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Archive for January, 2012

When I woke up the on my second morning in Darjeeling, it seemed as though the day had been cancelled. I pulled aside the curtains to a view of next to nothing. A pea-soup fog had settled over the town and visibility was reduced to the powerlines outside my window. The eerie, wan sunlight at the back of it leant the fog a disquieting luminescence; a sheet of pale gold leaf behind the swirling, moist air.

I stared in wonder and caught occasional glimpses of the ghostly satellite dish and the iron rooftops; their outlines seemed characteristically oriental, like the tops of pagodas. Darjeeling’s quaint brand of orientalised colonialism made it the most distinct indication of the long tenure of the Raj I’d yet seen in India.

I peered out into the corridor was greeted with curious sight. Down the other end, the door to the fire stairs had been left open and the fog had seeped into the passage. It too was lit by the glary white of the hindered sun and the corridor, cold, tiled and light blue, brimmed with arcane mystery.

I walked to the end and looked out from the landing. The road below offered up the occasional silhouette; a dog, a person, a rooftop, a passing car, but little else. It was a quiet world; the sound damped down by the heavy air.

I hurriedly got my things together and set off into the fog. It was seven AM and the street was eerily silent but for the squeaky sound of a panda bear-like dog mauling a foam box. I patted this playful beast and continued down Dr Zakir Hussain Street which ran along the ridge towards Chowrasta, the main public piazza on the top of the town. There was no one about, but plenty of dogs; huddled together against house and shopfronts, curled into balls along the road, nestling on door-steps.

They all seemed friendly and not cowed; their worn faces and matted hair were less saddening when one considered their general robustness and apparent, ruddy good health. For the dogs of Darjeeling were certainly the healthiest, if not the cleanest, I’d seen as yet in India.

The street passed many a wide-open vista, where a view of the valley and mountains beyond opened out. Yet, with the rolling fog, so constant and thick and the peculiar, seemingly paradoxical heavy wetness and icy dryness of the air, all light and white like smoke, all cloying and dense like fallen clouds, it was impossible to see beyond the wire fence that hugged the street’s edge. Here and there a local emerged from a shop or house, transformed until just a few feet away into a pale outline.

Less than half a kilometre down this muffled street, it dipped steeply towards a junction and there I spied a café called Sonam’s Kitchen.

I had seen the name in the guidebook and, as is usually the case, it had all the hallmarks of a place that catered almost exclusively for tourists. I was reluctant to try it, but paused outside just long enough to catch a whiff of their excellent filter coffee. I realised how hungry I was and just how much difference a good coffee would make. A moment later, I was seated inside studying the menu.

I ordered a pot of what they called “real stuff” coffee, along with eggs and hash-browns. It was comparatively expensive for India, but with fried eggs at just fifty cents, who on earth could complain? The lady who took my order was the same as the one featured on the laminated menu – Sonam herself. She spoke great English and was effusively friendly. I felt, as the name of the place suggested, that I was in someone’s home rather than a café or restaurant. Clearly this place was favoured with good reason.

I pulled out my laptop and surfed the internet, all the while eavesdropping on the conversations around me. When travelling I tend to be rather shy about approaching people, but once drawn into a conversation, I relax more readily with company than I would in my daily life. I spent some time playing the accent game; guessing where people were from. The tables were communal and around the time my food arrived, I was joined by an American, an Israeli and a Queenslander.

All three of them were travelling independently but, having been in town for a fair while already – two weeks in the case of the Queenslander – they all recognised each other. When they greeted me and asked where I was from, I was happy to be drawn into a friendly chat. They were good people and genuinely interested in the town and region, all with their own, quasi-anthropological zeal. They also seemed curiously as they ought to; the handsome young American, well educated and scholarly, with an old world politeness only the new world can produce; the glowing Israeli, tanned and well-fed, full of questions about the spiritual nature of the locals; the gruff and rugged Australian; realist, pragmatist, egalitarian. Rather unexpectedly, within five minutes the conversation turned to girls and growing marijuana. The American had experience of it in California; the Israeli had grown his own and liked a smoke as much as the next man, but, most importantly, the Australian knew where to get it.

“All this talk is making me want to smoke,” I said.

“Not hard in this place,” said the Queenslander.

“Really? How so?”

“Just talk to the pony boys.”

“The pony boys?”

“Yeah, the pony boys. The guys down the road.”

“You mean the dudes with the horses. In Chowrasta?”

“Yep, the pony boys.”

I had passed the so-called pony boys many times the day before, strolling up and down Dr Zakir Hussain Street which, along the stretch before it met with Chowrasta, was a popular thoroughfare lined with stalls and shops. Right on the edge of the square was an old concrete stable with space for roughly ten horses. These horses, traditionally used for transportation and communication, were now primarily used in giving joyrides to children and tourists. They weren’t exactly what I would have called ponies, in the miniature sense, but they were certainly small and slightly-built horses. According to the Queenslander, the pony boys also made a little extra from the sale of marijuana.

“Just look at their eyes,” he said. “Like piss-holes in the snow.”

“Goodness! I hadn’t noticed. Are they all baked?”

“Yep. They’re off their chops. Go have a look.”

“I think I will.”

I took a big sip of coffee, thinking how delicious it would be to get smashed in these winter wonderland conditions. I had smoked a little hashish in Rajasthan and Rishikesh, but had kept things pretty clean since then.

“So,” I pressed, lowering my voice. “Have you actually bought some from them?”

“A couple of weeks ago.”

“And?”

“It was great. Very dry and seedy, very natural, wild stuff. But it’s got a great high on it and it’ll have you giggling like a little girl.”

“That is very tempting. How much did you pay?”

“Five hundred, for a bag like this.”

He shaped his hands to indicate a pretty serious nugget, about the size of a decent potato.

“It’ll take you forever to get the seeds out of it. But fuck it, you’re on holiday.”

I laughed at his laconic humour and knew my mind was already made up. Until I scored, I’d be salivating for a smoke like Pavlov’s dog.

I finished my breakfast and stayed chatting until my seat was required for someone else. When I left the café, I walked straight down the street to where the stables were, through a fog even heavier than it had been before breakfast. Only when I reached the line of stalls at the bottom of the hill, where the collective human warmth had caused the mist ever so slightly to dissipate, could I begin to see more than twenty feet. The stalls were a great spectacle in themselves. Mostly selling vegetables, these simple wooden huts, roofed with tarpaulins and plastic sheets, were attended by people who often sat cross-legged next to their wares.

The stables sat directly opposite two most excellent chai wallahs, who also cooked simple local cuisine in a steamer and wok. I sat down beside some locals on the long bench at the corner chai stand and ordered a cup of tea. I then turned my attention to studying the scene. There were just two ponies currently in the stables, the rest being out offering rides to children. Only an old man, whom I had seen there throughout the day before, was present, sitting on a step. Out in the square were the dim outlines of people and horses.

There was little hope of seeing their eyeballs, let alone their faces at this distance, in this weather, so I turned my attention to the tea, which, upon my first sip, sent me into paroxysms of pleasure. It was, without a doubt, the best cup of tea I’d had since arriving in India. It was only really at this point that my location hit home. Darjeeling – one of the tea capitals of the world!

I now studied the people behind the counter. There were three of them, two women and a man, all Nepali, likely in their mid thirties. They seemed to have their own particular role behind the stall. The man was in charge of the tea; using a large tin kettle in which he placed what looked like a home-made tea-bag the size of an apple. From this steaming hot kettle he would pour the tea into the regulation small tumblers one found right across India, mixing in sugar as desired and powdered milk. I was, initially, disappointed to see him use powdered milk, but by the time I’d finished the cup I was convinced that I’d never drunk anything so delicious in my life. I ordered another cup – at five rupees a piece, a little less than twelve cents – and watched the two women. One, whom I suspected was the wife of the tea man, was in charge of the cooking. She stood behind a large wok on a gas cooker, cooking noodles, frying eggs with chilli and heating buns by pressing them against the hot wok. The other lady, whom I guessed, again with very little evidence, might be a sister of one of the other two, was in charge of the momos. She stood marshalling a tall pile of tin and bamboo steamers, filled with what looked like delicious dumplings. I was astonished to realise that a mere fifteen rupees bought eight to ten of these soft, hot, fresh momos. Whatever was to come, I knew I’d be coming back this way for lunch.

When the tea was done, I thanked the people and stood up. Now fully fortified against the cold air, I had to work on my resolve to make an approach. I walked straight past the stables and out into the square, slowly walking towards the group of pony boys with their horses. The mist was especially thick out in the middle of the square and the Japanese cedars that lay behind the ring of orange and white park benches were lost a mere half-way up.

I hovered about for a while, feeling somewhat apprehensive. I wasn’t so much nervous as reluctant; not wanting to get involved in a misunderstanding that had the potential to turn sour. I watched the fellows for a while. They made very photogenic silhouettes in the fog and I took some photos whilst observing them. Many Indians come to Darjeeling when the weather heats up and this year was already particularly hot. In recent days Delhi had seen the temperature sore to fifty centigrade. The holidaying families were very distinct amongst the Ghorka, Nepali and Tibetan community. Several lucky children were being treated to rides.

I edged closer to the unengaged horsemen, wondering how much English they might speak. Would it be too confusing to begin with “I was told…?”

I tried to see their eyes. Who looked the most wasted? Fortunately, the first one I approached – a short, curly-haired man with a dark brown pony in tow – looked completely and utterly stoned. The whites of his eyes were the colour of lightly-flavoured chocolate milk and his pupils were hardly to be seen. I nodded to him and had his attention.

“I heard that if I wanted bhang, I should talk to the horsemen.”

The man said nothing, but examined me closely.

“I want to get some bhang, some grass… I was told to speak to the horsemen.”

He continued to look at me, clearly totally oblivious to my cryptic remarks. I knew I had to word things more simply, but was nervous and verbose.

“Marijuana,” I said.

“Marijuana?” said he. “Marijuana, three thousand.”

“Three thousand? No, no, not that much. Less.”

“Three thousand.”

“No, less.”

“Ten grams.”

“Smaller, smaller.”

“Ten grams, one thousand.”

“Ten grams, one thousand? Deal.”

Considering that twenty-five bucks usually bought one gram in Sydney, it seemed a pretty decent deal.

The pony-man gave me a big, slow, stoned smile.

“You go here.”

He pointed down the street that ran from the southern end of Chowrasta. “Down here. I talk to boss.”

With that, he was off, suddenly energised, with a distinct and unexpected spring in his step. I felt quite pleased with myself and couldn’t help smiling. I was going to get baked after all! I drifted down the side road as instructed and lifted the camera to my face, returning to my disguise as a regular tourist.

The side road was especially misty and it was clearly a good place in which to make a deal. There were some local carriers resting with their loads underneath one of the tall cedars, and I walked down past these, stopped and turned back to face the town. I reached into my bag to find my wallet and got the money ready in my hand then took a few photographs of the shapes in the mist.

The carriers picked up their loads, slowly rising, a little stiff. They walked bent forward, stepping like giants, their parcels supported by ropes around their foreheads. How strong their necks must be! When the carriers disappeared from sight, I heard the rapid clop of galloping hooves. Through the swirling mist, the shape of the mountain pony-man appeared, a mere ghost at first, but soon he burst through and materialised in front of me. He pulled up his reins and brought the horse to an abrupt and dancing halt. He had a broad smile on his face and seemed to spring in tune with his mount on the saddle. I knew instantly that he was profiting handsomely from this and figured I should be paying about five hundred, as my informer had done. Still, it was a mutual happiness, as we were both about to make each other’s day.

He guided his horse until he stood right next to me.

