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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

One Day in Nepal

You can’t really go trekking in a pair of worn-out thongs. It’s by no means impossible, but likely to result in discomfort, injury, or wardrobe malfunction. And let’s be clear here, I mean flip-flops or rubber sandals, as opposed to anal-floss. Despite this, I have many times in the past worn thongs under inappropriate conditions. On my first visit to India, I had nothing but a pair of thongs to wear, and, once in the mountains around McLeod Ganj in particular, put them to the test by clambering up and down a lot of rocky slopes.

My thongs, on Varkala beach

On my second visit to India, over December and January 2012-13, I once again took only a pair of thongs as footwear. Why? Because I was travelling light again with just a small bag and couldn’t fit a second pair of shoes in my “luggage.” Knowing too that most of the holiday would be spent in very warm and humid places, including a few stays on the coast, I figured I could get away with it and was proven right in the end.

The one concession I made on the footwear front was to bring a pair of socks with me, which proved invaluable when staying at higher altitudes – Ooty and Darjeeling, for example. Naturally I would have preferred not to be seen in cargo shorts, socks and thongs, but I have an amazing capacity to dispense with vanity when on the road – amazing, I say, considering how terribly vain I am most of the rest of the time.

The reason I mention all of this is that on our second-last afternoon in Darjeeling, as we wandered through the sun-drenched dark-green tea shrubs in the Happy Valley plantation, I made the decision to accompany V on her one-day trek to Nepal the following morning. The two reasons I’d opted out initially were that I’d caught a mild cold on the way up the mountain to Darjeeling and hadn’t been feeling especially energetic over the previous few days, plus I only had a pair of thongs, which made my attendance seem farfetched. The more I thought about it, however, the more it became clear just how much I wanted to go. Apart from the beautiful views and exciting exercise, along with the chance to enter Nepal for the first time, I knew I would regret not having shared the experience with V when she returned and told me all about it.

The task of buying shoes can be complicated, but this is usually because people are fussy about the look of the things and take their time deciding from amongst various styles. In this case, however, we soon discovered that irrespective of style – of no concern in this case – just finding a pair in the right size was going to be difficult. We began our search at around 1600, the tail end of a warm and sunny afternoon, and ran almost immediately into trouble. There were three or four shoe shops in the streets around our hotel, yet none of these had anything larger than a size 45. This was roughly two or three sizes too small and would ultimately do more harm than good, if I even managed to get them on my feet, which was not actually possible. With none of the closed-toed shoes fitting, I asked to try all the largest sandals, yet none of these were big enough either. I was willing to take a pair a tad too small, as sandals offered a lot of freedom anyway, but the soles were simply too small and I had some toe-overhang going on.

I was fortunate to have a welcome flashback at this point – to my last visit to Darjeeling when I had stumbled into a sort of shoe-emporium. One level of a shopping mall, just a little down the hill from the top end of town, which had several shoe shops inside. We made our way to this place at around 1730, and were very pleased to discover that, indeed, the ground floor contained nothing but shoe shops.

I felt certain I would find something appropriate in here, but still, after the first four visits to ask about size, we came away with nothing. Eventually, however, we entered a shop which had one remaining pair of size 46 sandals. I tried them on and they were a near perfect fit, with the straps loosened. They also felt sturdy and comfortable and seemed more than capable of doing the job. I thanked the cheerful gents in the shop and apologised for my long deliberations. I felt triumphant. The trek was on.

The car arrived at 0545 the next morning to drive us to a town called Maneybhanjang, roughly 32 kilometres from Darjeeling. It’s a common starting point for treks into Nepal, be they for a day or considerably longer. I had been concerned about whether or not we could enter Nepal as both of us were on single-entry visas, but the young man in the hotel had assured us that while the border police would check our passports and register them, they would not be stamped and no official entry would be recognised. Our trek would take us only a few miles into Nepal, which allowed some degree of flexibility.

Our driver was another lovely local man – friendly, welcoming and helpful. Like so many people in Darjeeling, he never seemed restless or impatient, but entirely at ease, which made his politeness completely genuine. We exchanged a few words, but sat quietly through most of the one-hour drive, taken with the shifting views of the mountains through trees and villages. There was a light haze in the air, but little sign of cloud, and the weather was predicted to be as it had been for the last three days – clear and crisp sunshine.

We were taken straight to the local police station to register our passport details. This took place in a very spartan, cold, wooden-floored room with tired old blue paint on the walls. I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t have a big fire burning or a heater on. In fact, we’d noticed that the interior of several places around Darjeeling had also been very cold and people simply wore coats, scarves and hats. Perhaps heating was too expensive, or they were just used to it. Either way, I wasn’t so much worried about myself, but for their own comfort. The policemen were as sleepy as we were and the whole process had a dreamy and unreal quality to it. Having watched a few episodes of Banged-up Abroad while on the road, I entertained myself with the grim thought that something would go wrong and we’d end up imprisoned in some remote place for a visa violation, being left no choice but to make a daring escape.

Shortly afterwards, we met our guide, Ranjin, and our driver left us. Ranjin was actually born and bred in Maneybhanjang. It seemed surprising that anyone could choose to live their lives in such a small place – a mere single main street with a cluster or two of houses off to the side – but this was merely my prejudice for busy places with all manner of shops and services. I have never understood the desire to live in small towns in remote places, but perhaps this is simply because I’ve never tried it. Still, the lack of access to an art-house cinema and a wide variety of restaurants gives me the shivers.

Ranjin took us to a local restaurant of sorts. It was a simple, small room with a few tables and chairs and an elderly woman making dhosas and mildly spiced potatoes. For all we knew, it might have been his family home. At this stage both of us were in a sleepy state of fascination with all around us and hardly said a word. We wolfed down the food and drank a couple of cups of tea, then set off to begin the trek.

Forest

It began with a very steep ascent, up a rocky road. The slope was so steep at some points that it seemed not even a four-wheel drive could have handled the gradient. The road was flanked by tall cedars, which Ranjin was later to explain were all replanted some time in the last twenty years as part of a reforestation project. With such a steep ascent, it wasn’t long before we were warmed up and removing layers. After just ten minutes I was down to a t-shirt and was to spend most of the rest of the day as such. We were also soon treated to some excellent views of the surrounding hills and mountains. The valleys were still full of mist, but the haze had cleared from the sky and it was crisp and blue over head.

Mountains

After twenty-five minutes of climbing we reached a point where the road levelled out on the crest of a hill. A few small, modest houses, a temple, shrine and monastery sat the ridge, in low yellow grass. Ranjin lead us to a large iron gate that was chained and locked. He produced a key and began to unlock the gate.

“On the other side is Nepal,” he said, then opened it up and went through.

V and I smiled at each other and followed him through the gate. I was immensely excited, in fact, having never been to Nepal. As silly as it may sound, I’ve always loved the idea of collecting countries and, whilst this one would not appear on my passport, I could safely say afterwards that I had, in fact, been to Nepal.

Opening the gate to Nepal

We wandered into the grounds of the monastery and took in the colourful buildings. Everything was white-washed with red, blue, green and yellow highlights. Perched as it was on the top of this yellow crest, the snow-capped Himalayas as a backdrop, it had a wonderful remoteness to it; a sort of complex simplicity that evoked contradictory feelings of wanting to stay and leave at the same time.

Welcome to Nepal

Tree and mountain

Monastery, Nepal

We moved on quickly, following Ranjin’s lead, and began a walk that followed the crests of the hills. For the next hour we alternated between walking on the road and on the grass alongside. This early in the day there was still much frost on the grass and the icy patches in the shadows had a blue luminescence about them.

Frosty road

It was very beautiful and I kept wanting to stop and look at it, but moving as we were at a good marching pace, we kept on. Ranjin told us that the road was in fact in India, and that where we were walking alongside was Nepal. On account of this, we must have crossed the India Nepal border on countless occasions during that early part of the walk.

The Himalayas

Around nine we reached the top of another crest to see a small collection of buildings. From a distance it looked like a small village of wooden barns and thatched roofs, though I’m not sure in the end that it wasn’t just a single family living there. There was, however, a shop which sold snacks and made tea. From the open, wooden-shuttered shopfront, an old man emerged to greet us. He spoke briefly with Ranjin who told us that the tea was all part of the service. It was a young girl who came out to serve us. We said hello, though she just smiled and nodded in reply and didn’t speak to us. The tea arrived a short while later.

Tea stop

Up the road a little, some young men were repairing the axel on a jeep. They seemed so happily engaged in their task that they didn’t appear to notice us at all. Perhaps the solitude bred this quiet detachment though, of course, it was only us and the wider world from whom they seemed detached. The wide, open views into the valley below and across to the line of snow-capped peaks were engaging enough. I sat quietly watching the men work, relishing the cooling sweat on my back and shoulders where the pack had been.

We set off again along the road in the direction of Megma and Tonglu. The road itself was an impressive construction, a tightly packed and solid path of uneven rocks. The light colour of the rocks gave it a magical quality as it curved like a ribbon along the rolling crests. So uneven was the surface, however, that it was nigh impossible to walk on, and we strolled alongside on the time-smoothed verge. Soon a jeep approached. We stepped to one side and watched it rocking awkwardly from stone to stone. The vehicle jumped so clumsily at every rock that it seemed to be walking on four legs. The driver and passengers wore a long suffering look of bemusement as they leapt up and down in their seats. How anyone could stand such a bouncing motion for an extended period of time was beyond me. The jeeps must be very durable indeed.

Tonglu / Megma

We soon reached the small village of Megma, which housed an Indian army border checkpoint. Apart from the checkpoint and barracks, there was a monastery and a row of four or five houses. The guards were young men with old-fashioned carbines, who smiled and seemed to enjoy looking at our passports. I still retained some small amount of irrational fear that there might be a problem with our single-entry visas, but this was soon dispelled as we were directed to the ubiquitous ledger into which we had to enter our names and details. All the while, a short distance away, one soldier was continually shouting at another one down the hill in the barracks. It was an unfortunate disruption to the peacefulness of the place and had an air of gratuitousness about it. Ranjin had warned me not to take any photographs.Tonglu

Megma

Just outside Megma the weather began to change. Waves of mist and cloud came sweeping up the mountainside. The puffs of dark grey and white cloud added a welcome bleakness to the scenery, increasing the air of remoteness and mystery. The light acquired an eerie, metallic hue and we walked in that realm of contrast between sunlit ground and overcast sky. It grew rapidly colder and soon we felt droplets on our skin.

Approaching Tonglu

We made excellent pace and Ranjin was impressed with our fitness and speed. We weren’t trying to push the pace, but both of us are naturally fast walkers. We came to a small stream near some rocks painted with runic symbols. The stream ran through a small shrine in which a prayer wheel turned constantly from the motion of the water. It was very simple and clever, though I have always wondered about the sincerity of such contrivances. Was there not something intrinsically lazy about automating devotion? Not that I really minded, but it does seem slightly askew.

Tonglu

Painted rocks

The shrine marked the beginning of our next destination – the slightly larger village of Tonglu. It was here that we stopped for lunch, in a large wooden house. Ranjin led us inside and a youngish girl came to greet us. It was a cosy place, the wood-panelled walls painted pale blue and inset with glass cabinets. A wide bench under the window was covered with colourful cushions and here we sat, before the dining table. Ranjin went inside to chat with the family in the kitchen whilst we amused ourselves looking at the many curiosities about the room. On one wall, next to a hand-drawn map of the region, was an old faded photograph of a girl riding a goat. I wondered if it was the girl who had greeted us on our arrival.

Lunch stop, Tonglu

Lunch consisted of Maggi noodles with a few peas thrown in and some not especially hot chilli sauce. We both smiled at the disappointing simplicity of the meal, yet ate the lot of it with an eager hunger. My father had always said that the best sauce in the world is hunger sauce, and both of us were very hungry after the morning’s exercise.

Hanging lantern, Tonglu

The village sat just on the snowline and, as we advanced up the road out of Tonglu, we found ourselves walking on a snow-covered road. Both V and I were very excited about this as we rarely have the chance to see snow. I had now put my coat back on, which was fortunate because I soon slipped on the perilous surface and landed on my elbows. After that, I trod more cautiously, enjoying the squeaky crunch of the snow under my sandals. The shoes, incidentally, were working perfectly – sturdy, supportive and very comfortable. It had been clear for some time that this was not a walk for thongs.

Tonglu

We passed through another small village whose name escapes me. All the buildings were locked up and no one was present. It had a pleasantly bleak and lonely feel about it, another chance to indulge in the sweet melancholy I love so much. We hurried through, now at the highest point for a few miles around, with great views of the valley dropping away into Nepal on one side and India on the other. Down in the valley it was sunny, but up here on the heights we were in amongst the clouds.

Tonglu

The cloud had thickened considerably around us and clung like heavy fog. It continued to rush up the mountain in great sweeps of mist, adding drama to the dark and subdued landscape. My childhood love of fantasy locations had been awake during the whole walk, but now, with the fog sweeping up and the yellow grass growing wet under the grey light, the snow on the rocky road and the closeness of the world around as the cloud limited our vision, it seemed more fantastic than ever.

Nobody home

We walked through this fog and cloud for another hour and a half, slowly descending along a winding road. We had soon completed a circuit of the crest and the army checkpoint at Megma came back into sight. From here we would follow the same road home, retracing our morning’s steps. With the weather having shifted so dramatically and with us now facing in a different direction, it seemed like a different walk altogether.

