Written by Bradt Travel Guides
The judges spent four hours whittling down the longlist of 26 to the final three, which we’ve posted here for you to enjoy. The winner will be announced at the Edward Stanford Gala Awards dinner on Thursday 2nd February.
Evil Eye in Esfahan – Sophy Downes
‘Let me tell your fortune,’ Nazanin says, unexpectedly. We are sitting in a room in eastern Esfahan, among the paraphernalia of Iranian suburban life: carpets, dainty tables, miniature tea-glasses, and a huge satellite television screen. Nazanin is the zanbarâdar, the wife of the brother – Farsi is precise about family relationships – of my indefatigable language teacher, Maryam. I am here to spend the evening in the house where Maryam’s parents live with their sons, their sons’ wives, and their sons’ children – each family on a different floor, like so many chickens in a well-appointed hen coop.
Fortune telling is ubiquitous in Iran. The night I flew into Tehran we stopped at traffic lights at 4 a.m., and instead of hawking tissues or trying to clean the windscreen, a vagrant sold me, for 10,000 rial, a thin, green, printed envelope. Inside was a verse of Hafez – the fourteenth-century mystical poet – like a pearl hiding in an oyster’s mouth at the bottom of the green sea. It is called fal-e Hafez: you ask a question and then open the envelope. You can have your fortune picked out by parakeets in garden tea houses or find it simply by opening a volume of Hafez in a book shop. All Iranian households, certainly, as well as the Qu’ran, own a copy of Hafez which they consult in moments of crisis. But the divination is done through the poetry – it is unusual for people to offer to make predictions themselves.
I met Nazanin half an hour ago. Dressed in a pink jersey tracksuit, she is short and plump, with huge feminine eyes. She is totally unlike me. She has just turned twenty and already has three children – not uncommon in a country where twenty-five per cent of the population are under fifteen. She asks me if I have children myself and if I am married. ‘No,’ I say, and she commiserates with me: ‘Why not? You have such pale skin.’ I’ve only been here five weeks, but I am used to this intrusive catechism and the dubious accompanying compliment. ‘Well,’ I say duplicitously, ‘I have a boyfriend, but we can’t afford to marry yet. He had to stay in London to work.’ This is not true. I do not have a boyfriend, but I have discovered that this answer meets with approval and that the concept of needing money is understood everywhere. Nazanin nods. She passes me a wriggling toddler and seems to lose interest.
Now, she takes my hand. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘you will have a long life. But your boyfriend – right now he is meeting with a woman, a girl with black eyes and long black hair, taller than you and more beautiful. He is no good for you.’ She folds my palm over in her soft hands and gives it back to me.
For a moment I am outraged at this betrayal from my hard-working boyfriend. I feel a frisson of homesickness for distant London before I remember that he does not exist. I give Nazanin a weak smile, but I’m struck by the malice of her prediction. My curiosity flares, and with it an immediate sense of connection.
Suddenly, I want revenge. ‘Now I’ll tell your fortune,’ I say, snatching her hand. I know nothing about palmistry, but that does not deter me. ‘In xeili bad ast,’ I improvise. ‘This is very bad. So bad I will not tell you what I see.’ My Farsi is garbled, but the intent is clear. To my annoyance, Nazanin looks back placidly at me. But my teacher, Maryam, laughs, and then starts to correct my grammar.
Supper is fesenjan – chicken sticky with walnuts and pomegranate – herbs, and rice, the crispy tahdig crust from the bottom of the pan served automatically to me, as the honoured guest. We sit on the floor. I eye Nazanin warily over the spread cloth, but there is no indication that she is thinking about me at all. Why would she make such a bitchy comment? Jealousy? Pity? Disapproval? I try to see myself through her eyes: blonde, eccentric, old, anomalous, wealthy, free? Does she identify with this mythical black-eyed girl? Maybe she really is psychic, or thinks she is. None of my Hafez fortunes so far have been particularly accurate, but then none of them have had this personal animosity.
