About this blog

Dedicated to Dr Lyman D Wooster, who set my feet on the right  path, and my wife, Ailsa, who followed me to the very end of it.

Me, in 1965, wearing kuffiyeh and Hadhramaut Bedouin Legion eqal.

This blog contains recollections of my time as a young expatriate American oil geologist in the Aden Protectorates (known today as Yemen). They are part of a larger series of recollections written in the 1990s about my travels and work experiences in the Indian subcontinent, Middle East, Asia and Africa, between 1958 and 1984.

I became known as Ba Wazir of the Hadhramaut after an encounter with local people in a small patch of paradise called Ghayl Ba Wazir, while we were travelling to Mukalla on the Yemeni coast. Read about the encounter here.

It started early
My oldest travel memory dates back to August, 1939 – about a month before my fifth birthday. My parents had taken me to the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows, New York. I have three vivid memories of that event:

I remember the panic I felt when the automatic doors on the subway shut leaving me on the platform and my parents in the already-moving car. A kind stranger comforted me, waited with me and held my hand for the 20 or so minutes it took for them to get back.

I remember an ice-cream stall that would only sell ice-cream cones to children under 12.

I remember standing on the beach at Coney Island on a grey, overcast day looking out at the waves rolling in across the North Atlantic – the first time I had ever seen the sea. Far in the distance, only their tips rising above the grey, watery horizon, I saw what I took to be the pyramids of Giza. My parents, of course, argued with me, telling me they were too far away for me to see them, and I am sure they were correct. But I can see those three pyramids rising out of the Atlantic as clearly now as I could 69 years ago.

From then on, my youthful mind was obsessed with travel. I pored over maps, read all the travel books in the local library and donated most of my allowance for them to purchase more. My allowance – US$1 per week – was barely sufficient, in those days, to cover the cost and shipping of a cheap hardback book. Richard Halilburton became one of my heroes. The other, curiously, was Edgar Rice Burroughs. His books too, the local library purchased for me.

Whenever I met anyone who had been anywhere, I would buttonhole them, asking them about the places they’d been – what and who they’d seen and what they thought – until they were finally desperate to escape my eager questions. I was given a series of books – a mini-encyclopedia almost – called Strange Lands and Peoples. These wonderful books contained hundreds of black and white photos of all sorts of exotic, mostly naked, people and animals and wonderful palaces and temples. From then on, I only had one ambition. To go to all those places, see all those people and temples and palaces for myself. I wore the books out – literally – long before I reached high school. I developed what was to become a lifelong passion for maps and atlases, and a deep and abiding interest in ancient and classical history.

After two fruitless years at university, my dad told me he thought it was time I decided what I wanted to do with my life – a decision I seemed unable to make. In despair I turned to a good friend of my father’s, Dr Lymon D Wooster, President emeritus of Fort Hays Kansas State University. I explained to him my interests in history and geology and told him I was thinking of a career in archaeology. He asked me then, what my priorities were – what things I wanted from my life.

It was an easy question to answer. “Travel, adventure and money,” I replied immediately, “But not necessarily in that order.”

Doc Wooster rubbed his chin for a moment, then replied earnestly, “Archaeology is certainly a profession of which I would approve. I fear, however, that it would prove to be a great disappointment to you. It has three great drawbacks, as I see it, for a young man. (1) The pay is lousy. (2) It would probably be many years before you actually got to excavate any interesting ruins. Then, too, very few archaeologists ever get to do so – maybe only one in twenty or so – and (3) most of your career would be spent peering at dusty artifacts in dark, cramped laboratories.”

He settled back in his chair and drew reflectively on his pipe, which – because it had gone out – embarrassed him by gurgling loudly.

“Actually,” he went on, peering intently into the bowl of the offending pipe, “I think you might like to consider a career as a petroleum geologist. It’s an interesting profession. Geology is close to archaeology, so most of your past studies would apply toward your degree. It pays well, provides you with jobs all over the world – mostly in exotic and interesting places of the sort you tell me you prefer – and, I should think, at least enough adventure for an ordinary man. Anyway, think on it.”

As we shook hands, he added, “Oh yes, I almost forgot. Archaeology would make an admirable hobby. There’s a lot of oil exploration in places like Iran, Iraq and Egypt where there’s more archaeology than you can shake a stick at.”

I took Dr Wooster’s advice literally. Going back to University and enrolling myself in a course aimed at attaining a BSc in geology. I did well. In the spring of 1957, with a BSc and a year of graduate school under my belt, I was awarded a scholarship to study geology for a year in New Zealand. On June 11, I set sail from San Francisco on P&O’s new 30,000 ton liner ‘Orsova’. The voyage took twenty days with stops in Honolulu and Suva – my first foreign port of call. In Wellington, I became firm friends with Dave Wilbert, a fellow scholar. He and I decided that, at the end of the New Zealand scholastic year we would return home via Asia and Europe, bumming our way across southern Asia together.

And so it began. In May 1958, Dave and I set out from Wellington together on the old MV Wanganella – first for Australia, then on the tiny KPM freighter ‘Sigli’ through the East Indies – via Biak, Hollandia (now Jayapura), Sorong, Doom, Zamboanga, Tawau, Sandakan, Jesselton, Labuan, Kuching, Saigon, Bangkok, Songkhla and finally Singapore. From Singapore we traveled north through Malaya and caught a tramp steamer in Penang, traveling deck class as far as Rangoon, where we found ourselves over-run with Indians being expelled from Burma. Upgrading our tickets to 3rd class, we arrived in Calcutta just at the beginning of the 1958 monsoon season only to find that my visa had expired.