Road into fog

Road into fog

During the last stages of the journey we talked more with Ranjin, asking him about his life and interests. He came across as incredibly content – married with children and loving his job. I asked if he ever got bored, taking people on the same walks all the time, but he assured us that he never did, so fond was he of this landscape in which he had grown up. To some degree I could understand him – how could anyone ever get bored of such magnificence? Though only at an elevation of around 3500 metres, it had felt to me like the top of the world – high, cold, bleak and yet staggeringly beautiful. And yet, inside me, there remained that knowledge that I could not do this forever. I needed the city somehow, though perhaps this would not always be the case.

Mountain road

Mountain road

Our last stop was the place where we had first entered Nepal. This time we visited one of the houses there and sat in the lounge of the family who lived there. Two children watched television and a young Nepali man sat in another corner drinking a beer. At first we just nodded to him and kept to ourselves, but when he came over and spoke to us, we instantly warmed to him and listened to his story.

He was a jeep-driver, taking people across the mountains between India and Nepal. He was drinking Kingfisher Strong and told us that he needed it to keep himself steady in his dangerous job. I thought there was something foolish about this and wondered at his commonsense, but the more we learned, the more sympathetic I was to his situation. He was, in fact, terrified of his job and the risks involved.

Troubled young Nepali

“When the roads are icy, it’s very dangerous. Jeeps go, whoosh,” and he motioned with his hand as though a jeep were falling down the mountain. “Tonight I can’t go, because there is ice on the roads. But tomorrow I have to go, ice or no ice. It’s very dangerous.”

As he spoke to us in his good, clear English, he shifted about with nervous energy and had a mild look of desperation in his eyes. His demeanour was a strange mix of happy, almost glib, yet clearly he carried a burden. I got the impression that he was not just scared but frustrated – as though he had something unpleasant to do and would like to have gotten it done then and there. Waiting til tomorrow was actually worse than doing it now, so for the moment, drinking beer was the next best thing. Yet, even then, he seemed unable to relax and remained standing, shifting on his feet.

We quizzed him further about his life and he told us he had studied at university in Darjeeling. He had had to abandon his studies on account of his “domestic situation.” He didn’t elaborate, and though desperately curious, I wasn’t about to ask him. Had he gotten someone pregnant? V and I later speculated. It was impossible to know, but I felt deeply sorry for him, with his dangerous job and curtailed prospects. I certainly hope he finds some way to be content in his life.

Armani my foot

We had made such good time on the journey that we were early to meet our ride home, so we lingered for almost an hour in this house. When we finally did leave, we just had the walk down the steep hill to the car, which took only twenty minutes going down. All along the way we noticed long, narrow plastic pipes running from the mountain-top down into the valley. I hadn’t noticed these on the way up, and Ranjin told us that they were to provide water to the houses in the village. Without a proper water supply, people tapped into the springs and streams up on the crest. Many of the pipes dripped and ran with escaping water. It was an interesting insight into the lives of the local people…

Maneybhanjang

The car was waiting for us down in Maneybhanjam and it was time to say goodbye to Ranjin. He was so unassuming and mil-mannered that he tried to slip away quickly before we could give him a tip, but we were not about to let him go without giving him the bonus he so surely deserved. Even when we handed him the money, his surprise seemed utterly genuine. He really was a top bloke.

Distant trees

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Just prior to going to India last December, I moved into an inner city suburb of Sydney called Camperdown. It’s very close to where I was living previously in Glebe, on the other side of that great dividing road, Parramatta. The nice side, in my opinion, for Glebe runs down to the inner harbour and is by far the prettier of the two suburbs. Camperdown, however, has many attractions, one of which, technically, is the University of Sydney.

Parramatta Rd, into the west

Campus aside, Camperdown is a curious mix of old light industrial – factories, warehouses and workshops, and residential – of the bungalow, flat and terrace kind. Indeed, like so much of Sydney, Camperdown has swathes of Victorian and Edwardian terraces and semi-detached Federation (turn of the 20th century) houses.

The ubiquitous Sydney terraces

The area was first named by Governor Bligh (1806-08) after the Battle of Camperdown between the English and Dutch in 1797. Bligh received a 240 acre grant of land, which also included parts of neighbouring Newtown. Early in the 19th century, Camperdown was established as a residential and farming area. Lying just four kilometres west of the city centre, it was only a matter of time before it became swallowed by the city.

Australia Street

Camperdown is a small suburb, though this is in part an imposition of its division down the middle by Parramatta Road. It is a very built area, with a few good parks and small reserves, but nothing especially large – again, not including campus. Most of the houses are, however, one or two storeys, and, apart from the hospital, few of the reclaimed and gentrified warehouses and factories are especially tall. With streets and gardens full of trees and vegetation, it thus retains an old-town feel which adds to its appeal.

Camperdown

The Dutch houses

Denison street

We are fortunate to live in a tree-heavy cul de sac which fronts onto Camperdown oval. Our apartment block is a creaky old firetrap, which, from the back lane, looks awfully un-inspiring, but from the front seems well-disposed.

Cricket poetry

Penalty shot

Camperdown oval

Inside, the place takes on the curiously nostalgic complexion of an old, wide-corridored hotel in the Blue Mountains. The flats themselves have a pleasant vintage character to them and certainly scrub up nicely, with redundant fireplaces and tile features. It is hardly baroque, but rather an elegant sufficiency.

Rooftop garden, dying

Mantlepiece

Downstairs, in the base of the apartment block’s front are two cafés, Gather on the Green and Store, both of which are perfectly okay – the former good for coffee, the latter for food. Because of their proximity to the park and the dead-end nature of the street, customers regularly take their orders on the grass beside the oval. With the prevalence of youngish professional couples round these parts, the park and cafés are usually full of young families with a good number of children running about. This creates what my friend Paul calls a certain “prambience.”

The cafes downstairs

Foggy morning

Camperdown always struck me as an in-between sort of place. It is stuck between Parramatta Road and King Street in Newtown – then stuck between the university and hospital. In a sense, it just peters out into the west, hemmed in on the other sides. For this reason, I never felt comfortable about moving here, knowing that I was, to some degree, cut off from the water. To compensate for this I have extended my run considerably and now I cross Parramatta Road and follow the canal down to the water.

Wet Parramatta road

Glebe point sunset 2

Glebe, Rozelle Bay

It’s a lovely run once on the other side – under the aqueduct, through the canal-side parks, under the great curve of the Glebe railway viaduct, then along the promenade in Bicentennial Park. After cheering on the wind-turbine, I swing past views of the Glebe Island Bridge (now sadly renamed Anzac) and Sydney Harbour Bridge. My long ago established love for the Glebe area is such a powerful thing that I feel uplifted just running through it, but the sight of the water and bridges from the park takes things up another notch.

Glebe Island bridge

Glebe afternoon

Back to Camperdown, the land of the in-between. It is a very handy place to live, pure and simple: King Street with all its attractions is a ten minute walk away and, most Saturdays, we head up to the markets at the old Eveleigh rail-yards.

Eveleigh markets

Carriageworks

The beautiful campus of Sydney University – V’s workplace – is just ten minutes walk to the east. Public transport is plentifully available for the price of a short walk – to Parramatta Rd for buses, King Street for trains – and it takes me fifteen to twenty minutes to get downtown.

Parramatta Rd

King street crossing

When we have access to a car, it takes us roughly twenty-five minutes to drive to Bronte Beach – every Saturday and Sunday – which is not such a big imposition. Camperdown also meets one of my toughest conditions when it comes to choosing a house – being within walking distance of an art-house cinema. It also helps that the locals all seem to be friendly, harmless, open-minded lefties and that rare breed of unpretentious hipsters. It all feels perfectly safe.

Camperdown

Amor Laura

There are, inevitably, a couple of drawbacks: despite being mostly quiet, Camperdown is often the victim of flight path diversions and there are some eyesores. The huge slab of old hospital near the modernising Royal Prince Alfred is particularly unattractive. Surrounded by chain fence and barbed wire, it has a post-holocaust hollowness to it that is chilling and disquieting.

Dead hospital

Dead hospital

It is a monolith of arrant functionalism, yet, despite its ugliness, it often inspires enjoyably melancholic thoughts of the end of civilization. Now overgrown and toweringly glum, it invites one in with its brooding lassitude and I long to break in and explore the corridors. It is probably riddled with asbestos.

Parramatta Road doesn’t exactly leave a lot to be desired and I suppose there isn’t actually anything to do in Camperdown itself. Apart from a few dumpy sports pubs on the main road, there aren’t really any bars or cafés. This really ads to its in-between feel, because in order to do anything it is necessary either to walk to Newtown or Glebe, or bus and train the hell out of dodge. Still, nothing is really out of reach, so being sleepily stuck in the middle isn’t such a bad thing after all. Either way, it certainly has grown on me over the last few months.

Autumn, Camperdown

Camperdown

Victory

Australia street

Chesty Bonds

Glebe, rope ladder

Wet Pavilion, Camperdown

Camperdown tree shadow

Biblical Sky, Camperdown

Missenden rd

 

 

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That same afternoon on which V and I witnessed the tragic death of a dog on Sidemen Road, we sat on our hotel balcony, drinking beer. The image of the terrible accident was still fresh in our minds, but with some hours now having passed, a storm having come and gone, and several glasses of beer having passed our lips, the tension and horror had retreated somewhat. I still felt the occasional shudder when, inevitably, the image popped into my head, or I conjured it up in the perverse way one smells a bad smell again to see if it really is that bad. Yet, on the whole, we felt very calm and relaxed.

The surroundings certainly helped. Below us the pool and the maze of garden paths were empty – indeed, there seemed to be no other guests in our hotel. The hotel itself was a network of bungalows and two-story villas, terraced onto a gentle slope that steepened and dropped away into rainforest. Behind the lush trees in the mid-ground was a backdrop of wooded hills with rice paddies occupying their lower slopes. A few scattered clouds still lingered in the sky – the dark, bruised colour of storms – and the air had cooled significantly from the sticky heights of midday.

Sidemen hotel view

Both of us agreed that this place was heart-achingly beautiful, and more than that, it was serene. One might think such a place would cost an arm and a leg, yet in Bali luxury is very cheap. Our hotel cost a mere thirty-five Australian dollars a night, an astonishing bargain, but one that was repeated across the whole island, outside of the excesses of Seminyak and Kuta.

Breakfast table view

Not only is luxury cheap in Bali, it is, almost universally, surprisingly tasteful. Most “resorts” have achieved a harmonious balance of local architectural styles, modern amenities and lovely gardens. Having only spent a total of eleven days in Bali in two stints, I can hardly say my experience is comprehensive, yet judging from what I have seen, both on the ground and on the net, there is a surfeit of genuinely beautiful accommodation on the island.

Ubud hotel

Ubud resort

Self portrait by shrine in hotel grounds, Ubud - somewhat ironic as an atheist

Breakfast at Ubud

The “resorts” often mirror the arrangements of a local family compound, but on a grander scale. Behind the decorated stone and brick walls lies a cleverly landscaped mix of flourishing, immaculate gardens, pools and water features and traditional stone and brick-built bungalows and standalone two-story villas, often with high, thatched roofs.

Sidemen Road

The buildings are rarely dull and blocky as so many hotels can be, but rather they have an elegant simplicity or sport the intricate busy-ness so apparent in Balinese religious architecture. This baroque, Hindu-influenced style combines the humble commonsense of the village house with the strident decadence of a palace and blends marvellously with the colourful gardens. Even where the adornments have been stripped back to a more minimalist presentation, the effect is still a pleasing marriage of the humble and palatial.

Hotel, near Seminyak

I don’t generally like overly busy architectural or decorative styles – take the Corinthian bombast of the later Antonine Pax Romana or the garish flounce of the Rococo, or, for that matter, the overwhelming intricacy of Hindu temples – but in Bali the rendering is apposite. It has an organic, natural quality, especially in its unpainted masonry, which, whilst texturally in contrast with the limpid green of the vegetation, rises from it like a finely crafted termite mound. This organic quality is also ever-present in the woodwork and thatching.

Door, near Ubud

The floral and bestial carvings in the stone and wood – intertwined curlicues – run the eye gently round in the mesmerising manner of a celtic manuscript illustration, or indeed, an overgrowth of creepers. Inside, more often than not, the rooms lack ceilings and, rising above the high walls, the tall, pointed thatched roofs lend the rooms a sense of immense space, as well as keeping them cool in the tropical conditions.

Bedroom, Ubud 40 bucks a night

For someone who prides himself as a lefty with strong socialist tendencies (though I don’t pretend not to be a bloody hypocrite at times), such luxury usually comes with the added moral and ethical price of guilt. It is a price all people with a social conscience pay when they travel in the “developing” parts of Asia, or indeed, any country where the locals earn considerably less money and have fewer opportunities. Yet, sitting there on the balcony that evening, drinking beer and watching the sunset sky, V and I both expressed the same conclusion – that in Bali, this feeling did not take hold as it did elsewhere. What seemed different about Bali, in comparison to, say, Cambodia, Vietnam or India, was that the locals seemed far more content and most people appeared to live well. The power relationship, so often dictated by money, was still to my advantage, yet I didn’t detect the same degree of envy, jealousy or desperation in exploiting the fact that I had money to spend.

