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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Travelling Life: Christina Lamb

The multi award-winning foreign correspondent and author talks to Rosemary Behan about life on the road and her travel likes and dislikes

Christina Lamb in Aleppo's old souq. Courtesy of Christina Lamb
Christina Lamb in Aleppo's old souq. Courtesy of Christina Lamb

Born in London, Christina Lamb is chief foreign correspondent at The Sunday Times newspaper and author of eight books, including I Am Malala, about Malala Yousafzai, and most ­recently The Girl from Aleppo and Farewell Kabul. Her postings have included South Africa, Pakistan, Brazil and Washington, and she has recently reported on the disappearance of child refugees in Europe and Yazidi women abducted and abused by ISIS in Iraq. She was recently ­presented the Sue Lloyd-Roberts/UNHCR award for her writing on refugees; in 2016 she won the Foreign Press Association award for Feature of the Year for reporting on the Chibok girls in Nigeria. She is on the boards of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and Afghan Connection and was made an OBE in 2013. When not on the road, Christina lives in London with her ­family and a cat.

How often do you travel? Do you ever combine a business trip with leisure?

I travel almost all the time. Sometimes reporting for The Sunday Times, sometimes researching books, sometimes to give talks or to go to book festivals.

I don’t combine reporting with leisure as usually I go to places when something bad happens, like a coup or terrorist attack or a tsunami. And being a war correspondent, the places I cover tend not to be tourist spots – though I did spend a magical morning as the only visitor at the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, when in Libya recently. And I was in Tehran this year on my birthday so took the day off to go and visit the fabulous art collection amassed by the Shah’s wife and on show for the first time since the revolution. I ended up writing a story about it.

But I also do a lot of speaking to journalism conferences, big companies, or at literary festivals and if those are in nice places like Bali or Edinburgh my husband often comes.

How has travelling affected the way you see the world?

As a child I was fascinated by the ­Cypriots who came to live next door and ate the most melt-in-the-mouth biscuits I had ever tasted, all crumbly and coated in icing sugar.

It made me realise there was a big world out there of new things. These days London is a very multicultural city full of people from different places. Meeting people from different cultures and lands opens up the eyes and what I have found from Afghanistan to ­Zimbabwe is we women all want the same – to give our children the best chance in life.

I have been lucky enough to live in different countries – Pakistan, ­Brazil, South Africa, the US and Portugal and you learn to appreciate different things from each – Brazilian music and joie de vivre; Afghan story-telling and ­hospitality; wide African skies; and the US can-do attitude and spectacular ­national parks.

Where was the last place you went for a holiday?

I am on holiday at the moment in southern Portugal, where my husband is from. We also have a place in Monte Estoril [a small town on the coast just outside Lisbon].

What do you look for in a holiday, and do you prefer to relax or be active? Citybreak or beach?

Sometimes my life has been so crazy that I want to be away from everyone, reading novels on the beach and writing. I have this dream of spending an entire summer on a remote Greek island. But I also love seeing historical places – this summer I was in Rajasthan in the monsoons and adored seeing the royal palaces, the pink city of Jaipur, the holy cows wandering the streets and all the bright colours.

Do you find it difficult to switch off?

Yes. I would love to do a “digital detox” but I get hundreds of emails every day so that would leave far too many to catch up. I really enjoy skiing, though am not very good at it, as that requires all my attention so forces me to switch off.

How many countries have you visited?

No idea, but I went on the Been app and counted 87.

Christina Lamb in Damascus. Courtesy Christina Lamb
Christina Lamb in Damascus. Courtesy Christina Lamb

Do you have a favourite place? If so, where is it?

Can I cheat and pick four? Rio, where I spent four wonderful years in my 20s. Zanzibar, where I got married. Monsaraz, where I wanted to get married – a magical whitewashed village with an old medieval castle in Alentejo, central Portugal. And Afghanistan, where I started out as a foreign correspondent and I find endlessly fascinating, though I wish the war would end.

Do you prefer luxury or simplicity?

I spend much of my time in spartan places so it’s nice to be spoilt on ­holiday. Not so much big five star hotels but small boutique places with ­personal touches, a good breakfast and a view of the sea. As I get older I like nice things like shower gels and ­moisturisers so my baggage is bulkier than it used to be. And there are few more welcome phrases than “you’ve been upgraded.”

What do you love about travelling?

Meeting different people and hearing their stories, seeing different places, trying different foods, finding new places off the beaten track.

From going on Interrail [a European rail pass system] around Europe at 18, I loved that sense of possibility when you arrive somewhere new and the feeling you can reinvent yourself.

What do you hate about travelling?

Being far away from my family and endlessly having to cancel dates with friends. Waiting for planes that never come in broken down airports with corrupt officials. Kabul airport is a nightmare, as you have to go through so many checks.

The fact I am useless at sleeping on planes and always seem to sit next to someone who falls asleep immediately. And all the security hassle, though of course I understand it. Recently I travelled first class for the first time and that was a whole different experience.

Which place do you really want to go, that you haven’t yet been able to visit?

I’ve never been to China but I think you need to go for a proper amount of time, not a quick trip. I would also like to go to Burma – when I was a student travelling round India, I had a ticket to Rangoon which was stolen. And I am sad not to have seen Aleppo or Palmyra before they were destroyed. I never imagined places simply wouldn’t be there anymore.

How much travelling have you done in the Middle East and the UAE? Do you have a favourite place in this region?

A lot of my travelling in the last 15 years has been in the Middle East, unfortunately mostly for covering wars. I’ve been to Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and in the last six months Syria, Lebanon and Qatar, as well as Jordan to interview Queen Rania. Beirut is an amazing city.

Most of my trips to Afghanistan have involved a stop in Dubai and I have many friends and contacts living there.

I’ve also been to Dubai four times for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature organised by Isobel Abulhoul. It’s a wonderful festival and I have made great friends there such as Francesca Simon of Horrid Henry [a series of children’s books] fame and we have started a tradition of going to the waterpark on the second most scary ride.

This year I was there with Nujeen, the disabled Syrian refugee I wrote my last book with, so Francesca and I took her which wasn’t easy with her wheelchair and lots of steps but she loved it.

What has been your most surprising moment on the road?

When I started out as a foreign correspondent everywhere I went the head of state seemed to be and something happened. I went to Pakistan and General Zia was killed; India and Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated; Brazil and Fernando Collor was impeached. Some people are suggesting I go back to Washington …

Where do you call home?

Southwest London, between the river and Richmond Park and not far from Heathrow airport.

Where are you going next?

Silicon Valley to give a talk, New York to do an interview, then Iraq for reporting.

Author’s website: christinalamb.net