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Archive for February, 2012

Nana

An updated, edited and polished excerpt from Volume 1 of my autobiography, Sex with a Sunburnt Penis.

 

My grandmother had a very strong influence on me as a child, largely because she was so utterly different from everyone else. To begin with she was by far the oldest person I knew, and on top of that she was French. Indeed, my grandmother was so French that she almost seemed a parody; like Edith’s bed-ridden grandmother in ‘Allo ‘Allo. Nana, as we called her, however, was far from bedridden. She was a dynamic elderly lady who busied herself in the house and garden and whose wizened frame held remarkable strength.

Of course, as a very small child, without any sense of context, I simply took Nana at face value. She was always kind and loving, though she could certainly be tetchy. My brother and I stretched her patience as all children will, and whilst she wasn’t quite overprotective, we at times found her rulings a little ridiculous. Like most children, I always wanted to run down the street when I got excited, but, knowing how uncoordinated I was, like most five year-olds, Nana would order me to stop.

“Oh, Benjamin, you will fall over!”

“No I won’t!” I would protest, before promptly tripping over my sandals and grazing my knee. Too ashamed and embarrassed to cry, I was also too stubborn to admit that her judgement was sound on this front. Restraint is, after all, never appealing in the eyes of a child. She did, however, let me pick my nose; watching with her cunning, smiling eyes and saying “are you hungry?” whenever my finger went searching.

The only thing I really remember holding against her was her gravy. She could cook the hell out of a peach pie and made a knockout custard, but her gravy was something else altogether. One hot evening when she was minding my brother and me, she marched into the dining room and placed a clear glass jug on the table. We could see the contents in cross-section, and on top of the gravy was an inch-deep slick of molten, light-grey fat. As a child, I loathed fat in all forms. While Nana returned to the kitchen to collect the peas, I turned to my brother, Matthew, to share my astonishment. He too seemed to feel a wave of indignant protest welling up inside, but so afraid were we of the gravy that neither of us could articulate our anguish beyond the words; “No way, it’s just not fair. That’s not gravy. It’s not fair.”

My lip trembled as the tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I wanted to cry out that I wouldn’t eat that pooing, snot-breath, bum-hole gravy even if you gave me five bucks, a Tonka truck and told me what condom meant. But such was the power of the gravy that my spirit was utterly crushed. I don’t even remember whether or not I ate it, and think that therefore I must have done so, and the trauma was such that the memory has been repressed all my life.

If at times I was blind to the good sense behind her admonishments, I generally paid a great deal of attention to what Nana told me. She had a certain prophetic quality about her, like an Oracle, full of superstitions, sayings and adages that rang with the undeniable truth of ancient wisdom in my young ears.

Nana told me that things would always go my way – something my mother often reminded me of. If I had a stroke of luck, my mother would say: “Nana always said you’d land on your feet. She said you were the lucky one.” I believed what Nana said with such conviction that it developed into a sense of entitlement. Things were supposed to work out for me naturally, and though opportunity doesn’t generally knock, she was firmly of the impression that I wouldn’t have to make my own luck. I always kept that thought at the back of my mind and somehow it helped me to screw a lot of things up later on in life.

Being old-school colonial French – having come from Noumea in 1922 aged 17 – Nana was a good, superstitious Catholic. She had a little shrine to Jesus and a ceramic bell with the Pope’s portrait on it. She drank once a year, never wore make up, never swore, venerated Joan of Arc and Saint Anthony and always cheered when the Pope came on television.

They must have really done a good job on educating them into the spirit of Empire over in New Caledonia. Nos ancestres les Galles and all they stood for were being threatened by the Bosch when Nana was in school, and they ensured that the spirit of Nationalism was planted deep. She worshipped Napoleon and swore blind he never really abandoned his men. She hated Italian art because as far as she was concerned it couldn’t possibly be as good as French art. She didn’t drink wine, but knew deep down that that Italian rubbish wasn’t a patch on the French product. She hated the Nazis with a passion and still resented Germans as though the war had happened yesterday, and to her personally.

Nana also had very old-school Catholic attitudes to various social phenomena. One day, as I sat playing euchre with her in my old bedroom that had since become hers, she turned to me after something flashed across the television screen and said: “What is a lesbian?” The thought of explaining that to an eighty-nine year-old woman who changed the channel when people started kissing was just too much to come to grips with.

“What is zis, Lesbian? Er… two women,” she said with a terrific sneer. “They should shoot zem!”

When I was a kid, it was easy to converse with Nana, but as I got older her conversation grew a little more unsettling. She liked to put the knife into whichever of my parents had misbehaved in some petty way or another. In this respect she was venal and vindictive, though I knew her to be loving and generous at heart. It was loneliness and a life of disappointment that had done it to her. It must be difficult to avoid being jealous of youth and the opportunity it still affords. She never got over losing her husband and her son, and ultimately she resented being a tenant of her daughter. I could hardly hold those things against her, when all she’d ever wanted was to own her own home and feel the security and permanence that comes with it. It was remarkable that she showed such pluck all the way through. She did so by narrowing her desires down to small, everyday pleasures, none of which could be considered luxuries.

Nana was almost eternally optimistic about something and had quite incredible stamina, despite having shrunk to about four foot ten. Being so small she’d get drunk on half a glass of sauterne or Tia Maria with lemonade, which she insisted on drinking at Christmas, and her little face would bubble up bright red with life and hardy vigour let briefly off the hook as she pulled on a christmas cracker.

Nana collected toy frogs, which was the only piss-take on the French she would condone. Her favourite past-time was to play card games and for years she had been going to the local French Club for poker nights. She and I would, at times, play hours and hours of patience, euchre, poker and rummy, and she never seemed to tire of it. We’d natter away during hands of cards, and whenever the conversation got a bit curly, I’d try to shift it over to a safe topic like sport or France, or, more particularly, French sport, which was safe so long as one heaped undiluted praise on even the most minor of French achievements.

Nana was a real fount of knowledge on French sport and will likely remain the only ninety year-old woman I’ll ever know to sit up until three in the morning and watch an entire grand prix race because there was a Frenchman in it. She watched the entire Tour de France. She watched tennis, soccer, yachting, skiing, anything, so long as there was a Frenchman. She supported the Eastern Suburbs Roosters in the rugby league because their colours were red, white and blue, and they had the same mascot as the French team. She even called them “les tricoleurs.” Heaven forbid, but Nana even watched golf if there was a Frenchman playing. I think she sincerely thought the French ran the entire world and if there was any evidence which might bring French superiority into question, either on or off the playing field, such as getting a thrashing in the rugby by Australia, she would always have a nimble excuse.

“Oh, zose Australians are terrible. Zey won’t let ze Frenchman run with ze ball. Every time ze Frenchman gets ze ball, zey stop him! Zey are brutes!”

There was no point in explaining the legitimacy of tackling the opposition in a rugby match, just as I couldn’t explain why Guy Forget and Yannick Noah weren’t both equal number in the world tennis rankings. After a while I simply got used to complying with her wishes and telling her that I found it equally baffling, and no doubt a network of saboteurs and agents provocateurs were at work undermining French hegemony over the entire universe. Either way, it beat the shit out of explaining what a lesbian was.

Nana was also a great fan of French industry. Whenever I visited her, I was duly informed of the arrival on the market of any form of manufactured good which had been produced in France.

“Did you know zat ze French have built ze largest sailboat in ze world?”

It seemed quite incredible to be told what a wonderful thing it was that Club Med was opening up a new resort somewhere previously unspoilt. If the French did it, it was almost certainly beyond reproach. And yet, Nana wasn’t entirely uncritical of the French. When they were blowing the Christ out of Mururoa Atoll with their nuclear tests, she became very deeply upset and looked rather sheepish for weeks. She, like most reasonable people, really didn’t see the point behind the further development of the world’s most destructive weapons – and testing them in the beautiful Pacific Ocean was patently insane. It hurt her to hear all the protests against French testing, particularly because so many protesters lashed out unnecessarily at French culture and French people without sensible discrimination of who was actually responsible. One night when I sat in her room and the news came on with the leading announcement that the French had exploded a nuclear device on Mururoa, a look of terrible shame came over her face. I felt immensely sorry for her to have to feel any loss of faith in France this late in her life. I was angry with France myself, but it was mostly for disappointing an increasingly frail ninety-year old woman, whose heart was unswervingly patriotic.