“Here,” he said. He reaching down, holding a plastic bag tied with a rubber band. I held up the thousand rupees and took the weed from him. It was a large bundle. Light, springy, and leafy, I suspected, but certainly copious. Finding out whether or not it was actually weed would have to wait.

“Thank you very much!”

I shoved the weed quickly into my pocket and offered the pony man a salute. He said nothing, merely smiling and nodding, then wheeled his horse and rode off into the oblivion of the fog.

I walked away quickly, firstly away from the square, feeling an urgent need to get away from the scene of the crime. A moment later, I gathered my wits and turned around, heading back towards Chowrasta. The time had come to buy some papers and get on with it. I began a determined march back to my hotel room. Why wait after all?

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Had I known what the weather would be like for the next eight days, I might have acted more promptly. I had come to Darjeeling not only to see the marvellous hill-town, but also for its famous views of the Himalayas. It never occurred to me that seeing them would prove so difficult.

The first morning I awoke in Darjeeling the horizon was shrouded in a veil of haze. The room was cold with the seeping air outside and for the first time since arriving in India, I nestled under the blankets, feeling deliciously comfortable. The last two days had been exhausting days of travel – from Rishikesh to Delhi, across to Siliguri courtesy of Kingfisher Air, then up to Darjeeling by jeep – and I was happy to take it easy. I sat on my bed and snacked on biscuits, reading about the town.

Darjeeling had only come into prominence in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The locale first came to the attention of the British East India Company (BEIC) in 1828, when a delegation of company officials stayed in the town and realised how suitable the site would be for a military sanatorium. In 1835, the company leased the area west of the Mahananda River from the Chogyal of Sikkim, traditional rulers of the region. Over the next fifteen years, the population of Darjeeling grew one-hundredfold, thanks to the company’s policy of attracting workers to the region, mostly of Nepalese origin.

When, in 1849, the British East India Company Director Arthur Campbell was imprisoned by the Sikkim Chogyal, the BEIC sent a force to free him, resulting in the annexation of 1700 square kilometres of territory. In the following decades, the BEIC strengthened its grip on the region, gaining control of the passes through the hills, the town of Kalimpong and the area east of the Teesta river, from the Sikkim. In 1864 the town became the official summer capital of the Bengal presidency and by 1866 the district had assumed its current shape and size.

Commercial tea cultivation began in the region in the 1850s and many schools were set up by missionaries. In 1881 the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was opened, connecting the town with the plains far below and further increasing the pace of the town’s development.

When, after independence in 1947, Darjeeling was merged with West Bengal, tensions began to increase between the largely Nepalese population of the hill towns of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong, and the Bengali population of the plains below. The Nepalese population agitated for an autonomous state and the recognition of the Nepali language as the official language of the region. The latter request was granted in 1961. When, in 1975, Sikkim was recognised as an independent state, it again brought calls from the people of the mountains for a separate state of Gorkhaland, with occasional eruptions of violence. In 1988 an agreement between the government and the Gorkha National Liberation Front resulted in the creation of the Darjeeling Hill Council. This, however, did not quell calls for a separate state, and agitation and protest continue to this day. In 2011 the government granted further concessions, with the creation of a new and autonomous elected body called the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, which, whilst not governing a separate state, has more powers than its predecessor.

I found myself quite fascinated by the town’s history and was keen to explore further. Not only did Darjeeling offer exciting views, amazing geography, fascinating architecture, great tea and an interesting ethnic blend, but, perhaps most importantly, the large Nepali population guaranteed one thing: momos – and I love eating good momos.

At half past nine I found the housekeeper in the corridor outside my room. As soon as she saw me, she said:

“Your room is ready.”

“Great. Can I move now?”

“Yes, yes. Come, I’ll show you. It’s here.”

The room was diagonally opposite, across the hall – a mere ten feet away. She opened the door and presented it to me. It was smaller than the previous room, but with a double bed, coffee table and chairs, wall-mounted television, a bedside dresser and a stunning, wide-angle view of the drop into the valley below and across the foothills. At four hundred rupees, a mere ten dollars Australian, it also came with a large en suite. I stood by the windows and thought of the views I might expect when the sky cleared. For now, the horizon was covered in cloud and haze, and I could barely see into the floor of the valley below. The mist rested like hands upon the hilltops, fingers stretching down the wooded slopes.

It took two minutes to shift my few belongings and, at ten o’clock I set off in search of breakfast.

I followed the road down the hill, past the little restaurant and shop in which I’d dined the night before. After a steep and winding leg the street levelled out at what appeared to be another informal jeep-stop. Here the road split into two tiers and, at this junction of climbing streets, stood a triangular building with a rounded prow: Keventer’s restaurant. I’d seen the name in the guide book and knew it to be rather famous, as a shop, in the downstairs section, but primarily for its café / restaurant upstairs. What made this Raj-era throwback popular, apart from its relative antiquity, was the amount of meat on its menu.

Since arriving in India, I hadn’t eaten any meat whatsoever – this despite ordering a mutton biriani in Rajasthan, which contained two large pieces of gristle that I promptly discarded. Here at Keventer’s they offered a variety of meat products, almost all made from chicken and pork: meatballs, sausages, bacon and the like. I sat right near the kitchen – a counter behind which men cooked methodically – in the run-down old interior. Around the walls hung pictures of the views across to the mountains, which only served to whet my appetite for the peaks I’d come to see.

I ordered pork meatballs and bacon and eggs, drawn wholly in by the old world atmosphere. The view offered a splendid fore and mid-ground of rusted, corrugated rooves and wonky wooden frames stacked down the forested hillsides.

The coffee was not great, but passable, and I soon fell to chatting with two young Indian guys; students up from Calcutta. They were friendly and charming and curious about the photos I ’d been taking. After a while they invited me to drinks that evening, and I said I’d certainly consider it, though I knew somehow that I wouldn’t go and felt an early regret at this. Having spent most days walking and taking photographs through the daylight hours, I was almost always too tired to be sociable at the end of the day. I was also enjoying staying completely off the booze on this journey.

After breakfast, I took a long walk around town; down to the bottom of the town, where I’d arrived the night before.

I wandered through the back streets, up and down long flights of steps; found a lane with closely packed stalls behind which men and women worked with old Singer sewing machines. I shook hands with locals, answered their friendly inquiries as to where I was from, and eventually wandered into the meat market. There, in this dirty old shed hung with carcasses, I chatted with several of the butchers and asked them about their work.

One man approached me and said:

“Come with me. I’ll show you how I make mince.”

He led me to a corner of the shed, where, on a heavy, round wooden chopping block, using only a machete, he threw down pieces of meat and hacked them into mince with swift, strong blows.

“How long have you been doing this for?” I asked; a little squeamish from the proximity of his fingers to the blade.

“For twenty years,” he replied. “I am the mince man!”

I watched him hack away at the mince for a couple of minutes; lifting the blade just a short distance and bringing it down with surprising force and accuracy. I took out my video camera to film his impressive action, and it wasn’t long before he had turned the large chunks of fatty meat into finely chopped mince.

“There,” he said. “Mince.”

“Bravo!”

I thanked him for showing me his trade and farewelled him.

I continued my wandering about town, plunging into the tight alleyways of shops and stalls. As with so many places in Asia, the businesses tended to group together according to what they sold: spices, shoes, tea, vegetables. I drifted in and out of the lanes, taking photographs here and there. Most people were friendly and generous with their smiles. Unlike other places I’d been in India, rather than trying to sell me things, they seemed merely to want to be acknowledged.

I took a walk around the circuit of Observatory Hill, then returned to Chowrasta, the main piazza at the top of the town. The horizon remained shrouded and I could see only the foothills. These, however, were beautiful in the dull light; wet and fecund, cool and, here and there, dressed with tea.

Three o’clock found me sitting in another Raj-era café, Glenary’s bakery and restaurant, situated just a little up the hill from Keventer’s. The pale mint walls, white wooden beams, wicker chairs and corrugated iron roof gave it a classically colonial appearance. I sat in the back section, like a wide, closed-in verandah, where a bay of windows faced the valley and the still-obscured mountains. I surfed the internet, ate pastries and drank two rather disappointing cups of tea. As the afternoon had progressed, the air had become increasingly damp with pending fog, until finally, at around a quarter past three, it began to rain.

Having been in India a month during the dry season and having seen no rain for some time, the idea of rain had hardly occurred to me. Perhaps some uprush of humid air from the Sundarbarns had met with the chill mountain breath and dropped its bucket, but whatever the case, once the rain began, it came down hard as hell. It poured for two hours, with little let up, striking hard on the iron roof. It was as beautiful as it was surprising, and for a long while I sat and watched figures darting through the wet below, with torrents in the gutters and cascades from the rooves. The pigeons opposite, huddled under the eaves, were positively ruffled on their multi-generational pile of droppings.

When the rain did finally stop, something extraordinary happened. I was sitting, face pressed close to the glass, watching the play of mist and light across the valley, when suddenly the clouds parted and opened a clear view to the horizon. All the haze had been washed from the sky, which was transformed to a pale blue, dotted with cotton wool clouds. I tried to shoot through the window but the curve of the hill blocked the bulk of the view. I wanted a clear line of sight, for I was dying to see Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world at nearly 8600 metres tall.

I stood up, stuffed my lap top into my bag, sorted myself out and hurried off. It was still drizzling a little, and, worried about my camera, instead of going straight to find a vantage point, I decided to head back to the Hotel Tranquillity (sic) to pick up the small but sturdy umbrella I’d packed in a moment of boy-scout foresight. I raced back to the hotel, which took a good ten minutes, grabbed my umbrella and was about to head off, when I heard voices from the roof, just up the next flight from my room. I walked up the stairs where a door opened out on a flat concrete roof, flooded with rain. Here I found Tenzing, the hotel’s owner, talking with two other guests.

“Hello!” said Tenzing. “Come to see the mountains?”

“I hope so!”

The two other guests were also Australian and we smiled and nodded at each other. Their attention, however, as mine was soon to be, was rooted in the distance. And there, sure enough, was Mount Kangchenjunga. I gasped when first I saw it, amazed by its sheer size. How high up it seemed to go into the sky. It had an unnatural quality to it, as though its extension from the Earth was somehow impossible. How could anything be so big? The towering peaks of stone and snow were nothing short of fantastical. The only problem was that much of the view was blocked by an inconveniently placed radio antenna, a hill and trees. I could see roughly half of the mountain, and that through a tilting of the head and shifting of angles.

I looked as well as I could, but the lack of a clear line of sight was simply too frustrating. I needed a new vantage point, for now clearly was the time to go shoot the mountain. I took a few snaps, made some cheery remarks, then fled down the stairs and out onto Dr Zakir Hussain Street, figuring I should make for the road that circumnavigated Observatory Hill. I scurried down the street towards Chowrasta, past all the stalls, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, fruit and vegetable sellers, chicken and egg sellers; many of them seated up on the boards of their wooden stalls.

When I reached Chowrasta, however, I could see already that I was too late. The sky in the distance was thickening again with white mist and soon everything would be hidden. I broke into a run, down along the side of this hill with its famous monastery and tall Japanese cedars. Yet, by the time I reached the far end of the road, the mountains had once again vanished behind haze and cloud. I stood cursing, deeply regretting having gone back to get my umbrella, and shook a fist at the sky. I wasn’t sure quite how long I was planning to stay in Darjeeling, but figured that some time in the next couple of days I ought to see clear skies. The rain began to come down again and I popped up my umbrella. Stuff it, I thought, there’s always tomorrow.

