffee in the world, behind Brazil and Vietnam. However, if you're talking quality, not quantity, the Colombians will tell you theirs is the best. It was introduced to the country by a Venezuelan priest in the 18th century.

60.       That a Yamaha XT600 is the perfect bike for an adventure in Africa. It was light enough to get through the bogs of the Congo basin and across soft sands of the Sahara, but sturdy and powerful enough to be comfortable on the open road. It was simple to maintain, and it never broke down. A real classic.

61.       That one can acquire a taste for kumis (fermented mares’ milk) but not for rancid yak butter tea. Learnt in Kyrgyzstan and Ladakh.

62.       That the word for station in Russian is vauxhall. Why? Because a Russian trade minister came to Britain in 1848, saw the opening of Vauxhall Station in South London and went home saying we must have many Vauxhalls.

63.       That the word for a foreigner in east Africa is muzungu, which loosely translates as he who keeps coming back. That's because originally the locals thought all white men were the same person.

64.       The kindness of strangers, part 3 - not everyone that hassles you on the streets of the developing world is a beggar. When walking down Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi, my shirt was tugged at from behind by a woman saying 'Mister, mister...' I told her to leave me alone and walked on faster. Still she tugged at me, 'Mister, mister...' I walked on telling her again to go away. Once more she tugged. This time I stopped and turned around ready to give her a piece of my mind but saw her holding up my passport and money. 'Mister,' she repeated almost apologetically, 'you drop them on street.' Extremely embarrassed, I apologised profusely and made to give her something. But she smiled again and quickly walked away.

65.       That khaki is the Urdu word for dust, and that this was introduced as the British army's favoured colour of uniform after the first Afghan war when, dressed in their famous old red coats, the soldiers were slaughtered pretty much to a man, standing out as they did against the mottled (nay khaki) background of the Khyber Pass.

66.       That the River Plate football team in Buenos Aries was named by an ignorant Englishman that didn't realise La Rio Plata actually meant the River of Silver, not River Plate. Bizarrely they have chosen to keep the original name.

67.       That La Rio Vieja, or the old lady's river, that flows through the coffee region of Colombia was named after some old dear who years ago stole from her pioneering travelling companions, only to drown while making her escape in this treacherous river. (Picture below taken on Christmas day 2018 on La Rio Vieja)

68.       That cigarette smoke really does keep midges away. Learnt in Scotland.

69.       When trekking over high mountains at altitude, take tiny steps - literally half a step in front of the other - get your breathing in sync with that pace and your heartbeat will follow. You can then walk continuously, uphill, for as long as you want to very high altitude. Learnt in Afghanistan while trekking across the mountainous province of Nuristan.

70.       And that suffering from altitude sickness is not a sign of weakness (an apparent concern for younger men especially) and should be addressed immediately. If it is not respected, it can kill.

71.       That if you do happen to find yourself horse trekking through the mountains of Tajikistan, be sure to look after your steed. Leave it overnight unguarded and you might not see it again. The locals steal them and turn them into sausage meat.

72.       Don't get too drunk at an Uzbek wedding. You might find your wallet considerably lighter the next morning. Learnt in Samarkand.

73.       In the late 90s, a single set of traffic lights was installed in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu. However, as drivers couldn't understand why they were asked to wait at red lights when no traffic was coming the other way, they demanded they be removed and replaced with a traffic cop. The traffic cop still directs traffic here today.

74.       Children in Colombia learn sign language as part of the national curriculum.

75.       That Iguazu is the largest waterfall in the world. But in my opinion, Victoria is the most spectacular.

76.       That when the Mekong surges and the Tonlé Sap floods up to five times it's dry season size, fish really can be pulled from trees.

77.       That Gustav Eifel didn't just build a tower in Paris, he also designed Santiago's main railway station. But the equally impressive iron-framed central market of that city was not his work, but was built in Birmingham and transported there in pieces.

78.       That Alta in the Norwegian Arctic Circle is the most consistent place to see the Northern Lights.

79.       That the full name of the former president of Zaire, Mabutu Sésé Séko Nkoko Wazi Banga, roughly translates as ‘the all-powerful warrior who, because of endurance and an inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake’. Modest chap then. Learnt in Zaire.

80.       That although it’s embarrassing, and not a little disconcerting, it really does make a difference to being understood if you mimic the local accent. Learnt in India trying to find the right bus to Delhi.