From her shame, however, she could lash back with some wonderful exclamations.

“Oh, zose terrible sings zay say about ze French. Those Australians, they steal all zair ideas from ze French! Zay always copy ze French.”

Sometimes she just loved to put the boot in.

Nana used to do all her own housework, and then sit in the sun and read the newspapers cover to cover. She was an avid reader and manic word-puzzle fanatic. Nothing gave her greater joy than the latest edition of Le Courier. She’d take it out into the sun, sit at the little table beneath the boughs of the mulberry tree with some quartered, de-crusted ham sandwiches and a weak, very milky cup of tea, and read it about sixteen times. Occasionally she’d offer me articles to read, and I’d struggle through, embarrassed by how much my French had gone down the toilet. Oh look, something about a bridge. Yes, somebody built something. Oh, hang on, they shot something. No, they ate it. Maybe it wasn’t a bridge after all…One way or another, Nana would make it seem about seventy-three times more important than it actually was. I mean, honestly, what was news like that doing on page 13 of Le Courier?

The terribly sad truth, however was that Nana couldn’t live forever, though it seemed for a while there that she might just pull it off. She only visited a doctor for the first time when she reached eighty-eight years of age, and wouldn’t have had to go at all if she hadn’t tripped over the bull-terrier and hurt her arm. Sadly it was Pug’s fault that she went to hospital again a couple of years later, as he came tearing out into the back yard to bark at passing small children and ploughed straight into my unsuspecting Nana.

The resulting broken hip landed her in hospital, where she came through the operation with flying colours. Yet, sadly, as she lay there in the hospital bed recovering, she seemed to lose interest in everything. She stopped eating and became withdrawn and subdued. I have no idea what came over her in that hospital bed, but despite being well set to recover, she seemed to give up trying. Initially she had been so proud of herself; so proud of her health and vitality – up walking a day after the operation, and at the age of ninety. Perhaps she at last realised that there was nothing left for her to live for, though she’d always seemed so happy with simple pleasures. It mystified me a great deal, and of course upset us all immeasurably.

I sat holding her hand for as many hours as possible either side of work. My mother never left her side, and my father, who was also a great admirer of Nana, was there night and day as well. Slowly, but surely, she shrank away into herself. Her features slowly sank, as though the muscles that supported her robust expressions had slackened for good, then vanished. As I stared at her face for hours on end, I noticed for the first time in my life all the physical similarities between her and my mother and brother; the shape of her nose, the set of her mouth, expressions I had seen on her blood relatives. Then, late one Saturday night, with me at home, in the middle of a relationship crisis of my own making, she passed away.

Nana’s funeral was perhaps the most moving experience of my life. As we took up her coffin, draped in red, white and blue flowers, and proceeded down the aisle of the church, the organist struck up La Marseillaise. Strangely, I had not expected it – too grief stricken to have any thought for the logistics and organisation of the funeral, about which I had asked no questions. The  first few notes struck me like a thunderbolt.

“Alons enfants de la patrie! La Jour de gloroire et arrive!”

I felt a heavy mix of pride and awe; a momentous weight became a glorious burden. Fatality, which can seem so mundane and nondescript in an inglorious church, became a heavenly power; grief, which can be so black and all-encompassing in its restrictive singularity, became the channel for a unique beauty and rare soaring of emotion. For the two days before I had been so upset that I felt like lead – but when I heard La Marseillaise, I knew that in the end Nana had been victorious; she had left the battlefield on her own terms and she had ascended in a way that I didn’t even believe in; such was her greatness, she could defy even the tenets of my atheism. Nana had risen and taken her place in heaven – a reward she deserved more richly than anyone else I’ve ever known.

The saddest irony about Nana was that she was never not French at any point in her life – after seventy-odd years in Australia her accent had hardly diminished – and yet when she died we discovered that her citizenship had lapsed after fifty years. It struck me that the French government needed to be notified about Nana. Her patriotism was so undying and overwhelming that she deserved to be awarded the Legion of Honour, or at least some ribbon commemorating her devotion to France. Even when at last she lay dying, she managed with her weak voice to sing the entirety of her true national anthem, and cried out “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!” I don’t think there is a single person in France who was as French as my grandmother. Though of course, her Frenchness was an anomaly; an anachronism from the golden age of European imperialism, and now, sadly, she has passed from this world, taking with her rare memories of a bygone era.

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Since it was first unveiled to the world, there has been a lot of attention focussed on Kim Jong-Un’s haircut. The floppy-topped undercut rather suits the overfed little dumpling and frames his face nicely. It is, as an acquaintance, Penny, would say, quite an effective brand of turd polish which gives him a certain fascist pizzazz, knuckling down with post-lobotomy chic.

Yesterday at work, not quite knowing what the rules governing the haircut were, without the advice of Mr Google, speculation was rife as to whether or not imitation of the haircut in the tragic, sad and hungry Stalinist theme park that is North Korea would be considered appropriate homage to the dumpling, or an act of treason on the scale of usurpation – a pretender to the throne.

Would the mere idea of Kim Jong-Un’s haircut being emulated be sufficient to send him into paroxysms of rage, followed shortly by mass detentions and executions, or would it rather invoke a more positive response, as though such imitators had clicked his “like” button?

It was whilst teaching my next lesson that the following scene occurred to me:

Kim Jong Un, having finished annihilating the Zergs in a game of Starcraft 2, thus earning him further accolades as a brilliant general, rises to greet the military commanders who have come to raise a serious question about his latest dictat. The generals stand, heads bowed, shuffling nervously, fearful of the forthcoming dry-cleaning bill.

“Your Unparalleled Eminence,” says the boldest of them all. “Son of the Moon and Stars, Holder-Upperer of the Heavens and Gatekeeper of Hell, Grandmaster of Tides and Winds, Binder-Together of Atoms, Higgs Boson, Horse-Breaker, Lion-Tamer and Iron Chef Korean, with all due respect and loyalty, and in humble acknowledgement of your far greater powers of reason and deduction, and,” pointing to the computer screen, “tactical and strategic genius, we are concerned that having all citizens who dare to have the same haircut, or, for that matter, any barbers who are willing to provide said haircut, starved to death in the traditional North Korean manner, will be counter-productive to the revolutionary ideal of creating a kitsch cult of personality and sustaining the largest army in the world, on a per capita basis.”

Kim Jong-Un, standing silently, glowering with a sneer of withering contempt, tosses his bowl of chicken congee at the generals. Not satisfied with the splattering of their freshly-laundered, if stylistically-dated uniforms, with one fell sweep of his mighty bingo wings, he sends a plate of pork and chive dumplings in their direction. The generals, knowing the importance of stoicism in the face of even the worst tantrums, on pain of death for showing fear either in public or private, allow the dumplings to strike them, unblinking. Indeed, several of them begin smiling in thanks for this unexpected anointing, all the while secretly thankful that their master has finished his kimchi.

“This is my haircut! I am the dear leader and no one else! I am the dumpling king, not you! And certainly not the bloody proles!”

The boldest of the generals, having borne the full brunt of the soup course, with a dumpling perched rather comically on the peak of his cap, his glasses dripping with congee and quietly thanking his wife for discouraging him from having had the troublesome haircut, continues to defy his master’s beloved insolence.

“But, your Universal Greatness, the entire population is alarmingly thin. There is little chance that anyone in our great system can get enough protein to challenge the Iron Throne. So weak and thin are they, it takes twelve of them just to change a light-bulb. Upon your accession, it took no less than six-hundred and fifty-two men to attach the warhead for your celebratory missile launch.”

