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Friday 28 November 2014

Around the world in 365 days

Eoghan Corry

As a travel writer, you end up in situations on a weekly basis that most people would only experience a couple of times in a lifetime.

It can damage your perspective, and it is sometimes a struggle to maintain a sense of proportion about the amazing things that go hurtling by you at speed. Speed becomes part of the story, part of the addiction.

You do the average weekend break in half a day, the one-week holiday in two days, the month's holiday in four.

Not quite "Where the hell is Eoghan", like that guy Matt on Youtube. But faster than most people.

More than once in the last year I've landed in Dublin, exchanged suitcases without going home and boarded another flight. For a four-month period I did not have more than three consecutive nights in my own bed.

It is a dream job. The old cliche that "every meal is a banquet, every night a honeymoon" is surprisingly close to the truth.

Some travel writers crack up and become insufferable bores. That's a major hazard. Thankfully, most of those guys don't last long in the business.

Only in the company of other travel writers can we really talk openly about what we do, like traffic clampers, pimps, or arms dealers, writers in a huddle at yet another all-inclusive new tropical golf and spa resort sharing five-star stories from the seven continents.

Sometimes you bury your head in the pillow and suffer from the sights of deprivation and poverty you find. But if you believe, as I do, that tourism is a large part of the solution to the problems of the developing world, you recover in time for the next plane ride.

When a favourite aunt died in west Clare this year and I had to miss the funeral, I got a reminder that the very joy of travel writing is also its downfall. There is nothing like a sudden death, a funeral you have missed, a family occasion you can't make, to remind you of how the beauty of an ordinary life is passing you by as you trot the globe.

There aren't that many of us, maybe 150 of us worldwide, who spend our year trotting the globe. We get to know each other well.

JANUARY: Ice is the word. Everything here is maintained at minus three to avoid a great meltdown. With the help of 100 trucks loaded with snow and about 50 tonnes of ice, Lillehammer's new ice hotel has opened and I have a room for the first night.

Darkness falls early here, the seven-kilometre, floodlit run from the top of Haeffjell ski slope makes the heart shine in the dark.

Via Madrid to Zaragosa by the new high speed train, and see what the Iberian tiger has being doing for this country. The Spaniards built two metro lines for the same amount we spent on the traffic-choking, taxi-colliding Luas. They run a better health service for less than half the cost per patient. Why do we pay four times the going rate for everything?

FEBRUARY: At the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi each suite has a private butler. The numerous staff flock around you at the restaurants. This is high living, but the Palace doesn't have the panache of the landmark Burj, the hotel that made Dubai famous, (neither does the underwater Atlantis that followed in December). Here everything looks like it was built last week, mainly because it was. Amid all the fantastic luxury, you can savour the sight of the greatest ongoing construction boom the world has seen since 1920s Manhattan. The labourers from India are paid just $4 (€2.90) a day. Nobody has heard the phrase credit crunch as of yet.

MARCH: Andorra has thrown off the beginner's ski jacket. I spend a massive day chasing the vivacious Andrea with her snowboard over 50km of piste at high pace, into France and back out again.

It was magnificent. But the savvy skiers are still not convinced that Andorra will ever be Espace Killy and are staying away. Meanwhile, the beginners have moved on to Bulgaria.

I try to coax my daughters onto higher and steeper ground. Constance, my eldest, assures me she is going to spend the entire week "exploring the inner recesses of her comfort zone".

APRIL: This could be Glendalough in AD 700. We have climbed a rocky path and stumbled over fragments of broken stone to come to a small, cell-like church. A priest with a wizened face and a long beard will offer me a blessing and hold up the distinctive monastery cross for me to venerate.

It is Lalibela in Ethiopia, during Lent, a Christian island in a Muslim sea where every church has a replica of the Ark of the Covenant -- some hold the real one is kept under lock and key in Axum. Calls to prayer echo across the hillsides. It sounds Muslim, but this is Christian prayer -- Christianity as it used to be. They use the Aramaic language of Christ in their mass.

In Addis the lights flash in Platinum nightclub and beautiful women come to dance. In the corner I chat with Solomon Tsadik, a wise man who was born under the shadow of the Italian invasion, grew up under Haile Selassie, learned to survive under the communists and is now discussing the aid industry that sustains Ethiopia.

He wants tourism, not aid, but the tourists won't come. Ramshackle communist era hotels with empty swimming pools wait for an upturn that shows no sign of coming.

Ethiopia faces a new crisis this month. The price of rice has quadrupled as world stocks, scared out of the financial sector, chase commodities. People in the hillsides are starving and children run alongside the bus calling for the local currency, the bir. Bir, bir, bir they shout.

On a hillside near Bahar Dar we climb the highlands over the Nile to see some hippos and learn the meaning of a Biblical downpour. The wadis fill deep with water, shoes and clothes start to disintegrate in the rain. I have never been so wet. We make it back to the hotel feeling like the contents of Roundwood reservoir has been dropped on our heads. "At least the swimming pool will be full," the Corkman among us quips.

A week later in Cairo the pyramids are gleaming under the early morning sun. There were riots here over food prices. A university graduate wants to know just one thing about Ireland -- what price is rice here and how fast is the price rising?