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When I stepped down from the back of the jeep in Darjeeling, I found myself in the middle of an intersection. This was no formal station, just a central location which the streets attended from what seemed to be unplanned angles. The lights were a very dim orange, barely illuminating the shuttered and shabby shop-fronts and the greasy road.

It was half-past eight in the evening and I was pleased to be on my feet again. The prolonged journey up the mountain had been very beautiful, but being two and a half hours behind schedule, I was concerned that my room might not still be available at the Hotel Tranquillity (sic).

Overhead hung countless lines of multi-coloured triangular flags; the green orange and white of India barely discernible in the sapping light. I turned a slow circle to take it all in. There were a few stalls lit by kerosene lamps and tapers in bottles; on one a steaming wok in which noodles were tossed, the cook’s face visible in flashes of fire. On one side of the road two wide-fronted fruit and vegetable shops remained open; shallow holes in the wall, the wares bathed in low-wattage lamplight, each tended by a patient, smiling man. The air was damp and a thin fog lurked above the corrugated iron roofs, threatening to descend as the day’s last warmth was leeched into the night. It was comparatively chilly after the stifling humidity of lower altitudes, but the close air and absent breeze kept me from shivering. Cars and jeeps rolled slowly out of shadow, their headlights blinding in the mist.

I looked around for street signs; any indication of where I was and where I needed to go. The light was so poor, I had to take the small bicycle light from my pack to read my inadequate guidebook map. There was no signage anywhere, and rather than finding out where I was, it made more sense to ask after my destination. I approached one of the fruit sellers to enquire where Dr Zakir Hussain Street was. The man spoke just enough English to tell me it was up the hill.

“Up, up,” he said, waving vaguely down the street to my right. “Go up the stairs. Then go up more.”

He was struggling to articulate exactly where to go and I rightly guessed it was because the town sprawled up the hill and the streets wound back and forth on lines that followed the natural contours.

I thanked him and walked away down the dark street. Had I not already been in India for a month, I might have found the darkness more forbidding. There were groups of dogs curled up against the closed shops and lone men shuffling through the night. The damp and weathering had rusted, blackened and warped almost everything, and nothing seemed new or recently renovated. It had, of course, a derelict charm which I appreciated, but having no knowledge of what this part of town or its inhabitants were like and, uncertain as to whether or not I was in any danger, I remained on my guard. I walked slowly, not knowing where I was going, and after a moment, felt bold enough to take out my video camera and film my journey.

Presently I rounded a corner whereon stood a late night chemist shop; illuminated with bright, white light, which shone across the narrow street. Three men stood out the front, chatting with the man behind the counter. I approached them and asked if they could tell me where Dr Zakir Hussain Street was. They pointed to a place directly opposite, where I now noticed a long, steep flight of steps that creeping up the hill between the tall, leaning buildings.

“Go up, up,” the man said, much as the other had done.

“Do you know the Hotel Tranquillity?” I asked.

“Yes, yes. It is up the hill. Go up the stairs. Then up again. Up to the top.”

Clearly, I had to go up! I took the stairs which cut a significant shortcut through the winding, contoured streets. About half-way up, as I walked filming with my camcorder in one hand, my thongs slipped on the wet stairs and I fell on my hands, just managing to avoid damaging my camera. I cursed and dusted myself off, feeling clumsy and stupid and pleased no one had witnessed me stumble. This, however, was as nothing to what greeted me at the top. I stepped out onto the road, and, in the near total darkness, put my foot into an open sewer, filled with a sucking muck. The muck was so grotesquely thick and clinging, that I had to reach down to extract my thong. My foot was covered in slime to above the ankle. I couldn’t bear to think what bacteria lurked in that drain, particularly as I had many cuts and cracks on my battered feet. I tried to wash it off with the last water from my bottle, but this was inadequate to the task, and the only other option that presented itself was to stick my foot into the water flowing down the street’s gutter. It was, at least, decidedly cleaner than the gunk I’d collected, but the whole experience left me with a deep feeling of disgust and I longed to reach my hotel to shower and soak my foot in the Dettol I carried for emergencies.

I pressed on up the hill, soon arriving at another intersection of zig-zagging streets. Cars pushed past and edged me onto the narrow pavement. The headlights lit up the rolling fog that was seeping down the slope.

I turned on my camera again and began to narrate as I walked, feeling a mix of discomfort and relief that I would soon be in a hotel room. Where the streets levelled out, I asked directions again from a man behind the wheel of a jeep. He pointed to the steep road leading up to my right and said, as all had done before, “Go up. To the top of the hill.”

It was some time before I reached the top of the hill. The street wound back and forth and grew ever steeper, stacked on either side with wooden houses and concrete apartments. It was so dark in places, I narrowly missed falling into a vast pot-hole. When I finally did reach the summit at a quarter past nine, I felt surprisingly short of breath. Even at an elevation of just over two thousand metres, the air felt thinner in my lungs. I paused beside a large satellite dish, backlit in pale orange light, a mere silhouette in the fog. On either side of the road were closed wooden stalls; booths that sold fruit and vegetables, snacks, cold drinks and cigarettes.

I was about to ask about the Hotel Tranquillity, when I saw its sign just ahead of me. The two ells were quaintly attractive, curiously welcoming, and I rubbed my hands together with glee.

The chap in reception was very tall indeed; around six foot five. He was a Ghorka man, with high and wide cheekbones and a strong jaw. I never caught his name and for the rest of my stay in the hotel, just thought of him as Tenzing. He stood behind a closed-in counter, rather like a toll-booth. The room around it had the aspect of a cheap European ski lodge, the décor of which had not been updated in years. If somewhat unattractive, it certainly felt very homely and the smile on the man behind the counter was reassuring indeed.

“We do have a room for you,” he said. “But it is a triple room. Three beds. There is a bathroom, of course, and tomorrow morning I can put you in a double. Also with a bathroom.”

“That sounds excellent.”

“How long would you like to stay.”

“I don’t know. I’ll say three nights for now.”

The room was only six hundred rupees, fifteen dollars Australian. Despite being more than I had recently been paying, it was ridiculously cheap. Towering Tenzing showed me up the stairs to a large, carpeted room with three single beds. Noticing how cold it was in the room, I chose the bed furthest from the window and threw down my bag. Tenzing showed me around and switched on the hot water.

“Do you have a restaurant here?” I asked.

“No, I’m sorry. Have you eaten?”

“Not at all.”

“Ah,” he said, in an oddly disconcerting manner. “Then you must hurry if you want to eat. In Darjeeling, everything shuts very early. You might not find a restaurant.”

“Oh dear. Thanks for telling me.”

As soon as he mentioned this I felt ravenously hungry and dreaded the idea of snacking on crisps and biscuits for dinner as I’d done once or twice when so caught.

“The front entrance will be closed at nine thirty. If you go out, you must come in through the back. There is a small door, up the driveway. It leads through the kitchen. The door will be closed, but you can open it. Just make sure you close it behind you.”

After a much-welcomed, but brief shower, I dressed again and went in search of a restaurant. I first stopped at the stalls and bought some crisps, fruit and biscuits, water and mango juice. If I did get caught short, I’d at least have something to eat.

I walked down the steep slope in the descending fog, determined to enter the first restaurant I found that was open. One hundred metres down, where the road turned in a hairpin, I found a small shop with a restaurant attached. The space inside was cramped and triangular, with wood board panelled walls that gave it a very dated look. The tarnished glass counter was full of packets of sweets and biscuits, of crisps and chewing tobacco, old toys and mobile phones. The old furniture – linoleum-topped tables with metal rims in which lurked ancient grease, attended by wooden benches – reminded me of the old diners and cafés of Sydney which seemed no longer to exist. I sat down and picked up a sticky menu, quietly loving this place for being so enticingly run down; honest, simple and, as was so often the case in India, unbelievably cheap. It felt like the past.

The menu was a little like Darjeeling in microcosm. The Indian staples were joined by Chinese, Nepalese and Tibetan dishes; momos, spicy soups, noodles. I ordered hot and sour soup, dhal with paratha and a bottle of Coke to cleanse the palate. The man who served me kept quietly busy, and when I placed my order, he disappeared through a curtain into what appeared to be his home. I caught a glimpse of his wife in the back room, standing before a stove. The dim sound of a television snuck through into the restaurant.

I took the chance to photograph the shop, particularly interested in a very old public phone upon a stand. Many times in India I had been reminded of my holidays to the Blue Mountains as a child. For, whereas Sydney had, even in the late 70s and early 80s, kept somewhat up to date, the small towns like Katoomba, Leura and Blackheath had always been well behind the times, both in style and facilities. My brother and I had found endless satisfaction in the relative cheapness and antiquity of things, and such was the case in much of India.

The food was not long in coming, and when I tasted it, I was surprised by how good it was. I felt briefly guilty for suspecting otherwise, but had often found restaurant food to be not as good as that of the street. My father had always said that the best sauce in the world is hunger sauce, so perhaps my ravenous appetite coloured my opinion. Either way, I felt very content when I farewelled the quiet man and left to walk back up the hill.

On arriving at the Hotel Tranquillity, again finding myself out of breath, I did as instructed and walked around the back of the hotel. The door opened into a tiny kitchen, and in it I encountered a lady whom I assumed might be Tenzing’s wife. She was sitting on a stool in an upright posture, resting it seemed, and enjoying the peace of the quiet and shrouded night. I nodded in greeting, grimacing a little to convey an apology for disturbing her. She gave me a big smile in return and gracefully motioned towards another door which led to the hotel stairwell.

Later, as I lay back on the bed with my feet soaking in a bucket of hot water and disinfectant, I found myself pondering how utterly different this place was from everywhere else I’d seen in India. The cool, the damp, the faces and architecture, and here, at the foot of my bed, several extra blankets neatly stored in clear, zip-up plastic bags. That I should feel cold at all, after a month of forty degree heat, was a clear sign that this was a whole other world altogether. Being one born to suffer greatly in hot weather, though less so in the dry than in the humidity, I was excited by the chill feeling and the cold, clinging damp. It reminded me of living in Cambridge and I felt a clear-headedness I’d not felt for some time.

Most of all, however, I was excited about what the next day would bring. For then I should see what I had come here to see. The Himalayas!

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I’ve been working on this piece on and off for years, not entirely sure where to go with it. Too long for a short story, too short for a novella. I could develop the characters further and intensify the drama, but I rather like it as it stands, not too deep, not too shallow… Anyways, here it is after a final buff and polish, enjoy!

 

Dirk slumped in the early morning. So he had come to Rafina for nothing. There was no ferry today or tomorrow and he was dog tired. The sky was lightening up mauve and the orange street lights coloured everything sickly. It didn’t look real, like blue screen in a film. But it was real – an hour out of Athens at the wrong port and no ferries.

He put his pack down and leaned his back against a wall. If he was going to make a decision, he figured he’d better rest first. He watched the seagulls and the men. They all had a role, even the ones doing nothing. Some made scraps and some cleaned them up. There were guys hauling on ropes, guys smoking cigarettes, guys drinking coffee. All the shutters were down. It looked like a big, noisy fraud. There were clanks and thumps and hisses and men raised their voices, but for all that, nothing was happening. They were just shifting stuff about.

Dirk got fed up pretty fast. He was supposed to be in Samothraki that day; miles north, off the coast of Alexandropouli, and he hadn’t even left Athens. He hadn’t even been to Athens. It was a bum steer. He hauled himself up like a big old sack, shouldered his pack and made for the bus stop. He was too tired to deal with foreignness and a language he did not speak. He pulled himself together and read the timetables calmly. He figured correctly. Money talks: when the bus showed up and he held out the cash, it was obvious enough what he wanted.