“This is my haircut!” shouts Kim Jong-Un. “The leader must be unique! What good is it if the people look like me!?”

“They won’t, your Divine Grace, because there’s simply not enough food in the kingdom – er, I mean, state. And, well, as for looking like you, this is Communism after all, I believe.”

At this point Kim Jong-Un chooses to surprise them with an enormous bowl of kimchi he has been hiding behind his vast monitor. Turning and hurling the contents towards the generals in a great fan of red, chilli pickled cabbage, he slumps back in his chair, exhausted.

“It’s my haircut! Mine! Mine!”

and so on, ad nauseam.

_____________________________________________

Having since had a chance to investigate further, it would seem that in fact, Kim Jong-Un’s haircut is all the rage in North Korea and that emulation, rather than being punishable by death, is in fact encouraged as a show of patriotism and loyalty. Kim Jong-Un has been described as a “style guru,” and his hairstyle has been called the “ambition” or “youth” haircut. The North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun wrote that “neat and short hair for young people makes them captivating.” They went on to say that:

“A young man with an ambitious high-sided haircut looks so sobering and stylish.”

It is not only in North Korea that such a style is currently popular. The United States has also seen a resurgence in the floppy-topped undercut, known colloquially as “a modified McSqueeb,” a “J. Edgar Hoover”,  a “Jimmy Darmody”, or, most popularly, a “Hitler Youth,” according to the New York Times. Though it can be difficult to nail the point of origin of any trend, it seems unlikely that style guru Kim Jong-Un is responsible for the popularity of the hairstyle in the U.S. Could it rather be that he has been watching Boardwalk Empire when not conquering his enemies in Starcraft and Civilization or trolling people in Aion and World of Warcraft? Either way the North Koreans have been rather slow in claiming this as a global coup for their new dear leader.

PS. I should like to note that whilst it is otherwise inappropriate to make jokes about people on account of their body weight and size and gluttony, I find it especially galling that this chap is so grossly overfed in a nation where people are starving to death as a direct result of the backward policies and misguided priorities of its leaders.

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Having come to Darjeeling in part to see its views of the Himalayas, I felt frustrated when the horizon proved to be continually covered in cloud. Only in the late afternoon of my first full day did I manage to catch a glimpse of the mountains; when heavy rain cleared the mist and fog from the sky. The break in the clouds was brief, however, and by the time I reached a decent vantage point, the view had vanished.

This was, by no means cause for despair. For, by way of beautiful compensation, the following two days had seen the town entirely shrouded in heavy fog. The beauty and wonder of it were ample entertainment and I could probably have continued to photograph the silhouettes and shadows without ever getting bored. Indeed, the fog proved so beautiful and entrancing that I almost forgot about the mountains altogether. Almost.

I have always had a great love of mountains and snow, possibly because of Australia’s relative lack of them. There are the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales, with a roughly eighty to one-hundred day ski season. Yet the highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko, is a mere 2228 metres, and lacks the drama of other, more elevated peaks. There is, of course, the Great Dividing Range, a vast line of mountains stretching for roughly 3500 kilometres down the east coast of Australia, making it the third longest mountain range in the world. Yet, the Great Dividing Range formed some three hundred million years ago during the Carboniferous period and has suffered significant erosion since. These are very old mountains on the planet’s oldest and flattest continent.

If Australians want to see high mountains and better skiing, they traditionally duck across the Tasman to New Zealand. Still, despite the significantly more impressive peaks of New Zealand and their year-round snow-caps and glaciers, the highest mountain, Mt Cook, or Aoraki, is only 3754 metres tall. If New Zealand does not suffice, then Japan, Canada, or the European Alps are the likely choice for skiing, with The Andes, Rockies and, of course, the Himalayas, also featuring prominently on the mountaineering circuit. For most Australians, therefore, snow and high mountains are exotic – and elsewhere. For some, no doubt, they have little appeal against the perhaps more obvious attractions of paradisiacal beaches, yet for me, who was never especially fond of the hot climate, high, snow-capped mountains are the ultimate dream. They are impressive not merely for their staggering reality, yet also for their fantastical implications; being so long evoked throughout my role-playing childhood as the home of dragons, frost giants and hard, uncompromising barbarian folk. Just looking at mountains is enough for me, and I could likely do it all day without ever getting tired.

So, despite the great beauty of the fog, I was dying to see Mt. Kangchenjunga, which, at roughly 8500 metres high, is more than six kilometres higher than Mt Kosciuszko. This very thought – eight and a half kilometres, up into the sky! – was enough to give me goose bumps, and the brief glimpse I had caught of it had confirmed for me that it looked uncannily tall against the Earth. Determined to see the mountain properly, on the evening of day three, after another gorgeous day in the enveloping fog, I decided to stay in Darjeeling until I had done so. If it took a week, then so be it. But one day surely, perhaps just one morning, the horizon would be clear and the full glory of the snow-capped peaks revealed.

On my fourth morning in Darjeeling, therefore, I rose at 0500 AM and parted the curtains. It was still very dark outside, yet the sky had lightened just enough to see that it was clear. The dim stars overhead faded towards the horizon, from which the day was beginning to spread. The mist that had cloaked the town for the last few days had lifted, and whilst it was still too dark to make out the line of mountains in the distance, I felt confident that I should get lucky on this occasion. I ran to the shower, washed up and dressed, then set off with my kit into the cold morning.

Darjeeling was quieter than ever at this time of day, but once I neared Chowrasta, the main square at the top of the town, there were signs of activity along the street. Shop doors stood open with the owners sweeping their floors; on the wooden stalls hugging the road, vendors were already laying out their wares: fruit, vegetables, poultry and the like. On the edge of Chowrasta, in their ramshackle tarpaulined shelter, the tea-wallahs I’d become so fond of the day before were setting up. I checked my watch – it was still only five-thirty. How hard these people must work, for they continued serving until almost ten at night! Opposite them, the concrete stables were, for once, full of horses. Several of the handlers dozed on the steps, and I wondered if they were stoned already.

Being, shall we say, rather naughty, I had, just two days before, purchased a bag of marijuana from these so-called Pony Boys, who provided joyrides around Chowrasta, and along the road that ringed Observatory Hill. The night before I had prepared a couple of joints in hopeful anticipation of a clear morning, or as a form of consolation should things prove otherwise, and it was with one of these tucked behind my ear that I crossed the square and set off down the road beside the hill.

I expected it to be very quiet and largely free of people, yet, walking around Observatory Hill on its eastern side, I was astonished by the number of people exercising. Many of the locals were out running already; men and women of all ages. I passed a lot of joggers and groups of people doing stretches and aerobic exercises against the metal railings. Despite having been a keen runner for many years, even when I’m in an early-rising phase, I’ve never been able to exercise this early in the morning and have long been jealous of people who woke up feeling so energetic. The people were all very friendly, both to me and to each other, and I was surprised by how many used English greetings amongst themselves: “Hello” and “Good morning.”

When I rounded the corner to the northern side of the hill and saw the horizon, I felt a sudden slump in my hopeful mood. The sun had not yet risen, though now the sky was light and clear, but the mountains were dressed in cloud and remained invisible in the distance. In their place were great stacks of cumulus of varying heights. I imagined the shape of the cloud might somehow reflect the size of the mountains underneath, yet without any real sense of scale or proportion at such a distance, I might have been horribly wrong. Either way, the mountains were not to be seen.

I did not want to give up hope just yet, for in truth I knew very little about the meteorological conditions and reasoned that perhaps the sun might rise and burn away the cloud. There was obviously less moisture in the air today, which felt much more dry and crisp. It had a mild sting in it, as cold, clean air will do, and this gave me further hope that the day would not be so humid and thus less foggy.

