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Wrestling with camels, goats and borders

Riding a camel is a very different proposition from riding a horse. Getting on a horse is straightforward - foot in stirrup, a bit of a jump and you're there. Camels' saddles don't have stirrups and even if they did you'd need a ladder to reach them. (My guide demurred from joining me because he doesn't like heights!) So rather than you leaping on to the camel's back from the ground, the camel comes to meet you halfway - or perhaps rather more than that.

When I first meet Abdullah outside Hillawi Camp in Wadi Rum - my guide on a supposedly romantic trek into the desert sunset - he motions me towards his three camels all lying down on the sand. One is pretty (blonde) and smaller than the rest and bats her lashes at me. Surely, I think, this is my camel. But it's not to be. My camel is the biggest and it's bawling its head off. This does not augur well. Is Abdullah sure everything is OK? Of course he is. So I sit on the saddle and up we go. A camel has an extra set of joints in its legs and the back and front legs straighten up alternately resulting in the increasing dismay of the sack of potatoes on its back as it lurches forward and back not twice but three times. I am the only rider (funny that) and the other two camels, follow on tied on to mine, Blondie taking the odd lump out of its backside. My camel skitters sideways and roars even louder. Abdullah assures me everything will be perfectly fine and walks in front, head down towards the setting sun.

Astonishingly, he's right and I start to relax, feeling positively adept on the camel-riding front, until I realise that, halfway, I've got to change camels. Why? It seems a bit unreasonable but drinking tea is involved and Abdullah makes it using sticks he's gathered en route for a fire. The makings come out of the saddle bags. Returning to the camp a Saudi woman looks at me in astonishment and offers a tentative wave. She probably assumes I'm part of the cabaret.

And then after a day back in the UK I'm off to Cyprus. I seem to be looking at a lot of difficult borders currently. A few days ago it was the River Jordan with the Israelis on one side and, on the other, the biblical site of Jesus' baptism by John discovered by the Jordanians only once all the landmines had been cleared.

Cyprus is the only country in Europe to have its capital divided by a border, complete with guards, a no man's land and barbed wire. The local papers are full of the negotiations, there are promises that it will all be over by Christmas (remember that one?) and the two presidents - one from the Greek, one from the Turkish community - will be getting the Nobel Peace Prize. It all seems a bit unlikely. There will be a referendum - very popular these days, it appears. And a recent poll has shown that the majority of Greek Cypriots intend to vote against the plan, even before they know what it entails. This would be a repeat of the one that took place after the Annan Plan when Kofi Annan put forward a very reasonable solution to governance, land and other issues. The Greeks said no, the Turks said yes. The Greeks were rewarded by EU inclusion a week later and the Turks were cast into outer darkness, subject to such stringent embargoes they could trade only with Turkey and all flights had to land in Istanbul en route to the northern part of the island. Everyone is expecting a re-run.

Meanwhile, in our house up the mountain, all is not well either. We have no water (though Hussein, a kindly local teacher, does fill up our tank from his well) and what we do have is blue. So far, we have no explanation for this. I'd also noticed goat droppings in the garden. Sure enough, a goat hopped in over the wall the next day from the ravine and we found him butting the glass outside our kitchen window. Startled by us humans, he legged it into the kitchen and up the stairs and was only persuaded out again with difficulty. I seem to be developing new and interesting relationships with quadrupeds.

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