I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of people in Bali who are struggling to make ends meet, nor that there aren’t people out to make a buck from the tourists, for there certainly are, yet the living standards and way of life seem adequate to allow for contentment and harmony. I come to this question from a completely amateur sociological / anthropological perspective, yet my encounters and observations suggest that generally people are happy in Bali. This might be a consequence of their religion, rituals, close family relationships and their solid, largely village-based social framework, yet I suspect it is also on account of the beauty of the place and the constant climate. That both V and I had arrived at the same conclusion independently could purely be a misleading coincidence, but it gave me some confidence that there might be at least some truth in this.

Temple guardian

When I travelled in India for the first time in 2010, I also encountered many people who seemed content in getting on with their lives. Yet there was the unmistakeable feeling of being constantly pursued and receiving constant attention. It is understandable in a country where the gulf between rich and poor is so much greater than in Bali, and where the sheer size of the population dramatically increases the competition for resources, but the end result is that simply by being there, I felt I had in some way destroyed the equilibrium of the place. Poverty is very relative and people don’t want things if they don’t know about them. They are also less likely to feel jealous or in anyway inferior or inadequate if not exposed to the wealth of others. Yet, even when travelling on the cheap with a day-pack and a pair of thongs in India the amount of money I had to spend on luxuries and services far exceeded the capacity of most of the locals and I was constantly aware of this fact. Without trying to cut too many corners, nor deny myself too much, and yet, trying to stick to a pretty decent budget, I would end up spending around twenty dollars a day – a thousand rupees then, and now almost 1200. Consider, however, that those lucky enough to get the minimum wage receive roughly 160 rupees a day for skilled labour and a mere 100 for unskilled labour, and you get some idea of the vastness of the chasm between even a poor tourist like myself and the local people.

India – hard slog for peanuts

On this note, I once had a conversation with a man in India where I tried to explain that although I came from one of the richest countries in the world and was far wealthier than he was in real and relative terms, back in Australia my income placed me in the bottom fifteen percent of the population and I could afford neither a house nor a car. It took some time to get the message across, but we got there in the end. Even bearing this in mind, however, which, for simple practical reasons, meant I couldn’t afford everything India had to offer, it never stopped me feeling guilty about how much easier life was for me.

In Bali, however, despite a relatively similar disparity in spending power, I never felt the divide as greatly. Again, I must reiterate, this is not because there are not poor or desperate people in Bali, there certainly are, yet their lives don’t seem anything like so harassed and stressful as the lives of poor people in India.

One thing V and I had noticed was the apparent contentment of the rural population. Despite rural areas often being poorer in real terms, in Bali the rural population appeared mostly happy. The locals certainly worked hard in the fields and in many and various other manual tasks, yet the villages were clean and organised, with good housing, nice gardens, easy access to running water etc.

Sideman Rd area

On the first trip I took to Bali with my brother, we drove through countless villages as we cruised across the island, and we were constantly impressed with the quality of the houses and how attractive these small urban environments were. So much so that I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to live in such a house for some time and write a novel.

Sideman Rd area

Ubud

This was in contrast to the experiences I’ve had elsewhere. One thing I’ve noticed over the years, about the difference between rural and urban areas in poorer or developing countries, is that whilst in cities people will offer services simply because they can, in rural areas, they are more inclined to ask directly for money. I first noticed this in Turkey back in the nineties, where, outside of the cities, children would often approach me and asked for what sounded like “Boom boom”, whilst rubbing the forefinger against the thumb. The expression itself might be misconstrued! though there was no mistaking the gesture. Some children actually used the word “money”, saying nothing else. “Money?” “Money?” This was repeated in Cambodia and India on many occasions, but only very rarely in Bali. It could simply be a consequence of greater comparative wealth, in which case, I’m not entirely sure what my point is, but either way, the absence of this direct appeal for money help to ease any possible sensation of guilt.

Doing alright

This was the subject of our conversation, sitting there watching the sunset. It wasn’t the most impressive of sunsets, but the beauty and serenity of our surroundings hardly needed the help of an elaborate lightshow on the horizon. It is worth pointing out that V’s observations and opinion on this front were founded on greater travel experience than my own. Having been to South and Central America five times, often for lengthy periods, having travelled extensively in Asia, India, the Middle East and the poorer parts of Eastern Europe, I trust her opinion and judgement. She had also spent more time in Bali than I had, visiting the place, as I had, just a few of years before. The people of Bali, we both agreed, had a softness, warmth and generosity of spirit that stood out.

Ubud

Cycling boy, Ubud

Another difference we noticed in Bali was the high quality of customer service. Certainly at times things are a bit ad hoc – which is fine with me as I don’t like formality and fawning attention – yet nearly everyone in Bali that we had any dealings with – drivers, waiters and waitresses, hotel staff, shop assistants, ticket vendors, you name it – were polite and attentive and professional, or enthusiastically and charmingly amateurish. This seemed to be the case even when there was no direct incentive to be so – no commission, expectation of a tip, etc. One thing I was later to notice when we arrived in India was that the service varied wildly, and often veered into total rudeness and indifference, depending on the degree to which the person with whom we were interacting was to benefit from it. In the first six outlets of Café Coffee Day which we were to visit in India – so desperate were we for espresso coffee that we kept going back – the staff practically ignored us completely, even when standing at the counter, and then were surly, unfriendly and not especially professional. It must be said that we were to have a very different experience in Kolkata, where we found very lovely people who were totally on the ball, yet by this stage the damage was already done. I’m not sure what it was, but despite our cheery hellos and attempts to be friendly and engaging ourselves, the staff were almost universally indifferent and acted as though they had been massively put out by our coming into the café in the first place.

Bali Kopi, Ubud

Customer service is not the most important thing in the world by any means, and while it is unreasonable to expect a certain standard of professionalism, friendliness and politeness leave a lasting impression and have a universal appeal. The way one is treated by people makes a huge difference to how the experience is remembered; rudeness and negativity can sour the memory of a place. If there is one thing that seems to truly stand out about Bali, it’s how bloody nice everybody is when they don’t need to be. This friendliness goes a long way towards creating a much more equal relationship, rather than one that is all about extracting money, which is too often the case elsewhere and which creates a very uncomfortable situation. Some of the few other places in developing countries where I’ve had such a sense was Darjeeling in northern West Bengal and in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

Worshipper, Pura Besakih

Temple statue, Sideman Rd area

Offerings aplenty, Ubud

Was it culture? Was it religion? Was it the environment? Or were their lives simply full enough and rich enough not to need much more than what they could afford and had available to them already? In these places I didn’t feel the resentment and envy that tourists in poorer countries will almost inevitably attract.

I don’t doubt that people will have had very different experiences and I repeat that these are just casual observations that are in no way scientific. It also must be said that in and around Denpasar, as in many big cities, the pace of life is faster and business a little more cut-throat, so here one might find a very different vibe.

Night markets, Denpasar

Shop sign, Sanur

It is also necessary to point out that when we went to the temple complex at Pura Besakih the day after having had this conversation, we had a pretty unpleasant experience. The Lonely Planet had forewarned us that the hawkers here were most aggressive and that tourists were often subjected to scams wherein local men would tell them that they were not allowed into the site without a guide, despite having already bought a ticket.

Cranky hustler, Pura Besakih

It seemed as though this might be quite easily gotten around, but when we arrived at the place we were not only lied to by a number of people at the entrance, but they were very aggressive about it and even tried to block our path. When we decided to ignore them and push on through they still didn’t drop the ruse, but continued to shout rudely at us. This might have been amusing if their tone wasn’t so ugly and aggressive and instead it made me so angry that it spoiled the experience of the place, which was pretty unfortunate. Though, to be honest, so far as temple complexes go, it’s not that much to write home about.

6999 Watching the ladies, Pura Besakih

6926 Pura Besakih

7080 Pura Besakih

7059 Pura Besakih

This negative experience, however, was an isolated one. During both of my visits to Bali I have found the people to be very friendly indeed, as has V on both of her trips. It is a gross generalisation, but I was left with the impression that people live happy lives and they are mostly content just to get on with things. Whilst going there in the first place is a somewhat disruptive thing in itself, so far as local balance is concerned, the overall feeling we had was not one of guilty privilege and yawning disparity, but one of more equal interactions. All of which makes travelling there more relaxing and fulfilling.

We finished our beers as the light vanished from the sky and the mosquitoes began to close in. Below, under a thatched canopy, on a beautiful deck beside a patch of jungle, calmed by the trickle of a fountain, the smiling staff were waiting to serve us, the only guests. It all seemed so utterly decadent and quite ridiculous for the price, but at least we didn’t feel guilty in allowing ourselves this indulgence. And, as is so often the case in Bali, precisely because there was no pressure to do so, we were happy to leave a generous tip.

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My first trip to Bali was with my brother in 2009. Apart from family trips as children and my visits to him in Brisbane and vice versa here in Sydney, it was the first dedicated holiday we’d taken together and the first time we’d hung out overseas. I was piggybacking this trip on top of five days in the Northern Territory with my then girlfriend and met my brother at Darwin airport late one afternoon.

To say we enjoyed those next five days in Bali would be a massive understatement. It was not only a great pleasure to have such an excellent trip, but also something of a surprise. Both of us had been deeply suspicious of Bali on account of its being the destination of choice for hordes of pissed-up Australians – people we snobbishly call “Bogans” and try to avoid. Once we’d booked the tickets, however, and I began to do my research, including some lengthy sessions on Google Earth, I was very excited about seeing this island.

Bali occupies quite a unique place in the region for being predominantly Hindu. Buddhism and Hinduism both took root here, most especially during the 9th and 10th centuries, with increased traffic from Javanese and subcontinental traders. The culture that developed from this period onwards is a mix of traditional Balinese culture and a local interpretation of Javanese and Hindu influences.

Ceremony

Ceremonial box

The structure and rhythms of this lifestyle have proven very enduring. Bali is a very religious island, yet the religion, despite its occasional ostentation, is a friendly and private affair. The observance of often quite simple religious ceremonies and practices is so intrinsic that people simply go to it with hardly a mention. All of which makes Bali stand out distinctly from the Islamic Republic of Indonesia of which it is a part.

Thus, by the time we met in the airport in Darwin, the two of us were very excited. I was especially enthusiastic about getting some good shots as I’d just been trying out my new L series 70-200mm lens in NT and was loving it.

Green-Bottomed Ant

Florence Falls

Near Nourlangie

We arrived in Denpasar quite late, got a cab straight to our hotel and went out looking for a restaurant. My brother had actually booked us into Seminyak, right in the heart of the scene, but it was a Tuesday night and not especially busy. We found a nice place on the beach front, ate fresh fish, and that was that. The only incident of note was when my brother was approached by a very large and masculine transvestite who said “Mmmm, you big strong man,” in a trés seductive voice.

The following morning we hired a car and set off relatively early, keen to get out into the countryside and see more of the landscape. That first day was largely spent getting completely lost in the warren of lanes and villages that are woven into the rice-fields. We were attempting to reach a famous seaside temple, Pura Tanah Lot, then to find the town of Ubud itself. We found the temple after many picturesque wrong turns, but when we set off to reach Ubud, we really took getting lost to a whole new level. My brother, who was driving like an absolute champion, weaving in and out of the scooter-traffic, was struggling to retain his equilibrium as we repeatedly failed to orient. The lack of signage, the apparent sameness of so many villages, the absence of vantage points from which to make sense of the landscape, all meant it was almost stupidly difficult to be sure where we were. What made it all still a bloody great drive, however, was that everywhere we went was either fascinating or astonishingly beautiful.

I was struck most of all by the lushness of the place and the wonderful traditional architecture. On that first day alone we must have passed through thirty-odd little villages, most of which consisted of a main street lined with elaborately-carved stone-fronted houses and temples, bristling with flowers and trees. The amount of quality masonry and the quaint, cosy beauty of the houses – which was almost universal – fascinated me, partly because they reminded me of the streets of stone houses I’d seen in Roman Pompeii and Herculaneum. I wondered how long these villages had looked like this – and felt I was visiting a living, ancient form of urbanisation.

Balinese lane

Architectural detail 2

Over the next five days my brother and I made our way north, first to Ubud, where we spent a couple of nights, and then on into the mountains around Munduk with its amazing views across to the volcano, Gunung Raung, on the island of Java. Every day brought new surprises and pleasures. The food we ate was almost universally excellent; the people were outrageously nice; the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. We drove high up into the misty hills, through foggy, wet farms of hydrangeas; looked down on wide, splendid vistas, visited waterfalls and lake-side temples, rode elephants through the jungle, and finally reached the north coast around Singaraja.

Men at Ceremony

Into the mountains

West Bali at sunset

Macaques!

Temple truck

Temple drummer

Solid gold elephants

Lovina Beach boats

Munduk Waterfall

West Bali, Java Sunset

It was just a pity we did it all in a Suzuki Katana. This vehicle must have been named ironically on account of the great contrast with the refined workmanship of its Japanese sword namesake. It was a cramped and rattly piece of junk, with ill-fitting doors, ass-breaking seats and a dashboard that looked like it was a mock-up for kids to play at driving. The air-con was an epic fail and the leg-room negligible, so we sweated it out somewhat crampedly, the windows right down and the breeze blowing in more of the sticky air. Still, at a meagre cost of $92 for five days, it was indeed a bargain.

