Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

This short story was begun as long ago as 1998 and has since been through many revisions, rejections and further revisions, including changing its name three times. Apart from a quick run through before publishing it here, this draft dates from around July 2011. I’m unlikely to work on it again and don’t believe in it strongly enough to continue submitting it, plus, it rather fits the bill of tragicomedy, so here it is! 

 

Lady of Shallot - Waterhouse

 

For the Love of Seneca

“I have a bath again now,” said Oliver, sitting in his mother’s kitchen on a grey Sunday afternoon.

“Well, you know what I’ve always said?”

“Yes, I know. And if you say it again, I’ll come round next time you’re in the bath and throw the bloody hairdryer in.”

“Charming.”

Oliver’s mother, Janet was making pastry for a peach pie.

“It’s true,” she said. “Hot baths are very good for you.”

“I know, I know.”

“So how is Rachel?”

“She’s fine I guess.”

“Don’t you know? The last time I saw her she complained she never sees you.”

Oliver sipped from his cup of tea.

“I’m busy, mum. Anyway, she’s just being melodramatic. She’s got a thesis to write and if she made better use of the time I give her then she wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”

“You give her!”

Oliver smirked.

“Well, whatever. I just don’t see why she can’t amuse herself.”

“Don’t you want to see her?”

“She’s hard to entertain. I’m tired of going out. The only thing I like is the cinema.”

“Haven’t you got anything in common any more?”

Oliver shrugged. He was tired and wanted to get home to indulge his lethargy.

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“You seem to know about everything else. I hope you’re not misleading her. After four years, I’d like to think she could expect some honesty.”

Oliver shrugged again. Janet’s eyes widened.

“You little rat.”

_________________________________________________

When Oliver arrived home that evening there was a message from Rachel on his answering machine. The daily phone-call; it was as ubiquitous as it was dreary. Did she really need to hear his voice?

He sighed and phoned her nonetheless. She was in a good mood and he hoped it wasn’t his fault. It seemed so simplistic, this happiness she got from him. She wanted him to do Latin American dancing with her.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said.

“But you said you’d take dancing lessons with me.”

“I said I was willing to do ballroom dancing, not Latin American dancing. Anyway, I don’t have the right sort of shoes.”

“What sort of shoes?”

“Plus I haven’t got the right clothes. Whatever the case, I can’t go tonight. I’ve got half a book to read.”

“But you promised you’d go with me. Who cares about the shoes or clothes? Just wear anything. And this is ballroom dancing. I don’t see what the difference is.”

“There’s a big difference. Anyway, I couldn’t stand all that fickle, jaunty music. You know I only promised after you hassled me about it, and to tell the truth I’m annoyed with myself for showing such a complete lack of spine.”

“Don’t be so full of shit, Oliver. It’s not fair. You said you would go. Emily’s going and Johannes is going and I said I’d go and now I don’t have a partner.”

“You’re an attractive girl. I don’t think you’ll be a wallflower for long.”

“God, you can be a real prick. If you’re not coming just say so without being nasty.”

“I’ve already said I’m not coming. How many times do you want me to say it? I can’t tonight, I’ve got stuff lined up.”

“Well you obviously don’t need a girlfriend then do you?”

“If it’s a choice between sanity and Latin dancing, then you’re probably right.”

_________________________________________________

Oliver worked weekends and his Monday mornings were the height of liberty. It was then that he could shine and feel the world to be wide and glorious. This Monday morning was no exception. With so much possible he could afford a brief rest and chose to lie in bed with his face in the sunlight. He imagined basking in a rowboat, drifting from a bank of arching reeds. Further up the idling river he conjured another such boat carrying another such sunlit dreamer. There she lay, drifting towards him, a living Ophelia or Lady of Shallot, soft and quenching as a Waterhouse. If only their hulls might collide.

When he opened his eyes he was back in his room with its brown carpet and walls stained by the rotting wood of the window pane. Still there was every reason for hope, for today was all his and he might just run into her.

It had, after all, happened before; this longed-for extra-curricular encounter with Lucinda. Exactly a week ago, after a class, he had found her in the library, full of speculation. In her merry, assured voice, with its strong hint of English aristocracy, she explained how Walter Scott was to blame for the American Civil War; that Emma Bovary deserved respect for striving for titillation amidst a sea of mediocrities; how Levin in Anna Karenina was merely a self-portrait of Leo Tolstoy, and finally about St Anselm’s spurious proof of the existence of God. If Oliver had been in deep before, last Monday was the final straw.

