I have just returned from seven weeks of travel to the Middle East and Europe. I know I am very lucky on a number of counts to have been able to do this. I don’t take it for granted, especially post-pandemic.
Travel, of course, has a number of benefits. One is the insight and broadening of perspective that come from seeing and experiencing how other people live, govern themselves, manifest their culture, relate to each other, memorialise their history, treat the environment (and their tourists), and even build their infrastructure.
Clearly being a parachute tourist is no substitute for living somewhere for some time, working, developing a routine, dealing with the mundane, and so on. It is possible to romanticise the place you visit on holiday.
However, I think there are observations and insights you can glean as an objective bystander that carry value, even though they may seem superficial and are not substantiated with facts and figures. For example, I realised that the state of roading tells you quite a lot about the general condition of a country. My experience was that Croatia has excellent roads on the whole, but some of its neighbours do not, and, where the borders are not otherwise obvious, a deterioration in the road quality is often the first indication that you have crossed into another country – one whose government and economy are not so strong.
Like it or not, tourists will also be coming away from our country with similarly-formed observations and insights.
Our first stop was Dubai, the most populated city in the United Arab Emirates. It is like stepping into the future in the middle of a desert. It is a feat of engineering, planning, architecture, technology – and excess, a testament to ingenuity and foresight, a marvel given that it was largely built in the last 50 years or so. Its gleaming towers shine a little less brightly when you consider that it has been built off the back of modern day slave labour and in an authoritarian regime that, I guess, does not bother itself so much with public consultation and consents. Other apparent benefits of an authoritarian regime, include there being no graffiti, no litter, no homeless people, and no street crime that I saw. It all felt very safe. Our guide explained that this is because there are cameras everywhere.
Given the number of migrants there, and the huge mix of nationalities and ethnicities, it seemed culturally rich and cohesive. It is of course a Muslim state, and so out of respect I dressed more conservatively than I did elsewhere on holiday, but I needn’t have worried judging by the way some other women were dressed. We were also there during Ramadan, and so I avoided walking around with a conspicuous water bottle, but again I needn’t have worried. A relative who lives there told me that even a few years ago, there were big screens up around restaurants during the day shielding the diners from view, but this has all changed now. Dubai is definitely a progressive – within the confines of being Muslim – country, and one that knows what it needs to do to keep attracting tourists and vast wealth.
On that note, we did a harbour cruise one night, and the very catchy, famous (in Israel, anyway) Hebrew song “Tel Aviv” began playing. A bunch of Israelis jumped up and started dancing and singing along. A few years ago this also would have been unthinkable, but now thanks to the Abraham Accords it is a popular destination for Israeli tourists. One of the wonderful spinoffs of peace.
Our next stop was Israel. Given my attachment to the country, which I see as my spiritual home, and the number of times I have visited (now seven), my observations must be placed in a different category to those for the other destinations, and warrant an article on their own. Suffice to say at this stage that despite a spate of terrorist attacks just before I arrived (an Italian tourist walking along Tel Aviv promenade, as I did, was killed in a car ramming just days before) and a constitutional crisis that has deeply divided the country, it felt as dynamic, united and intoxicating as ever.
The Greek Island Crete is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time, primarily because it is freighted with significance in my family consciousness. The grave of my great uncle Ken who was killed in the 1941 Battle of Crete at age 26 is located there, at the Commonwealth War Graves in Suda Bay. I have visited Commonwealth War Graves in Sicily and Israel, and it is impossibly sad to see these beautifully maintained cemeteries with young Kiwi men buried so far from home. But of course, spending time at Ken’s grave (as well as another friend’s great uncle’s) was something else entirely. Shattering.
At the end of my trip in Athens I met a Cretan man who asked me where I was from, and then told me how special New Zealand is to Crete. He had just returned home for the annual commemoration of the battle.
