The Wazwan

There is a storm over Dal Lake. My houseboat creaks and complains as I drift in and out of a fitful sleep. Rain torments the windows of the cabin in the darkness. A djinn takes my hand and ferries me across the water. I dream my way across jagged mountains and snowy peaks to a feast fit for an emperor. 

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The Strange Death of the British Utopia (or how Britain lives in her own past)

‘Deserted’ says the taxi driver and so it proves to be. As I walk through the back streets of Britain’s last planned village in between drizzle and sunshine, I am struck by its quiet and lack of people. I hear children playing but their voices are disembodied, muffled behind high brick walls. All I notice is the crunching of gravel underfoot. The place has a film-set quality – an unreal vision of a timeless England.

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Greece and the art of getting by

There’s a steady rain in Athens. It streaks the soulless modern apartment blocks that stand miserably in the shadow of the Acropolis. Graffiti stained, they are mean, shoddy in comparison. 

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The Fading Charm of Chandernaggar

The drive from Kolkata along the Grand Trunk Road is not for the faint-hearted. Swerving to avoid heavily laden trucks my Calcutta driver isn’t exactly sure where Chandannagar is but as the mid-morning sun slants over the gates of the town, we drive triumphantly through. In the brick work picked out by the light are three words: Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité.

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The Englishman and the Eel

On a chilly winter’s night in 1922, a young Danish scientist, Johannes Schmidt, stood up at the Royal Society in London and presented his paper ‘The Breeding Places of the Eel’. What would become known as ‘Schmidt’s Classical Theory’ overturned centuries of guesswork about this most elusive and secretive of creatures. Schmidt proved that remarkably, the freshwater European and American eel (the Anguilla Anguilla and Rostrata) that most secretive of fish, migrated to the far Sargasso Sea to spawn.

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The Palaces of Memory

There is a monkey at the window. It lopes slowly along the low wall and momentarily peers inside through grimy windows at a dozen old men talking furiously at dirty tables. Unimpressed, the monkey carefully scratches its behind and ambles off, leisurely dropping down onto the terrace before walking calmly across the tiled floor and disappearing over the edge of the precipice. Above, eagles soar effortlessly in the languid, polluted air. This is central New Delhi in the late afternoon and three floors below on the street there is the usual chaos.

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In Search of Pho…

Like a vision from Dante, a man appears through a curtain of thick steam delicately holding an almost perfect circle of creamy white, paper-thin dough.

This is the fragile ‘banh pho tuoi’ - the rice noodle for the signature Vietnamese breakfast dish that I’m about to sample…

Outside on the street, a old lady gestures to me to sit on a tiny stool next to boiling pots and presents me with a bowl of ‘pho’ - a gorgeous broth infused with star anise, thick with ‘my’ fresh noodles, spring onions, beef, topped with basil and coriander and a squeeze of lime.

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Self Made Men - The Avowed Virgins of Albania

Selman Brahim strides through the house with a confident swagger. He proffers cigarettes, and then orders a young woman to make coffee and bring the raki. Visitors are rare in this remote village in rugged northern Albania and, Selman as head of the family, takes pride in this opportunity to display his hospitality.

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The Wind and the City

Once upon a time, the Wind grew jealous of the prosperous cities and resolved to bury them beneath the sands so that the only traces were old men and dusty books.

So it was that the wind crashed against the purple stone mass of the Adrar, a mountain range that crosses Mauritania in West Africa.

It blew until the rocks were carved into sculptures of fearful complexity. It blew until the dunes advanced: Chinguetti and Ouadane, two once mighty cities of scholars and traders of the Sahara, began to choke under the ocean of sand.

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Into The Dreams of Heroes

Vipin’s eyes are full of wonder.

“The best moment is when Bhima kills Doussasana, rips out his heart and drinks his blood - you see it all - it is very scary.”

Vipin is 12 and a new boy at the Kerala Kalamandalam, the famous academy of Kathikali, the great dance drama of Southern India. He and his friends at the school are allowed backstage to see their teachers, experts in their fields, preparing for a version of the Mahabharatha, a classic tale of good and evil.