The evening ends early, and we go our separate ways. I return to my university hostel and, eventually, back to London, where I encounter no more predatory black-eyed women than usual. But among the many friendly and erudite conversations I had in Iran, this exchange stands out. When I think of Nazanin, it is with an emotion that is curiously affectionate, reminding me that dislike is another form of human intimacy.
Enguzi – Suchita Shah
Click. It shouldn’t have happened, that myopic shutter-blink that could have catapulted me into jail. Later, I would explain it away as a tourist malady, a tic, because here, in Uganda, on the road from Kampala to Jinja, on a low sign that heralds a bridge over a dam, it is spelled out, in black and white, that photographs must not be taken.
My target hadn’t been the drab, decaying bridge, or the nondescript curve of water beneath, but instead a billboard on the other side. An inconsequential advertisement.
We had set off early to avoid the traffic, which collects in the sapping heat like beads of sweat. Our stomachs satisfied with sweet gonja plantains, chargrilled at a roadside stall and served on ruled notebook paper, we crossed the bridge.
Seconds later, a swirl of blue lights flooded the rear view mirror, announcing an SUV from which hurried motioning brought us to a dust-spattering halt. Winding down the passenger window I was confronted by a man in dark military gear. Smiling, he reported that we had been seen photographing the bridge. No, I went to say, the billboard. A great health ad. But my lips wouldn’t move.
“Show me your ID,” he said.
A foreign passport, in the wrong hands, is a valuable bargaining tool. My companion, let’s call him Zee, a local, knew this, and stepped in. His voice deepened, mirroring without parodying the officer’s syncopated cadences.
“It is my camera. You deal with me.”
Thus began a curious game of chess between two seasoned players. The officer paused, his beady eyes flecked with uncertainty. I noticed how young he was, how slight. The snap-happy people to whom he had come for his daily bread were not typical muzungu, white, tourists. We were muhindis, Asians, people umbilically connected to East Africa; but—what’s this—one carried himself with the insouciance of a local, while the other wore a terrified expression and a ridiculous hat. Who were we? He tried a different move:
“Give me the camera.”
“I cannot do that.”
Pawn met pawn, and I knew that Zee would safely navigate us through this game, the etiquette of which I was woefully unaware. He got out of the car, stretched himself to his full height, and followed the officer to an open patch of rust-red ground.
When this was over, we would laugh about it over pizzas at the sailing club. Relaxed by Lake Victoria, we would lazily observe a boda-boda driver washing his motorbike, a ritual involving two yellow jerry cans and much elbow grease. We would go to Main Street and pass multi-coloured shop-fronted houses inscribed with the names of the Gujarati families who had built them before the expulsion, and further southwest the most famous Gujarati of all, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, his statue watching over the source of the Nile, where his ashes were scattered in 1948.
But I did not know this then. All I could see were two men talking, gesturing, sometimes even smiling, as though they were friends. Except one had a rifle.
A matatu thudded past, exhaling clouds of black smoke, emblazoned with ‘God is Great No.3’ in blue-and-white to match the stripes that signalled its taxi status. All along that road, I remembered, were shops and businesses, their skyward-facing signs (‘Jesus is Lord unmatched football’, ‘Amazing Grace Medical Centre’) part description, part invocation. Here, success required endeavour and faith.
The officer pulled out a mobile phone, and soon another official appeared, dressed in green. A knight’s move, unforeseen. My pulse quickened as the negotiations intensified. The three men walked back to our car.
“Let us finish this here,” said Zee.
“Yes, we will agree. Two hundred thousand,” said the green-uniformed man.
But the young officer was eager to raise the stakes. Pointing to a building on the right, his voice stinging with insinuation, he interjected, “Those are the cells for terrorists.”
A single word hung in the silence that followed. Seizing it, Zee swooped in with a final, masterful move. “Terrorist? Do I look like terrorist?”
Checkmate. You can get away with asking for enguzi, a little something to soften the palms, but even here you cannot accuse someone of being a terrorist, just like that. Words flew: muzé, big man… my lawyer… your name and rank… sorry, sir, we did not mean… let us finish.
And so, just as abruptly as it had started, the game was over, no hard feelings. For one, brief hour—one millionth of a lifetime triggered by the press of a button—I had stood on my head in a new place: a liminal space between idealism and reality, where the lives of tourists and citizens converge, and where, for the eventual price of a pizza, an unintentional misdemeanour is forgiven, a safe passage ensured.
