The Favourites of Graham Askey

Graham Askey is a former builder who rents out his home in England to fund his travels, mainly in order to traipse around squalid dictatorships and developing countries, talking to random people in the street, in places without the slightest appeal to tourists. Hopefully making friends and learning something new along the way. His blog Insideotherplaces aims to give some insight into the people and cultures encountered on his travels, as well as occasionally entertaining readers if possible. Graham will be releasing his first book later this year, Toilets of the Wild Frontier, a humorous look at the awful toilets he’s found in out of the way destinations. 

What are three of your favourite countries, and why?

Like all my favourite countries, the main criteria for judging them is the friendliness of the people. I wouldn’t care in the slightest if there was nothing worth seeing in the touristic sense in Bangladesh because the people are so open to strangers. At times I literally had to apologise and keep walking, or I simply wouldn’t have got more than a few hundred meters due to the offers to stop and drink tea.

From the poorest farm labourers in muddy shacks to the mansions of the wealthy, I was invited in to experience true hospitality and was treated with nothing but respect. I’m sure many people would be deterred by the chaos and dysfunctionality of everyday life, but having a train delayed due to tracks being stolen and sold for scrap, for instance, only adds to the richness of the travel experience as far as I’m concerned.

To be honest, I could just as easily have chosen Pakistan, as both these countries have many of the positive aspects I expressed about the people of Bangladesh but with the addition of a wealth of historical and geographical sites. If I had to pick one reason to choose Iran above Pakistan, it would be the beauty of the Islamic architecture in Isfahan. If the rest of the country was a barren wasteland, I’d still insist you went to appreciate their splendour.

From the stone age to the recent past, Iran has a range of historic marvels few places could offer. Throw in the hospitality, unique cuisine, and the glorious demolition of stereotypes created by news coverage of the country, and you’ve got an unbeatable combination – unless, of course, your idea of a good trip is getting blind drunk and having casual sex with strangers. Whilst this is not an impossibility, I wouldn’t put it at the top of your list.

Burkina Faso
I thought it was important to pick a different part of the world, despite Pakistan being a worthy contender, as Africa has its own great traditions of hospitality that differ from the aforementioned countries. Also, I could easily have picked a number of other African countries because it is the continent on which I’ve made the closest friends. By which I mean real friends, who remain in regular contact and I’ve been invited back to stay with on more than one occasion.

Like Bangladesh, you could say there’s not much to see in Burkina Faso, but due to the friends I’ve made there in particular, I’ve come to feel at home in West Africa. I’ve experienced hospitality from the poorest of the poor, without it even occurring to my hosts that there could be the slightest financial benefit in befriending a foreigner. Not to say that everyone is like that, but I’ve never been so humbled by the hospitality and actually risked offending hosts by attempting to contribute. Sadly much of the country has become off-limits more recently, largely due to the fall out from the disastrous western intervention in Libya, importing extremism completely out of character local culture.

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Here you can encounter families with Muslims, Christians and followers of traditional religions, all getting on happily. Inter-faith marriages have always been widely accepted in the region.

Honourable mentions
I don’t make the slightest apology for picking Muslim countries as my favourites, as not only do they have their own indigenous traditions of hospitality, but it is inherent in the faith. So, as well as Pakistan, I’d have to add Egypt, where I’ve made friends that remain very dear to me.

What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why? 

Reuniting a family that had been split up for many years
After making friends with a young man in Benin called Paulin, he explained that he wished he had the money to go and search for his mother in Ivory Coast that he’d lost contact with. He’d come back to Benin as a child with his father, who had died shortly after. So, several weeks later in a small town in Ivory Coast, armed with the family details, I went in search of his family by putting up posters and talking to whoever was interested. After a couple of days of adventures, I discovered Paulin’s uncle in a small village nearby, who introduced me to other members of the family and phoned Paulin’s mother in Abidjan so they could speak for the first time in many years. On my next visit, I was able to meet the reunited family, and unsurprisingly, Paulin and I are still friends. 

Kurdish New Year in Syria
After a random encounter with a Kurdish man on the streets of Aleppo in Syria in 2004, I was invited to New Year celebrations on the outskirts of the city. There were thousands of Kurds at what was more like a festival than anything, and as the only foreign guest, I was given a prime seat by the main stage. I was introduced to all the artists who performed as they came offstage, as well as leading politicians from the main Kurdish party. I was treated with utmost hospitality and entertained and wined and dined until the early hours of the morning. 

Knowing why I’m a traveller
There are certain special moments when you are aware that you’ve transcended any simple ideas of being a tourist or just a foreigner in another country, and the word traveller becomes much deeper in meaning. At these moments, there’s an element deep down of knowing that I’m completely happy living my life this way as a long term traveller. There doesn’t need to be anything particularly exciting going on, except for being surrounded by all the indications of being in a completely different culture to that of home but feeling totally comfortable with it.

It’s knowing that I left the experience of culture shock a long time ago and will never again know it. It’s not to make the title of traveller any worthier than a tourist. That’s an arrogance unbefitting the true meaning of traveller for me, just that it hopefully can offer a more profound experience at times and one that would hopefully be infused with a measure of wisdom and insight once in a while. 

What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?

Flying to Egypt during Covid
Last September, when the pandemic had calmed down in both England and Egypt, I took the opportunity to get out of the country. Given that many would say there were good reasons for not travelling at all, the episode was laden with a certain amount of stress before I’d gone anywhere. Shortly before my appointment for the Covid test, the clinic decided to up the cost to around £450 for increased courier charges for taking the sample to the lab.