_______________________________________________

From a distance Athens looked like a dirty, smoggy pile of old white Lego. It was stinking hot at nine in the morning and Dirk’s eyes stung from the fumes. The sunlight was tungsten and sepia, and it was hot, damn hot. He was sweating as he reached the train station. There weren’t many trains in Greece, but there was a line heading north and that’s all he cared about. The train station was dismal. Birds shat through the heat wobbles on the burning lime of the tracks. He felt it all in his skin, like a car had been blowing exhaust on him for half an hour.

“No tickets here,” said the lady at the window. “No sell tickets.”

“This is the train station?” asked Dirk. “But you don’t sell tickets?”

“No sell tickets. Ticket office in town.” Dirk thought he was in town. She waved her hand several times back the way he had come. If she’d waved it only once he might have thought it was just around the corner, but it was like she was counting off the blocks.

Dirk couldn’t believe it. The heat was driving him nuts. His flight had been at four in the morning and he hadn’t slept a wink. It was a hell of a time for a flight. He got out his guidebook and tried to work things out. There was a place that sold train and bus tickets about six blocks away.

He followed the map and crossed the road. He walked up a long, wide street. There were cross-streets heading off all black and bronze in the sunlight. The air was thick and hazy. People were rushing about and the cars were noisy. All the horns sounded high pitched, like they’d been knackered. Dirk didn’t know what he was looking for. He just stumbled on, feeling more out of the loop than ever. He was so tired that every time he was checked he felt desperate, but he was too tired to panic so he just kept going.

Dirk walked six blocks and found the place. They sold tickets for everything; trains, ferries, buses; a state enterprise of some kind. He walked down the granite steps. It was dark. The lights must be real dim, he thought, or he’d been blinded outside. His eyes began to adjust. The only light came through the back windows, bounced from a dirty, pipe-veined wall behind. It was all dark wood and thick, old glass. It was dusty and the floor a scudded, maroon linoleum. It had “communism” written all over it. He walked up to one of the counters where an old man was sitting.

“Do you speak English?”

The man shook his head.

“Train?” said Dirk.

“No light,” the man said.

He made a gesture, moving his hand up and down like he was holding something, then shrugged.

“Huh?”

“No light,” said the man, making the gesture again, this time accompanied by a clicking sound.

Dirk stared dumbly, like a dog shown a card-trick.

“No light,” the man said once more, but by now Dirk had understood. He was mimicking flicking a switch. There was a power failure.

Dirk walked over to the worn, studded, leather-bound benches across the room and took off his pack. It was ten o’clock now and he was truly beat. It was only half as hot as the outside inside, but still a good deal cooler. He sat down a while, then shrugged and pulled up his feet. He stretched out in the dark corner and closed his eyes. Two minutes later he was asleep.

_______________________________________________

Dirk woke up drooling. He wiped off his mouth and looked around. The lights were still out. He looked at his watch. Midday. He stood up and walked over to the counter again. It was the same old man. Same old game.

“Train?” he said to the man.

“No lights,” the man replied.

Dirk walked away. He was fed up already and he’d just woken up. He took out his guidebook and looked through it again. Athens – Getting Around. He sure was getting around. There was another ticket office eight blocks east. He could take the subway. It was nearby.

He bought a Coke in the subway and gulped it down. He was sticky as hell with humidity and dirty air. He rode down the line and came out in a square he liked the look of. There were palm trees and neo-classical buildings; museums, galleries. Across the square he found the ticket office. The lights were on; it was air conditioned; the place was modern; the staff were young.

The Coke was dragging him up and pulling him through. He waited in the line. The girl spoke English; she was cute, black hair with a square fringe. Dirk fell in love with her in about two seconds, he was that stretched. She sold him a ticket all the way to Thessaloniki. From there, if he couldn’t get a ferry, he could take a bus to Kavala or Alexandropouli. The train didn’t leave for another hour. He would have time to get back to the train station. He walked out of the office, smiling for the first time all day; smiling, just like she loved him too.

He looked around the square, took a bunch of photos, then realised he didn’t have his guide-book. He ran back to the office, burst through the doors and shoved his way through to snatch it off the counter.

“Fuck it,” he said, when he received a few rude looks. He’d never see any of them again anyway.

_______________________________________________

From the subway Dirk walked to the station. His pack was settling in now. It was carry-on sized; a glorified day-pack. A couple of changes of clothes, a pair of flip flops, a Latin dictionary, some translations he had to make, his diary and The Golden Ass, by Apuleis. He travelled light and washed things as he went. That was the way he liked doing it.

At the station it was hotter than ever. He saw a sign saying thirty-nine degrees. Crikey. The air was acrid, unpleasant; a flatulent pall. Dirk went into the washrooms and cleaned himself up. He washed his face and slicked his hair. He wet his arms and legs and worked all the sweat and fuel and dust off. He dried himself with his beach towel and went back outside to wait. He felt good now. He bought two Cokes, three bread rolls, two apples, a block of chocolate and a packet of smokes from the station shop. He sat on a bench and smoked. The cigarette gave him head-spins, but it tasted great. He noticed people were buying tickets from the ticket office. The shock left him briefly unseated, but he soon ceased to care.

The train was only ten minutes late – one thirty-five. There weren’t many people at the station, but the carriages were near full. It was an old train and smelled of old train; soot and diesel and hot, greased metal. Dirk climbed up and walked by the compartments. They all looked full. He kept searching for an empty one. He didn’t want any conversation, just to smoke and look and put some music in his ears. He found one with just two people in – a pair of young Greek blokes. They looked hip and Dirk wondered if they were going where he was going, all the way to Samothraki. They were sitting by the door, not the window. Dirk went through and took the view. He was stoked to get the window.

_______________________________________________

Four hours later they were high up in a rocky land and everyone in Dirk’s compartment was asleep. It was full now and the guy sitting opposite had slumped like a dead man. He was covered in sweat; completely drenched with it. Dirk had never seen a bloke sweat so much in his life and it made him uncomfortable just looking at him. His clothes were dark with it, dripping.

Dirk got up with his walkman, his smokes and a Coke and went into the corridor. There were guys leaning out the windows down its length and Dirk pulled down one of the long, rectangular windows. He lit up a cigarette and leaned his elbows on the frame. It was just the right height. The wind blew in his hair and he rested his eyes across Thessaly. Dirk had been around Greece before, but never up through Thessaly or Thrace. He was excited about the terrain and thought a lot about hoplites and partisans. He also thought a lot about donkeys.

They passed over a gorge on an iron bridge. The soil was white and orange and the rocks white and orange too. The trees were spindly; hardy and evergreen. There were clumps and spills of shrubs and bushes, with the white rock and soil in between like bald patches. The land rose and fell with this forest and scrub and rock and Dirk caught glimpses of distant, cultivated plains through the gorges.

He watched the train ahead as they took the turns. Rafina was another day, another life. When he looked back on the dawn’s disappointment, it wasn’t real after all. He smoked his cigarette and a guy up the front looking back gave a wave. Dirk brought his hand up in a salute. Hey, they were all comrades here. Everyone on the same trip. The camaraderie of the road. Dirk was smiling now. He lit up another cigarette and put on his walkman. Dark Side of the Moon. He wanted something epic; something to reflect the day’s quiet desperation. There was still a long way to go. He would eat some chocolate now.

_______________________________________________

At Thessaloniki Dirk took a hotel right by the train station. He was all washed up and wanted an easy finish and an easy start. The town was boiling hot. The concrete and bitumen and stone still poured out the day’s heat. The air was thick with pollution. Unlike the acid sting of Athens, it was a roiling, eggy flatulence. Dirk took a shower and lay down in his towel for five minutes. He stared at the ceiling blinking.

Though it was dark, Dirk hauled himself up and went out to see some Roman remains. The Arch and Rotunda of Galerius were a good leg from his hotel. He was pleased not to have to carry his pack. He followed his map along the main drags and took a couple of detours to look into the harbour. It wasn’t so neat, he thought, but the air was cooler. There were palm trees. He always liked palm trees.

Dirk stopped by the clumsy, weathered reliefs on the arch and smoked cigarettes. He hated the late third-century style. It was too thickset and graceless. It wasn’t just the way the stylization robbed the figures of detail, but the compositions were poor; cluttered and syncopated. Dirk smoked and thought about rhythm. He never liked Galerius anyway. “You were a bit of a cock, Galerius,” he said. Then he went back to his hotel and went straight to sleep.

In the morning Dirk rose early. He felt travel-fit after a day of errors. He was rested and sharp. “On the ball,” was about the only thing he said all morning. He took a walk through town to look at the churches and see the Roman structures in the daylight. The rotunda was closed this early so he missed the mosaics. He found a fifth-century church that had been so rebuilt and renovated, it might as well have been late medieval. He gave up and went to a café. He ate eggs, toast, coffee and fried potatoes. He mopped up the grease with heavily buttered bread. He drank a second coffee and smoked two cigarettes. This morning was cooler, clearer. It felt like he’d pulled all the stuffing out of his lungs. He walked down to the harbour and asked about ferries. There were no ferries to Samothraki. He would have to try Kavala or Alexandropouli. He’d figured on that anyway and left town.

_______________________________________________

Dirk reached Kavala at noon. It was the prettiest place he’d stopped so far. There were a lot more older-style houses. Up on a hill, on the northern side of the harbour, was a fortress, with pre-gunpowder battlements and crenulations. The sun shone clear, without haze. The air was fresh. There were palm trees amongst the red roofs. He liked the colours. The sun on his face made him smile.

Dirk walked around all the ticket offices and asked about ferries. There were two ferries a week to Samothraki and the next one was two days away. He asked about a boat to Alexandropouli. It would be nicer than the bus, but didn’t go for three hours. He was getting impatient again. He didn’t want to get to Samothraki and find all the good stuff was gone. It might take him a day just to find his friends. Hopefully they would have the right gear.

He boarded the bus and sat by the window. There were others milling about outside, finishing cigarettes, saying farewells. Dirk noticed one bloke in particular. His hair was closely cropped and he was wearing an orange and red tie-dyed tee shirt and cargo pants, carrying a large pack. He looked a couple of years older than Dirk – about thirty. He looked like a raver. He was talking to a couple of young girls in an animated, friendly manner. Something about him made Dirk think he was a good bloke.

The bloke boarded the bus with the two girls and two other guys in tow. He was still talking and spoke in English English. They sat down just in front of Dirk and kept up the conversation. The two girls sounded French. Dirk figured they’d not all known each other that long, that they’d met on the road. He liked the look of the two French girls. One of them reminded him of a girl named Juliet he’d had a crush on years ago. The other one just looked French, in a good way. He was certain they were all going to Samothraki. He decided to wait until he was sure.

After five minutes he still wasn’t sure, but he wanted to talk to someone.

“Excuse me,” said Dirk, leaning forward. “Are you going to Samothraki? To Solar Lunar?”

“Yeah,” said the Englishman.

“Yes,” said the girl who looked like Juliet.

“Cool, me too. Do you know about the ferries? I was hoping to get a boat at Alexandropouli.”

“Hope being the operative word,” said the Englishman. “You can definitely get the ferry there, but it’ll be busy.”

“That figures. I don’t suppose you know the times?”

“I don’t. But there’s a few each day. They’ve put on extra.”

“Oh, good, good. That’s relief. I’m Dirk, by the way.”

“I’m Sean.”

“I’m Annette,” said the girl who looked like Juliet, “and this is Milene.”

Dirk smiled. He waved around and through the seat backs. Across the aisle, in front of Sean the heads of the two other guys popped up. “Hello,” they said.

