Exploring the fragile border between land and sea.
it is difficult, perhaps, to form an idea of a nation that consists of 26 atolls spread north-south across a vast expanse of ocean. The Maldives, moreover, have positioned themselves at the pinnacle of the luxury tourist market by subtracting from their national image any trace of social strife. The atolls are made of thousands of tiny islands, virtually any of which make a perfect spot for a world-weary resort.
Bungalows in the Maldives, an oceanic destination for luxury tourists. (Frank Lukasseck / Corbis)
The tourism of the Maldives is predicated upon this vast dissemination of tiny plots of land that seem to barely survive the enormity of the blue element and whose beauty makes them so desirable—and so profitable. Around them the coral reefs change the complexion of the water, creating a tapestry of turquoises and ceruleans. It seems like a world where humans should not exist. The perilous fragility of the coral, moreover, gives the scene a slightly chilling beauty. But after all, one is not here to ponder the fate of the earth and its global warming—one is here to go to a luxury resort. Are the two things unhypocritically compatible?
Naturally, the best resorts anticipate an environmental unease among their wealthy clients. The trend is toward marine conservation combined with “no footprint” escapism, an assuaging of anxiety through a promise of harmony. The newest of the Maldivian atoll resorts, meanwhile, is the lovely Niyama, located on the tiny far-flung fleck of land 40 minutes by seaplane south of the equally tiny capital, Malé. Niyama is owned by Per Aquum, a Maldivian company that is making its mark in this exalted sector by designing introspective resorts equipped to a high level. Many of its villas are built directly upon the water, a common Maldives practice, and inside mine I felt as if the brooding sea was the only thing left to savor. Around the steps that led down to the lagoon, the blacktip sharks gathered as if aware that I was there, their skin a delicate pale lemon-green.
Breaking the bank in the playground of kings.
It rates among the greatest gambling stories ever recorded. July 1891, high noon in Monte Carlo, then as now a surreal resort for the world’s elite, and a paunchy bald man with pork-chop sideburns walked into the golden light of the Place du Casino. He must have looked like a pickpocket threading his way through Europe’s first and finest gambling hall, parting the Von’s and De’s in room after room of cigar-scented millionaires and playboy archdukes. He was an untitled interloper, but when he found a roulette table, he bet like a king.
For centuries, Monaco’s casinos have been drawing high rollers and starry-eyed hopefuls with dreams of winning big. (Sylvain Sonnet / Corbis)
You can guess that he won, of course, but Charles Deville Wells did much more than just win. He flourished. Decades before 007 set the standard for courage in Monte Carlo, this middle-aged, marginally employed Englishman defined it. He didn’t cheat, as far as history knows: he gambled. Though he could scarcely afford the air in his lungs, he doubled and tripled down on his bets, multiplying his wins until the casino buckled under the onslaught.
It happened when Wells backed the number 5, and every angle involving the number 5, all with maximum bets. And it worked: the number hit, paying out a half-million dollars in today’s money, more than was on the table. Wells had “broke the bank,” in the words of casino management, inspiring that deathless phrase and a racy fin de siècle song, “Breaking the Bank at Monte Carlo.”
Jeet Thayil on a draconian city-state with pockets of wildness.
I grew up in Hong Kong in the ’70s, and though I traveled in the region, Singapore was not a possible destination. My father, T.J.S. George, was the founding editor of Asiaweek, a Hong Kong–based newsmagazine. He wrote the first critical study of Singapore’s brilliant and authoritarian prime minister. The book, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, was not banned—Lee knew a ban would be self-defeating—but it might as well have been: no bookseller stocked it, not until much later, when students began to circulate photocopies. My family had been advised not to visit Singapore, not even in transit, because we might be taken from the plane and detained.
Singapore’s red-light district, Geylang. (Pablo Sanchez / Reuters-Landov)
There was a respectable precedent for family paranoia. Half a dozen years earlier, in India, a former chief minister of Bihar had arrested my father for writing impertinent editorials in The Searchlight, the newspaper my father edited. The imprisonment had been brief, a little over two weeks, and the resulting international furor made my father’s career, but the experience had left my family with a residual wariness of power.