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I managed to get an appointment at the last moment at a more reasonable price an hour and a half away in London. The email with the result only arrived as my train was pulling into Gatwick airport. As I needed a printout of the test to be allowed into Egypt, I tried to download the certificate, but it refused to work. I tried calling the clinic and the lab, but it was the weekend, and they were both closed. Having spent so much time dealing with this, I failed to notice that the plane had been boarding, and as luck would have it, the plane was at the furthest possible distance from the main terminal.

I had to run all the way and arrived to see them unloading my bag from the plane, but thankfully, the nice lady at the desk managed to convince them to put it back on. I collapsed into my seat, caked in sweat, heart thumping like mad and managed to forward the email to my brother before we took off, in the hope he could download it. By the time I arrived in Milan for the connecting flight, he’d been able to send me a copy, but they wouldn’t let me onto the flight without a printed copy. I spent the entire 45 minutes between fights running around the airport trying to get it printed and was eventually saved by another nice lady, this time at the Aeroflot desk.

I ran to passport control with only minutes to spare to find a massive queue, so I had to barge past about two hundred angry passengers. Again finally collapsed into my seat, sweating and palpitating, only to have a massive coughing fit surrounded by a horde of Covid paranoid travellers. Without a doubt the most stressful flight in my life.

Getting malaria
Despite taking the meds, I managed to get malaria in Burkina Faso. My friend took me to hospital, but it was in the evening, and the lab had closed, so they couldn’t do any tests until the next morning, and it was eventually the following afternoon before they’d got a result confirming malaria and could start treating me.

The hospital wasn’t quite up to western standards. There were chickens wandering up and down the corridors and cockroaches in the toilet. When I recovered enough to leave, I was still exhausted, but it was 40C and my friend I was staying with only had a mud shack with a corrugated iron roof and no water or toilet nearby. Hence I spent a week mostly lying outside on a thin foam mattress that I had to keep moving to stay in the minimal bit of shade provided by a small tree. It took another week in the somewhat cooler Morocco before I fully recovered.

Most miserable West African journey
You might wonder why I’m going to pick another tale from one of my favourite countries, Burkina Faso, but that’s the difference between tourism and travel – it’s character building, not leisure. Due to the predictable inefficiencies of African public transport at the starting point of my journey in Benin, I missed the bus that would have got me to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in one go.

Once you have to break up a journey, the local transport will constantly stop to pick up more people until it’s overloaded and then add a few more. Hence it’s ridiculously slow and uncomfortable, with various indeterminate waits between connections and the occasional hike and breakdown thrown in for good measure. Having started out at 8 am, by 1 am the following morning I still hadn’t got there and hadn’t even seen a hotel to stop for.

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I’d had to climb in through the window to get in this last minibus as it was so packed and was thoroughly miserable as it was when a chicken in a cage on the roof rack above shat on me through the open window. I treated the other occupants to a tirade of swearing and fumed the rest of the way to Ouaga, reeking of rancid poultry.

What are three of your best travel tips?

Always learn the word for delicious wherever you go
You’ll make hosts and food sellers happy. It is guaranteed to create a smile.

Have some pictures of typical farm animals from home on your phone, as well as any particularly interesting ones
You’ll be amazed at how fascinated rural people will be, especially in hot countries, when you show them sheep with woolly winter coats. Particularly useful if you don’t speak each other’s language as it’s something they can relate to.

Get over the psychological barrier of eating weird stuff
There are more opportunities to build relations with people in different cultures when you can sit and share a meal with them. Most strange foods and wobbly internal bits of animals are only a matter of texture or emotional association, not taste, so your aversion can be overcome with a bit of practice. You might even surprise yourself at how nice some of these things are. I’m a complete convert to the taste of rat, for example.

Do you have any favourite hotels?

Dan & Manty’s guesthouse, Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic
Principally by serving up huge quantities of delicious food every evening, with everyone sitting together around large tables, owners Dan & Manty created the best social atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. By the end of the first day, you knew everyone else there and were planning activities together, often with the super friendly staff.

What’s the worst place you’ve stayed?

Le Magnetic, Macenta, Guinea
There’s insufficient space here to relate the full range of horrors on offer at this establishment, but being propositioned by a prostitute, at whose feet lay a used condom leaking fluid over the floor, gives you an idea of its standards.

What’s your favourite city?

Possibly the oldest continually inhabited city in the world but most importantly for me is that it is a living history, not a museum piece that fixes the past in a certain period. Medieval buildings grow out of Roman ruins with 18th-century extensions, pockmarked with bullets from the French occupation in 1920. There’s no McDonalds or international chain stores to detract from its Syrian character, just lots of small local businesses. The Street Called Straight, mentioned in the Bible and was ancient even then, is still there running through the middle of the old city. With the welcoming people and delicious cuisine, I was never in a hurry to leave.

Additional favourites

If you can only choose one:

Favourite airline: The one that gets me there without losing my luggage.
Favourite airport: The one I can leave the quickest.
Favourite island: Madagascar.
Favourite people: Pakistanis.
Favourite restaurant: Mohammed Ahmed’s, Alexandria, Egypt.
Favourite small town: Djongo, Burkina Faso.
It’s a small place just outside of the capital and it’s never been marked on a map. It’s more of a slum really but I’ve got friends there so it’s special to me but won’t mean much to anyone else.
Favourite travel book: Travels with a tangerine, Tim Mackintosh-Smith.
Favourite travel movie: Latcho Drom.
Favourite travel website: Against the Compass.

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