Unable to see the mountains, I continued walking and focussed on photographing the valley below and the locals performing their exercises. When I reached a lookout I had discovered a couple of days earlier, I stopped, deciding this would be the best vantage point should conditions prove favourable. It was a shelter of cast-iron, with a corrugated sheet-iron roof, under which sat long, old-fashioned park benches. One of these bore the inscription Darjeeling Health and Fitness Club (I think), and it was a very popular place to congregate for early morning exercise. Around the shelter and benches, before a steep, wooded descent into the valley below with its rounded slopes of tea, were roughly twenty men and women performing stretches, jumps and running on the spot. To the side of them stood a Buddhist monk with a large, round, hand-held drum, like an outsize tambourine. He was humming and banging on the drum, facing the east where the sky was ever lightening, singing in the dawn, I can only imagine.

I figured there was likely another twenty-odd minutes before the sun actually rose, so I walked to the back of the road, where Observatory Hill rose steeply, and began to climb a steep watercourse. Before long I was thirty metres up above the people below, with an excellent view to the hidden mountains on the horizon. I took the joint from behind my ear and, feeling ever the fugitive, crouched behind a shrub to smoke.

I was soon joined by a friendly dog; a healthy and clean stray who was scavenging for food in the trees on the hill. She nuzzled in and sat down beside me, deciding we were to be friends. I patted the dog just a couple of times, not wishing to encourage her too much for fear of having her sit outside the hotel for the rest of my stay. It was difficult not to show more affection to this attractive, light-brown bitsa. I hadn’t had much in the way of company for some time, and as the marijuana put me once again into very high spirits, I wanted nothing more than to play and wrestle with this lovely dog, then buy the poor thing a great feast and give it a bath.

The sun, however, was rising and I needed to focus my attention on getting the shots. I took some from where I sat; switching lenses repeatedly for a wider or longer focus, then descended back to the road. The dog followed me down, but had the decency not to hang off me. She skirted the exercisers nervously, wondering which way to turn.

The monk’s drumming and droning was all the more intense now in my heightened state, and I felt completely in the zone for shooting, targeting people and scenery alike. Just above the layers of cloud in the distance, long, bright rays of sun were spreading in triangular fans. The cotton wool, popcorn clouds, beautiful in themselves, were rimmed with a fiery gold that burned in the back of eye. Below, on the slopes and in the valley, the tin and iron-roofed houses nestled in a light mist that blew like puffs of smoke. Where the hills spread out in lower undulations, the rich green of the orderly tea plantations was washed with drifting coils of mist.

The monk continued his slow beat and droning, and I, taking refuge behind my sunglasses, watched from a short distance, shooting video. I wanted more stability for the long-range focus and, not having brought my tripod this morning, I soon moved to one of the benches, alongside the shelter, and rested my camera on the rail in front. On either side the locals continued their exercises; huffing and breathing loudly, but otherwise, doing their routine without a word. The valley below made a pleasant subject for study, and I spied on the activity of tiny distant people and dogs, drifting through the light cloud that brushed the tree tops. I could hear the happy singing of children from a school a couple of hundred metres down the slope; a dawn chorus of upbeat, unbroken voices, both energetic and joyous. What time did school begin here? Such happy singing seemed a very positive way to start the day.

When, at around 0630, the sun climbed atop the rounded crenulations of cloud, there was a splendid murmur of excitement. The lens flared with the light that shot in clear beams from the small orange arc of sun. The sun rose rapidly and the light fanned quickly across the hills and valleys below. The tree-tops lightened, the fog shone white, and the locals doing their exercises seemed to find an extra spring in their step. It was a powerful and uplifting vision, without a hint of anticlimax and, though I longed to see the mountains, I was happy indeed with this burst of sunlight.

I sat and stood and sat again, photographing the scenes around me in the growing brightness. I continued to hope that as the sun grew higher and hotter, it might burn away the cloud below and reveal the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. Was this the beginning of a dry, warm, clear day in Darjeeling? Was I about to be treated to that mountain view at long last?

It was now that I noticed a change in the valley below. The mist that had, until recently, been sparse and thin, began rapidly to thicken. In the warming sunlight, the abundant moisture was evaporating and gathering into pockets of cloud above the vegetation. Slowly the iron rooves and tea plantations became more difficult to see as these blooms of mist spread and floated until, after about ten minutes, with the sun now well clear of the clouds on the horizon, the scene below was almost entirely shrouded.

This gathering cloud now sent up a long, thin coil of white mist. It rose in a tall column that stretched up high above the tallest trees near where I sat watching. This column of rising moisture began to widen, fattening until it grew dark and dense, like a pillar of thundercloud. At the top of the column the mist very abruptly spread sideways, like a flat mushroom cloud, colonising the sky with fog.

Once this process was underway, the speed with which it continued was astonishing. The sun, it seemed, rather than burning off the cloud, was having quite the opposite effect; vaporising all the moisture in the valley and lifting it into the air. From a meteorological perspective, it was absolutely fascinating. The spreading cloud soon covered the sky immediately above, blocking all direct sunlight. The treetops began to dim, the golden wash turned silver then grey as the hills and valley below vanished completely from view.

Soon the entire sky, as far as I could see, was covered in haze and cloud. Great waves of fog rolled up the slopes and onto the heights where I sat, brushing my skin with cool moisture. By the time the clock struck seven, the fog had smothered everything. I could see no more than twenty metres.

This marvellous meteorological event was too exciting to allow for disappointment. So much for the mountains – I was perfectly content to spend another day in thick fog and try again the following morning. I took another joint from my packet and wandered back along the road I had followed to the look-out.

Silhouettes appeared against the wan backlight, and the trees, now full of enticing shadows through the filter of fog, seemed especially fecund with their newly wetted leaves. I smoked took photos, looking back towards the “Darjeeling Fitness Club” where several locals were still doing exercises. Their shapes made excellent subjects and I kept the camera trained on them for some time.

I drifted back into Chowrasta, towards the chai place on the edge of the square which I had adopted as my own over the last couple of days. The man and two women were all there, and the place was fully operational. I ordered tea and a chilli egg bun and sat down on the bench to watch them at work. It was sad how much I loved what they did, yet could not possibly love their life. To work such long hours and to be so constantly busy was not something to which I could relate. It was hardly a new sensation, this wonder at the workers of the world who slog it out all day. Yet, sitting so close to this dynamic trio, who gave me such pleasure with their excellent tea and lovely, simple food, I felt a passionate hope that they should find enough time to be happy outside of work. At least they were their own bosses, and perhaps this was the life they chose, but it didn’t exactly look easy. I stayed there almost an hour, and drank three cups of the best tea in the world.

Over the next five days, I repeated that morning almost exactly. I rose just before five AM, showered, dressed and set off towards the same look-out. There was, at Ghoom, the highest railway station of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a very famous and better situated lookout called Tiger Hill, to which many people ventured in the morning to see the mountains. This, however, was equally contingent on the sky or horizon being clear and, without such conditions, it seemed pointless for me to take one of the many early morning jeeps there.

Every morning over the next five days, I carried the same hope around Observatory Hill: that today would be different; that the sky would clear completely for a spectacular view. Sadly, however, on every single occasion, the entire horizon was covered in fog.

In the later mornings and afternoons, with never a sign of the distant cloud lifting, I wandered around town, photographing the workers, shops and the closer views.

I spent some time up on top of Observatory Hill, stoned, lost in thought, watching the colourful flags of the Buddhist monastery flap in the persistent breeze.

I spent hours sitting with the monkeys at the back of the monastery, watching their antics, squabbles, grooming and occasional surliness. Some days I wandered quite a way out of town, floating along the curving roads through the smaller, surrounding villages. I walked up into the forest and sat amongst the trees; smoking, reading, dozing, lying, thinking, thinking, thinking.

I saw a man with a prize pig, a most flamboyantly feathered chicken, women breaking rocks for a roadway.

I walked all day, looking for photographs and vignettes. I followed the railway out of town into some of its slightly grubbier quarters.

A small, quiet man showed me around another monastery. He told me its quaint, unassuming history, then a story of the school they hoped to build if only they had the money. I made my donation on cue, then left, feeling disappointed with both him and me.