The Tiger’s Tail – Dom Tulett
A swollen sun, blunted and smudged by morning mists, watched with me as elephants emerged from the forest. They moved slowly, gracefully, and when their trunks swung wide enough to the side I was sure I could see them smile. I was reminded of the previous evening; a boy from the village approached me as I sat with a beer watching the day fade into the river. He handed me a slip of paper. On it was written: NEPAL. Never Ending Peace And Love. “I hope you like my country,” he said, and he smiled and walked on along the riverbank.
The morning was cold and wet. A dew glossed every surface and the air clasped my throat and chilled my breath. I fought to puff out clouds of white. The elephants were our transport; our ride into the Chitwan National Park. Gopal, alert and lean, forever blowing on his fingers to keep them warm, was our guide. He had been doing this for 22 years. He briefed us on what to expect, and what not to expect: tigers landed in the latter category; squirrels in the former; rhinos somewhere in the middle.
I was sitting next to a fidgeting Norwegian girl. It was her first time trying to see a tiger in the wild, but I had been here many times before, and always failed: India – nothing; Malaysia – nothing; Bangladesh – a pawprint in the mud. She asked me if I thought we would see a tiger.
“I hope so.”
“I think we will,” she said, repositioning herself on the creaking sedan chair. “I’m a bit lucky like that.”
The mist had begun to burn off as our elephant took its first steps towards the forest. We moved clumsily, with a heavy lateral swagger – roll and pop – that jolted right through me on every other step. The sun gained colour and strength as we followed a muddy trail rutted with long puddles, and it reflected up beneath us and rippled out with the elephant’s strides. A range of greens approached: a patchy, pale tint of the tufted parkland; a lusher wave in the dense tall grasses; and a darker block where the trees met the sky.
Indonesia – nothing.
We broke through the treeline and almost immediately Gopal stopped us. His eyes narrowed and his head tilted. He blinked rapidly three or four times. I tried to follow his stare into the undergrowth. I looked but saw nothing, only clumps of vegetation and patterns of leaves.
Gopal blew on his fingers.
Deep greens and thick browns.
I tried to breathe silently, but the harder I fought, the louder I could hear myself. My blood thumped through my veins, pulsing in my ears like a bass drum.
Pipes of sunlight and hollows of shade.
Then Gopal sat straight upright, stretched his back and unzipped his jacket. He blew on his fingers and, with a look of complete indifference, we pressed forward again.
Thailand – the remains of a kill.
Our elephant walked on and on – roll and pop, roll and pop – for three hours more as we roamed wide through the forest. There were many false alarms; each time we paused, strained our eyes, resigned, and moved on. Throughout, the forest hummed with noise – chirping and chattering. Gopal pointed out other wildlife: a sulking boar, an angry woodpecker, neurotic deer. The Norwegian girl had stopped fidgeting. She whispered in frustration, “We have better deer than that at home.”
India again – nothing.
The forest fell silent. The elephant paused.
Gopal held out an arm, dipped his neck and bore his eyes into the layers of tangled foliage. I watched him closely. He did not blink, did not blow on his fingers. Nothing about him moved, except for his mouth, which breathed a longed-for whisper, “There.”
My heart locked. “Where?”
“There. Past the silver tree with the split trunk.”
Again, I looked but saw nothing.
I leaned forward for an inch of improved view. The sedan creaked and scared a bird from a nearby branch, stealing my attention and gaze for a moment. When I looked back down, I saw it; hovering in the smallest gap in the leaves, almost out of sight, yet I have never seen anything more clearly. It was there. Rings of white-orange and black, looped upward at the end in a curve, like a happy smile. The entirety of the forest reduced to a gap in the leaves. A lifetime’s dream filtered into one moment. The tiger’s tail. It was there.
Then the tail twitched and flicked, and slid out of sight again. And that was it; that was all I saw. Nepal – something; for just a moment, a pulse of the universe – no longer than a breath. Elusive and beautiful. There and gone.
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