The very short stories in this section were all (unsuccessful) entries to travel writing competitions with a 250 or 350 word limit. This can be a challenging limitation!
In hindsight, none of these very short travel stories were ever likely to win any competitions as they don't conform to the rather limited and restricted consensus view on what makes for a good short story (all the usual crap about having a beginning, a middle and an end, that gullible aspirants get force fed on rip-off writing courses). I thought I'd put them up on my site as I quite liked them, anyway.
My feet failed to find a suitable crevice and I fell. My hands burned red as I slid down the rough rope, and the coarse strip of leather wrapped around my waist, bit in hard. At the top of the cliff face, at the gateway to the Debra Damo Monastery, an Ethiopian Priest sat with his legs jammed up against either side of the rock-hewn entrance; wrapped around his muscular arms was the other end of the leather strap that had kept me from crashing down below. Further up still, in the piercing blue sky above the jagged mountain, vultures circled around the 6th century stone church.
A guide I was later to meet in Axum told me what had happened to one tourist when he had failed to tip the priest sufficiently: the holder of his particular safety strap had taken a somewhat less Christian attitude to his role as a saviour and had vengefully swung the rope from side to side - by the time that this particular pilgrim's feet were back on solid ground, his clothes were as torn as rags and he was covered in blood.
The locals often wouldn't bother with the leather safety strap at all, especially during the busy Orthodox festivals. As lines of men clambered up the same rope - both women and domestic animals are strictly forbidden from entering the monastery - the women would crowd around shouting up encouragement. If anybody got into trouble they would get very excited, as if they fell and died it meant they were never destined for heaven. On one occasion, a climber got his foot caught in the bag of the man below and seemed to slip - screaming women, down below, worked themselves up in to a frenzy, shouting for him to fall. Another time, one of the leather straps being used to lower down holy water tore apart, and the heavy plastic canister landed on the head of one of the women below, killing her stone dead. Nobody seemed very sure if she would go to heaven or not.
I woke to find myself trundling through a huge, bleached white desert stretching out as far as I could see. Only the occasional spectacular rock formation broke up the ocean of sand as it jutted up towards a sky that even this early in the morning, still appeared to be almost surreally blue and bright. To the side of my pillow lay two cans of peach flavoured non-alcoholic lager - a gift from a friendly fellow passenger who had insisted that I take them as I was crawling up into my bunk for the night.
My journey through Iran from the holy city of Mashhad to the desert oasis of ancient Yazd could not have been easier. As soon as I walked into the train station, I had been taken under the wings of the friendly locals and guided up towards my surprisingly comfortable high rise cradle. Soon after lying down between the crisp white sheets - and to the side of a small mountain of sustenance I'd been gifted by my berth mates - I was drawn into a deep, fulfilling sleep by the relentless rhythms of this galloping iron horse.
As our carriage rumbled on though this wide open space, one of the oldest cities in the world began to emerge from out of this brutally beautiful wasteland. Like a mirage set amongst the desert haze, the wind snatching towers and the holy minarets thrust up from the sands towards the unforgiving sun.
He'd met me in a dream the night before. I couldn't remember. I must have been asleep. He recognised the long plait down my back and the dragon tattoo up my leg. His long orange robe, wispy beard and waist-length dreadlocks piled up high on his head, all seemed strangely familiar - like we'd met once before, a long time ago.
We wandered all day, through the streets, mud and temples of enchanted Kathmandu. While meandering along the banks of the Bagmati, young boys pushed the smouldering remains of their immolated relatives, from the crumbling stone burial pyres, into the filthy slow brown river. The remains now departed, they dived in, head first, submerging themselves in the effluent and ashes. Seconds later, their glistening heads emerged, alive and still laughing, defiant of the death and disease that was slowly swirling around their small brown bodies.
They fed him on bananas as they thought him to be holy. He'd surrendered this world, for the spirit, so street sellers seemed willing for this small sacrifice. It wasn't that much but it would keep him alive.
I'm sure that we spoke of so much and so many but it all seems so long ago now. Once vivid, it flows slowly away like a dream.