“That’s Numa and Tom,” said Sean. They smiled and sat back down.

“Are you travelling solo?” asked Sean.

“Yeah. I’m meeting up with some friends on Samothraki. I just have to hope I’ll find them.”

“You ought to stick with us. We could use an Australian. I’m sure it’ll all work out.”

“Cheers,” said Dirk. “I feel like I’m finally getting there.”

_______________________________________________

They arrived in Alexandropouli around four. Dirk and Sean talked the whole way. They got off the bus and went straight across the square to a café. They ordered Nescafé frappes.

“I’ve only been in Greece two days,” said Sean “but I can tell you that this is all they drink.”

“So much for Greek coffee.”

Numa and Annette were an item. Numa was from Marseilles. He was thin and darkly tanned, with long black hair tied back. He looked like a pearl diver; pointy, like a spear gun. Annette was thin and pale and from Orleans. She too was thin, sinewy, but when she smiled she fleshed out with the softening. Dirk liked the way her hair fell. Milene was Annette’s best friend, also from Orleans. She didn’t speak much English and acted like a sidekick. Dirk’s French was poor. He knew he had some work to do, but he wanted to do it. She wasn’t wearing a bra. He could tell she was nice.

Tom was from Hamburg. He was quiet and kept his eyes down. He wasn’t so trusting, but he was learning to be. Dirk figured he fancied Milene as well. Fair enough. She might well sting them all. Sean was from Sheffield. He was an ex-army private; a mechanic; a writer. He D.J.ed in clubs in Liverpool and Manchester. He knew what he was doing and was organising the others. He and Tom had been travelling alone. They’d all met in Kavala. They finished their drinks and hit town.

At the ferry ticket office, the queue was out the door and down the street. It was a real bustle. They drank tinned beers and everyone checked each other out. They got tickets at sunset with the lights on in a hot press: two PM the next day. Dirk looked about for his friend Julian and his brother Jason, but couldn’t find them. He thought about a hotel room. He didn’t have a sleeping bag. It was a hot August. He’d been promised a tent berth on Samothraki. He figured he could pull through till then. He chose to save money and sleep rough with the others.

They bought supplies and walked to the harbour beach. It was thick sand and scrubby clumps. They laid out groundsheets and foam rolls and sleeping bags. Dirk lay down nothing. He put on two tee-shirts and a jumper. He figured he’d be fine if it stayed warm. They talked about life and work. Dirk liked them all and they seemed to like him. They got half drunk then called it quits.

At ten o’clock the sun was gone and with it went the heat. The moon was thereabouts full and lights shone bright from a shipyard further down the beach. Dirk took a walk to look at the yard. There were hungry dogs barking all around, but they always sounded far off. He came to a wide wire-mesh gate in a tall, shabby iron fence. The light was orange and yellow and leeched the colour from everything. The only colour he could see was rust; rust and dirty sand; rust and dead yellow grass. There was a great pile of iron and chain and junk. Scrap. He stared into it and listened to the junkyard dogs. He took a piss on the fence and walked back.

That night he shivered like hell on the sand. He put on another shirt and borrowed a sleeping bag cover for a cap. He lay in the light breeze, thinking how he’d done this twice before, in Turkey, in Sardinia, and both times it was stupid without a sleeping bag. Then Sean pulled him in and said, “get under here, you dill, and don’t get any ideas.” Backs together under a plastic sheet, heads on a pillow of sand, Dirk slept.

_______________________________________________

Seagulls skimmed the flecked wake of water, hunting the fish chased up in the foam. The day was bright and everyone felt happy. Sean was at his best, cheery and jibing. Dirk was smiling, but thinly spread, too much so to chase Milene. He leaned on the rails and stared at the sea, throwing in his odd two cents worth. He’d spent the morning baking and thawing in the sun. Now the sea was clearing out the drowse. He was thinking about Julian. How would he find his friend? Soon Samothraki’s tall Mount Fengari arose from the haze with its forested crest.

Kamariotissa spread with the wash of arrivals. They gushed out into the car park and broke against the shops. Dirk and the others flowed with them, down to the main promenade.

“The shopkeepers can’t believe their luck,” said Sean. “Two and a half thousand people on the whole island, and bang, seven thousand customers arrive in a couple of days.”

“They probably hate us,” said Dirk.

“Only the spoilsports.”

The buses were ready and waiting. It was a few miles to the campsite and the fare was next to nothing. The bus was jam-packed full of ravers; a mess of colour and language and accents. It took just twenty minutes. The land was olive green and ochre, with yellow and pink-red flowers. The sea was both blinding and dark. Where it did not foam or glint, it was deep bruise blue – how it should look in its belly; how it would look to the drowned. It flashed through the trees as they sped.

They got off at a dirt road that led into a forest. There were rainbow banners and police out the front. Through the gate and down the road was an open space swarming with people. There were low concrete buildings and dust in the air. The ground was rocky, clay, dirt. There was hot food and cold snacks, hot drinks and booze, massages and aromatherapy, candles, tarot, first aid, come down, pick up, meditation and left luggage.

“It’s all happening,” said Dirk.

They looked at the message board by the cafeteria and found nothing. They walked into the forest, down towards the beach.

“If I don’t find my friends today,” said Dirk, “can I crash with you guys somewhere?”

“I have a space in my tent,” said Tom. “You can stay with me.”

“Thanks a lot, man. That’d be great.” Dirk had bought a cheap sleeping bag that morning.

They walked for a mile through the forest. Tents were pitched everywhere; hammocks, lean-tos, wigwams, tarps; there were hardly any gaps between the trees. It was a new settlement, the largest on the island, more populous than the main town. They soon came to one of the two main stages. There was just a small clearing before it, and the trees formed a swaying canopy overhead. There was music playing, but things were still being set up and only one lone tripper was dancing. The party was to begin that evening.

They continued through the forest until they came to a much larger clearing, almost a hundred and fifty metres wide. Here the main stage had been set up, roughly a hundred metres from the water. Tall, triangular sails formed a clever and colourful roof above the speakers and equipment. Flags fluttered from the tops of poles, and, behind it all, rose the forested crest of Mount Fengari.

They finally found a spot between the two stages and began to set up camp. It was dark and surrounded by trees; just enough room for two tents. Sean planned on sleeping in the open. In fact, he didn’t intend to sleep at night at all. None of them really did.

_______________________________________________

It was dusk when Dirk spotted Julian. He was walking to the beach, coming up a rise from a grassy dip before the shoreline.

“Hey Julian!” he shouted.

“Dirk,” called Julian, “I thought you’d never make it!”

“Here I am.”

They walked over and embraced. Julian wore red and black board shorts, a black tee shirt. He was dark-haired and tanned. His face was slim, though his frame was built and full.

“Well done, man,” he said.

“Well done yourself,” said Dirk.

“Where you at?”

“I met a bunch of cool people on the road and pitched in with them. Not too far from here. Over that way. Where’s your lot?”

“Over that way. We’ve got a top spot, bru. You should move on over.”

“So there’s room?”

“Of course, bru. We’ve been expecting you.”

“Excellent. I might get my stuff right now. It’s not far.”

“For sure. I’ll come with you. I was on my way to get Jase, but he’ll be cool.”

“Okay, let’s do it now then.”

“It’s good to see you, bru!” said Julian. He slapped Dirk on the back.

“It’s a hell of a relief to find you. It’s been a bit of a mission so far.”

“You love missions, don’t you?”

“There’s nothing else.”

Julian laughed.

“Let’s get your stuff.”

They set off back to where Tom and Numa had pitched their tents.

“Have we got, you know, the wherewithal?” asked Dirk. “Are you equipped, with the goods?”

“No problems there, bru. We’ve got the lot. Liquid acid, ecstasy, hash, Ketamine, mushrooms.”

“Wicked. How did you pull that off?”

“Friends in low places.”

“Top notch.”

“It’s all back at the camp. Just sorted today. I’m holding off for tomorrow though. I’d like to start fresh in the morning. We’ll talk about it later.”

They found Tom alone, organising his tent. Dirk introduced Julian and explained that he was moving.

“Sorry, man, I feel like I’m abandoning you,” he said, pulling his bag from inside the tent.

“It’s no problem,” said Tom. “I’ll come with you. Show me where you’ll be.”

“Yes, make sure to tell the others.”

They set off through the forest.

_______________________________________________

“This is the laager,” said Julian.

“Cool spot.”

They were just a few hundred metres from Stage One. There were five tents, all facing into a circle; a hammock, a clothes line, a stone fire circle and some wide, woven dog blankets. There were also three men and a dog.

“This is Ian, Andrew and Pieter,” said Julian, “and this is Dirk and Tom.”

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

Everyone smiled. It was genuine.

“And that, my friends,” said Julian, “is Brutus the dog. He likes a bit of hard trance, but mostly he likes sleeping. Speaking of dogs, my brother should be along sometime soon. You know Jase, Dirk. There’s some other people staying here too, you’ll meet them soon enough. We all got here yesterday morning. Prime real estate.”

“It sure is.”

They talked for a few minutes and shared their adventures so far. It was almost dark, so Tom stayed just a short while before excusing himself.

“I’ll tell the others where you are,” he said as he left.

“Make sure you do.”

“So,” asked Dirk, once Tom had left, “is anyone here not South African?”

“Brutus,” said Julian. “And Hilda, who owns him. She’s Dutch.”

“That’s pretty close.”

“Don’t worry,” said Andrew, with a sinister lisp, “we’re non-discriminating.”

“Et tu, Brute? Non yarpie est?” asked Dirk, sitting down with Brutus. He was a big, piebald mutt with a thick skull and slow manner. Dirk took an instant liking to him and patted him a good deal. Brutus put his head in his lap and Dirk lay down on the blanket. He was feeling beat again and decided not to go anywhere or do anything for a while.

“So you’re from Cambridge too?” asked Ian.

“Yeah, same college as J. Where are you guys all from?”

“In England?” said Pieter. “We’re all from London.”

“In our own way,” added Andrew.

“Different parts,” said Ian.

“Otherwise, Capetown or Durban.”

Everyone had their shirts off and were tanned. They were all good-looking men; handsome, fit and toned. Dirk could tell just looking at them that they were capable. It was a good tribe to join and he was happy right where he was. He felt safe. The trance music pumped across the Stage One clearing and through the trees. The music would never stop. How would they ever sleep? Right now he was so tired he figured he’d drop off anyway. He closed his eyes.

“You off to sleep already, boet?” asked Julian.

“Looks like it,” said Dirk. “Just give me a bit. I’m spent.”

“Sure thing. There’s plenty of days ahead. I’ll wake you in a bit.”

“Do that.”

“You want some of this?” asked Ian.

“What’s that?”

“Hashish. The world’s best painkiller, bru.”

“Sure, thanks, man.”

Dirk sat up and leaned over. He took a few pulls on the joint and handed it back. He lay down again.

“Say, it’s damn nice here. I might just sleep out with Brutus tonight. It’s lovely.”

“Go for your life,” said Julian.

Dirk felt the hash come on like a massage. Up through the trees he could see the stars emerging. The sun had dipped below the fading, orange horizon. There was no breeze and the earth was dry and warm. There were soft needles on the sandy forest floor. He reached out a hand and ran it through them. He was on a nice flat stretch. Brutus nestled in with a meaty grunt. He’s a first-rate dog, thought Dirk. My new best buddy.

The stars grew brighter. Dirk closed his eyes and listened to the voices about him. Julian was off to find Jason. Andrew and Pieter sounded gay. Ian was smoking a cigarette. Was it just ravers, he wondered, or had some great good fortune thrust him in amongst the nicest, most welcoming, friendly and easy-going people on the planet? And dogs, he thought. Easy-going dogs. He emitted a high little giggle and fell asleep.