Singapore was an expression of one man’s will to power. It was exemplary and totalitarian: media had been effectively nationalized, foreign correspondents expelled, and a letter to the editor critical of the government would bring the Special Branch to your door; opposition parties did not exist; heavy fines were imposed for chewing gum or dropping a cigarette butt on the street; long-haired male visitors could be denied entry (one of the men so turned away was Sir Cliff Richard, that most wholesome of pop singers). I built a composite picture in my mind of a regimented society that had reversed the Dostoevskian dictum: nothing was permitted because everything was true.
Meir Shalev on a capital at the mercy of an army of ghosts.
I have spent most of my life in Jerusalem, and I can confirm that it is an interesting and worthwhile city to visit, but it’s hard to live there. The city has so much importance and holiness that it has lost respect for its own residents. When I am asked about Jerusalem, I often quote Mark Twain’s derisive observations from The Innocents Abroad. But I am even more taken by an assessment by Herman Melville, who visited Jerusalem in 1857: “The city [is] besieged by army of the dead,” he wrote in his journal, “cemeteries all round.”
Jerusalem boasts the false title of 'City of Eternal Peace.' (Anja Niedringhaus / AP)
Melville was right—the dead are powerful here. Two dead Jews run the city: King David and Jesus. The militant Christian spirit of Richard the Lionheart is also present. Muhammad, who made an important night journey to Jerusalem, and Saladin, who took it from the Crusaders, are also members of its city council. All these are stronger and more influential than any of today’s politicians and leaders. They are Jerusalem’s true landlords.
Since I have evoked two authors, I will also mention a poet—less famous, but more of a Jerusalemite: Yitzhak Shalev, who was also my father. He lived in Jerusalem from the age of 3 and wrote about it to his dying day. On his grave, as he instructed us in one of his poems, we engraved the inscription, “A slave of this city.”
The next move in airline consolidation may bring together a stodgy American brand with a sexy British one. Will it make the skies more friendly?
When Richard Branson gatecrashed the airline business in 1984, flying one leased 747 between London and New York (no flights on Tuesdays), it seemed like a frivolous act. Yet from that beginning Branson has built Virgin Atlantic into one of the strongest airline brands, with the help of his own piratical character. (Here’s a short history.)
Richard Branson, chairman and founder of Virgin Group, attends a meeting with students at Warsaw University, Oct. 24, 2012. (Janek Skarzynski / AFP / Getty Images)
But the international airline business has changed. Only the big guys can survive, and Virgin, which serves 34 destinations, is simply not big enough. (It ranks only eighth in the volume of seats on its most lucrative market, from London to North America.) In a capital-intensive business, Virgin Atlantic has been kept aloft in part by Singapore Airlines, which owns 49 percent of the company.
Meanwhile, the big players are always looking to get bigger. Early in 2011 Delta, and its European partner Air France-KLM, decided to see whether it made sense to buy Singapore’s piece of Virgin, and hired Goldman Sachs to advise them. That bid is now being made.
Sayed Kashua on sadness and sin in the Holy Land.
“How can you live in that city?” my friends, both Jews and Arabs, ask me. They’re right. Jerusalem has always been tough, and it’s been getting more and more religious, extremist, and racist over the years.
Arabs in Jerusalem “merely pray for things not to get worse.” (Menahem Kahana / AFP-Getty Images)
As I wrote these words in May, I asked myself the same question. It was the morning of Jerusalem Day, when Israel celebrates its completion of the city’s occupation: the annexation of the Old City and East Jerusalem. The radio newscaster talks of large-scale police deployment throughout the city and right-wing Knesset members planning to visit the Temple Mount. Soon the main roads will be blocked and the parades will start. People will give speeches about unified Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s eternal capital. Then the Jews will have their “flag dance” and enter the Old City, where they’ll celebrate victory by singing and dancing, and the Temple Mount Loyalists will try, as they do every year, to ascend the mount with a model of the Third Temple. The Arabs will watch the goings-on from their windows, biting their tongues in profound sorrow. They can do nothing in the face of the right-wingers’ defiance. They lost the war, and they are still losing. Today they will shut themselves behind heavy wooden doors, concealing a life of suffering that does not interest the flag dancers. The revelers don’t want to read the study stating that 84 percent of Arab children in Jerusalem live beneath the poverty line.
I’ve never told my friends the real reason why I stay here. They wouldn’t understand. Who would believe me if I said I live here because the holy city has always been, for me, the city of sin? Who would believe me if I swore I can’t even have a drink anywhere else?