Dared by her intellectual openness, he had mentioned his love of Seneca, unveiling his innermost vice. What raptures had filled him with her wide-eyed response.

“Oh I love Seneca,” she had said in his wake. “He’s such a tragic figure and so marvellously brave. There was such nobility in the way he took his own life. I do so admire the Stoics.”

Was it to be believed, that he should meet a woman, indeed a girl, so fond of someone as crustily wonderful as Seneca? He had to face the facts; he was hopelessly in love with Lucinda and he came away waving his arms close to his chest. These restrained gesticulations accompanied a revisitation of her words, for he smarted long after with her brilliance and reworked his way through her expositions. How she outshone everyone and everything that had existed anywhere – ever!

So it was that a week later, after a morning of writing and study, Oliver set off with a will to be lucky. On campus anything could happen; he would patrol the library and the cafés and hope that he might intercept her. If he could not find her on campus, then perhaps he might see her on the streets of Glebe. After all, she only lived a few blocks away and so long as he was out of doors and in their locale, there was a chance he and she might meet.

Once in the library, having collected a pile of books, he photocopied with vigour. He thought he looked very strong in a tee-shirt and positioned himself to be seen in profile by any who should enter the copy room. She did not come. Later, he wandered through all the levels of the library tower, walking up and down the aisles and formulating excuses for being where he did not need to be. Much to his disappointment, however, these jovial musings were never required to be uttered.

After two coffees at the one café she had told him she frequented, he resigned himself to defeat and set off to dawdle home. Along Glebe Point Road his eyes were hawkish and he ventured into all the book shops, yet failed to catch a glimpse of her.

As his door closed behind him and all possibility died, his mood sank quickly and he walked to his bed for a mope.

_________________________________________________

“You’re not seeing someone else are you?”

“No, mum, I’m not seeing someone else. What makes you think that?”

“Everything.”

“Well, I suppose, technically speaking, I have seen someone else.”

“Bloody men.” She looked at him fiercely. “I hope you were discrete this time.”

“I haven’t done anything! I’ve just had my eye on someone. A girl from my history class. Nothing’s happened and it probably never will.”

“Why won’t anything happen?”

“I don’t know. It’s like she’s out of my league. I’ve never met anyone so interesting or intelligent, and we’ve got so much in common, down to the most trivial things. Though, with her, nothing seems trivial.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Probably nothing. I’m too much of a coward to corner her.”

“Well if you really think she’s so special, why not ask her out? And while you’re at it, why keep Rachel hanging on? You’re hedging your bets. If Rachel finds out you’ve got a crush on another girl it’ll be awful for her.”

Oliver shook his head. Why did Sunday dinner so often turn into an interrogation? It was his business after all.

“I’m too jealous to break up with Rachel. She’s so attractive, she’ll find some other bloke in no time. That would be a real blow.”

“God, Oliver, you’re as self-centred as your father. And what about this other girl?”

“Lucinda.”

“If you really have everything in common, then she must know it as well.”

“Maybe she sees things differently.”

“Well, why don’t you find out? If it’s over with Rachel then end it and ask this girl out.”

“It’s not that simple, mum. If she’s not interested, then it’ll be bloody embarrassing being in the same classroom. It wouldn’t be fair to her.”

“Maybe you need to think about being fair to Rachel first. Why not take a long hot bath, and think about what’s right, hmmm?”

_________________________________________________

Oliver worked hard over the next few weeks during which time he found little solace. Though he visited the library daily and patrolled the locale in spare moments, his hopes of running into Lucinda proved fruitless. When he did see her in class on Wednesdays he lacked the nerve to attempt to command her attention. This was usually directed to another chap called Cain with whom she already had a strong rapport. Oliver did not feel comfortable trying to insinuate himself into their chats and could barely find the courage even to hover by the notice board after class in the hope of being addressed. He would, more often than not, slink off with a honking, nasal farewell. The bravado that had netted him indiscretions in the past was merely the drunken scion of intense shyness.

One day, as he was playing tennis, Oliver saw Lucinda walking up the hill towards the library, bustling with her usual energy. He was turning to collect a ball by the wire fence and was so shocked to see her that he almost did something daring and cried out. Having intercepted his first would-be shout, he began to consider his appearance, which, sweaty and unsophisticated, lacked the stage management that went into his classroom attendances. Before long she had turned the corner and vanished from reasonable earshot. Her admirer remained staring a while, gripping his racquet impotently tight, ready to serve a fiery fault.