Every breakfast lunch and dinner was spent at my favourite chai wallahs. I never learned their names, and we hardly ever shared a word, but we had an unspoken friendship that lived in our genuine smiles. I was certainly curious about their lives, but, knowing how much I value my own privacy, I did not want to pester them with a bunch of personal and anthropological questions. I figured that if I just kept ordering tea and food, and they kept making it so well and serving me in so friendly a manner, then we already had a strong enough relationship.

When, on my ninth morning in Darjeeling, the horizon was once again covered in cloud, I gave up all hope of seeing Kangchenjunga. Two days before, I had booked my ticket – from Siliguri to Delhi – and I wasn’t about to miss my flight. I sat and watched the mist rise from the valley once more, then walked back to Chowrasta for a final breakfast.

On the way there, I passed the very Pony Boy from whom I had bought a bag of marijuana almost a week earlier. He was standing holding the reins of his horse, grinning enough to show his blackened teeth. He recognised me and said:

“Are you going riding again today, sir?”

“No. Thankyou!”

I laughed and smiled at his conceit. How sad and happy this little encounter made me feel. When I sat down on the bench and ordered tea a few moments later, I felt a choking thickness in my throat. How could I leave Darjeeling, having become so used to the place, and with my mission still unaccomplished? Did I not feel as though I were stagnating, perhaps even on the brink of a sort of dissipation, I might well have stayed on.

I knew that there could be only one cure for this growing burden of loss: to get back on the road and find new places and people. From Delhi I was flying on to Amritsar, right across India in a day, and after that, it was anyone’s guess. That morning, sitting there for the last time, I drank four cups of tea and made a new plan. From Amritsar, I would head north up into the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and see the Himalayas around McLeod Ganj and Manali. If the road was open and I could make it all the way to Leh, then so be it.

As many attractions as India might hold, the need for mountains was in my blood, and anyway, I preferred the cooler climate of higher altitudes. My mission in Darjeeling was indeed as yet unaccomplished, but if I couldn’t see the mountains here, then I would travel until I saw them somewhere. I had at least another month up my sleeve, and nothing, whatsoever, was calling me home.

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Heroes and Villains

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Dirk watched the foam churning round the propellers. It washed to and fro from the wharf. He watched the people milling on the docks; smoking and waving. There were no familiar faces. He toyed with a cigarette before lighting it. The ferry bobbed in its turbulence, roaring and vibrating. Then the ropes came in and they were off; away from Samothraki.

Dirk stayed on the rear of the upper deck to watch the island shrink. It soon fit within his field of vision, fading to a ghost in the late haze. He stayed and watched as it sank beneath the curve of the earth. Then it was gone altogether and he had only the dust on his sandals and dirt beneath his nails. He shivered. The breeze was beginning to go through him.

The sun set and it grew colder still. Dirk wandered outside along the decks, before heading into the cafeteria. It was full of people, standing and sitting, craning to watch a big screen. He looked around for any pretty girls. There were too many men. The film Gladiator was showing; English with Greek subtitles. The name Maximus appeared at the bottom of the screen. Μαξιμος. It looked like the parallel translations he often read in ancient works. It seemed somehow more authentic. The Roman army was gearing up for war. “On my command, unleash hell.” Dirk smiled. The accent was familiar. He too was Australian.

Dirk went for a walk. He needed to find somewhere to sleep for the night. Deck class was no misnomer. He’d been out there in a storm before, out with the banshee wails and the rain devils. The evening was clear. He had a sleeping bag. He bought a toasted cheese sandwich and a carton of milk, then went back out on the deck.

Dirk poked around until he saw a space under a lifeboat. It was out of the way; no one would disturb him. He unfurled his sleeping bag, unzipping it from end to end. He laid the sleeping bag under the boat and slipped himself onto it. There was only two feet of space beneath the boat, but it was shelter and seclusion. He got in and pulled the sleeping bag together, zipping it up halfway. He lay staring up at the base of the boat, thinking about the last five days on Samothraki. He weighed up the mix of loss and relief. It was a good basis for a sort of happiness; fulfilment and expectation, the end and the beginning, though it wasn’t exactly happiness. He soon fell asleep.

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Dirk woke up at three thirty. He wasn’t sure if he’d slept, but could not account for the hours. He was still tired; warm and tired. The breeze was thin and chill and he did not want to get up. Getting up would be like being born all over again. People walked past him on the deck, talking loudly. He leaned out from under the lifeboat to see what was happening. Across the deck towards the prow were the lights of the shore, of a harbour, a mere hundred metres away.

“Lavrio,” he said. “It must be Lavrio.”

Dirk lay back down and stretched and yawned. The deep horn of the vessel sounded right through his body. He smiled and rubbed his face then ran his hands through his hair. He recalled how one cold morning before a camping trip he and his brother and his friend Gus had lain in their beds, reluctant to get out from under the covers. Then, of a sudden, his brother had hurled back the blankets and leapt out of bed, defying the cold. Dirk tightened himself, unzipping the bag. He too could call on that same spirit. It was just like diving into the surf first time in summer.

He washed up in the bathroom, working cold water into his eyes. He took off his shirt and rubbed himself down with the damp corner of his towel, getting the stickiness out of his shoulders and off his forearms; the dried sweat, the clamminess of sea salt. Dirk slicked his hair back and cleaned behind his ears. He felt proud of his efficiency. He thought of himself as a seasoned traveller.

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Dirk stepped slowly down the gangway. He was in no hurry. The sun would not be up for another three hours and, the longer things took, the better. He walked along the concrete wharf and stopped in the wide car park. It was full of cars with their lights on, waiting for friends and relatives.

Dirk was glad to be walking. He watched people standing around and getting into cars. He looked closely, counting the passengers, but no one had a spare space. While he was sleeping, others had made their advances. He was uncertain. Despite the freshening up and the cool air, he still felt trapped in the timidity of tiredness. It was a while since he’d spoken and he did not trust the sound of his voice. On Samothraki he had asked some Greeks if he could puff on their joint and they had told him no. It was the first time it had ever happened to him. In every other way, Greek hospitality had been unparalleled, yet since then he had had second thoughts about asking for anything.

Still he hung around. Maybe some cute girl would take pity on him. He might get to lie on a couch for two hours, then take the metro to Piraeus. He might even get a blow-job! He might fall in love. He laughed. He waited and watched until there were only a few left. No girls approached him. No one approached him. He recognised one couple from the ferry. The young man was noticeably tall, almost six and a half feet. He looked awkward, but friendly. Dirk could not hear their voices but he was sure they must be English speakers. He could see it in their mouths. He watched them as they drifted on the edge of the docks, near the roadway. They too must have no rides.

Dirk stayed a while more. He no longer knew what he was waiting for. He guessed that there must be no buses until later in the morning, but he felt a creeping stubbornness. He was determined to be the last to leave. That way he would know he had not missed any opportunity.

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At four-thirty Dirk walked over to the road. The couple he had spotted earlier were there, sitting on one of the barriers. He nodded to them and they nodded back. They avoided eye-contact. He looked down the length of the road. Some of the last few passengers from the ferry were still walking away from the docks. They were moving slowly, as though resigned. He wondered if they really knew where they were going.

The couple were sitting and talking just out of earshot. Dirk was sure they were waiting to get into Athens just like him. He watched them out of the corner of his eye, then looked back up the road at the other disappearing passengers. He knew he should go and talk to the couple. It was easier not to have to do things by yourself. Some things, that is. It took courage to ask questions in a foreign country and if he teamed up with others, they would have the courage of numbers. Then they could laugh when their words fell on deaf ears; they could joke instead of curse in the face of intransigence. He looked back along the street at the last of the passengers. Athens seemed a long way off. He shrugged and set off after them.

