When the tireless Mr Eames set out a few years ago to travel by train from suburban Sunningdale in England to Baghdad, he took with him a keen sense of history and a few quintessentially English notions about travel. Happily, he was alert to the importance of blending in, and quickly identified the importance of street cafés. However humble the place, the traveller secures a measure of invisibility by sitting down.
But if merely sitting down were an infallible prescription for blending in, many generations of travel writers would have had a much easier time of it. Take one of our favourite writers, Isabelle Eberhardt, who, after an early dalliance with anarchism, converted to Islam and became an acute observer of the Maghreb. That she perished tragically young had nothing to do with her ability to blend in while travelling in remote regions of North Africa at the start of the last century. Rather she found herself uncomfortably trapped in a flash flood at Aïn Sefra in western Algeria. She died in October 1904, just twenty-seven years old. Her grave in Aïn Sefra has rightly become an important place of pilgrimage for travel writers.
To secure acceptance among the Arab and Bedouin societies which she documented, Isabelle Eberhardt usually travelled in disguise as a male. Under the assumed name Si Mahmoud Essadi, this improbable desert fox learnt fluent Arabic and forsook a comfortable life in Switzerland to smoke hash, explore the Sahara and pursue her calling as a devout Muslim. That didn't stop Eberhardt out-drinking the French legionnaires who would often turn to her for advice on local issues.