81.       That Madagascar is the oldest island on the planet, breaking away as it did from the African continent some 80 million years ago.

82.       That at the start of the 20th century there were over 200,000 lions in Africa. Now there are only 20,000.

83.       That Cuba used to be pretty much owned by the mafia, and that in the late 1950s they even had a mafia conference there where the heads of all the big US crime syndicates came to discuss strategies. Learn on a Havana mafia tour.

84.       That war zones can be very exciting. I was in Kabul the day the Taliban launched a big attack on the city, firing 100s of rockets into the suburbs, one of which exploded just across the road from where I was staying, sending me spinning across the room. Although there was fear there was also an extraordinary sense of excitement, something I realised could become addictive and I knew I should leave and not come back.

85.       The kindness of strangers, part 4 - when travelling through Africa on my motorbike in the early 90s, I had one contact given to me by an old school friend. The contact was a Dutch farmer living just outside Lusaka. Convenient then that that was the place I came off my bike and broke my collar bone. One phone call from the hospital and Jan picked me up, helped me fix my bike and had me stay for 3 weeks while I recovered. Sadly, I have never seen him since.

86.       That my dad's advice on going travelling for the first time is usually right... 'take half the amount of clothes and twice the amount of money and you'll be fine.' Naturally, I put out my hand...

87.       That the Afghans’ fish in a curious way – by throwing hand grenades into a lake and then picking up the corpses. And that Mufti, my best jeep driver in Pakistan, takes of his shalwar baggy trousers, ties the legs up in knots and lets the river trout swim into them!

88.   That the largest Buddhist temple on earth is not in Japan or Bhutan or Sri Lanka or Tibet but actually on the predominantly Islamic island of Java in Indonesia and is called Borobudur. It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site.

89.       You really don’t have to buy mineral water in a plastic bottle when travelling, the self-filtering water bottles (Water-to-Go, Life Straw, Grayl) really do work; learnt in Montenegro, India and England. (To prove their effectiveness to my sceptical father I scooped old water out of his bird bath and drink it – I was fine.)  

90.       If you train poachers about the benefits of wild animals – beyond that of a simple food source – they can go on to be excellent rangers and trackers, and in so doing help protect their environment and the wildlife that lives within it. Learnt in the Congo.

91.       That you should always choose your traveling companions wisely… riding a horse the length of the Silk Road with a total stranger will rarely end well, especially if you’ve chosen her just because she’s hot. Similarly, your best friend at home may not be your perfect travelling companion. To get on while travelling requires different attributes to those while at home. And if in doubt, travel on your own, you’ll meet far more people and as a result engage far more in local culture.

92.       That it’s risky, and probably best avoided - particularly in the US - to call professional of-age women ‘girls’. Learnt the hard way while having a meeting with a female journalist in New York.

93.       Always check inside a toilet carefully before you sit down. Learnt in Australia where, much to my alarm, I found I was sharing my rickety corrugated iron dunny with a very large tarantula.

94.       That even if you have no intention of buying one (you still have a 6,000-mile overland journey to make it home, and home at the time consists of a tiny box-room in your parents’ house) you absolutely will buy a carpet in Iran. Learnt in Isfahan in 1997.

95.       That it’s often the less well-known places that you visit on your travels that will linger longer in your memory. Learnt visiting both the Taj Mahal and Orchha in India.

96.       That most of your friends just want to know if you had a good time on your travels. They don’t want to see 400 photos of Machu Picchu or hear a lengthy description of your time away. But your Mum will. (If you really want to tell people about your travels, write a book – I did and amazingly it turned out, quite a lot of strangers were interested!)

97.       That events you might vaguely remember as a child being covered in a 5-minute news item had a profound and life-changing impact on those involved. Learnt talking to an Indian lady on a train to Kampala, who was just returning for the first time in two decades after being kicked out of Uganda by Ide Amin.

98.       That drunk men are just as annoying in Kyrgyzstan as they are in England.

99.       That it is possible to buy second-hand underwear from vending machines on the street in Japan. Don’t ask.

100.     And finally that the people you meet are always more interesting, educational and ultimately rewarding that the places themselves and that on the whole, the old cliché that the journey is more fulfilling than the destination, is generally true.  (Photo of me with Saifullah, the cheif spokesperson for the Kalash, a pagan tribe that live in the Hindu Kush, who 20 years ago advised me to set up a travel company. We are still great friends today.)

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