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After checking the timetable, Dirk walked to the middle of the square. He had an hour to kill before the first bus. It was cold and he was tired. The lights were filtered by the feathery branches of the trees. The remaining passengers were resting around the periphery; sitting and lying on benches. Dirk did the circuit, keeping his distance from anyone. He felt shy. He felt reluctant. He did not want to impose.

The square spilled into a pedestrian mall. There were more benches along its length. Dirk put down his pack and took off his fleece. He put on another tee shirt then replaced his top. He stretched out with the sleeping bag for a pillow and set the alarm on his mobile phone. He placed his beach towel over himself like a blanket, then hooked his arm through the strap of his bag. There were two other guys with backpacks only fifteen feet away. Safety in numbers. He had never considered other travellers a threat. Same species.

Dirk closed his eyes for a while. The light was too bright, but he did not want to cover his face. He preferred to appear more alert. He heard footsteps in front of him and opened his eyes. The couple he had seen by the road were walking past. They moved on to the next bench and sat down. Dirk watched them. They were watching him. He smiled at them and they smiled back. No one spoke.

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Dirk was awake when his alarm went off. It was five thirty. The bus was at a quarter to six. He switched off the alarm and looked across the square. There were people standing down at the bus stop but no sign of the bus. Dirk pulled his smokes out of his bag and stuck one in his mouth. He felt in the pocket of his jeans for his lighter then decided he wanted to use a match. He got the matches from his bag, took one out and, leaning up on one elbow, stabbed the match against the rough. He smelled of dog. He smelled of a campfire. He liked who he was and what he was doing. He felt cool lighting his cigarette this way. He was an adventurer. He was beat. He lay back and smoked up the early purple light.

The couple from the next bench walked past him. The young man was speaking loudly. He was speaking English with a South African accent. Dirk smiled. He’d just spent five days with a bunch of South Africans. Couldn’t he bump into someone else for once? Perhaps they were Zimbos. Dirk took a drink from his water bottle and stood up. He gathered himself quickly and picked up his pack. He felt a compulsion to hurry after them.

At the bus stop Dirk put his back against a tree. He stood with his knees locked, tilting like a buttress. He watched the twenty-odd people there a while, then closed his eyes and chewed his cheeks. He was worrying now about making it to Piraeus in time. He knew it was a long ride, but he didn’t know just how long. There was also the metro to take. He couldn’t afford to miss the ferry, if there even was one.

The bus was right on time. Dirk let the others get on first then paid his fare and walked down the aisle towards the back. The South African couple were also sitting towards the rear. He passed them on the way down and nodded. They both smiled at him and he smiled back. Dirk tore his eyes away quickly, settling them on where he was going. He had a practical excuse, but he wondered why he was such a nervous character at times. He missed having comrades on the road.

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It was a dirty dawn through the unwashed bus windows; pale grey sky above pale blue smog, backlit by seeping orange. Dirk had his head against the window, enjoying the little bangs and bumps of the road. He thought of the buses in Sydney, how they rattled when they were idle. There he liked to press his head as hard against the perspex as possible, giving his teeth a good shake-up.

Dirk felt tired and oily. He wanted a hot shower and a sleep. An orange, an apple, a banana and a bottle of Coke. He watched the couple in the seat in front. They spoke quietly and he only heard one word in three. Nothing made sense. They were talking about relatives. After forty minutes, the tall man leaned across the aisle and addressed another young man sitting opposite.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you know where this bus stops?”

“I don’t know,” said the young man. “I only know it goes into Athens.”

“Do you know how long takes?”

“I think it is one hour and a half. I don’t know.”

Dirk watched them with a nervous apprehension. He had left it so late to make contact, despite the numerous chances.

“Syntagma,” said Dirk. “I think the bus goes to Syntagma.”

The couple turned around. The man across the aisle nodded, but turned away.

“Or Monastiraki,” said Dirk. “Both are central.”

“It goes where?”

“To Syntagma,” said Dirk. “It’s a square in the middle of Athens. Do you know Athens at all?”

“No, not at all.”

“Where are you heading? Are you staying in Athens?”

“No,” said the man, “we’re heading out into the islands. To the Cyclades.”

“So am I,” said Dirk. “I’m trying to get to Mykonos.”

“Excellent,” said the girl. “We were thinking about going to Mykonos.”

“I’m Dirk, by the way.”

“Gerard, bru, and this is Melita.”

“Cool. Do you know what boat you’re taking?” asked Dirk.

“No,” said Gerard, “we’re not even sure which island we’re going to. We were just going to head down to Piraeus and check out what’s on offer.”

“Did you know that all the ferries leave really early? At eight o’clock in the morning?”

“No, I didn’t know.”

“Some even go at seven. I’m heading straight there now. To get a boat.”

He looked at his watch.

“Put it this way – you better head straight down there unless you want to wait until tomorrow.” He sounded too dramatic. It was his exhaustion amplifying the emotion.

“Really?” said Gerard.

“Trust me,” said Dirk. “I’ve been there a good few times and almost all the ferries go by eight o’clock. I can take you,” he added. “I know the way.”

“That’d be cool,” said Melita.

“Ya, please,” said Gerard.

Dirk was wide awake now. He was full of purpose. The consequences of failure had just become greater, though the consequences of success troubled him too. He was not sure he wanted to take them to Piraeus if they wound up on the same ferry. He wanted to be alone on the ferry so he could listen to music. He wanted to stare into the Aegean and think about Homer and Thucydides; think about the Peloponnesian war.

The bus went carelessly fast. It dipped and bobbed at the corners, the standing passengers swayed and swung. They were tearing into Athens; ripping through the morning.

“You were on Samothraki as well, were you?” asked Dirk.

“Yeah,” said Gerard. “It was top notch, eh?”

“It sure was. I had a great time.”

Suddenly Dirk missed his friends so greatly that his head swam. He had not been alone for five days; five days surrounded by people and then the lonely bosom of the ferry. It was good to have companions. Until the ferry. Then he would need loneliness again, to sadden himself into an epic.

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They stepped out in Syntagma. It was just after seven and the sun was still full of dew. It was damp in the shadow of the buildings; cold blue light below the spreading yellow sky.

“Have you got all your kit?” asked Dirk.

Gerard and Melita nodded. They had humped their packs on board.

Dirk clapped his hands loudly.

“Right!” he said. “Follow me.”

He led them down the paving towards the metro. He had a view of himself, rushing in his mind; a view from outside of himself. If they were slow he would want to leave them behind, so he must not let them be slow. It was his role now to be urgent; he must be entirely in character.

“There should be plenty of ferries going,” said Dirk, “but likely only one on each route. If you want a particular island, you might only get one chance.”

He didn’t have much of a contingency plan. He was thinking aloud; building up pressure to make their Piraeus decisions quick. Gerard and Melita were smiling in pursuit. He was doing them a favour; already he had saved them from uncertainty and given them direction; he might yet save them from disappointment; launching them into the sea.

Dirk stepped up the pace. He indicated the entrance to the metro and jogged towards the steps. He would get them tickets, for he knew how. He ran down the stairs to the machine; liquid with excitement. He could not work fast enough through the checklist. He pumped in the euro coins. He missed the old Drachma; Pericles, Alexander, Athena, the Olympic flame. Now they were modern heroes.

Gerard and Melita puffed down the stairs. They were fit, but tired; bemused but urgent. Dirk waved the tickets.

“Come on,” he said, “we have to change at Monastiraki.”

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At Monastiraki they walked fast along the edge of the crowd. On the second train they tucked themselves into a corner. The carriage was full. All they saw were close-packed heads and up-thrust arms – tired and sleepy Greeks; sombre, but free of scowls. Dirk ticked off the stations; Thissio, Petralona, Tavros, Kalithea, Moschato, Faliro. He was burning for Piraeus, restless by the orange sliding doors.