Katana at Singaraja

Without wishing to provide an exact chronology of our journey, two incidents stand out. After buying a proper Bali road map in Ubud, Matthew and I thought all our navigational troubles were behind us. Yet, as we tried to leave Ubud and make our way to an elephant sanctuary somewhere to the north, we struggled to find the road which we had decided was most appropriate on the map. The problem was that it simply wasn’t there, though at first we thought it was our mistake and that perhaps we needed to re-examine our expectations of what this road should look like. The nearest thing we found was a drive-way that ran past a boutique hotel and plunged sharply towards a gully. I became enthusiastic when we saw that it seemed to continue into the forest and urged my brother to drive down the steep hill. He did, and soon we found ourselves at a dead end on a little square terrace overlooking a steep drop into a river.

Ubud action

This might not have been such a problem if a) there had been enough room to turn the vehicle around and b) the Suzuki Katana had enough power to reverse up the hill. There wasn’t and it didn’t. Despite several attempts at backing up the very steep incline, the car just wouldn’t go. Not only was the engine pissweak, but there was no space for a run-up.

In a very short time, I was blanching with guilt and my brother was seething with frustration and rage. Feeling responsible, I looked desperately around for a solution. If we could create more turning space – perhaps by placing logs and stones along one edge of the little terrace, then we might just be able to swing the vehicle around and punch on up the hill. I set off into the forest and climbed down to the riverbank, yet there simply wasn’t the right sort of material to pull it off.

My brother tried reversing a few more times, but there was no room. He was convinced we had no choice but to get on the phone and organise a tow, which was likely going to be a lengthy and expensive process. It was at this point that I came up with the crazy idea of us pooling our strength and lifting the car to turn it. After all, we are both pretty big blokes and such a flimsy excuse for a tin biscuit box couldn’t possibly weigh that much. Matthew was keen to give it a go, and sure enough, when we braced and heaved a moment later, we got the back end off the ground and swung it around about a foot before having to drop it. A good start indeed.

It was as we heaved the thing up the second time that we heard the excited shouts from the road. Looking around, we saw three young Balinese guys running towards us waving excitedly. They had seen we were in trouble and come to offer help in that wonderful, eternally hospitable manner of seemingly all Balinese.

Friendly local chap

We laughed and shook hands and opened our arms and joked about the situation in gestures and broken English. Then the young men joined us in the heave and again we lifted and swung the vehicle. This time it turned around just enough to make the rest of the manoeuvre. Keen as ever to help, one of the men now jumped in the front and made this very tight turn, with barely an inch to spare. As soon as the car was facing the slope, he revved the engine and charged off with a screech and whiff of burning rubber. The Katana hit the hill at speed and shot on up the slope like an excited pup. After driving in the thing for a couple of days, we hadn’t exactly been confident. There was a great flood of relief as it zoomed back up the hill.

Afterwards we both felt a mix of thankfulness and embarrassment, so, unsure what to do, I pulled all the money out of my pocket and gave it to the guy who drove the car. I think he was quite surprised. As we drove off along the main road we’d hoped to avoid, we really had a very good laugh about it all.

The second incident I mention was of a less salutary nature, though with a similarly happy conclusion. Driving just north of Ubud, we passed a view of bright green rice terraces stacked across the other side of a valley. In the foreground were a few pockets of jungle with tall palm tree sentinels through which the wide curving decks of rice could be seen. The land sank deeply away from the road which lent our vantage point a taller scope. Both my brother and I had been eager to see and photograph such a picturesque scene and this stood out like a postcard.

Rice terraces

We cruised slowly until we found a wide gap and a place to pull over, then prepared to get out of the Katana. There were a few hawkers around along the roadside, and we figured it must be a popular viewing spot. One woman waved to us from the other side of the road, offering a large bunch of small, sugar bananas.

“Might get some bananas,” said Matthew, feeling peckish. Still sitting behind the wheel, he made a gesture and nodded to the woman, and she began to approach the car. As soon as she reached the window, the other hawkers, who seemed suddenly to have multiplied, made straight for the vehicle at pace. The speed with which they surrounded us was astonishing. I was still in the front passenger seat changing camera lenses when the wave struck.

In total, there must have been nine or ten people around us, roughly five on either side. The window was down and through this portal a flurry of hands was now thrust, offering a variety of artefacts. To say that these men were like seagulls fighting over chips seems undignified, and yet so it was – much pushing, shoving and shouting accompanied this keen offering of goods. A number of carved wooden objects were dropped in my lap as prices were yelled into my ear. Overwhelmed and amused, and yet slightly alarmed by this invasion of our space, I slapped the door lock and stuffed my camera into my bag at my feet.

On the other side, my brother now sat with a whole bunch of bananas in his lap and a porcupine of hands reaching in through his window. Both of us were too busy fending off the vendors to give each other much attention. Feeling the pressure and concerned that things might suddenly go very badly, I picked up one of the objects in my lap, one half of a set of carved wooden bookends, and said “Okay, okay, how much?”

The price was negligible – around five dollars – and I hoped that as soon as I’d given the guy the money I could justify closing the window and saying enough was enough. Yet, just as my brother’s interest in the bananas had sparked the initial frenzy, my apparent interest only intensified the efforts of the others and the pushing and shoving reached a new crescendo. I bent forward, feeling increasingly less comfortable with the whole business. I got the money for the bookends out of my wallet and pushed my bag as far under the seat as it would go. When I held up the notes they were promptly whisked from my hand. I smiled at the people who were all pressing in, smiling at me too, but with an odd sort of mania.

My brother, having finished his banana purchase and being similarly assaulted, turned to me and said, “Fuck it! Let’s roll.” He put his foot to the pedal and let the car jolt forward, just enough to get the message across. There was a collective gasp of alarm and a new flurry of activity as the hands collected the things they’d dumped in our laps. They were all very fast and accurate. My brother pressed the pedal again lightly, just enough for a quick lurch. Our assailants finally backed off.

“Let’s go!” I said, excited that we were all clear to make our getaway. Slowly at first, my brother got us going and the Katana, now our protector, rolled forward onto the road. A moment later we were sailing away from the scene.

It took about thirty seconds for the laughter to begin. At first it came on a great wave of relief, for both of us had felt slightly threatened by the insistent nature of the hawkers. But in a moment the sheer ridiculousness of it all became apparent as we looked to our laps and saw the big bunch of bananas and the wooden bookends. This set us off into fits of hysterics and we laughed until our eyes were flooded with tears. We laughed so hard we could barely breathe and my brother had to pull the car over again and stop a while.

I hadn’t laughed that hard in years and I haven’t laughed so hard since. It was intense, even painful – the gasping for air, the clench in the stomach – and every time I saw the bookends in my lap I just laughed harder and harder. We must have sat there for five minutes. The doors locked, the windows rolled up, emitting little gasps and piping hoots through the tears and spittle. Even once we’d finally gotten control of ourselves and started driving again, we continued to laugh. It just kept coming, bursts of laughter, eruptions of cackling, even further fits of hysterics. By the time we made it back to Ubud we were completely exhausted.

In a way these two incidents seemed to sum up the conflicting elements of Balinese life. Most people seemed relaxed and content with their lives, pleased with its rhythms and generally in good spirits. They were friendly, accommodating, polite and helpful. Yet that there were also people who were genuinely desperate was apparent, along with people who, perhaps inevitably, saw the wealth disparity between tourists and themselves and sought to tap it. It made me feel guilty that I might be a cause for envy or resentment, that perhaps in coming here at all we were destroying the balance. As it was, there was much to ponder on returning from this most excellent jaunt. And indeed, much to ponder when I returned to Bali three years later.

HatGirl, Seminyak

Temple

West Bali, Java Sunset 2

Man at Ceremony

Man at Ceremony

Self portrait, lost somewhere...

Ceremony

West Bali, Java Sunset

Tourist

Banana ladies

Ubud, ricefields

Balinese splendour!

Ubud outdoor shower

Misty Mountain Hop

Scarecrow, Ubud

Macaques! 2

Breakfast flower arrangement

Farmer 1

Traffic between Lovina & Singaraja

Chilling on the balcony, Ubud

Kuta action

Legian Beach

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The sombre mood began with the dog. V and I were on Sideman Road in Bali, eating and taking a break from an afternoon rain shower in a roadside shop. Ever adventurous on the food front and keen to try some of the truly local offerings, V had asked the lady for “a bit of everything” in the small cabinet. We finished up this hot and sour mix of rice, vegetables, nuts and chicken, licked our fingers clean and stepped back out onto the road.

There, to the left, were the dogs. And there, bearing down on them with unstoppable momentum, was one of the many trucks that plied this narrow but busy highway. Bright yellow, yet with an almost apologetically sad face, the truck came on and the dogs began their dance. One, a matted grey-haired bitsa, made the right call immediately and sprang from the truck’s path with a deft leap. The other dog, a youngish, clean-looking, tan-coloured beauty, panicked and skipped not away from the truck to the pavement, but away from one wheel towards the centre of the road. There was a collective gasp in that long second as the truck passed directly over the dog and the dog, terrified yet unscathed, made its second mistake. Having landed on a diagonal with its back towards the rear of the truck, the dog failed to notice the approaching rear wheels and stepped directly into their path.

Tough guy

The small body of the dog, crushed under the great bulk of the truck, sprang up from the wet bitumen, impossibly contorted, emitting a series of heartrending yelps. On went the truck, seemingly unawares. I turned away in a flinch, grabbing the shocked and tearful V by the arm and pulling her with me. To look at the dog was unbearable, that it lived at all seemed both incredible and cruel. It had staggered into a sort of bent crouch, as though its body were frozen in the midst of a drying shake.

I had to get V away from the sound of it, and I had to get away myself. The image of the double wheels rolling over the dog had already fixed itself firmly, like sunglare. The temptation to look again, as if some new information might counter my worst thoughts, was too great.

We hurried up the side street, not sure where we were going, only knowing that it was away from the awful yelping.

“Someone has to kill it, they have to kill it now,” I said, wondering who might do this or just how exactly. Both of us were crying now and so was the sky. The rain began again, harder than before, hard as it can in the tropics. Fifty metres down the street we paused, the cries still audible, the rumble of passing trucks a brutal reminder.

There was nowhere to go. We were at a dead-end and on the wrong side of the road from our hotel. I didn’t know what to do, only that getting back to the hotel now seemed the only goal. We hugged, huddling under my umbrella.

“We have to go back.”

“I know. I know.”

“Quickly.”

We hurried down the lane, the dog’s cries now quieter, less frequent. How was such a tight little body, however lithe and resilient, supposed to contend with such a blow? Was anyone doing anything at all? I did not know and nor could I look as we stepped back out onto Sideman Road. We ushered each other across and into a small lane opposite. Our own turn-off was too close to the dog to risk, so we blundered on through the pouring rain, thankful of the sound on the umbrella that masked everything else.

Soon we were lost in a warren of narrow lanes. The paving was slippery with mud and moss. We rounded a corner and found a village temple. The courtyard was full of ducks. We took refuge under the gate’s stone lintel and held each other. The ducks approached making curious quacks and now, we both really started to cry.

“I hope it’s dead, I just hope it’s dead.”

“Would someone kill it?” asked V.

“I don’t know. I hope so.”

“But what would they use?”

“God knows. A knife, a sickle. A club.”

I shuddered as these images were conjured up, but they could only briefly trump the vision of the dog bending under the wheel. In fact, I could not stop thinking about it. It wasn’t merely involuntary. I had to picture it to make sense of it. Had it really happened? Did the dog really have no chance? It still seemed that perhaps if I looked hard enough at the replay in my head I’d see the dog move differently; step the other way and emerge alive and well with its little heart pounding.

When the rain eased a little we stepped our way through muddy paths and bamboo groves along the edge of the rice-fields. Sideman is a largely agricultural area; farms, hills, forests, ducks, cattle, temples and the ubiquitous resorts amidst the abundance. All around was lush green life and a scattering of roosters and dogs. We stepped cautiously down the slippery road, trying to shake off the feeling of horror, trying to comfort each other. It was nigh impossible not to talk about it, yet without much to say beyond simple, shocked expressions.

“I still can’t believe it happened.”

I felt an urgent need to pat a dog. I wanted to find one of the many strays and give it some comfort; show warmth and kindness to dog-kind as a whole, reassure one of the poor wandering beasts that it needn’t face the same fate. Each dog we passed seemed more fragile and vulnerable than before. Against a truck, what chance did they have but for their wits and dexterity? Yet, cunning as they were, the dogs took so many risks; dancing across the traffic, sleeping on the bitumen’s edge. Here at least, on this rural side road away from the main thoroughfare, there were no cars.

Soon a woman came chugging along on a scooter. Behind her skipped an eager young whelp, happy for the game of chase and the exercise. Its joyous, panting face reassured me that other dogs were still okay. I realised it wasn’t the dogs I was worried about so much as myself. I wondered if I would ever be able to remove that image from my mind. The big wheels, the great weight, the little body.