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Somaliland - When is a country not a country? - An African success story…

“You know”, says Edna Adan, “we are very proud of what we have created here - we made it ourselves - we have created a country”. In her hands she is cradling a warm and still bloody newborn child. It’s the mother’s first and she looks exhausted and a little bewildered. But the symbolism is not lost on her.

Edna is an interesting woman in an interesting place. The former wife of a former President, she trained in the UK as a nurse. The child has come to life in her Maternity Hospital, built painstakingly from private donations, and where she still practices.

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The Village Under the Lake

In the Indian state of Orissa, dams are very big and people are very small. The smallest of these people are the original inhabitants of the land, the Adivasi or Tribals.

According to the Indian social Institute, between 1951 and 1995 about 1.4 million people were displaced and affected by dam building projects in the region. The vast majority were Tribals.

The first of these huge hydroelectric dams in Orissa was built in Machkund.

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The Woman and the Mountain

Kado Dei’s eyes fill with tears as she talks about the day her husband didn’t come home. Her small child angrily tries to find her breast through a dirty, faded sari.

“… My husband had gone to distribute leaflets for a meeting against The Company… he had gone to five or six villages… When I put on the rice water to boil, I got a message that there was a dead body in the road, so we all rushed there… it was Sukru, my husband”.

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Kyudo - The Way of the Bow

Sensei Oueda is very thoughtful. At 85, he has every right to take his time and think about the passion that has taken most of his life.

“I pull the bow in such a way that it really”, and he pauses, “adheres to my body”. After a while he says, “I become the bow… ”

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The Mystery of Aleppo

At the gate of the Souk, a man is trying to sell me some soap. “I already washed” I say. But apparently, this is special soap - good for body and mind. “Look - soap in many shapes, maybe for your wife… ?”. It’s like something out of the “Arabian Nights”. Close your eyes and you expect nothing less. When I open them again and look around, a butcher is hacking a carcass in two. The soap-man offers tea in his shop. It seems like a good time to escape the pushing and shoving.

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To See a Small World: The Blind Farmers of Ghana

“It is only the leper that has no hands - we must work.” Asiah Anafo faces straight ahead as he speaks. It is early but the sun is hot and he sits in the shade of a mud wall in his compound. Big beads of sweat trickle down his stubbly face and pool in the deep, tribal scar on his left cheek. At sixty, or thereabouts, Anafo is no longer young, but is still strong. Through his stained and patched tunic, his arms are thin but heavily veined and the tendons in his hands are like wire. He is head of a large family, a farmer, and a man with responsibilities.

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Rwanda - Facing the Virus

Potamienne sings softly as she plays with her youngest son and sorts beans for the night's meal in her yard. As you photograph her in the late afternoon light, you knock against something behind you and nearly fall. She pays no attention and you don't mention it, but later you learn that it is her husband's grave. The man who gave her AIDS.

It is one of those small things that tell you about Rwanda, a small, beautiful and fertile land that has had more than its fair share of trauma in its brief history.

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Lebanon - A Dangerous Souvenir

You can still see the marks made by the shrapnel on the ceiling of Rusha Zayoun’s family living room and try not to look at what’s left of her leg when she wheels herself into the room. A shy 17 year old, who smiles awkwardly when you make eye contact, she knows that her future is bleak. She will find it hard to marry and escape the house where her father, Ali, brought home the cluster munition.

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The Foolish Woman of Ruyigi

It happened suddenly and without warning.

“At 9am, I was still in my underwear. I thought that after my prayers, I’d go and talk to the mob and calm them down… but then I heard the shouts and stones raining down on the roof. I looked outside and I recognised some of the crowd, all armed with machetes and sticks - some were my cousins… ” “Maggy”, they were screaming - “open the doors or we will burn you all”.

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Faster, Higher, Stronger - Biomimicry in Sport

In pursuit of excellence, sport is increasingly looking to nature’s selective choices to fulfil the Olympic ideals of ‘faster, higher, stronger’.

The natural history author and scientist Janine Benyus, who coined the term ‘Biomimicry’ says:

“Life has been around for 3.8 billion years: with that much research and development, we’ve got 10-30 million species that are full of adaptions”.

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