Dirk had been to Piraeus five or six times, but had never really seen the place. He was always caught up in a hurry or a set back. Once it had stormed so hard they closed the sea. He was only thinking about the ferries now. He liked Gerard and Melita, and sometimes it was easier to travel with others, yet really it was faster alone. It just took courage. He needed one ticket and one ticket only; not three; not information on more than one ferry; not multiple timetables and options. It was all about Mykonos. Dirk rehearsed his questions. Kalimera, do you speak English? Mykonos, Mykonos, any ferries to Mykonos? And what if it was just the one ferry? They would ride with him.

They were one stop from Piraeus. Gerard and Melita were talking and had been for some time. They were talking about islands.

“Where are you going, do you think?” asked Dirk.

“I’m not sure,” said Gerard. “It depends.”

“I want to go to Samos,” said Melita. “Or over to the Dodecanese. We think the Cyclades might be too touristy.”

Dirk nodded. “They probably are,” he said. “But I want to see Delos. It’s a really important ancient site.”

In truth he didn’t care a fig if it was touristy. After camping on Samothraki, he could use some touristy places. Hot, stupid women; hot, stupid men. He wanted to sit in bars and chat up girls; he wanted creamy cocktails and brazen beers, cold, in sweating bottles. He wanted to eat fatty meat. He wanted to slump and pout and scan the scene. After five days with a bunch of hippy ravers, he longed for neon decadence; the best and the worst of civilisation; debauchery in the sluice of the temples.

The metro pulled in with a soft squeal. The sun shone straight through the dirty glass of the narrow station. It was a quarter to eight; the ferries would be warming up their engines, churning their propellers. Dirk was ready to go. His pack was on, Gerard and Melita had their packs on. If need be, Dirk would leave them behind. He had already helped these people enough.

“There are offices all around,” he said, stepping quickly off the train. “Over here.” He pointed outside to the sunlit pavement.

“I’ve got to run,” he called, “I don’t want to miss out.” But he was running already; quick walk, slow jog, and running through the station exit. Melita and Gerard followed in a skip.

Dirk ran across the road to a window in a wall of signage. Ferry boats, tickets, passage. “Passage!” he shouted, surprising himself. The man at the window was ready. At a quarter to eight, the customers always ran.

“Kalimera, kalimera, do you speak English?”

The old man at the counter nodded. “Yes,” he said deeply.

“When is the next boat to Mykonos?” asked Dirk.

“The boat goes now. At eight.”

“One ticket please, thank you. Deck class, efharisto.”

Melita and Gerard pulled up behind him, scanning the lists of departures.

Dirk handed over the money. The man moved slowly but surely. He printed and stamped the ticket.

“I’m going to Mykonos,” said Dirk. “I have to run as soon as he hands me the ticket.”

“That’s cool, bru,” said Gerard. “If you gotta go…”

“I gotta go.”

“Best say goodbye now then,” said Melita.

“Sure,” said Dirk. “Where are you going?”

“To Samos, then on to the Dodecanese.”

“Thank you,” said the man behind the counter. He handed Dirk the ticket.

“That’s it, gotta split. Goes at eight.”

“No sweat, bru. Thanks for helping us.”

Melita was already at the counter while Dirk shook Gerard’s hand. She ordered their tickets then turned back to Dirk.

“Really gotta go,” said Dirk.

“Go then,” she laughed. He thrust his hand at her and she took it firmly.

“Right then,” he said, and began to run.

“Hey,” Gerard called, “we might be on the same ferry. But don’t wait up, bru, just get on board!”

Dirk ran backwards, he nodded, waved his ticket in the air, and then he turned and fled. Different island, same ferry. It hadn’t ever occurred to him. He ran and ran along the docks. The big ferries stood many storeys tall, with a long, hammock slouch from bow to stern. The sun was bright and he was on his way, alone enough for now. He would get up onto that deck and sleep in the sun. He had a good book, good music and plenty to think on. He came to the dock where his ferry was waiting. He walked down to the edge of the wharf where the cars were being driven up its belly. There was no queue at all. Dirk looked down as he stepped aboard the boat. He watched the foam churning round the propellers. It washed to and fro from the wharf.

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It is not especially easy to find cigarette papers in India. This first became apparent in Jaipur, when I wanted to roll up a little something. I had just returned from ten days travelling around Rajasthan and my contact, Sunny, had been kind enough to donate a small rock of hashish. I crossed the street that afternoon to the local general store near my hotel, which sold cigarettes, assuming they would also sell papers. Yet, when I inquired of the man behind the counter, I was told otherwise. Baffled but by no means thrown, I walked around the corner where there were two small, free-standing booths which also sold cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

“Do you sell cigarette papers?” I asked.

“No, sir,” said the vendor. “Up the road. Near the roundabout.”

“And the other guy?” I asked, pointing to the other booth.

“No, sir. Roundabout.”

He pointed up the street.

The roundabout of which he spoke was a couple of hundred metres down a long road. On the way, I passed quite a number of small businesses and stopped in at three general stores, thinking surely someone must sell cigarette papers. Again, my plans were thwarted. When I did finally reach what was a colossal roundabout, beneath an overpass, with small shops and booths circling it, I expected to be at last rewarded for my efforts. Yet, when I asked the shopkeepers, all of whom sold cigarettes, not a single one of them sold papers.

Now I was indeed thrown. Did no one in India roll their own cigarettes? It seemed like just the place for it, considering how popular rollies were amongst the budget minded, and India, sadly, is not exactly a rich country on a per capita basis. If no one sold cigarette papers, and not having spotted any shops selling chillums, I had little choice by to compromise. I bought a cheap twenty-pack of Navy Cut, resigning myself to carefully emptying and repacking the cigarettes, after having “enhanced” the tobacco.

When, roughly three weeks later, I went looking for cigarette papers in Darjeeling, the situation proved no different. Walking back through the heavy fog, armed and dangerous after a successful and picturesque score in Chowrasta, I asked in every single shop I passed, only to be told no. Oh well, I sighed, there’s always that battered packet of Navy Cut in my bag.

Upon reaching my hotel room, I lay down on the bed and took out the bag of weed I’d collected from the so-called Pony Boys, or, rather, the horse-handlers down in the square. It was a large if lightweight parcel, roughly the size of a very healthy potato, full of stick and twig and seed, and lots of dry, leafy marijuana. It certainly didn’t look impressive, but it had a fresh and natural smell which was a refreshing change from the heavy, pungent, hydroponic wipe-out buds circulating round Sydney in this day and age. Either way, there was plenty of it, and it had, after all, been recommended by a gruff Queenslander, who seemed to know his business.

It was not yet ten o’clock and, having risen early, the day seemed destined to be a very long one. Lying there, with the curtains wide to a view of faint outlines in cloying fog, I pulled some sprigs of weed from the bag and began diligently to remove the small, oval seeds. There were so many of the little buggers, that this task took me the better part of forty minutes, after which I had produced an impressive pile of mix. I hopped up and emptied three cigarettes by carefully rolling and squeezing them between my fingers. Then, having blended some tobacco with the marijuana, proceeded to re-stuff the cigarettes, ably aided by a pen. By ten forty five, I was ready. I took a warming shower, dressed and gathered my things.

Just before leaving I paused by the window, taking in the limited view. Since arriving in Darjeeling two days ago the town had been shrouded in mist and visibility did not extend much beyond the foreground. Only on the afternoon of the day previous, when it had rained heavily, had the sky cleared for long enough to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas in the distance. It was an impressive glimpse, but very brief, for the dispersal of the clouds lasted just a short while, and soon they had reformed their ranks.

On the street below a family of carpenters rested on the pavement outside their shop; at their feet a carpet of shavings. I watched them a while and photographed them, before deciding that I could likely get away with smoking a joint there and then.

I tested the wind direction with a licked finger, took a smoke from my packet, struck a light, and crouched by the window. Feeling rather deliciously naughty, enjoying this fugitive act, I inhaled as Bill Clinton never did, with zeal and gusto. The smoke went straight to my head and I wobbled a little on my heels, but, determined to do things properly, I diligently smoked my way to the filter, exhaling in carefully directed puffs, guiding the smoke away from the closed, neighbouring window.