MAY: When you come from somewhere green and lush, the big arid desert landscapes are what inspire you. Here I am in Nevada, investigating UFOs, clambering through shafts in old deserted mining towns, skipping over the sidings at empty railway junctions, trekking through sculpted desert landscapes and fulfilling an ambition to spend time at the hottest place on earth, Death Valley over the border in California.

My beloved Vegas is just down the road with its non-stop action, but this is of a different age. As a travel writer you see lots of hotels, at Pahrump we see a legal brothel. When we stop in a jukebox village bar a lady claiming to be "Hooker Number Two in Tonopah" comes out to greet me and Carsten Andersen, a Danish colleague. By the way, what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas -- it ends up on Youtube.

An encounter with a surfboard on the Wild Coast in South Africa, between Durban and Port Elizabeth. I lost. The just man falls more often on a surfboard than anyone else. Maybe I will make it over one wave in 2009. The interview with a village healer, the Sangoma, is curtailed by the death of the chief's son from Aids. Chief has now lost four sons. Even as the stadiums are being readied for the World Cup, Aids is choking the most beautiful continent.

Back in Kwazulu Natal I stop by the battle of Isandlwana, where 1,500 Irish perished at the hands of Zulus, and on to Talana. Here the Irish fighting for England met the Irish fighting for the Boers. They wrote a great street ballad about it.

More recent history: the Mandela museum in Umtata, homage to a great man. A news reporter covered his election victory in 1994. On his inauguration night he talked of the Dunnes Stores women.

JUNE: Darkness descended here at six. Have I made the wrong call, chasing winter all summer? In December I had the midnight sun sailing from Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Now I am back in the Southern H for two months in a row, staying in a resort in Jacob's Creek, an hour and a half out of Adelaide in South Australia, with my romantic dinner served in my lodge and romantic flower petals scattered in the bath. Again, I was on my own.

JULY: A day in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney with Corkman Will Creedon. He was the one who said that this great wine brand could also be a great tourism brand, and gathered the old wine families together to talk beds, spas and retreats. It is a long and tasteful day. Who says you have to spit out the red stuff anyway?

AUGUST: Branching out. A zip wire home from the post-dinner Calvados to my bed in a treehouse in Dol de Bretagne. They have about 80 treehouses now on offer to visitors to France who have grown tired of ground level and want to aspire to higher things. A treehouse turns everyone into a child. My mind harks back to when my friends Enda Meaney and Colm Maguire spent my entire 11th year in one. Colm died prematurely this year. His spirit is high in these treetops.

SEPTEMBER: A somewhat incongruous stream of text messages tell of financial meltdown at home as I take a bullock cart ride through the fields of Tamil Nadu. This is a rich region by Indian standards, yet €100 a month is a good wage.

We go to an eco resort in Kerala. Kerala is different, not least because of the Christian shrines at the crossroads alongside the Hindu ones. I join the festive tug of war between the young fellows from the village and a disinterested elephant (we won). They say eco-tourism is the coming thing and the Keralans are anxious to impress. No chlorine in the pool means that the birds have gathered there to splash. No sprays for the insects means that we have those little candle thingies designed to keep mosquitoes at bay. They don't work. Nobody explained ecotourism to the mosquitoes.

OCTOBER: Back at the wine-tasting table with the Spanish, and it feels like home. Most people don't go to Ethiopia or India on holidays, they go to Spain. The Spanish come top of the charts because they are good at it. They repaint, rebuild, reinvent all the time. Even the jaded Costa resorts are doing their best to make their 1960s high-rise seem more inviting. Period-style boutique hotels are beginning to compete with the concrete boxes.

NOVEMBER: A new cruise ship to be launched, Celebrity Solstice, out of Miami. These launches have a pattern of their own: fireworks, Filipino waiters with trays of champagne, music hall entertainment and food, lots of food.

Food is the new battleground between the cruise armadas, simply because so many of these ships look and feel the same. There is little else to distinguish between them, with their shopping mall interiors, water feature, plunge pools and deck bars where the after breakfast cocktail can turn into a long day imbibing in the sun.

DECEMBER: There is a spot along the ancient walls at the back of King Herod's fortress in Masada where the Jewish Zealot defenders sat for months and watched the Roman army construct a giant ramp over the ravine, cartload of rocks after cartload, day after day, until they reached the gate.

Can you imagine the thought, closer and closer to doom? Each day closer to death in a real sense. They didn't wait, they committed suicide. Israeli soldiers come here as part of their induction.

The beautiful vista over the Dead Sea below is changing, the sea is getting half the supply of water it used to and is retreating from the shoreline at an alarming three feet a year. At night we lay on our backs and looked up at the stars through the clear sky, knowing that, unless something is done, the sea where you don't sink will have sunk away itself.

Back in Tel Aviv the locals tell us they feel Israel should "sort out its little problem" with Gaza and launch an air strike in Iran now before the new American president is sworn in and the rules of the game change.

What a sad Christmas it turned out to be in Bethlehem and across the plain in Gaza.

Eoghan Corry is editor of Travel Extra magazine

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