We were saved by the volcano. Passing a field of chilli and tapioca, V paused a moment to take a drink of water and turned to look behind her. There, massive against the horizon, was Mount Agung, finally visible through the cloud and mist. Since arriving the day before, we hadn’t even realised it was there at all, so muggy was the atmosphere. The heavy rain had cleaned the sky and left just a few clumps of cloud floating near the mountain’s peak. At just over three thousand metres, it hardly rivalled the world’s tallest, yet still it was epic in presiding over the landscape. Both of us are very fond of mountains and we stood watching it for some time, only turning away when the horizon began to cloud over. The sight of it lifted our spirits.

Mount Agung

Later that afternoon, having swum in the pool and cooled several beers in the fridge, we sat on our balcony talking. Though I couldn’t quite stop my thoughts returning to the image of the dog and shuddering, both of us felt greatly relieved. The beer certainly helped to cushion the blow and it finally loosened our tongues. Yet it wasn’t the day’s events of which we spoke, but rather the bigger picture. Bali itself, the place, the people, and how exactly we felt about being there at all. The rawness of the dark event had opened our emotional vents, and there was much to discuss…

Scooterists

Local soccer, Sideman Rd area

Sideman Rd

Sideman Rd area

Tile factory, Sideman Rd area

Bali

Loom

Pineapple

V, Sideman Rd area

Sweeping

Tile factory, Sideman Rd area

Drying rice

Coconuts

Bali

Two women

V on the bridge

Man on roof, Sideman road area

Mount Agung

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This piece describes events which took place back in 1996, during a five and a half month trip across Europe. It began as a long poem, then, thinking it too prosaic and feeling it was far better suited to a short story, I expanded it a few years ago. After a number of more recent revisions and rewrites, here it is.

 

I first saw Mikhailis on the wide balcony of a hostel in Rethymnon. He sat in the corner on a plastic chair, beneath a mop of tufted, wiry hair. He did not look like a traveller and surveyed the space darkly, with the eyes of a bandit reproached.

Kirstin and I had arrived from two damp and cloudy days in Iraklion; a city that seemed to disappoint us the more we sought its merits. Until, that is, on our final evening, when we visited the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis. From there, high up by the fortifications, late sun broke through the storm clouds to jewel the clutching trees in amber light.

Rethymnon’s appeal was immediate. It was the colour of palm trees, petunias and sandstone; tawny, olive, red, purple and pink. The weightless blue sky made these colours sing. We entered the town on foot through the Venetian Great Gate. Though unimpressive in scale and divorced from its once bold walls, this structure aroused in me a strong sympathy for the parochial sentimentality with which it must have been named.

Our guidebook recommended a hostel that was promisingly cheap. It was a warm eighteen degrees and we took our time finding it. The hostel owner, (a Londoner, I guessed) who looked like Andrew Lloyd Webber, introduced himself as Nick.

“I’ve got plenty of room,” he said. “For you and anyone else you can find. Stay as long as you like.”

“And breakfast?” I asked.

“Not included, but cheap and cheerful. Fried eggs, omelettes, toast, cereal, bacon, whatever.”

He was effusive and gentle. He showed us to our room. There were no double rooms to be had, but, a mere eight days before Christmas, business was quiet and he gave us a dorm to ourselves. It was a basic place; the room as narrow as a corridor. We dumped our bags under the battered wooden bunks and Nick, having taken our passports and handed over the keys, made his way back downstairs.

“This’ll be fine,” said Kirstin.

We had been on the road for four months. Having worked our way over land and sea from Britain, we were used to welcoming necessities as luxuries. After the desolate, dusty, cold-water hostel in Iraklion, this at least felt more like a school holiday camp than a prison. Perhaps it was simply that the sun was shining, or the ramshackle charm of the panelled wooden walls, but Rethymnon had lifted us. Already I was fond of its ancient streets.

We showered, changed our clothes and toured the hostel. There was a spacious balcony at the back overlooking a sunny, paved courtyard. A weathered sandstone minaret stood tall across gardens bright with bougainvillea. It was here that I first spotted the mop-topped, bearded man in the corner. He was looking at us intently. I nodded to him and he nodded back. I looked away quickly and turned my eyes to the English newspaper on the table. It was over a week old and I knew all the headlines.

“I’m hungry,” said Kirstin. “Maybe they’re still serving food.”

“I’ll find out,” I replied.

I went inside. It was just after lunch and I wanted more eggs. Money went a lot further at this end of the Mediterranean. The cruel austerity of my travel budget was finally paying dividends. After four weeks of tinned sardines in Italy, I was beginning to put back some weight.

Nick gave me the thumbs up and I ordered two helpings of fried eggs.

When I came back outside, the bearded man in the corner was still studying us. Though his eyes were kept low, he was not making any effort to conceal his interest. I detected a hunger in his brooding curiosity, inviting us to lift him from the torpor of his sulk. It was then that I remembered the boldness I’d acquired through months of strangers and, offering a little wave, I said, “Kalimera!”

“Yiassou,” he said, gruffly, if not rudely. He did not smile.

I turned my eyes back to the newspaper. I could sense that he was still looking at us and guessed it was Kirstin who drew his attention. She had been sized up by many local men over the last few months; her disappointment at this being roughly commensurate with the keenness of their interest. Still, if occasionally the cause of unwanted attention, I guess it was her good fortune as well as mine that she was such a beauty.

Turning my eyes to the minaret, smiling into the wide sky, I felt the gravity of the bandit’s stare – so I had come to think of him – and, looking his way our eyes met again. This time his face spread with a cunning smile.

“You play chess?” he asked, with a strong accent.

“Yes,” I replied. “I love chess.”

“Good,” he said, standing up. “We will play chess.”

I stood up too and a moment later, Kirstin also stood up. It was as though some forgotten formality was hurriedly being addressed.

“I am Mikhailas,” said the bandit, walking over and offering me his hand. “I am from here. From Kriti.”

“I am Ben,” I said, “and I am from Australia.”

We shook hands.

“I am Kirstin, also from Australia.”

“Hello,” said Kirstin, skipping around to stand beside me.

“You are Australian?” said Mikhailas. “Then you like to drink.”

“Ummm, yes, yes we do,” I said, laughing. “Day and night, you can count on us.”

“We love to drink,” said Kirstin.

“Good,” said Mikhailas, looking squarely at me. “Later we play chess, and drink raki.”

“Sounds good to me.”

He offered me his hand again.

___________________________________________________

Kirstin and I spent the afternoon walking around the Venetian fortress, soaking up the sun. The sea was Irish moss, the sand a mustard yellow, polka-dotted with smooth white and grey stones. The fortress was an ancient seabed, chiselled into jutting chins over which the guns once poked. Inside was dry and grassy, yet the stems were vivid green. One tall palm presided.

As winter progressed in Europe we had moved gradually east and south and thus avoided the onset of the cold. After a quick swim and double helpings of pork yeeros, we returned to the hostel with two bottles of wine.

I found Mikhailas drinking in the common room. The chessboard was already set up and he was waiting for someone to play him. The only others present were two couples, one Dutch and one French, who were, for the moment, keeping to themselves. No one had given him satisfaction.

“Ah,” he said when he saw us come in. “You play chess now?”

“Definitely,” I said.

I had never been much good at chess until this trip. Kirstin’s foresight in bringing a portable set had provided us with hours of enjoyment and allowed me to hone my skills. Most hostels have a functioning chess set and, where possible, we played on larger boards. In Athens, at the Thisseos Inn, it so happened that the manager had once held a world ranking. When I’d asked him whether or not the hostel had a chess set, he’d replied “no, we don’t. But do you play blind?”

“Blind?”

“Yes, you know, without the board. You say the moves and remember where the pieces are.”

“You’re joking?”

“No, I’m not. It is common for professional chess players.”

“Jesus. Well, I’m no pro.”

In the end, we played four games; my heart beating furiously and my hand trembling over the tiny board. Of course I did not win, but my chess fitness served me well enough to avoid humiliation, even allowing me to salvage a draw from an exhausting stalemate. Such was the state of my chess when I sat down opposite Mikhailas.

Mikhailas had a satchel beside him from which he produced a bag of olives and feta cheese. He placed these on the table with a quiet gesture of offering.

“Have you had raki?” he asked. “Proper raki?”

I shook my head. “Not that I know of.”

“Then you must have raki.”

He produced an old plastic water bottle and nodded to my glass of wine. I picked it up and drank it down, then placed the glass on the table in readiness.

“First, wash.”

Mikhailas poured a small amount of raki into the glass and I swished it around until the wine had blended, then tipped it quickly back. It was sharp and acrid, though it flowed more like a breath than a draught. I placed the glass back on the table. It was quickly filled by Mikhailas who then filled his own. He raised the glass and I raised mine, and then he simply said “raki”, and down they went. It was liquid fire, like loza or grappa, but it was pure and brought with its fumes an instant high. On its reaching my stomach I felt such an surge of energy that I sat up straight in my chair.

Kirstin watched all this with a bemused smirk. Mikhailas had not offered her raki and I wondered if it was supposed to be a drink for men only. Yet, when, a moment later, she asked if she too could have one, Mikhailas raised no objection. She gulped it down without blinking and Mikhailas grinned.

“Ha, you like raki too?”

“Yes,” said Kirstin. “It’s good and strong.”

“Good. Yes. And now,” said Mikhailas, withdrawing his hungry eyes from her breasts and sicking them on the board, “we play chess.” He clapped his hands together in an assertion of readiness then picked up two pieces. I drew white and the game was on.

For the first few moves my glowering opponent proved little different from others I had played in my travels. He spoke little, kept his focus and maintained an air of reverence for the game. Yet, it was not long before he showed his true colours. When capturing his first piece, one of my pawns, he swept it from the board and onto the floor with the heavy base of his knight. I chuckled nervously and looked up to see his vicious smile. Yes, Mikhailas was a fighting man and right away I knew he liked to fire a gun.

“Your move,” was all he said, as I bent to pick the pawn up off the floor.

Clearly this was a contest between “men”. With the stakes tacitly raised to a test of masculinity, I felt a rush of strength from the presence of my well-endowed girlfriend and placed my hand on her knee. If she wasn’t considered proof enough, I would have no choice but to dash his king to the floor before the game was out.

The match continued for forty minutes. At one stage I captured Mikhailas’ queen, which he disputed on the grounds that a queen should be treated like a king in check and that a warning was required. I’d never heard of such a rule and though it frustrated me greatly, I accepted it for the sake of diplomacy, figuring that what goes around comes around.

Immediately after this, Mikhailas poured me another raki, perhaps feeling guilty about my disappointment and embarrassed by his indignation. From here the shots of raki came regularly and he was generous with his feta and olives. The alcohol was raw and exhilarating and, with the olives, it cut through the cloying paste of the cheese. I wondered if he was trying to addle or distract me, but my concentration was intense and I sweated not to let it waver.

In the end I had his measure and was secretly delighted to have beaten him. Mikhailas was too proud not to show his dissatisfaction, though he refrained from being churlish just as I refrained from gloating. After all, we were men, weren’t we? I sat back in my chair and looked around. We had become the centre of attention; the couples were watching from their tables and a blond, long-haired Englishman, whom I had spotted earlier sweeping the stairs, took advantage of the break to greet Mikhailas and join us at the table. He introduced himself as Simon and I soon found out he was both living in and working at the hostel.

Mikhailas suggested another game. I wanted to walk away from the tension of it all, but could not refuse him a return match.

“Raki?” he asked us quietly, and we were quick to answer yes.

The second game did not go well for me. I blew it from the start with an overambitious attack. I should have known better, having always been a defensive player in strategy games, but the raki and masculine intensity of Mikhailas drew me out. I felt stung by the loss, especially now that I had an audience, but I was also becoming increasingly drunk. Mikhailas was smiling now, a true bandit grin across his curly chops. With the atmosphere growing boisterous around us, I knew I would not retain my focus in a third game, but accepted the challenge nonetheless.

Despite doing my utmost to play a safe hand, I found it harder and harder to think ahead and calculate the consequences of moves. When I realised my game had gone to the dogs, the only recourse was to pretend indifference. I laughed as the tragedy entered its final act. Mikhailas, having trapped my king in a corner, slew me with his trademark flourish by clubbing the piece to the floor.

The end of the contest came as a great relief, for my head was reeling with booze. As my king fell the volume of the voices shot up. I sat back and stretched and the conversation expanded across the room.

Kirstin called for more beers, while I, sweaty and thinking of other refreshments, suggested we all go swimming the following day. Simon, who had shown himself to be both affable and amusing, with occasional asides throughout, agreed to come.

“I’ll be well up for a swim,” he said. “Weather permitting of course.”

“Swim?” said Mikhailas. “In winter? You are mad.”

“But it’s not even cold. And the water is warm.”

“For Crete it is cold. Too cold for Crete. And the water is not warm. It is cold.”

“Huh!” I said, with a light-heartedly cruel smile. “Real men don’t feel the cold, Mikhailas.”

___________________________________________________

The following day began slowly. We ate a big breakfast and talked to Simon on the balcony. The sun was blazing. An old, white-haired Australian veteran who looked uncannily like a Koala wandered into the hostel and spoke with us at length. I soon learned that he was a regular feature here, having retired to Rethymnon several years ago. He told us he had been captured on Crete during the war and taken into the heart of Germany as a POW. He was charming and entertaining until he began telling us about his plans to bottle and sell the water flowing from the thaws in the White Mountains.