The celebrated literary stylist of ‘Alibis,’ a collection of essays on the many places he’s known, talks about the cities he loves and why writing is like roulette.
You grew up in several exotic cities. Could you offer up a sight, scent, and taste that you associate with each of them?
Alexandria: The sea. Basil, cucumber, mangoes, the cooing of turtledoves on torrid afternoons, the screech of buses coming to a sudden halt. The sea, again, of course.
Rome: Campo Marzio. The distant sound of a hammer pounding something during the intensely quiet hours of the afternoon, highlighting the silence even more.
Paris: The smell of the old metro stirring thoughts of romance.
The Hay literary festival comes to Dhaka.
For years, Dhaka—the sprawling capital of Bangladesh—has been known for the ancient beauty of its mosques, its nauseating traffic jams, and the thick parade of rickshaws lining the narrow streets. But English literature? In Dhaka? Any mention of it, especially in rarefied Western circles, would have prompted disbelief. Not anymore. Over the past few months, as Tahmima Anam’s novel The Good Muslim has been met with international acclaim, the city has fast emerged as an enclave of literary talent. At the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts last year, a thousand people thronged the British Council. Buoyed by its success, Hay returned to Dhaka this November with a far bigger retinue of talent, this time at Dhaka’s prestigious Bangla Academy, the premier government institution for the promotion of Bengali language and literature. Over two days, 20,000 people passed through the expansive banyan-shaded grounds of the academy and the lakeside Hay Dhaka Music Festival at Rabindra Sarobor. On the lawn, under the mellow winter sun, a packed crowd listened to recitals by the likes of Indian novelist Vikram Seth and Bangladeshi poet Syed Haq. Several English-language books and journals were launched, and two new talents, Khademul Islam and Maria Chaudhuri, were signed by Bloomsbury for world release of their memoirs.
Writer Tahmima Anam has helped Dhaka emerge as an enclave of literary talent. (David Sandison / Eyevine-Redux)
Yet Dhaka’s coming-out party wasn’t without controversy. As the audience packed the auditoriums, a debate ensued over giving prominence to an English-language festival in Bangladesh and the use of the Bangla Academy. Outside the gate, a small band of protesters stood with a banner that read “Stop Hay at Bangla Academy.” These sentiments were echoed in blog posts and a variety of Bengali-language newspapers. On the surface, the protesters objected to the corporate sponsorship of the program, but underlying their demonstration seemed to be deeper-rooted sensitivity to the celebration of the English language vis-à-vis Bengali, or Bangla, as it’s known here, with its accompanying issues of wealth and class.
Hosting the Hay in Bangladesh is indeed sensitive, as the very existence of the country stems from a movement in the 1950s to recognize the Bangla language in the face of West Pakistani cultural aggression. Yet the festival’s planners went to great lengths to ensure due homage to local culture and history, as the opening ceremony presented classical Indian dances performed to Bangla poems, and ended with a jatra, a form of folk dance-drama. Out of 41 panels, at least 15 were in Bangla, and the stage was taken by four times as many Bangladeshi writers as foreign ones. The Bangla panels found equal room for new poets, like Trimita Chakma, who writes in the minority Chakma language. And the event marked the time at Hay that women outnumbered men on stage. In Bangladesh, a certain linguistic nationalism of the post-independence years has unfortunately seen a related slide in the practice of English. But as Bangladesh begins its fifth decade, the embrace of an international festival like Hay by the Bangla Academy marks the maturation and newfound confidence of a culture. Hay will be back next year, with an even richer offering, though I suspect the protesters will be back, too.
From whisky at the Windsor to Baladi bars, the author gets sloshed in the new Islamist Egypt.
At 6:10 sharp I come down from my decrepit room at the Windsor Hotel in Cairo, down the freezing stairs wound around an elevator shaft of such perilous ancientness that the heart does a little two-step at the thought of actually getting into the elevator itself. Nevertheless Mustafa is there waiting with the filthy iron doors held open for me, a ghost in a dark blue uniform that has probably been worn by generations of elevator boys since the days when the Windsor was the British Officers’ Mess in Cairo. His yellow eyes light up expecting a tip. “Sir?” he cries, raising a hand to invite me into his little carpeted cage. It is his duty, after all, to carry drunkards up and down from their tawdry rooms to the famous bar on the second floor, and no matter if they are afraid for their lives; he must carry them.