Crete is a wonderful place to visit – abundant in its stunning scenery, history, hospitality and culture. I became intrigued there with their “kandilakia” – tiny roadside houses that act as shrines, often intricately designed and painted, and containing candles, photos of deceased loved ones, images of saints, and other religious paraphernalia. The roads here are often steep, narrow and winding, without footpaths (pedestrians seem unduly trusting of drivers) with goats ambling along them. Originally I believe kandilakia marked spots where accidents had occurred – much as our roadside crosses do. But over time, in this deeply religious country, they have become a religious/cultural tradition, to guide drivers along treacherous roads, and provide them with both comfort and caution.
Next up was Croatia, which is a remarkable country that seemed to have shaken off the shackles of Communism and the Yogoslav Wars very well, and that makes the most of everything it has – the natural wonder of Plitvice Lakes for example, or the wondrous old town of Dubrovnik which is a big drawcard for Game of Thrones fans (am I the only person who has not watched it?). I was astonished to discover Croatia has a population a bit less than ours – it feels like much, much more.
On a diversion for a few days into Montenegro, a man with a wine bar told us that during Communism all the family-run wineries in Yogoslavia were taken over by the state. There was no artisan wine-making. On the fall of Communism and on gaining independence, Croatia very quickly got its boutique wineries back up and running, whereas Montenegro was much slower, and that explained the difference in sophistication and quality. This exemplifies, I think, something about the attitude and vision of Croatia.
Its capital, Zagreb, has a very impressive light rail moving a lot of people regularly all around the centre, and a lot of museums. Its roads and bridges are excellent – partly funded by the EU.
We discovered so much connection between Croatia and New Zealand. We stayed on the idyllic island of Korcula, and know several people in New Zealand whose families are from there. In a little seaside town we stayed in (on the Croatian “riviera”) it turned out our apartment owner had lived in New Zealand for 13 years. The restaurant underneath was called “Ahipara” and featured a map of New Zealand on the menu. Its owner’s forbear had also moved to New Zealand, working in the gum fields, and marrying a Māori woman, as was apparently quite common.
When I think about it, this intermarriage isn’t surprising. As with Māori, I noticed in the Croatians a very strong sense of family and connection to the land. Families work in businesses together and carry them on down the generations, and the land remains owned collectively in families for generations too. We went to a restaurant on Korcula that is owned by the family of a friend of ours, which is a whole-family enterprise, including farming the family land for the produce. Of course, many Croatians brought this work ethic and ethos to Aotearoa and have made tremendous contributions, notably in the wine industry.
Perhaps somewhat insulated from the effects of the Yugoslav Wars in Croatia, we saw and felt the raw scars of it on a day trip to Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina – where there are still many damaged buildings, and we visited the Museum of War and Genocide, which was as grim as you would expect.
On another day trip from Croatia we ventured to Venice. As enchanting as it is, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat depressed wandering around its old Jewish ghetto – which is actually where the word originated. As is much of Europe’s Jewish history, it is one of inordinate suffering and destruction. While there is some extant life there (I enjoyed a bowl of matzah ball soup at its kosher restaurant) and its five synagogues are currently being restored, I found it overshadowed by shops selling Jewish memorabilia and souvenirs of an erased era, and police stationed there for security purposes.
The trip ended with a few days in Athens, in some ways the polar opposite bookend to a trip that began with Dubai – with its incredible history, antiquities, and a touch of decay, graffiti and homelessness, and being the birthplace of democracy. All this leads me to wonder what a tourist’s first impressions and deeper insights might be in Aotearoa. If they got off a cruise ship in Auckland, having been wowed by a beautiful harbour, and walked to the Sky Tower, they would walk up an ugly, dreary and fairly empty Queen St with many homeless people, and have to navigate around a CRL site that (probably unbeknownst to them) has been dragging on for years. If they arrived at Auckland airport, they would likely be stuck in a customs queue snaking around the arrivals hall, and then in gridlock traffic. Would they feel safe, welcomed and positive energy like I did wherever I went? Would they see a strong assured flourishing country and sense a proud patriotic people, reconciled with their past, however troubled it may have been, and excited about their future?