“It’s a travesty,” he shouted. “They just let it run into the sea! All that water going to waste.”

Despite its initial novelty this conversation was destined to grow tedious, so I brought forward our own appointment with the ocean.

Simon led us to a beach a mile and a half out of town. It was rough sand adrift with stones, but the water was not as cold as I feared. I relished the horizontal pleasure of leisurely swimming and emerged feeling clean and salt-stung.

Upon returning to the hostel we found Mikhailas in the common room. He was having an afternoon beer, waiting for something to happen.

“Look,” he said, leading me over to a wall-map of the Aegean.

“What is it?”

“Look,” he said again.

“I’m going upstairs,” said Kirstin, and left me alone with our bandit friend.

“Here,” said Mikhailas. “Look.”

Urging me closer with rough gestures, he planted his forefinger firmly on the Bosphorus.

“Constantinopolis,” he said, his voice becoming more guttural. “Constantinopolis belong to Greek people. To Greeks.”

His features were weighty and serious, yet there was an energy in him that seemed almost playful; a cutthroat joviality.

He fingered Istanbul again and murmured with gruff affection. “Constantinopolis belong to Greek people. Not to Turks. All over Greece, we are ready. There are men waiting to take it back, all across the islands.”

“Well,” I said, not really sure where to take things, “I’ve always felt it was a bit of a pity that the Turks took it. I mean, if the Byzantines had hung around for another five hundred years there’d still be a Roman Emperor, I guess.”

“Constantinopolis does not belong to the Turks,” said Mikhailas. “How can it be Turkish, it was built by Greeks?”

I began to wonder if he was trying to sign me up to something. Of a sudden he had become so fierce, so Cretan, so tribal, that I pictured him now in traditional costume; the vraka – baggy bloomers; yileki – a shortened waistcoat; zounari – the binding sash; stivalia – high, traditional boots, and the basilis – a Cretan knife – tucked into his belt. He was just like a character from a Kazantzakis novel; from Freedom and Death.

“One day, Constantinopolis will be Greek again,” said Mikhailas.

I was still standing in front of the map when Kirstin came back into the room.

“We’re talking about Constantinople,” I said. “Planning a reconquest.”

Mikhailas stood staring at Kirstin.

“Constantinopolis should be Greek,” he said. “One day, it will be Greek again.”

“Well,” she said, “let’s hope so.”

Mikhailas stepped away from the map. Perhaps this plotting was men’s business and he did not feel comfortable invoking such subjects before her. As if to confirm this, he switched tack altogether.

“Why are you not married?” he said to Kirstin. “A girl like you? Here you would be married.”

“But I’m not from here, am I? I’m only visiting.”

“Still, you are ready now. Look at you, you should be married.”

I leaned against Europe, my shoulder on the Mediterranean. I knew Kirstin would be offended by these queries, but as a counter to the presumption of his masculine narrative, she must answer Mikhailas herself.

“I’m not ready to be married,” said Kirstin, “I’m only twenty-four. I don’t want to be married yet.”

“But what about children? It is not good for a woman to leave this too late.”

“Nor is it smart for a woman to burden herself with children too soon.”

Now Mikhailas looked at me. “Why don’t you marry her? Do you want her to get away?”

I exhaled a short laugh; more amused than derisive.

“I don’t see how marriage would change that. If she wants to leave, she’ll leave. Anyway,” I said, with deliberate finality, “we’re too young to be married.” Things were more complicated than that, but for the moment our travels had, through the need to co-operate, held our problems at bay.

“You play chess again tonight?” asked Mikhailas.

“Yes,” I said, “I’ll happily play chess tonight.”

“Then it is fixed,” he replied.

That evening, with more onlookers than the previous night, over beers, olives, feta and raki, in a reversal of form, I lost the first game and won the final two. The scores were now level and I determined not to play him again; content at least with having had the final word.

___________________________________________________

The following afternoon, having taken the bus to the beach at Georgioupoli to swim in the mouths of three rivers, we returned to the hostel for beers. On the way through we collected Simon, who bought a beer and joined us. As we walked onto the balcony a tanned, dark-haired man stood up and addressed us. “Simon!” he said, “who are your friends today?”

“‘Allo, Kostas,” said Simon. “Alright? These are two Australians who are staying here, Ben and Kirstin.”

“Hello,” we said in unison.

“Ah,” said Kostas. “Then these are the Australians I have heard about from Mikhailas.”

“Yeah,” said Kirstin, with a chuckle, “that’s us.”

“And you are having a drink now?” asked Kostas.

“Yes, yes, we are.”

“Yes, yes, good,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I will drink with you too.”

“Of course not,” I said. “Join us!”

Kostas bought a beer and sat with us. His hair was unkempt and his face unshaven, but he had about him the confident air of an operator. Less sullen and brooding, he seemed a more charismatic bandit than Mikhailas.

“I am from Cyprus, originally,” he said. “Though I have lived here now for many years. I came here to escape all the troubles in Cyprus. You could say I am a sort of refugee.”

He did not, for the moment, explain further. I wondered if he was in some way political. It was difficult to determine his age, which might have been anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-five.

“I have a flat here in town,” he said. “But I often stay with Mikhailas in the village.”

Ever since reading a Hemingway short story in which he derided the practice as condescending, I’d been wary of speaking too slowly to non-native English speakers. The fearsome weight of Hemingway’s opinion had gradually dissipated in the face of many travelling miscommunications and, with Mikhailas, I’d been speaking like an elocution teacher. This was not necessary with Kostas, for his English was considerably better than that of Mikhailas; it was refreshing to return to speaking at my natural pace.

I felt an instant liking for Kostas on account of his vibrant spirit. My first impression was of a hearty and generous person unable to restrain his passion and excitement. There was something enchanting and unpretentious in his obvious, trusting delight at having company, and, over months of sudden alliances, I had come to like the readiest people best of all. He poured out good cheer and, thus warmed, we poured it back in equal measure.

Two hours later we were still sitting and chatting on the wide balcony; sun streaming through. It was four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and Kostas was in the mood for some fun.

“Have you eaten?” he asked. “I am starving. Why don’t we all have a feast?”

“Where? How?” asked Kirstin.

“Why, at my place of course. I have plenty of food: Olives, cheese, wine, chicken. If you can get some potatoes and bread, then I can make a great meal for us all.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, if you’re sure it’s alright.”

“Of course it’s alright. I am the host!” He tipped his head back and laughed aloud, dispelling all questions of propriety.

“Okay,” said Simon, “count me in.”

“And me,” said Kirstin.

“So,” said Kostas, “we will go now and feast, for I am hungry and it will be some time cooking. You,” he said, pointing to Kirstin and I, “go buy bread and potatoes. And get some beer, or some wine, though already I have plenty. I have raki from the mountains, wine from the village, plenty of wine from the village.”

He stood up from his chair and clapped his hands together loudly. “I will try to find Mikhailas. We meet here in twenty minutes.”

___________________________________________________

Half an hour later, Kostas let us into his flat. He had been unable to find Mikhailas and we’d decided to go ahead without him. The flat was small and tiled, with a narrow kitchen. It was cluttered but negotiable, its walls and tiles reflecting a pale, grey-blue light. Outside was a wrap-around balcony and a hint of a view between the unit blocks.

“Sit down, sit down!” said Kostas, indicating the large, laminated dining table. “I’ll start the food.”

The beers were cold so we shared these around and put the rest on ice. Curious, we all stayed on our feet. Kostas carried the groceries through to the kitchen, calling to us: “Make yourselves at home. Relax! There will be enough food for everyone.”

He returned from the kitchen clutching jars and crockery. He set a deep bowl on the table and tipped in a great splash of Kalamata olives; the loaves he placed on a board. My mouth was watering at the sight of it all. Simple, peasant meals have always stirred my emotions and, since coming to Greece, they felt all the more poignant as a connection with the ancient world. There was a long knife to cut the bread and a decanter of olive oil; salt and pepper, fresh basil from a pot at his window, and Kostas, smiling benevolently.

“I am hungry, hungry,” he said, clapping his hands together. He liked to punctuate with bold gestures. “Now we must have our first raki!”

Simon, Kirstin and I all stood back while Kostas plunged about, stretching and reaching. He ducked down and picked up a tall plastic bottle; the bootleg appearance made the raki seem all the more exciting. Next he produced four sturdy tumblers and banged these on the table. “First we have a raki, then maybe another raki, and then, we think about another one while we are cooking.”

“This raki is come from the villages,” he said as he poured. “Everything I have comes from the village. Up there in the hills there is good soil and plenty of rain; good sunshine in spring and summer; the land is rich and the produce is good. You can feel it swelling inside you; you can taste the village. Here,” he said, distributing the half-full glasses. “A toast to the village.”

We raised our glasses and Simon said, “Alright then, to the village.”

“To the village!” replied Kostas, and all of us drank.

“What is raki made from?” asked Kirstin, once the glasses were back on the table.

“Aha,” smiled Kostas. “Raki is made from the fire of dragons, from the breath of the mountains, from the sting of the sea.” He laughed as he spoke, making it up as he went along.

“No, truly, it is made from the grapes left over from the pressing. Everything not going in the wine is pressed again, harder, like they want the blood from a stone. That is where raki comes from.”

We resumed our beers and Kostas went through to the kitchen. Kirstin and Simon wandered onto the balcony to lean on the railing. I followed Kostas and found him once again in a flurry of organisation. He was cleaning off surfaces, moving pots, pans and plates. He lay down a board and produced the potatoes for peeling.

“What are we eating?” I asked.

“You will see, you will see. It will be a great feast.”

He peeled the potatoes and put them aside, then lined up the tomatoes and three large onions. Once all these were chopped into rings, he opened his freezer and, with some wrestling, pulled out a great cairn of frozen chicken pieces. It was a ghastly sight – wings, thighs and legs, iced awkwardly together like a pile of corpses. He placed it on the bench and began to pull them apart. As the pieces came free he flung them into a huge oven pan, eventually giving up on the frozen core and placing it whole in the middle. Around the chicken he arranged the potatoes, onions and tomatoes, throwing in whole cloves of garlic and olives, then sprinkling the lot with herbs. Once this was done he took a great tin of olive oil and drowned the lot.

Kirstin and Simon had also come to stand in the doorway and watch proceedings. When Kostas was done and the food was in the oven, he ushered us out and made straight for the raki.

“The feast is on,” he said. “In an hour or two we can eat. Now, of course, it’s raki time!”

He picked up the bottle and poured another raki for us all.

“This time we should toast Kostas,” said Kirstin. “For his hospitality.”

“Yes, here’s to Kostas!”

“Here’s then to me,” said Kostas.

Once again we all drank.

“And now another,” said Kostas, “because I cannot really drink to myself.”

He poured another measure and before anyone else could claim the toast, I cried, “Here’s to Greece!”

“Here’s to Greece!” and we all drank again.

Two in a row went straight to our heads and the conversation turned boisterous. We sat at the table, speaking of home and of travels. I had a cassette with me of traditional Greek music from the islands – tales of villages and the sea; ancient laments and dirges – which I had been carrying about all trip. Handing this to Kostas, he put it on. From here the conversation was interspersed with bursts of singing from Kostas when he encountered a familiar dance or dirge. I added my deep and tuneless voice in a phonetic attempt to sing along.

Kostas found one song particularly enjoyable. In Greek the name is Τσιβαέρι and, despite my knowing nothing of the words or their meaning, the slow, mournful chorus of “sigonah, sigonah” had long held me in its thrall. It was a tearful, seaside melancholy. Arm in arm, Kostas and I sang along to this, me rather more fraudulently, and I liked him all the more for so gladly relishing sadness. More rakis ensued. Within an hour, as Kostas checked on the food and the scent flooded through from the opened oven, we were all quite drunk. I was stuffing myself with olives and bread doused in olive oil, to keep from swooning with the booze.

“Now,” said Kostas, clapping with his trademark showmanship, “we will try a village wine. You will find this tastes especially of Crete.”

He plucked a four-litre plastic bottle from the floor, half filled with an umber liquid. From this he poured four measures, straight into the raki tumblers. The wine was thick and syrupy with a sweet and nutty nose. I raised my glass and held it against my upper lip. I was certainly no connoisseur, being the cheapest of the cheap, but was curious to inhale this local vintage. It smelled wonderful – of almonds and chestnuts – and when I tasted it the flavour lay halfway between oak and walnut.

“This wine is delicious,” said Kirstin. “I want to buy a whole barrel.”

We were all in agreement. We drank two glasses while Kostas looked on, beaming with satisfaction.

“Yes, you like it, don’t you?” he said.

My initial impression of Mikhailas had been of one of Nikos Kazantzakis’ characters, and so it was with Kostas. He was as lively and visceral as the author’s robust prose, and equally capable of an uncanny, spiritual subtlety. He would smirk and pout his sweetly curled lips, narrow them in a cunning grin, then fling them wide in a toothy smile. He created a mood of joyous conspiracy.

“Now,” said Kostas, clapping once more, “the food will be ready. At last we can eat!”

Despite all the bread and olives I was ravenous. We all were; hungry with drunken desperation. I felt a vast, leering and lascivious appetite, and as Kostas carried the sizzling, steaming tray through, with its hot wafts of mouth-watering meat scent, we clapped and cheered then stood with our ovation. As it came to rest on the table and I saw the roasted chicken, the oil and fat-stewed potatoes and tomatoes, I felt a surge of love for life.