_______________________________________________

It was Jason who woke Dirk. “Laka, bru, it’s good to see you,” he said, pulling him from his slumber to his feet. They had met previously in the thick of some hard-core nights and had the bond of having seen in dawns together. They were both younger brothers and knew just what this meant.

“It sure is good to see you, Jason.”

Once he was up, Dirk decided he had better find Sean and co. He walked the twenty metres to the beach, washed his face and hands, walked back, changed clothes, then led Julian, Jason and Ian to find his other friends. It was Tom who sent them on to the cafeteria, by the entrance to the site.

Dirk did the introductions, then sat at the head of the table and watched everyone mingle. He smiled at the way Sean and Julian singled each other out. They were similar beings. It was animal; both of them leaders. One ex-army, the other ex-Olympics. It was not in any way macho, but diplomatic. They both held assurance and wisdom; could sense the other’s inner disciplines. Instead of boasting or posturing, they praised. Dirk admired them both. He tried to admire all the people he liked and felt he could learn from. He watched as these people enmeshed. It was he who had brought them together. Perhaps he too was a leader.

Milene sat at the other end of the table with Annette; still the sidekick. They were like Ernie and Bert in their stripes. Dirk watched them as he spoke to Ian and Numa. He felt further away than ever from Milene. Across the table, across the language. He had thought about her a lot because he knew the advantage of introductions. Proven safety; vouchsafed goodness. She had already seen that he was at least okay; a good person.

Dirk took up his camera to take a photograph of the group. He wanted to record this coming together. It meant a lot to him. He saw Milene watching him. He saw her looking into the camera when he peered through the viewfinder. He saw how she was the only one who had noticed. He saw how she smiled at him. He took the photo and roused everyone with the flash. Milene continued to smile and he smiled back. She really was sweet. It was her manner. Her eyes. That’s where you look for intelligence, for kindness. He wished to god his French was better. His moves were all conversation. Without the words, she was totally out of reach. He’d never been with a girl without a spoken understanding. He put away the camera. He knew he’d already given up. He knew that he would not dance with her, in case it came down to it. He could not be so mute and then physical in love.

_______________________________________________

The water was still. Dirk and Julian were sweaty from dancing. To their hot bodies, the sea was a lukewarm bath. They swam beyond their depth and back, scoured clean with salt. The full moon hung over Mount Fengari. It was so bright and the sea so still they could see the rocks underwater for thirty metres. The air was warm, much more so than the previous night. They sat on the round rocks dripping.

“I want to go up to the mountain tomorrow,” said Julian. “We should get up early, bru, go for a swim, take some acid and walk into the mountains.”

“Have you been up there yet?”

“Not yet. But I spoke to people who went up there today. There’s cool mountain pools up there. Streams and pools called ‘Vathres’. There’s ancient trees and goats, man. Goats.”

“Excellent. I love goats.”

“This is ancient Greece, bru. Up there it hasn’t changed. Just set your mind back.”

“I already have. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ancient world since I got off the plane.”

“Tomorrow we’re going back in time. We’ll go into the mountains and look for the past. Not in monuments, but in nature. The one thing from the ancient world that is exactly as it was. At least here, anyway. This used to be the home of the ancient gods, bru. There is a shrine to the old gods on this island.”

“I know, I know. The Shrine of the Great Gods. But it’s miles away from here.”

“It wouldn’t be the same anyway. Just a ruin. The Greek gods came from the landscape, from the mountains, from the forest. From nature. That’s no ruin, let me tell you. Tomorrow we’ll go in search of the ancient world, bru. The landscapes of Heroes and gods.”

“On acid,” said Dirk.

“On acid.”

Dirk rubbed his hands together. He was excited. He shivered.

“We’d better get some kip then,” he said.

_______________________________________________

Dirk woke at six thirty, at sunrise. The beats were pounding out as hard as ever. No one else was up; not even Brutus. He smelled curiously fresh, like a warm bread roll. Dirk smoothed the dog’s ears and gave him a kiss on the forehead. He slid from his sleeping bag. He picked up his towel and walked down to the beach. He was still in his board shorts.

He walked down into the water and lowered himself in its coolness. He lay on his back to float and look up at Mount Fengari. There was a thin mist around it so the top was a ghostly outline. He could just make out the textured layers of forest. Beneath it all, right before him, was Stage One with its kites and sails canopy. In front of that was the hoard of non-stop dancers.

Dirk looked along the beach. There were three huts constructed from branches and fronds. They had a feathery look, like crouching beasts. Scattered people sat and smoked or swam. Many still slept.

Dirk looked again up to the mountain.

“See you soon,” he said, then swam back to the shore.

He walked back into the laager to find Julian and Jason were up.

“Morning, sport,” said Julian. “I was just heading down myself.”

“It’s beautiful. Today is going to be a scorcher.”

“Come have another swim, bru,” said Jason. “Then we’ll get some breakfast.”

“And after breakfast,” said Julian, “we can begin our initiation into the mysteries.”

Julian smiled a luscious, suggestive smile, replete with the prospect of physical and intellectual decadence.

“What the hell,” said Dirk. “Another swim can’t hurt.”

_______________________________________________

They came off the burning bitumen into the shade of the sycamores. There was a trail through the dry scrub leading to a riverbed. The hot air followed them in. They were five: Jason, Julian, Ian, Andrew and Dirk.

Dirk breathed in all the crackles and clicks. The sandy soil turned to gravel as they stepped into the dip of the river. There was no water at all, yet once in the bed itself the space was cool. It came not from the shade but from the blue-grey boulders. They were soft in the mottled light; as soft as blu-tack. The riverbed was thick with roots that clasped these rounded lumps.

“Awesome,” said Jason. “These boulders, eh?”

“Yeah,” said Dirk. “The place is strewn.”

The acid was climbing in all of them. Ian, who had chased his drops with mushrooms, was coming on quicker than the others. Dirk, who had taken ecstasy as well, felt a nervous, fervid ripening. All their eyes were widening, their perspectives shortening. Time was slowing down; the world was tinged with a lush desperation. It was accruing a tantalising intensity.

Andrew was soon engrossed in his own game. It was his birthday and he wore a purple shirt. All morning they had called him Augustus, yet now he was crouching and slithering, hands spanned. As they drifted silently up the gully, he prowled and hissed amongst the rocks. It’s Gollum, though Dirk, not the emperor. Gollum looking for his precious.

Dirk came to a ten foot high rock about which the river had split. To the top of it clung a tree; a crooked, gnarled sycamore. Nursed in its thick clutching roots, heaved above the dry river, was another of the blue-grey boulders. Unlike ancient cities where the layers accumulate, here the ground had been lowered, eaten by the river. Dirk stood before it in awe. It was natural history. The tree coiled upwards like smoke, roots spreading in ringlets. He had never seen such curly trees; the gnarls were like twists of bread, the boulder a set gem. The roundness of both; river-smoothed rock, weather-rounded tree. Already he was thinking too much. He was moving forward, slowly, across the mottled light, descriptive words unfolding in his mind; the dappled light, the ochre leaves. The words had a tangibility. Of course they did, the things they described were actual. Dirk had never seen a place so dappled. “So dappled,” he sang. Sunlight lay like dropped gold coins.

They walked on up the riverbed, beneath the spotted canopy. The acid was powerful; the ecstasy and mushrooms were powerful, were growing more powerful. The men were all engrossed and hardly spoke. When they did it was exclamations, exhortations to come see what they had just seen; were seeing. This tree. This rock. “Look at this. At this!” They all looked. They were all in agreement. It was all incredible.

They soon spread out; walking at their own pace. Gollum stayed back. He was taking his time. His birthday. He stopped and went even lower to the ground. He lay down, gathered up leaves and pulled them over himself like a blanket. He found the earth so close and wonderful. It was an embrace, a burial, a return. The others soon lost sight of him.

Dirk forged on ahead. For him it was everything; the trees, the leaves, the light, the blue-grey rocks. His hearing grew more acute as his eyes rolled. He was breathing in colour, inhaling the things that he saw, hearing the colours, each had a different hum, smelling the colours, tied to times and scents. His nerves were crossing over into the bliss. The transition had passed, the come-up, the rise. His body had ridden the shock of the drugs. He was starting to soar. He was blissing out. He was peaking.

Dirk came to a large pool of water. At the other side of it the gorge rose up sharply in sheer rock walls. The cover of the trees ended. The pool could only be crossed on foot. At the other side they would have to begin climbing up the rock through the path of a stream. Dirk took off his sandals and put his feet in the water. It was silken, thrilling. He shivered as his body pulsed and rushed. He sat down to wait for the others. He wanted a cigarette, yet it was complicated. He took off his shirt and put it in the small satchel he was carrying. He wet his hands and washed his face, ran water through his hair.

Julian caught him up. “Where’s Andrew?”

“I don’t know,” said Dirk. “Last I saw he was hissing about the rocks.” He laughed nervously. The thought of it, the sight of it, was so ridiculous. Just what was Andrew playing at?

Ian was beaming, rubbing his hands together. He’s elsewhere, thought Dirk, but he knows to stick with those who have a purpose.

“Let’s go on,” said Jason. “Keep climbing. Follow the stream. There are more pools up ahead.”

He pulled off his trainers and plunged straight into the pool.

“Come on, you oaks,” he said.

Julian followed, Dirk and Ian followed. The bottom of the pool was smooth mud and rock. They came out between narrow walls of rock. A tumble of boulders led up through the gorge and without stopping, led by Jason, they began to clamber up the rocks.

They came to a tall slope of granite. Water rushed by its foot. They walked crab-like up and along it to emerge at its rounded top. On the other side the blue-grey rock sloped down in smoothed humps and ridges to a pool.

“Jesus,” said Ian. “Look at that.”

There was a small waterfall spilling into the pool. Dirk shook his head in wonder. He felt tearful. It was so beautiful. And then they heard it, the sound of a light bell clanging. Dirk looked to his right and there, just fifteen feet above the pool, on a narrow ridge running along the side of the gorge, were three goats.

“Goats!” shouted Dirk. “Look, Julian, goats!”

“Goats!” shouted Julian.

“Goats!” shouted Jason.

Dirk was near hysterical with excitement. The goats were plodding along, not minding at all being spotted. Their shaggy coats hung down between their legs in brushes, their ears bounced and flopped; their narrow faces soft as felt. One of them stopped and sniffed the air. Then it began to descend the slope, towards them. It was not afraid. It angled away, aiming for a place a mere ten feet from them. There they saw an orange lying on the rock. Someone must have dropped it. The goat went to it and sniffed. It began to jaw away at it; lips rippling in a curious, rolling motion.

“I love goats,” said Dirk. “They’re just so classic.”

Julian erupted in a great laugh. Once he was started, he was off; laughing loud and long. He laughed so hard he was clutching his belly. Ian and Jason began to laugh too, though they did not know at what.

“Classic?” said Julian. “Of course – classic! They’re the most classic thing here!”

“Oh my god,” said Dirk. “Of course!”

“This is it, bru,” said Julian. He sent an arm flying out and slapped Dirk heartily in the chest. “We’ve made it. We’re in ancient Greece!”

“Fucking brilliant!”

“We just need a goatherd or two,” said Julian. “And an eclogue. You can’t have an eclogue without goatherds.”

“What about a parable?”

“The parable of the goats?”

“It could work,” said Dirk. He was snorting and giggling, hysterical little laughs. It was all too much.

They fell silent, watching the goat again. The goat was well into the orange. It was lapping up the sweet juice, gnawing through the rind.

