There are some people in the world that you are just supposed to meet. It needs to happen. In July last year, I attended a travel event in London and randomly met this nice-looking guy named Tom. We were introduced and somehow the conversation turned into books. I mentioned I had (co) written a business book in Portugal (in 2011, which was an incredible and successful experience) and Tom happened to mentioned “he was about to start his 4th book”. I said.. “so what do you write about? Travel, I am assuming?”.
Then Tom mentioned “How Low Can You Go? Round Europe for 1p Return“. I read that book years ago! And I remembered it – so much so, that I have lent the book to over 10 friends. Regardless of the transportation mode (and my personal choices), this book opened my travel aspirations. I read it just before I moved to the UK in 2009 and I vividly remember saying to Mr. O “have you realised that every weekend we can go to a different country?” Being based in the UK was certainly different from Portugal, and its more limited air connections.
From this book, I also remember a sentence I must quote every month, which went along the lines of “on average a woman says 21,000 words a day, a man uses only 7,000. In Tampere (Finland), the figure is 3,000 and 2,000 respectively. A place where conversations don’t come naturally”. This was not what Tom wrote exactly, but it is what I remember.
After this, Tom went away for a while and we kept in touch. At the same time, I read his other two books – it was quite interesting to have an email conversation going with the author at the same time. Tom said it was interesting to have real-time feedback. Over the last 9 months, we have developed a nice friendship – we have many things in common, especially our shared appreciation for a glass or three of Sauvignon Blanc.
And during this time, Tom has worked on his incredible fourth book – A Tourist in the Arab Spring. When I first heard about the project, I was completely amazed. Why would a guy want to visit Tunisia, Libya and Egypt so soon after the recent uprises? I would be absolutely scared. But not Tom (although he confesses some times were “slightly uncomfortable”)!
I wanted to know more (and share it with my readers). Here is what Tom had to say!
1. “A Tourist in the Arab Spring” is quite a unique book and very different from your previous 3 books. What made you decide to do something so different?
I was inspired by what I saw on television, with the revolutions sweeping across North Africa. The idea came to me when Gaddafi fell. I’d always been interested in Libya, and before I knew it I was booking a £69 BA flight to Tunis and beginning the long journey, starting at Sidi Bouzid, where the fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against unfair treatment at the hands of the authorities.
2. Had you ever visited Tunisia, Libya and Egypt before? If so, how different was your experience this time around?
I’d been to Egypt but only briefly to Tunisia and not to Libya. Being so soon after the uprisings it was exciting feeling the energy of people. There was an electricity that came from the possibilities that democracy could bring. Many were also worried about extreme Islamists filling the power void. Libya, which was run by local brigades run by young men with guns, was particularly eye-opening. Almost everyone I met, though, shared the positivity of the revolutions.
3. Did you ever feel unsafe or even scared during the trip? I seriously think you are a very brave man!
Ha ha! I don’t think so: I was very careful. Libya was the trickiest part of the journey and I did get into a little trouble on the outskirts of Benghazi, where my driver was held for not having correct paperwork. I was driven away by a smirking soldier who did not speak English – and for about 20 minutes I thought I might be being abducted.
4. What were the best surprises of the trip?
The generosity of the people I met. People had much more time to sit and talk and open up. It was not the same as sitting on the Tube in London.
5. If you could pick 5 places to go back to (from those on the trip – you went to some really remote places!!), which ones would you go back to? Or recommend others to?
I enjoyed the intrigue of Kairouan in Tunisia – the fourth most holy city in Islam (stay at the cheap but cool Kasbah Hotel). Houmt Souk on the pretty island of Djerba is a lovely little town (try out its great fresh orange juice cafes). Leptis Magna in Libya is a wonderful Roman ruin. Cyrene in the east of Libya has superb ancient Greek remains on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. And I loved wandering around Cairo’s Old Town for its sheer sense of energy and its tucked away cafes near Tahrir Square.
6. How long did it take you to write the book? Did it take place in other countries? How different were they?
It took five weeks in all. I popped into Israel and Jordan during the Sinai Peninsula part of the final section in Egypt.
7. How different is Tom Chesshyre the book writer and Tom Chesshyre the travel writer?
Ha ha again! I guess I stay in less expensive hotels for the books than I might on a travel assignment for a newspaper. I write a hotel column for the Times – the Cool Hotel Guide – and stay in some pretty nice places. I enjoyed going off the beaten track at little hotels… which were often run by amusing characters.
8. You go to amazing places as part of your job – where have you been recently and loved?
I went on a ski trip to Utah recently, staying at Canyons Resort in Park City. Go skiing at Park City… it’s one of the best places in the world. To the south of Utah there are also fabulous canyons that may not rival the Grand Canyon in scale but certainly do in beauty. Lots of eerie hoodoos (red-stone columns) in Bryce Canyon.
9. What is next?
Taking it easy for a while. I’ve got a trip to Venice lined up for a piece staying at the amazing-looking Gritti Palace Hotel – rather grand compared to some of my abodes in the likes of Suez and Sidi Bouzid!
I have 5 copies of “A Tourist in the Arab Spring” to give away and each will be signed by Tom. To take part, simply do 2 things:
– Answer the question “What was your favourite country for an adventure holiday and why?”, by commenting on this blog post below.
– Share this post though your preferred social media channel (Facebook, Twitter, etc), using the sharing buttons on your left or below.
Winners have been selected by Tom and have been contacted by email.
Tom Chesshyre was born in London in 1971. He has a degree in politics from Bristol University, where he was news editor of the university paper, Epigram. He completed a newspaper journalism diploma at City University, after which he had short stints at the Cambridge Evening News, Sporting Life and Sky Sports. He freelanced for The Daily Telegraph and The Independent before joining the travel desk of The Times in 1997, where he still works.
He has helped with the research on two non-fiction books: W. G. by Robert Low, a biography of W. G. Grace, and Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist by Colin Smith, a biography of “Carlos the Jackal”.
He is the author of three travel books: How Low Can You Go? Round Europe for 1p Each Way (Plus Tax), published in 2007; To Hull and Back: On Holiday in Unsung Britain, published in 2010 and shortlisted in the 2011 British Travel Press Awards; and Tales from the Fast Trains: Europe at 186mph, published in 2011 and shortlisted in the 2012 British Travel Press Awards. A Tourist in the Arab Spring is out now.
His travel writing has taken him to almost 100 countries. He lives in south-west London.