“And now we feast!” said Kostas.

What followed was a free-for-all of duelling, cautious fingers; plucking the burning chicken from the tray. With a plastic spatula, Kostas dished out the oily slices of potato, the shrivelled, browned, crisp tomato and the softened garlic cloves. Not wishing to miss the rich and boiling stock, we dipped our bread in the base of the pan to soak up this greasy mana.

There was more than enough food and, after the initial orgy of feasting we slowed our pace. Ahead lay the long, slow satisfaction of smoking, drinking and picking our teeth. Having finished the village wine, Kostas poured more measures of raki. Kirstin was tottering on the brink of a very great drunkenness and waved her glass away. Then she drank it anyway, and sank down in her chair looking woozy.

Over the next half hour we talked almost exclusively of food. Kostas, having detected the reticence of the others to drink more, began nudging me under the table. “Secret raki,” he whispered in my ear. He seemed to be implying a certain duty; that to protect the others from harm, us men had best drink up the booze. Kostas did not offer any more raki to Simon, and I felt guilty about this favouritism. All the same, feeling gung-ho and bullet proof, I drank all three of his “secret rakis” while Kirstin and Simon chatted away oblivious.

Then of a sudden Kirstin stood up. The moment I caught her eyes I knew she was in trouble. They were slacked with a haze of worry; sliding about in search of focus. Her face had grown white and pasty, while a thin sweat pricked her forehead. She held the back of her chair, unable to stand unassisted, and we all stood with her.

“I’m going to be sick,” was all she managed, before making her way to the bathroom. I waved back the others and ran in her tottering wake. She had caught herself just early enough and made the toilet in time. There, sure enough, she emptied the contents of her stomach.

“Is she alright?” asked Simon and Kostas, when I emerged five minutes later.

“Yes, yes, she will be fine,” I said. I based my judgement on the understanding that there are two basic ways in which one is sick. The first is the worst, the long night of constant retching; the second is the easiest by far; a quick and complete evacuation, then a restful aftermath of shock.

Kirstin was sick for ten minutes, after which she began to feel safe. She washed her face and cooled her forehead then emerged from the bathroom. “I need fresh air,” she said, so we made our way to the balcony. Kostas put down a thin, rubber mat and gave her a pillow and a glass of water. Kirstin was certainly no lightweight, and I knew she would pull through soon enough. The whole episode had left me worrying about exactly how much I had drunk.

And yet, Kostas persisted with his secret rakis. He was now fabulously drunk; waving his arms and singing and dancing. He stood on his chair and balanced on one leg, jumped to the floor and clapped his hands. He spread his arms wide as though, having performed some famous trick, he expected applause. I stood and danced with him in incoherent steps. Simon was a more phlegmatic character and sat back chuckling and smiling. Not an actor but a theatre-goer, he was content to let others do the work. He sipped his way through a last bottle of beer.

“Crete is my home now,” shouted Kostas, before bursting into strains of a chorus. Finished with singing, he continued, as though never having dropped his thread. “But I will never forget my true home. My true home is Cyprus – wrecked by the fucking Turks. Cyprus has been raped by everyone! They should have joined with Greece –  Enosis – the joining together of the Greeks. Then the Turks would not have dared with their sacrilege and filth. They would never have dared to take on Greece in a war.”

Once again, as with Mikhailas, I found myself not knowing how to behave in the face this passionate nationalism. Afraid of saying anything fickle or falsely sentimental, I said.

“Yes, I hope all Cyprus’s problems can be resolved one day.”

“The only way to resolve it now,” said Kostas, “is to get rid of all the Turks. They should not be there, they must not be there. They are a cancer on the island and they have ruined Cyrus. Ruined it!”

I should have said nothing. What Kostas had begun he now felt he had a right to continue, in order to explain himself properly.

“The Cypriot Greeks won’t take it much longer, but it is not them who should have to fix it. It is not because of the Greeks that Cyprus is like it is. It is the fucking English who are responsible. It is the English who ruined Cyprus. It is because of them that Cyprus did not join Greece in the first place. It was because they listened too much to the Turks. It is because of them that Cyprus is now on its knees.”

He had become very suddenly enraged; red-faced and brimming with fierceness. He was shaking his fists and marching up and down the room.

“Yes, Simon,” he said, turning on Simon who had remained completely silent in the face of these last remarks, “It is the English whose fault is Cyprus. It is the fault of the English alone.”

Simon, with his easy-going, quiet nature, spread his arms in disassociation.

“I know nothing about it, mate. I wouldn’t have a clue.”

“But you are still responsible! How could you not know about it? A disgrace like that?”

“I dunno, man. I don’t know anything much about politics. It’s nothing to do with me.”

“But you are English. It is to do with you.”

“Come on, Kostas,” I said. “It’s no point having a go at Simon. Maybe the English were responsible, but not…”

“The English are responsible!” he shouted. “There is no doubt!”

“Yes but Simon is not responsible. It’s got nothing to do with him.”

“All the English are responsible. You cannot deny responsibility. If you are English, then that is enough. What difference does it make?”

It was only now that I realised we had a real situation on our hands. When Kostas had so suddenly began his tirade, I figured he would drop it just as quickly.

“It’s no good yelling at me, mate,” said Simon. “Come on Kostas, you know me. I don’t have a thing against Cyprus. I didn’t even know you were from Cyprus until today. I thought you were from Crete.”

“What difference does it make where I am from? It’s you who are English!”

Kirstin, who had come back to life at the sound of the heated voices, walked back through from the balcony just as Kostas struck a new peak.

“Do you want to make me a terrorist?” he screamed. “Do you want me to get a machinegun and kill people? Bombs and grenades, is that what you want? Do you want to make me a terrorist?”

He hurled his tumbler to the floor with such force that, striking the ground on the side of its base, it leapt back into the air and bounced away across the linoleum. It was a comic emasculation of his anger and the situation ought to have dissolved into laughter, yet it only fuelled Kostas the more.

“It is the English who ruined Cyprus, the English! You!” he shouted, pointing at Simon. “You! How can you not know that?”

“I don’t know anything about Cyprus, mate,” said Simon.

I couldn’t work out where all this had come from. Did Kostas have something against Simon that he had been holding back? Was he so drunk that he did not know what he was saying, could not see how unreasonable he was being? Hardly knowing him at all made it difficult to judge. It must be frustration, I thought, an immense and dreadful frustration born of his years in exile. Strange how often it is those no longer at the front lines who bear the most malice. I was open to being sympathetic and would have tolerated him venting his anger were it not directed so cruelly at one of our party.

“Do you want me to fight?” he asked. “To become a terrorist? Is that it?”

“No, Kostas, no,” I said. “Why would we want that?”

Simon just shook his head again.

“Come on, Kostas,” said Kirstin, “leave Simon out of it. He is here as your guest.”

Then Kostas exploded once more, this time with a piercing scream.

“Do you want me to be a terrorist!” he shouted.

He mimicked firing a machine gun and throwing a grenade. It was vivid play-acting, done with all the craft and zest of a child who believes he has nailed the repeating bat of a gun, only Kostas looked positively murderous.

“Kostas,” said Kirstin, “we came here to have a good time and for you to have a good time as well. Even after just today we’ve come to think of you as a friend because you have been so hospitable. We would happily listen and learn about Cyprus, but none of us knows anything about it.”

“How can you not know? How can you turn a blind eye? Ah, but I am not angry with you, I am angry with everyone. With everyone and the English! They let Cyprus down when it should have been Greek. They laid the plans for the future and the future is war. If Cyprus was Greek as it should be, then I could live in my home.”

He poured himself another raki and despite it clearly not being a good idea, no one was about to stop him drinking it. I did not feel physically threatened by Kostas – his eyes were hot and lurching and his sharper gestures were softened into arcs as he swayed – yet I was also terribly drunk and fed up with his ranting. It was no way to spend an evening.

“Just give Simon a break, man,” I said. “Can’t you see that he’s not directly responsible just because he’s English. He doesn’t even know the first thing about it.”

“It doesn’t matter! It is the English – you,” he said pointing at Simon, “Your people who are responsible for all the troubles of Cyprus.”

He had gone on for far, far too long, yet the heated conversation was not to stop for another hour. Kirstin lacked the energy after having been ill and Simon seemed only to infuriate Kostas every time he tried to placate him, so in the end it was left to me to drag him from his mood. I tried every trick in the book – I humoured, flattered, begged and prayed, persuaded, cajoled and insisted and, just when I was moving into my second phase of despairing that nothing could salvage the evening, Kostas suddenly fell silent. He sat down in his chair and his shoulders slumped. Having bashed his head against the wall so hard and for so long, he was at last ready to sink in an interminable sulk.

In the quiet, Simon and Kirstin stood up. “I think I’d better go home,” said Kirstin. “I’m still not feeling great.” She looked much recovered; the slack and puffy pallor that hung like a mask on her beauty had passed. The colour was back in her cheeks, yet I could see she was exhausted. Simon too was exhausted and, I guessed, upset. I felt very sorry for him, particularly since he and Kostas appeared to have previously been friends.

“Kostas,” said Simon, “I’m off, mate. Thanks for the feed.”

I looked at Kostas with his head sunk onto his chest. He had pursed his lips and was nodding a path through his thoughts.

“Kostas,” I said, “say goodnight and then let’s go out for a beer.”

Recalling some of his previous energy, Kostas sprang to his feet and rubbed his chin with his hand. He snapped his hands to his side and wiped them on his jeans, then thrust one out and offered it to Simon. There was no shift of reconciliation in his face; no smile or softening of sympathy, but rather a drunken preoccupation as though all his thought and energy had gone into these simple and exaggerated movements.

“Good night,” he said, with all the zest of a man who was already dead, but yet to stop moving.

___________________________________________________

Twenty minutes and two more secret rakis later, Kostas and I left his flat. We walked arm in arm, singing “sigonah, sigonah” in a low and mournful moan, bound for a bar called The Lemon Tree; one of only a few in the old quarter of Rethymnon. I was seriously intoxicated but my mind felt clear and sharp after negotiating such a heavy dialogue. Friends had told me that I became more eloquent the more I drank, though I often had occasion to wonder if the contrast was caused by them growing increasingly less so.

Walking down the flowering white street, I recognised Mikhailas immediately. He was leaning against the wall of the taverna, one foot planted on the front step. It was a tough-guy stance, casually angled; puffs of smoke rolled from his short-bearded lips. Kostas opened his arms as he approached, in greeting and announcement, and Mikhailas, strong and silent, merely nodded.

“Mikhailas,” said Kostas. “At last I have found you.”

“You were looking?” said Mikhailas.

“Of course. We had a feast. You missed the food.”

“I have been drinking.” He looked at me. “No chess tonight.”

“No, I guess not.”

We went inside to buy beers. Kostas and Mikhailas walked to the end of the bar and stood. I pulled up a stool and planted my elbows on the counter. I had no intention of moving for a while. I felt that I was back in charge of my evening at last.

The barman was a middle-aged Englishman, thin and greying. He looked askance at my Cretan companions and served me with a raised eyebrow. “What did you have bring them here for?” he asked.

“They brought me.”

Beside me sat an Australian and an American. I had seen them arrive at the hostel that afternoon and turned to them now in the hope of some lighter relief. I introduced myself and we struck up a conversation. Within a couple of minutes of arriving it seemed I had lost Kostas and Mikhailas to themselves. I heard them speaking in Greek. I was happy to let Mikhailas take up Kostas’ reins, for I was tired of worrying about him; tired of the required concentration. Talking easily with the American and Australian, I realised just how much energy I’d put into bringing Kostas out of his rant.

It was half an hour before we spoke again, and then only because Mikhailas was leaving. He was tired and drunk, though he did not let it show. I looked at my watch – it was just after ten. I suddenly felt completely fed up with both of them and wished they would leave altogether so I could lose myself in thought. The Australian and the American were boring me – the sort of people who find common ground by talking about sport or asserting national stereotypes. The barman, who had a sharp, sarcastic tongue, scowled at me as I ordered my third beer. I was feeling fed up with everything; everything except sitting and drinking.

I knew that if Mikhailas went I’d be stuck with looking after Kostas again; an idea that I did not at all relish.

Mikhailas offered his hand around and said a simple “goodnight.” Then he left, and, sure enough, I was stuck with Kostas.

He had at least risen to a different, more buoyant drunk and for a while he became entertaining. In a loud and singsong manner he tried to engage the American and Australian beside me. They found him amusing at first, but soon showed their true colours and rejected him with unsubtle body language as an undesirable local. My heart went out once more to Kostas. It was just he and I – a pair of ranting drunks – and the world was ranged against us.

The Australian and the American now left. The barman looked at me and shook his head. “See, I told you, you’re driving away my customers.”

“Rubbish,” I said. “And anyway, they were boring.”

“I like boring customers,” he replied. “They keep their mouths shut and drink.”

“Another beer, Kostas?” I asked, keeping my eyes locked with the barman’s.

“Please, my friend, yes.”

“I better have another myself. To make up for the shortfall.”

I bought two beers. The barman smiled. He was a tough nut, but he seemed alright to me. We now we had an understanding, based on mutual displeasure.