Cairo’s libertine past still simmers in dark bars and down winding side streets. (Markus Kirchgessner / Laif-Redux)
He does this by means of a manual brass switch. “How punctual you are, habibi,” his eyes say as I walk past him refusing. (The hand-operated car is surely a death trap, though I will likely need it later.) I come down to the bar, and as usual in these days of trouble and strife in Egypt, it is empty. The never-extinguished TV, however, continues to bravely relay a stream of belly-dance shows to synthesizer music. The barrel chairs look sinisterly inviting. But one cannot forget that Tahrir Square is only a short walk away. The streets are filled with a strange, seething anxiety and self-hatred. This winter the tourists have stayed home or ventured to the Seychelles instead.
An ancient and venerable bar must have a barman exuding those same qualities. The Windsor has Marco. Marco is about five-foot-four but musters the firmest and most intimate of male handshakes. You immediately wonder whether it might be possible that a very young Marco once pulled pints for Lawrence Durrell back in the day. Cairo is a city where nothing, but nothing, is forgotten. The walls of the stairwell, for example, are darkly rich with travel posters—hand-painted, one would say—issued from the offices of Swissair in the 1920s. The scenes are of cobbled squares in Germany long obliterated by the Royal Air Force. Of Saint Moritz filled with Weimar-era millionaires. The hotel was originally built as a bathhouse for the royal family around 1900. It then became an annex of the famous Shepheard Hotel, which was burned down by a mob during the Revolution of 1952.
A city becomes fresh when others tell you what to do.
London was the first foreign city that my wife and I visited together, and we fell in love with it. For me, the diesel smell of traffic brought back memories of childhood in India and, for my wife, who is American but loves British literature, there was something religious—like seeing a piece of the true cross—when she saw Shakespeare’s signature in the British Museum one rainy winter morning. We had both been to the city about 20 times when we visited it again recently. Probably because we were conscious of no longer being young, we wanted to see the city with fresh eyes as if in this way we could conjure up youth. To do this we decided to rely completely on other people’s suggestions. Our belief was that if we could restrict our wanderings to other people’s advice, we would be forced to see the city in a way that was different from our own.
Turbine Hall in London’s Tate Modern gallery. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)
The single best advice we received was from a representative of British Airways. Why try to re-create things, she said. Instead, she suggested that there were many other places we could fly to; we were using our BA frequent-flier miles and so were committed to flying with them. The airline has recently added flights to a number of destinations that we had never been to: Almaty, Amman, Beirut, Freetown.
The secondmost useful bit of advice was from a representative of Context Travel, a service that provides scholars as guides. To take a tour with Context Travel is to take a virtual graduate seminar in architecture or art. Her advice was to go deep, to look at something we were familiar with, but to look at it carefully and for a long time.
Paul Muldoon reflects on the steamy and colorful land of Björk.
The first Icelander I met was a poet and playwright who was visiting my home city, Belfast, in the early 1970s. He told me how, when he was a boy, Saturday night was invariably bath night. He also told me how, week in and week out, his mother would stand at the bottom of the stairs and call up to him, “Please be careful not to use all the cold water.”
Iceland’s Blue Lagoon spa. (Alen MacWeeney / Gallery Stock)
One of the delights of Iceland, and of Reykjavik in particular, is the ongoing catalog of incongruity, beginning with the sense that this very laid-back country and city are both perched on top of a pretty lively steam vent. Indeed, the famous spa at the Blue Lagoon was developed as a “repurposing” of the spillover from a geothermal power station.
This practical aspect of life in Iceland has been a feature since an exploratory force of Norwegians arrived there in the ninth century. The story goes that they threw a pair of poles known as “high-seat pillars” off their ship and then searched the island for where they’d drift in. They were operating on the principle that the tides would carry in all sorts of bounty to just that spot.
He’s a photographer who was lucky to grow up during Australia’s surf revolution. The pioneer talks to Josh Dzieza about his new book.
Kara Cutruzzula combs the beaches—and blackjack tables—of Puerto Rico for the meaning of ‘vacation.’
In ‘Mapping Manhattan,’ explore the city via 75 New Yorkers’ personal geographies. By Allison McNearney.
Travel writer Sara Wheeler, famous for her stories of polar expeditions, returns home to her city: Bristol.
Need to plan your next grand adventure? From Burma to Cuba, 12 places to see this year. By Nina Strochlic.