Jason, meanwhile, put down his shoes. He shed his satchel and moved to the water’s edge, then hopped in.

“Woooo!” he shouted. “Check it out.”

He was up to his neck in the water. It was deep and pure. He swam over to the waterfall and let it spill down on his head.

“Paradise,” he said, “it’s perfect.”

The others were very quick to follow. They soon forgot all about the goat.

“This is paradise, alright,” said Ian, once they were all in the water.

“It sure is,” said Dirk, emerging, head dripping from a plunge.

“Though I have to say, it’s a bit nippy in paradise.”

_______________________________________________

They reached the top of their climb. They could go no further without more equipment or daring. The rock they were climbing poked out like a triangle, above a deep pool, forty feet below. On either side the walls were sheer. Across the other side of the pool was another sheer wall. Walking along its edge was a stunning blonde in a yellow bikini. She was tall, lithe, busty. Dirk was astonished. They were all astonished; reduced to an awed snickering.

“Jesus Christ,” said Julian. “I can’t believe it.”

“Is she really that beautiful?” asked Dirk.

“I think she is.”

She moved about playfully, unafraid of tripping or falling. They had passed other people in the last stages of their climb; a man, meditating furiously, cross legged on a ledge; another tanned and soft where he lay, asleep. They had stopped and watched and people caught them up.

“She must be a nymph,” said Julian. “Look at how well she walks along the rocks. She’s so natural.”

“But in a yellow bikini!” said Dirk. “Gods, man, it’s killing me. I just can’t believe what I’m seeing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone that beautiful in my life.”

“She looks Greek,” said Jason. “She’s just glowing. Check her out, bru. She’s really, seriously fucking good.”

“Nymphs,” said Julian. “Nymphs!”

The nymph in yellow sat on the edge of the cliff, beaming. She looked across to the men and smiled. Her eyes were shining; her face shifted blissfully about. The men looked on in admiration. It was lust, but it was also art. The rocks, the trees, the pools, the sky, nothing came close to the nymph.

Julian began to pace.

“I’ve got to get over there,” he said.

“What are you going to do?” asked Dirk.

“I just want to…”

“It’s madness,” said Dirk. “Madness!”

“Look at her!”

“I know, I know,” said Dirk. He wanted to cry.

Julian moved to the edge of the drop. He looked over, looked down at the lowest point above the pool.

“I want to touch her,” he said. He started laughing, a giggly, fragile laugh. “I want to roll around with her.”

“Oh, god man, so do I,” said Dirk. “But it’s madness!”

Ian, who had been smiling and picking dirt from beneath his nails, burst out laughing. Dirk began to laugh too, and Julian, who was already snickering, began to bellow. Big, gulping, laughs. Dirk rubbed his face with his hands. He squeezed his eyes. Was this a sort of torment – the world of myth, yet they could only look?

“I’ve got to look away,” said Dirk. “I can’t stand it any longer.”

He turned and walked back down the slope. He sat on the rock and watched the man who was meditating. He looked cranky. Other people were coming up from behind him, talking loudly. Why shouldn’t they? Who was this prick who thought he was so superior? Dirk was soon joined by the others. They could not stand it either.

They had come as far as they could. What now?

_______________________________________________

Dirk and Julian were in front as they began the descent; both of them caught up in longing. They passed a group of people; more shirtless men. A middle-aged Greek in sandals stood aside to let them through where the passage narrowed. “Yiassou,” he said.

“Yiassou,” said Dirk and Julian.

“Pleasure is art,” said the man, smiling, as he stepped down and walked on.

Julian and Dirk were agog. Had they heard right?

“Did you hear that?” asked Julian, walking on.

“Did he say what I think he did?”

“Pleasure is art. My god.”

“I know. I mean, what a thing to say.”

“What a genius thing to say. How Greek of him!”

“You’re right,” said Dirk. “Think about it. It’s incredible. It’s like some carry-over, some cultural embedding of the ancient philosophies in the people. The man must be an Epicurean!”

“We have to think this through.”

They continued talking along the stream-eked course. They climbed down rocks, swung around tree branches, swam again through pools, talking. Twenty minutes later, as they reached the first pool they had crossed, Dirk grabbed Julian by the arm.

“Hell, man, it just hit me. What if we misheard him? What if he actually said, ‘pleasure is arse’?”

Julian laughed so hard he nearly fell over. He wheezed, barely able to breathe, doubled up, heaving out bellows. His face went red and his eyes were wild and wet.

“Brilliant,” was all he could manage. “Brilliant!” Then his eyes narrowed, his mouth straightened, his face fell cold with realisation.

“Bru, bru – what if what he actually said was ‘pleasure is ars’ – ars, ars, the Latin for art.”

“My god, Julian. That would be about the most perfect Epicurean double entendre in history!”

They shook with the ideas, their hands dancing in gestures.

“What is Greek for art?” said Julian. “Christ, how could I not know?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” said Dirk.

“Fuck it, bru,” said Julian. “But we’re going to find out.”

But it was all around them.

_______________________________________________

The canopy thinned and the air grew drier. Before them, over a rise, was a bitumen road. They had emerged from the forest.

They started out down the road. They were in the open air, under the shadow of the mountain. The sun was low and close to setting. It was still warm.

There was a taverna just a hundred metres away. It was built above the road with a wide patio. They walked up the stairs and sat down at a table. The waiter came over.

“Should we put our shirts on?” said Dirk.

“Women wear very little at trance parties,” said Julian, “so why not the men?”

“Can I help you?”

“A bottle of wine, please sir. Red. Anything,” said Dirk.

“Red wine,” said the man then walked away.

“I hope it’s rough. I want something rustic.”

The waiter was back in a flash with the wine and four tumblers. He put the bottle on the table.

“This feels like the end,” said Dirk. “The sun is setting.”

“It’s only because we’re in the shadow,” said Jason.

Ian just kept smiling.

Dirk filled the glasses.

“We’ll drink this and split. Straightaway. Come on, drink!”

They picked up the glasses and tipped the wine straight down. Dirk poured another shot. “Drink this and let’s leave. It’s too dark here, it feels like the end of everything.”

“What’s the rush, bru?” said Julian.

“I just don’t want to sit somewhere dark. Look, across that way, you can still be in the sun there.”

“Okay.”

They drank the wine straight down and Dirk rushed over to pay.

“Let’s move,” he said. “There’s the little village down the road. We’ll get a drink there. This is dead. No nymphs.”

“No nymphs,” giggled Ian.

“No nymphs,” said Julian.

They walked for a kilometre, away from the base of the mountain and onto the plain. The low sun was lighting up the houses and shops. They reached a taverna, white and blue and covered with vines. It was a rustic Greece postcard. They went inside and smiled and smiled. The wine had warmed them. They had the taste for it now. The waiter led them to the yard. There were trellises overhead, coiled with grapevines. They sat down, shirts off. Julian took charge and ordered two bottles. “The best wine,” he said, “I’ll pay,” he reassured the table. “I’ve just got more funding.”

When the wine came it was the lady of the house that brought it. She spoke better English and recommended the lamb.

“My thoughts exactly,” said Dirk.

“I’m not vegetarian today,” said Julian. “Not in ancient Greece.”

“Lamb,” said Ian.

“Lamb,” said Jason.

“Four lambs,” said Julian.

Dirk laughed. Four lambs indeed.

“Salad,” said Julian. “Tabouli, humus, taramasalata, olives.”

“Haloumi,” said Dirk, “fried Haloumi.”

The lady smiled as she wrote it all down. The four men smiled back at her; tanned and southern, fit and smiling men.

“We don’t have any cutlery,” said Dirk, when the food arrived.

“You’re supposed to eat without it,” said Julian.

“No you’re not. They’ll think we’re barbarians.”

“We are barbarians. Dionysian barbarians.”

“They have cutlery,” said Dirk, pointing to another table where a family of four ate cautiously, eyeing them.

“They’re old fashioned,” said Julian.

They ate with their fingers. Lamb, yoghurt, potatoes, olives, dolmades, and great gulps of wine. Their appetites were furious. They laughed, they roared. The place filled up and hid them better, but not quite well enough. The sun went down and the vines lit up with fairy lights. They were hot and tipsy, full and blessed.

“How can this day ever end?” asked Dirk. “It’s my favourite so far. I mean, ever.”

“Well,” said Julian, “I have one or two suggestions. We take some more acid drops, smoke some hash, pop a couple of pills, go to the world’s best trance party on the beach, and dance in the sea.”

“That’ll do nicely.”

_______________________________________________

Dirk shook and stamped, entranced, in a scuffle of dust. He could not dance hard enough, though he sure was trying. It was a form of fury, a dance of artful dodging. His arms pumped to counterbalance the bouncing of his feet. He was ducking, switching, jinking; with his elbows out he imagined himself describing a hexagon. All about him bodies heaved and leapt. Dirk saw thighs and calves and feet that caught the light. They loomed close then trailed across his eyes.

Dirk was right at the front and had been for hours. It was partly that he wanted the volume; partly that he felt it was heroic, but mostly because it was where the few lights were shining. He had a point of reference for the swimming visuals behind his eyes; the shimmering rainbow Mandelbrot sets tossed up by the acid. The music came in snapping, neon colours. Driving it all was the constant beat; a mosquito hardened into a bounce. “Dugga da dug, dugga da dug, dugga da dug,” it had been at him all night beneath the trumpeting of elephants and roaring of tigers; animal trance.

Dirk turned to look behind him and gasped. It was getting light. Low, just above the horizon, pale peach and orange bled into wan turquoise. It went on, right up into the stars. Dawn had arrived. Awareness of time came flooding back. The short, full moon night; that manic, heaving, tribal episode was coming to a close.

Dirk was still as high as a kite. His energy had not diminished. When he saw the sky his mouth hung open. He stepped forward, walking awkwardly, like he might after a long bicycle ride. He soon gathered pace and weaved through the dancers. Animal sounds ripped into the dawn; squawks and shrieks in shades from the towered stacks.

“Dirk, Dirk!”

A shape loomed before him, an orange man in a yellow and purple hat.

“Sean!” shouted Dirk, “Sean!”

They walked into an embrace and bear-hugged each other.

“How you going, man?” asked Sean, stepping back. “Big night?”

“Yeah, man, yeah,” said Dirk. “Mate,” he added. “Truly, man, this is the best day of my life, ever. I really mean ever! Give us another hug, man, this is a day of miracles.”

They embraced again.

“This is the best day, man, the very best day!”

“That’s a big claim,” said Sean, smiling. “What the hell are you on?”

“Oh, man, everything. Bloody everything.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Where are the others?” asked Dirk. “Annette and Numa and Milene and…” he knew there was someone else, but the name had gone.

“They’re switching to day shifts,” said Sean. “They got real messed up last night.”

“Classic.”

“Dirk, over here!” Dirk turned left then right, seeing no one he recognised.

“Dirk, over here.”

This time he pinpointed the voice. It was Julian calling him, waving to him, standing on the rise just before the water.

“Julian, Julian!”

Dirk threw his arms wide and stamped ahead through the dusty grass. Sean followed in his stumbling wake.

“Where have you been?” asked Julian.

“Right up there, man, right at the front.”

“Hey, man,” said Sean, catching up.

“Sean, classic,” said Julian.

Dirk grabbed the two of them by the arms.

“Come on,” he said. “Look – sunrise.”

He walked over the small rise and onto the stones of the beach. They shifted beneath his sandals with a ceramic clink.

“Look at this,” said Dirk. “Look at this!” He spread his arms wide and presented the dawn to them. He was getting a big rise from the light and space.