Our introduction to India was not encouraging. We dossed down in the squalid Seamen’s’ Mission near the docks in Kidderpore. An abandoned jail, now run as a sort of charity by an aberrant Catholic sect, its long, crumbling corridor was under water at high tide, and lined with barred cells, each containing nothing but a single damp, wire-wove bed. Drowned-looking rats floundered noisily up and down the corridor and into and out of the cells. The best – indeed the only – good thing about the Seamen’s Mission was the price – one rupee (about US$0.17) per day each.

After ten days straightening out my visa problem and a couple of months of traveling in India and Nepal – visiting Allahabad, Benares, Kathmandu, Bodhnath, Swayambunath, Pasupatinath, Nagpur, Madras, Mohabilipuram, Chidumbaram, Bombay, Poonah, Ahmedabad, Agra, Panipat and Meerut, we found ourselves in Delhi. This is here my larger memoir begins and hopefully I will return their when this blog finishes with the Aden Protectorates.

If you can’t wait to read the rest of my writings, they are all available as a single large file here.

I started writing about Delhi mostly because the farther back in time I go, the less precise my memories become, and it is only from Delhi onward that I have so far been able to write a properly coherent record. But I am working on filling in the gaps between New Zealand and Delhi – and also those between 1971 and 1980, which cover my years in Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore.

Many more stories are there to be written, and it is my intent that they will someday be added to this memoir. It currently ends with my return to settle down in New Zealand with my wife, Ailsa, and our two youngest children, Carey and Adele in 1984. Even from there work-related travel – to PNG, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Peru and, finally, Canada – continued beyond my retirement in 1997. We effectively ended the peripatetic part of our lives with a grand 10,000 kilometre tour of China by rail in 1999.

For Dave, stricken with hepatitis in Afghanistan, his trip lasted less than six months. It ended in September when he flew home via Moscow. Unlike him, I never did get home. Healthier than Dave (actually I was less healthy than Dave, but my illness – amoebic dysentery – was not diagnosed for almost another year so I thought I was healthy) I continued on to Iran, South Arabia, and finally Egypt with long trips to east and west Africa. I was to spend 26 years in Asia and Africa before eventually migrating to New Zealand, where I still reside.

In later years I found myself telling stories of my little ‘adventures’ first to my children and then to my grand-children – something we all enjoyed. At least, I enjoyed it. Then some of my tales became ‘party pieces’, and were – against all the odds I thought – well-received.

About 15 years ago, realising that quite a lot of the places I knew so well – the Federation of South Arabia (last bastion of the British Raj), Afghanistan and Iran under two of the world’s last absolute monarchs – Mohammed Zahir Shah and Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (both of whom I knew) – and Nasser’s Egypt – had changed almost beyond recognition – I began recording vignettes of the life I’d led – experiences that could never take place today – in exotic places, some of which no longer exist in the way I knew them. Conditions have changed too much. The systems of government have changed, transport and communications have changed, populations have changed and – in some cases – the places themselves changed beyond comprehension. Some of them have simply vanished.

I told myself that this is a sort of historical document – written to preserve little bits of what was, for me, a romantic past, now irrevocably gone – a record of events that, in this much-changed (and rapidly changing) world – nobody else can ever have. But I now think it more likely that by writing of these events, I have mostly been able – even at my advanced age – to re-live some of the happiest and most exciting days of my life. It has been a delightful and rewarding experience.

I was, and am, a ‘cut and splice’ writer – setting down random paragraphs, then rearranging them to form a story. That was such a painful process with pen, pencil or typewriter and scissors, that I virtually gave up writing. When I retired in 1995, my company gave me my office computer. That computer – something which made ‘cutting and splicing’ easy and simple – revolutionised my life. Now I had the time and the equipment to begin to write in earnest. All the other stories were written in no particular order over a period of more than a decade, beginning in 1995, and were originally meant to be read individually.

Over the years I sent copies of my stories out to family members and to the most sympathetic of my friends via the net. I basked in the praise I received – whether merited or not – in return. Either all of my correspondents liked them a lot or they were less critical of my offerings than my literary skills deserved. Maybe they were just being kind.

Except where noted, my stories are related to each other only in the loosest geographical sense. All of them are true – or at least based on real events and real people – as true as an old and admittedly imperfect memory can make them. In general – like most people – I find I remember most vividly the best and the worst of my experiences, and I suspect that time has romanticised the events in my mind. Never mind. The truth may suffer, but it makes for better reading.

I have shown some of the individual stories to some of the participants, and they have pointed out many errors. In the end, I decided that since this document is a record not so much of the facts of these events, but of my memories of these long-distant times, the errors should be allowed to stand. So this document may not be a true record of events as they actually occurred, but it is a true record of those events as I remember them.

To my own surprise, I am not the main character in many of these stories; I appear mostly as an interested observer of events flowing around me. In the few places where I am central to a story, it is clear that mostly I was simply scared shitless.

All of the characters in these stories are (or were – for many of them are now dead) real people. The events took place pretty much as, where and when described. Since I have not asked permission to wrote about those who are still living, I have changed their names wherever they occur in the text – I trust that will preserve their anonymity. I have, after all, made unkind (possibly even slanderous) references to some of them. Even so, anyone involved with the events I describe will have no trouble identifying themselves if they read the stories. I don’t know whether, on balance, this is a good thing or a bad thing. Names of those now dead have not been altered.

My memoirs are not yet complete. I intend to keep writing as long as I am able and there will, God willing, be more chapters before I run out of things to write about. I am sending it out in its present form on these two blogsites, on the basis that old people like me are sometimes surprised by death. I am now old enough to be suddenly rendered – by heart-attack, stroke, or one of the other physical evils that await the unwary elderly – unable to either continue writing or to disseminate documents.

What more can I say?  Enjoy…

Gail Brooks
Wellington, New Zealand


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