When, two minutes later, I stepped out into the roiling fog, I was as high as a weather balloon.

“Sensational,” I muttered, and set off towards the carpenters. Feeling rather louche and chummy, I couldn’t resist a rather baroque greeting as I walked past, and waved with both hands, spewing forth hellos. The two men and a young boy responded warmly, and it was at this point that I realised just how ridiculously happy I was. The high I was experiencing was of the most rare and upbeat variety, and its effect was growing in strength with every passing minute. For the last two days the mist had fascinated me and already its beauty had won me over. Yet now, intensely stoned, feeling marvellously fit and rested, having been travelling for a month already, full of wonder and curiosity, the magic of what I was seeing exploded inside me like a bomb.

Despite six years spent living in Cambridge, which could, on occasion, become enveloped in mist rolling in from the fens, I had never seen fog anything like as thick as this. Since the blanketed morning it had increased its hold over the town, turning even the most derelict and mundane subject matter into something breathtakingly beautiful. Tears welled in my eyes and my jaw-dropped; I was thankful that in the thick mist, the few people I passed could not see my face clearly, for I could barely control my expressions. My throat was thick and my lips wobbled. I felt a burning in my heart and was flooded with a feeling of love; love for the fog, love for the cool air, love for the buildings, love for the passers-by and the curled-up dogs. The world was a pencil sketch, viewed through tracing paper. It shifted and whispered itself through the droplets, soft and muted.

I strolled onwards through the moist air; my camera at the ready and Sigur Ros in my ears. The houses, shacks and shops, huddled together along the route, loomed in and out of focus. The figures in attendance, crouched inside their stalls, seated cross-legged next to their wares, were quiet and patient. They seemed in many cases very poor, and I hoped that their lives were happy and their hearts at peace.

The mood and pace of Darjeeling was so very unlike the insistent whirlwind of the India I’d seen so far. Perhaps it was the influence of Buddhism, the cooler climate, the different ethnic blend, or their relative isolation from the weight and competition of the population at large, but whatever the case, it was a pleasure to be left alone.

I passed the stables and the tea-wallahs I’d visited that morning.

Only now did I feel slightly conspicuous, as though the so-called Pony Boys, from whom I’d bought the weed in the first place, might soon be pointing and laughing at me. Feeling far too positive to allow any paranoia to take hold, I shrugged away the sensation and wandered out into the middle of the square, where the horses stood calmly about. Despite the relative cool and the heavy fog, the square was very busy. The orange and white-striped benches along its edges were full of locals relaxing; reading newspapers, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and in one case, playing a game of chess. People milled about in the centre and periphery; tourists, bringing children for a pony joyride or shopping in the stores along the western side of the piazza, and locals, trudging back and forth, carrying loads and pushing carts, or simply taking a stroll.

It was a pleasure to photograph these people, but having hung around the square on several occasions already, I wanted to explore further and see new sights. On the eastern side of Chowrasta was an alluring road that led down the less-developed side of the mountain. It was impossible to see where it went in the heavy mist, yet, considering how incredible everything looked and having no specific goals other than to revel in the beauty of the day and take as many photographs as possible, I set off down this narrow street.

The fog so far had been very thick indeed, yet once away from the mass of people and the tightly packed houses and shops, it grew thicker still. Without the warmth of the people and kitchens, the moisture did not disperse so readily and, a mere two hundred metres down this side road, the world closed in as never before.

I was stopped in my tracks, breathless with excitement. Above me the trees were embraced by cloud, rising up in ever-paler shades of grey.

The density of the air was such that within small spatial increments visibility dropped alarmingly until the merest ghosts of branches could be seen. I stood there, overcome, looking up into the branches, shaking my head and muttering expressions of disbelief. I took out my video camera to film the mesmerising trees, trying to comment on what I was seeing.

I soon stopped talking, for there was too much emotion in my voice and it kept cracking with pending tears. How could anything be so beautiful? How lucky was I to be right here, right now, completely off my chops?!

A family of three – an older couple and their adult son – all wrapped in bright orange or yellow shawls and blankets, stopped me to say hello.

“We are here, on holiday, from Kolkata,” the younger man told me. “It is very nice to get away from the heat!”

We shook hands and I took their photograph. When I showed it to the old man and said, “Very handsome!” he seemed extremely pleased. We all laughed and smiled and shook hands again, and in less than a minute, I was on my way, smiling at just how much warmth and friendliness the Indians had shown me since arriving in their country.

The road wound down along a natural contour, passing Buddhist shrines, tall trees and occasional houses and shops.

After a stretch, I came to a cluster of buildings – too close to town to be called a village, but otherwise so in its likeness.

The steepness of the road made its vanishing point more daunting, as though this were the last stop before the end of the world. I passed between these silent houses, again surprised at how quietly and patiently the locals sat in their doorways and shops.

An old man emerged from the fog, wearing two large square tins on his back. I followed him slowly, through the village and down to a bend in the road where a lone shop perched on the brink of oblivion.

The man took one of the tins from his back and placed it on a low concrete wall. At first I thought he was resting, but then a young boy approached from the shop to buy some of what he was carrying. I watched from a distance, but could not see what he was selling through the fog; perhaps milk or oil, or even cheese?

After taking more photographs, I continued down the hill. Slowly, but surely, the number of houses diminished and the road grew increasingly lined with trees.

Five minutes later found me standing beside a row of cute wooden houses, their weathered boards and unsquared lines only magnified their beauty. I have long fantasised about such small, cosy dwellings; for their privacy and intimacy and simple provision of basic necessity. The houses didn’t look especially warm, however, and the man of whom I asked if I could take his photograph, looked cold. I felt a somewhat hypercritical taking this shot, suspecting that thousands may have done so before me. So much for my vision of privacy and intimacy!

The road soon turned in a hairpin, with a dirt road running off the bend. With an hour and a half having passed since leaving my hotel and thinking that now might be the time for another joint, I stepped off the bitumen and walked twenty metres up the dirt road. The road was backed by a wall of dripping ferns and dew-laden grass clumps, whilst in front was the swirling nothingness. I took out the cigarette packet, extracted a joint and stuck it in my lips. Again, feeling excited and ambitious, I smoked the whole thing. As I stood exhaling into the cold air, looking over the edge of the road, I blinked in amazement as a faint outline revealed itself. I tried to focus my eyes through the fog as it shifted and rolled and saw what looked like a monastery below. Then the intensity of the fog diminished in the face of a momentary breeze, revealing what was indeed a Buddhist monastery.

I hurried back to the road and followed it down the hill. It soon turned again, back in the direction of the monastery, and I walked quickly towards it, keen to have a look. The monastery slowly materialised to present a bright face, veiled and wan with mist. It was a tall, square building, with a tower at each corner, painted with lavish designs in blue, red, green and gold. The curling patterns and images had a floral, almost organic quality, as though a colourful, symmetrical mould had grown on the structure. The flair of the portico and façade, with its rounded columns, gave the monastery a slightly garish, yet beautiful stateliness.

I kicked off my thongs and wandered inside. The wooden floor was satisfyingly worn, and the rich interior contrastingly cold. I noticed a monk in the corner and, not being sure of the protocol, decided not to take any photographs. Instead I merely stood for five minutes, hardly moving, slowly turning my head to follow the many bright images on the walls and ceiling; peering from the low light.

Once outside again, I felt inclined to press on. I’d taken off my headphones, but now decided I wanted music again and chose the Guo Brothers, performers of traditional Chinese music. The haunting and exotic mood of the music combined well with the atmosphere, and I set off away from the monastery with renewed purpose.

Just around the corner from the monastery the road steepened and spilled away into a another small cluster of houses and flats. I paused on the top of a small rise, suddenly feeling very hungry indeed. It seemed that after all this walking in the mountain air and two brilliantly uplifting joints, the good old munchies had finally kicked in. Not wanting to distance myself too much from the momos and tea of Chowrasta, I turned around and headed slowly back up the hill.

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