“This is perfect, perfect.”

The beach ran straight for miles on either side, a diminishing line of stone; behind it the forest, pine, cypress and sycamore, rising into the mountain. In front of Dirk stretched the still and filmy sea. The water was pale lilac and mauve; closer to the shore a blue rinse filtered the stones, as weightless as spirit.

Dirk walked on to the water’s edge. He sat down on the rocks, feeling a great stiffness in the back of his legs. It was chilly, but he was sweating. He shifted until his bottom was comfortable on the stones, then he looked at his feet.

“Jesus,” said Dirk. “Sweet Jesus.”

His feet were bleeding and covered in dust. Both of his big toes had worn themselves raw; the blisters having popped long before. Several smaller toes were also blistered and bloody. He had felt no pain at all.

The stones clinked behind him.

“Wow, bru, look at your feet,” said Julian.

He and Sean sat down either side of Dirk. Dirk undid his sandals and pulled his feet free. Now that he had noticed them, they felt very tender. He stretched and placed his feet in the water. It was cool and thrilling. The heat in the raw patches diminished with a sting. He leaned forward to rub free the dirt and expose the wounds. How had they gotten like that without him noticing?

“The salt water will be good for them,” said Sean. “Give them a good soak.”

Dirk looked beyond his feet to the horizon. He had watched the sun rise on beaches before, but this had a different character. He had never seen the sea so still and softly coloured. A dog ran into the water to his left. It swam out twenty metres then turned and swam back. Dirk’s blisters rippled through the mauve. How could he have not known? God, he had wrecked himself. Really wrecked himself. It would be a hell of a comedown and no peace to be found. Buy now, pay later.

Sean produced a packet of cigarettes and offered them around. They all took one and began to smoke. Behind them the music was soaring. Then Julian spoke.

“Many don’t realise that Zeus had a father,” he said. “Before Mount Olympos he lived on this rock. This is the home of the first pantheon, of the sanctuary of the great gods. In that place the stones remember what the poets glossed over. The beginnings of time.”

Dirk rubbed his feet. How white they looked now that the skin was beginning to prune.

“There’s not a lot left from those times,” said Julian. “Just enough to be tantalising. It’s all bound up, into myth. Bound into myths, in an overgrown glade.”

Dirk nodded along with Julian’s words. He was sure he was right, that here was the ancient world, all bound up in the stones and the trees. He looked back to his feet. It was shocking. Stiffness was spreading up his legs as his muscles cooled, finally allowed to rest. How much he had asked of his body!

Dirk looked at Julian, about to say something. He stopped himself and his mouth grew slack. Instead he looked back out to sea, where the dog was once again swimming through the filmy water. Before the orange core of the sunrise drifted a cabin cruiser. It looked like a holiday poster. Dirk turned to Julian again, once more hoping to say something. He longed to think about the ancient world, but his feet were shouting about the present. Still, he wanted to press on. He brought his hand up to emphasise his point, then realised he had forgotten it. He looked back to his feet. They pulled him up short. Despite the obvious magnitude of everything they had discussed, it was all so bloody unimportant. The final truth resided in his blisters.

“I’m lost,” said Dirk. “Lost forever after this. That was the highpoint of life.”

He lay on his back like a ship-wrecked Odysseus, bracing himself for the future.

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This year really was remarkable, and it was remarkable on a number of levels: politically, economically, militarily, and, indeed, personally. So many exceptional things happened that, scanning back over the events of 2011, I see myself as a blur, flailing about between massive international stories and personal crises. 2011 was the year of the Arab Spring, and I don’t think even the economic crisis in Europe or the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan could trump that. Three absolutely colossal sequences of events, all of which, in themselves, contain individual events that would be considered huge stories in and of themselves; Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Greece, the Fukushima nuclear crisis… And this is not to mention the Occupy movement, the London riots and the ongoing decline of American industrial might.

Just as the massive earthquake in Japan shifted the planet Earth ever so slightly off its axis, so 2011 saw the planet shift geopolitically. The rise of the Arab street has transformed the Middle East forever. The change is not yet securely in place, but the mechanism of change certainly is. It is difficult to predict what sort of governments and societies might emerge from the popular uprisings in the Middle East, but now that the people have found their voice, there is a real hope that they will no longer allow themselves to be lorded over by tyrants. One can only hope they seek a new direction in liberal governance and not religious fundamentalism. In the case of Egypt, one can only hope that they actually do get their revolution in the end. For, the sad fact of the matter is that a successful revolution means the removal and replacement of the governing body with a new one installed by the revolutionaries, and this has not happened in Egypt yet. The army is still in command as it always has been and despite them allowing elections to proceed, just how much power and privilege they are willing to relinquish is anyone’s guess. A possible worst-case scenario might be a marriage between the military and a resurgently non-secular Muslim Brotherhood. Wait and see.

Of course, Syria is the story of the moment – a situation about which I feel totally incapable of making confident predictions. Will the uprising spread further through the armed forces? Will there be a bloody civil war? Will the presence of Arab League observers ensure a transition to a more peaceful political solution? Will the sanctions hurt the government and security forces sufficiently to disrupt their campaign of oppression, or merely drive the people further into deprivation, poverty and anger, causing them to rise up with greater fury? Will the Assad regime come unstuck, or will they, through deception and manipulation, mitigate change to accommodate their continued rule?

And what now of Europe? The collapse of the Greek economy and their ability to service debt has not so much spread across Europe as it has occurred concurrently with other poor models of economic management. Spain, Ireland and even possibly Italy have all borrowed and spent beyond their means and now face internal crises of spiralling debt, stagnation, stagflation, and mass unemployment. It was once thought that a great strength of the Euro was that should one country encounter difficulties, it oughtn’t be sufficient to effect an economy as large as the Eurozone. Few predicted such a widespread debt and financial crisis, and few also predicted that the response would be so tiresomely old-fashioned. Austerity measures are one way of saving money, but they significantly inhibit the ability to produce money by removing stimulus from the economy. It might be cheaper to support workers on unemployment benefits than to pay them their public sector salaries, but the newly unemployed have very limited purchasing power, this further reducing consumer spending and increasing economic contraction.

Europe it seems, has yet to hit rock bottom, and precisely how it can recover long term is anyone’s guess. No doubt it will, but how with much social compromise? The rising success of authoritarian capitalism in China might be anomalous in the long term, but it could also presage a new model wherein democracy is no longer the inevitable consequence of prosperity. In China, the economy has always been strong when the state has been strong. Democracy might prove too big a risk in so vast a region, too unwieldy and detrimental to the smooth flow of capital and the operation of business and industry. Perhaps this is a particularly Chinese situation, but will Europe, in the grip of its highly divisive social pressures, ultimately seek solace once more in right wing politics: old fascism, new fascism? With China buying up global debt and investing its vast reserves in infrastructure projects at home and abroad, is this the moment when the west fatally stumbles and loses its hegemony? It has, to a great degree, lost much of its legitimacy, and were it not for the Arab Spring, one might fear that democracy itself as a desirable goal globally has lost much of its legitimacy.

This is quite an intense period globally, with communism dead and buried, capitalism has largely reigned triumphant by default. Apart from the more alarming extremes of ideology such as totalitarianism or religious fundamentalism the only real alternative ideology in politics, and one which is by no means intrinsically at odds with neo-liberal capitalism, is environmentalism. As this is seen as a challenge to capitalism, rather than as a means by which to regulate the worst excesses of capitalism, it has been demonised as the new communism – attracting venomous attacks by right wing forces the world over as nanny-state socialism designed to destroy private enterprise and restrict social freedoms, especially in the realm of consumer choice. And, let’s face it, consumer choice is the new democracy, providing sufficient of a sense of freedom to satisfy the over-consuming needs of the largely apolitical middle classes the world over. Singapore is a perfect example of this marriage of authoritarian government and consumer freedom, which may, alarmingly, provide an ideal template for the capitalist management of future societies.

So 2011 was, in some ways a very hopeful year for democracy and the empowerment of people, in others, a testament to the failings of western democratic capitalism versus Asian authoritarian capitalism. It was also a year that saw the further delay of any legal, binding environmental treaty to replace Kyoto, an almost purely symbolic treaty in itself. With governments mostly limiting themselves to voluntary reductions in greenhouse gases, with half-baked promises of a legally binding treaty to be determined in 2015, and hopefully taking force by the end of the decade, we can pretty well write off the next ten years so far as meaningful reductions are concerned. Certainly, there will be further investment in alternative renewable energy sources and other efforts to reduce carbon through greater industrial efficiency, yet without a grand global strategy and any real oversight, governments will default on their promises whenever convenient or expedient, or continue to move the goalposts as they have done for years while increasing carbon output. In truth, they would likely do this with a treaty in place anyway, as has proven to be the case with Kyoto.

The world is only just beginning to grasp the nature of the playing field that has developed in the twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Asia is in the ascendant, well on its way to becoming the wealthiest region on the planet, as it was for most of human history until Europe got lucky and discovered and exploited the wealth of the Americas. Brazil has now overtaken the UK as the world’s sixth-largest economy and the United States will finally be eclipsed by China by roughly 2025, possibly even sooner. To understand global priorities looking ahead, one only has to compare actions and words – governments are really only concerned about their economic vitality and thus the success of the businesses and economic activity that drives those economies – everything else is a sideshow. The gulf between the energy, speed and money poured into attempting to solve the economic crisis and funding the military, and the money and energy applied to tackling global warming, disease, sanitation, the rising cost of food, growing social inequality etc is absolutely staggering. Money talks and bullshit walks. As Leonard Cohen sang, “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.”

On a more personal level, 2011 was an incredible year in which I finally returned to full productivity and regained my engagement with and interest in the world around me. After spending almost eighteen months in a virtual world, it took me some time, from the end of 2010 until roughly June of this year, to fully shake off the hangover and wake up.

To mix up some lyrics by The Church, “I embraced a machine, went through the routine, and hid from the people who were trying to find me.” Well, again, to quote The Church, 2011 was the year I came “back from software limbo.”

An ex-girlfriend once told me many years ago, when largely unenthused about life and engrossed in Baldur’s Gate 2, that it was as though I had lost the will to live. She was right, at the time, in a way, because there have been times when I’ve found, through hard work, drudgery, or indeed, overindulgence, that my interest in things around me has diminished to a shrug and forget “whatever.” Throughout 2009 and 2010, I found myself continually struggling against losing the will to live. Not in a serious sense – I’ve never been suicidal, but in the sense of putting a lot of energy into life and doing active and exciting things. There were moments where I really came back to life, such as the two months in India I had between March and May 2010, yet on the whole I was lacklustre, single and quite frankly, not at all bothered about where I was at in life.

Such a state of being was a luxury of sorts, but when I found things that mattered again, met new people and re-engaged, I was drawn back into reality and began to pay attention to it once more. Without wishing to go further into it, falling in love and getting dumped earlier in the year was the best thing that happened to me in ages. It shook off the last vestiges of the torpor that prevailed even in the post-gaming haze. Going to emotional hell and back, where I realised how much I hated myself and thus needed either to rebuild, reprogram or reinterpret myself, was precisely what I needed. It was only when deeply depressed and despairing that I could see the truth clearly and thus prioritise accordingly. Moving house, working harder, running harder and faster, seeing a psychologist, making new friends, finding new venues, applying myself fully to writing and photography, all proved beneficial. In effect, getting dumped kick-started a thoroughly enjoyable period of personal spring-cleaning that has filled me with hope and purpose. It also put me in a great place from which to meet someone amazing, the best possible finish to a very trying and exciting year. I certainly won’t be forgetting this year in a hurry.

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