“All we need is the women,” said Kostas, slurring.

“You may recall that I already have a woman.”

“Yes, yes, you have a beautiful woman,” said Kostas. “I, myself, have no woman.”

“Well, don’t feel too bad about it. Right now, I don’t want a damn thing.”

Kostas’ hung his head low, saddened to remember his loneliness, and I wondered if the real reason he was so angry was because he wasn’t getting any. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the reason he wasn’t getting any was likely because he was so angry.

“I am tired,” he said; a rich note of despair in his voice. A second later all the strength had gone from him and he slumped onto the bar. “I am very tired.”

Mikhailas would never have shown such a sign of weakness, which was perhaps why he left when he did. They both differed greatly in their wildness; Kostas spent himself like a wastrel, Mikhailas waited like a snake.

It was midnight when Kostas finally left. He had stayed with me the whole time, leaning closer and closer to the counter til he could drift no more. For a while we had spoken of simple things, but it was only when he finally left that I realised how little I knew of him; neither what he did nor what he hoped to do, how old he was or where he was headed with his life.

There was a lot to digest and I stayed behind at the bar, swapping insults with the barman. Once Kostas was gone his sarcasm rose to a new level. I was blessed that night with unerring stamina and stepped up to this new challenge. Here was a man with whom I could quip; a man after my own heart – a little too bitter, a little too lippy, jaded and probably a prick. It was just how I saw myself turning out. We went on like this for hours, and I was still there at three o’clock when he told me he was closing up.

“I guess I’d better go then,” I said.

“Yeah, and not a moment too soon. You sure cleared the place out.”

“I did nothing of the sort.”

“Whatever you reckon,” he said, squinting at me whilst polishing a glass. “Well, thanks for coming, Bruce, now clear off home.”

I’m not sure exactly what it was that set me off. Perhaps it was inevitable with the cumulative insult-swapping, the boiling mire of secret rakis, the sweet, nutty syrup of the wooded local wine, the shortened fuses and the countless beers since arriving here. Our edgy banter had indeed been a risky thing and, without even seeing it coming myself, I suddenly blew my top.

“Fuck you!” I shouted, banging my fist on the bar as I stood from my stool. “I’m sick of your shit – you’ve been at me all night, for nothing!”

“Go on, get out,” he said, pointing to the door.

I picked up a glass and hurled it to the floor. “Do you want to make me a terrorist?” I screamed. Unbelievably, just as had happened with Kostas, the glass bounced, and, just as had happened with Kostas, it only helped to fuel my anger.

“Screw you all,” I shouted. “I hope you all goddamned well die,” and, a moment later, I stumbled out onto the street.

I stormed off around the streets of Rethymnon, so enraged that I did not know where I was going. I stormed up and stormed down, around the Venetian harbour, under the Great Gate, cursing and frothing, shaking my fists. The old quarter was, however, mercifully small, and as soon as I turned my mind to it, I found my way to the hostel.

Once inside, I woke up Kirstin. I was in a rage and needed an audience. I swore through spittle that I was going to go and kill the barman, that I would find some way to revenge myself upon him. I don’t know what made her choose that moment to tell me, but just as I was beginning to slow down in my violence, she told me that when had returned to the hostel, the Dutch man had propositioned her out on the patio. She should never have mentioned it. My rage boiled up again, greater than before.

“I’ll fucking kill him as well, then!” I shouted.

“Shssh, shssh,” urged Kirstin.

“No, fuck it, I’ll kill everyone!”

Now I knew just exactly how drunk I was, but I was fired up and didn’t care a hoot. The world was juddering with my drunkenness; spots floated before my hot eyes.

“You can’t do that,” said Kirstin, “just come to bed now.”

I stormed up and down the room; stormed to the bathroom and plunged my face under the cold tap. I looked up and tried to focus on myself in the mirror.

What was in me? A great, seething, bellowing, boiling madness. Me, a liar and a cheat; me who had betrayed Kirstin before and was destined to do so again, fuming and kicking against the pricks. I knew there and then that really it was me I was kicking against; the me I saw in everyone that I did not like; the me I saw in all life’s frustrations; the me I kept trying so hard to forgive.

___________________________________________________

The following evening we returned to Kostas’ flat. He had invited us to join him and Mikhailas to smoke some hashish, and, unwilling to appear discourteous, on we went; weary and wary, hungover and low on juice. It was a maudlin night that ended early. Kostas and Mikhailas were in ebullient moods. They sat on the floor in bandannas, pretending to shoot things with imaginary guns.

“When the Greeks throw the Turks out of Cyprus, there will be bloodshed!” yelled Kostas, smiling and firing.

“When all the Greeks rise up and take back what’s theirs, then we can live without humiliation.”

Neither Kirstin nor I were in the mood for this bullshit. It was a tired and dull act, the high point of which had been the ping of a rebounding tumbler. I only wanted to get stoned, but the hashish had next to no effect on me. As soon as it was clear that this hope would not be realised, I grew doubly bored with our hosts.

There was something distinctly perverse in Kostas’ mood that evening. Perhaps he felt that in re-iterating his national passion he would show how committed he was and thus cast his prior performance in a more sincere light. Either way, neither Kirstin nor I were buying it. Kostas and Mikhailas were kidding themselves about Cyprus and Constantinopolis. Frustrated with a historical reality that had long gone beyond any chance of such a violent and comprehensive resolution, they clung to naïve and childish dreams. It was only lunatics who wanted a war with Turkey, for, apart from the awful consequences of such a conflict, surely Greece would lose.

I looked at Kirstin and her eyes said it all: once was enough, please can we go.

“I’m afraid I’ve had it,” I said. “I’m going to have to go back and get some sleep.”

“But you will still be here tomorrow?” they asked.

“Yes, we should still be in town tomorrow.”

“Good,” said Mikhailas. “We can finish the chess. To see who is the winner.”

“Yes,” I said. “Perhaps tomorrow night we can play chess again.”

“Then we will say goodnight for now.”

“Okay then. Kostas, Mikhailas. Good night.”

When we checked out and left town the following morning at six thirty, it was with a mixture of guilt and relief. We had told Simon we would take an early bus and he got up to see us off.

“Do you know what the funny thing is?” he said, as we stood out the front shaking hands. “I mean with Kostas blowing off like that the other night. The funny thing is that my dad was in the R.A.F. and he was based in Cyprus after the war. But he never told me nothing about Cyprus, and I swear I never told Kostas he was there either.”

“Fancy that,” said Kirstin. “Goodness me.”

“God, that really is a gem,” I said.

“So you are responsible after all,” said Kirstin, giggling.

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Simon with a smile. “Me and me dad fucked over Cyprus.”

___________________________________________________

In Istanbul several weeks later, in the new year of 1997, speaking with a young English pastor’s son whose precocious wisdom impressed me greatly, I described to him Kostas’ treatment of Simon.

The young man said:

“It’s typical of people who believe strongly in nationalism. They can’t divorce themselves from a national identity, or the state itself, and they are unforgiving in judging people as guilty by association. It is precisely why nationalism of any kind is so dangerous and such a liability for people who have no interest in reducing their identity to a set of conventions and symbols. Like a flag, for instance.”

He was absolutely right. That afternoon, I tore the Australian flag from where it was stitched on my backpack. I have been unable to bear the sight of it, or any other nation’s flag, ever since.

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Back to the front

This piece was written just prior to my arrival in India on December 24, 2012, but remained incomplete. After a quick edit and polish, I present it here in its original tense, despite just having returned from India.

I got the shakes just before leaving Singapore. It was two and a half years since my last visit to India and I had forgotten how hardcore it can be. On the whole, India is a pretty safe place to travel – it’s not exactly a warzone and whilst violence and crime certainly occur, most foreigners get away with being ripped off a few times and suffering some health issues. Yet, travelling in India takes a lot of effort and can be at times quite harrowing. It is not, despite its reputation as a centre for meditation and religious retreat, a very relaxing country.

Jodphur B&W

I’ve written several stories about my first trip to India and some of the various experiences I had there. Some fictionalised, others as memoir, and it is not an easy place to which to do justice. It can be breathtaking and amazing, restful and beautiful, yet it can also be utterly exhausting and very frustrating. It also has its attendant, inherent difficulties – such as the heat and dust, the discomfort, the chaos, the noise, the touts, the lying and cheating that goes hand in hand with incredible hospitality, and the inconvenience of not being able to drink the tap water in a country that is often unrelentingly hot and humid.

Taj from Agra Fort

In my first few days in India in March 2010 I struggled to make sense of the place and learn to negotiate it. Rather like being thrown in at the deep end, I learned to swim soon enough, yet not before having a number of difficult and challenging experiences and getting sick. The illness in itself wasn’t so bad – stomach cramps and diarrhoea – but after a few days it made me feel very weak. For two days in Pushkar I did almost nothing but lie in my hotel room and read, with occasional ventures outside.

Bikaner

After four days, travelling further into Rajasthan, I arrived in Udaipur dehydrated and exhausted. The weakness of not eating much for three days made me paranoid and, sitting alone in my hotel room watching the cricket that night I got the crazy idea that I might genuinely die. I force-fed myself a vegetable biriani and fruit salad and the following morning went straight to the chemist to get some antibiotics. Within twelve hours of taking them, the illness vanished and I cursed myself for not having done so sooner. Take my advice – most gastric illness in India is bacterial and over-the-counter antibiotics are readily available at any medical shop.

Udaipur

As soon as I got better, that first trip in India really got underway. With my strength returned, I was able to put in the hard yards and see and do the things I wanted to. The more I saw of India, the more I loved it – but this love came with serious reservations about why I felt the way I did. It was all very well to see charm and romance and the exotic, yet alongside that was terrible poverty, failing infrastructure, appalling hygiene in public places, rubbish dumped and burned everywhere on the streets, including plastics and excrement, and such a harrowing welter of noise pollution, overcrowding and almost non-stop inquisitions from people I passed that it was equally depressing and demoralising. It was, of course, a photographers’ paradise, but my joy at the subject matter was tainted by a feeling of intrusion and exploitation and terms like “poverty porn” lingered in my mind. I tried very hard on that trip to remain friendly and positive. For the first few weeks I answered every query, shook hands with a hundred strangers and stopped for the ubiquitous “just one photo, sir”, but after a time India’s constant assault forced me to retreat inside myself. I turned to my headphones and sunglasses and started ignoring people.

Onkar!

A better solution, however, came when I arrived in Darjeeling. Perhaps it was the prevalence of Buddhism, the cool calm of the mountains or just the friendly, peaceful nature of the Ghorka people, but in Darjeeling people left me alone. When people did greet me or make an inquiry, it was not merely preliminary to an attempted transaction.

Darjeeling

In the rest of India there seems to be an automatic reflex whereupon, seeing a tourist, if staring is insufficient, then belting out the question “which country?” is the next step. This was sometimes done in the nicest possible way, but often it was thrown at me with such urgency that it felt impolite. What really surprised me was how often the inquirers accepted the answer without further ado, at times seeming almost uninterested, which left me wondering why they had needed to ask in the first place. It was like being a display, which, to be fair, was probably not much different from how people felt when I was photographing them – though I do try to shoot as surreptitiously as possible.

The solution, it seemed, to avoiding the hustle of India, was to be in the mountains, which wasn’t exactly India after all. Once I’d discovered the relative calm of the mountains, I did my best to stay there.

Amritsar

From Darjeeling I flew across to Amritsar where I lasted one day before taking a bus across Punjab into the mountains around Dharamsala.

Vashisht

I was so reluctant to return to the heat, dust and general hubbub hat I stayed another three weeks in Himachal Pradesh before finally venturing down again via Shimla.

McLeod Ganj

By the end of that journey, just shy of two months, I felt like an old veteran after a long campaign. Yet my energy was also pretty well spent and I had fallen into a state of relative dissipation. Tired and world-weary, I wandered around Varanasi in a daze, wiped out by heat and hash. I made sure I took the photographs I wanted to get, yet the subject that had so fascinated me for the first two months – namely India – had become a little less appealing.

Varanasi

I could no longer stomach the scent of excrement, urine and decomposition. I had no more patience for beggars, priests, touts or even genuinely curious Indians. I literally just wanted to shoot the place and avoid any interactions. When anyone spoke to me I shook my head, pointed to the headphones, raised my hands as though to say, “Sorry, dude, I can’t hear you,” and walked away. It was not how I wanted to be at all, and I hid out in my hotel room at times, simply indulging in privacy and regretting the feelings of displeasure I had with the world at large. I guess introverts should travel in Scandinavia instead.

Varanasi

It was for these reasons that, just prior to my flight into Thiruvananthapuram for a second visit to India, I started to have reservations about where I was going. I should be looking forward to the challenge, but perhaps I am too effete and western for the grit and grime of it all.  Still, despite the above introduction, my last trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I came away from it feeling very inspired. This time is also bound to be different for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’ll be starting in the south instead of the north and travelling in regions I’ve not visited before. Secondly, I’m not travelling alone this time around. V is coming with me, or I with her if you will, and the dynamic will be very different indeed. It will certainly be a lot easier with someone to share the highs and lows, and I hope it will be more enjoyable as a consequence. Hopefully I will come away both appreciating what I have discovered anew and having been reminded of what is important and good in life. I also hope to shoot a hell of a lot of good photographs. Wish me luck.

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