Oliver felt this missed opportunity to be a terrible blow and it sank his spirits further. His growing determination to pursue Lucinda added a marked surliness in his dealings with Rachel and he saw her even less than before. It would be just his luck that Lucinda should see him on the street with his girlfriend and that would be the end of that. The difficulties were great enough as it was, but to be revealed as a dud option was out of the question.

All the same, his surliness did not emerge free of guilt. Often he found his own obstinacy to be unpleasant and was afraid that he had hardened his heart too much. It was the sound of his own voice that most disturbed him. He found it difficult to like himself when he spoke to Rachel, but something inexorable prevented him from behaving charitably. He feared that he was really punishing himself and his regret stemmed not so much from an unrealised desire to please Rachel, but rather from the suspicion that a more active social life and less time in “the monastery” might be invigorating.

He had long ago identified the real problem in his attitude to Rachel. It lay in his resentment of her happiness, and that principally because he was the source of it. It struck him as pathetic how happy his mere presence could make her and insulting to him that she expected him to derive the same pleasure from her. No one should be entirely responsible for someone’s happiness, he mused. It was an unreasonable burden, an impossible burden and he wanted none of it.

What he resented most of all was that he had spent so long searching for “the formula” and he feared that Rachel had found it. Well, if she believed him to be the answer, then he would have no choice but to prove how flawed this idea of hers was.

“Why is she not plagued by philosophical questions day and night?” he asked himself. “Why does she not sweat as I do over the insoluble? How can anyone rightly be comfortable in this world?”

Despite being aware of the pretentiousness of his angst, he indulged in it, all the while telling himself that he longed to be more like Seneca; dour and joyous in his sobriety, heroically useful in his reasoned application. As yet, the only thing he had managed to put aside was his lust and physical passion, but he could not achieve a level temperament. He was all angles and jarrings, the mere elbows and knees of a personality. At best he was awkward and stiff, while at worst he was cranky and mean spirited. He felt at times that his selfishness knew no bounds. Worst of all, however, at the absolute pinnacle of hypocrisy, was Oliver’s fear that he too had found the formula, only for him, the answer was the unattainable Lucinda.

Rachel continued to phone him every day to see how he was, understanding his outward moroseness to be the result of plunging himself into so much work. She was upset and worried at the absence of his old optimism. He was more ambition now than hope, and the one was a good deal more curt than the other. He was thirsty and faithless and sought too many memories to whisper subversively about the stale present. When the sun set, he fell into his soul and he saw the heavens and the claws. The morning would return to give him the confidence to forfeit his life to work and an uncertain chance. It was a hollow security, staid and forced; with little chance for air.

_________________________________________________

“I’ve half a mind to tell her what you think myself,” said Oliver’s mother one evening. “I just don’t understand why you refuse to do the decent thing. I thought all these philosophers you’re so fond of wrote about ethics and morality and personal decency. Hasn’t any of that rubbed off?”

“I’ve adopted the work ethic…”

“Well, that’s a start.”

“I can’t help myself, mum. I’m completely hooked. I don’t know what to do, but I feel I have to do something.”

“You can’t just keep Rachel hanging on. She’s going to find out the hard way and you’ll be in a right pickle when she decides to leave you for neglecting her.”

“Oh, she won’t leave me. I know that for certain. She loves me far too much.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself.”

“She’s told me so herself. She couldn’t leave if she tried. It would break her heart. Irreparably.”

_________________________________________________

One Wednesday afternoon Oliver arrived at class to find no one present. He sat in a chair in the vestibule where he often sat when he was early. It must be a coincidence, he thought, that everyone is late this week. A further five minutes went by, the clock passed two and still no one arrived at the classroom. Then he remembered and leapt from the chair.

“Fuck, shit, shit,” he spat, marching to the notice board. He scanned and flipped the hanging sheets, but he could not see what he was looking for. He pulled his course outline from his bag. It confirmed his worst suspicions. Their trip to St Mary’s Cathedral for a lecture on the Gothic architectural style was this week, not next week as he had somehow mistakenly recalled. How on earth could he have made such a monumental error?

He pictured his fellow students, joyous and smiling and Lucinda most of all, delighting in the upper galleries. They were probably touring the vault first, damn them – and he would miss the chance to see her moist with excitement and to charm her with his remarks, delivered on foot with a chance for theatre. The knowledge, the experience, the bonding would all be missed, and the week following he would seem out of touch; an outsider, and the rest all just a little closer.

He cursed again and moved to the stairs. If he took the bus and ran across town he would be almost forty minutes late. He would have to take a taxi and even then he would be at least twenty minutes late, probably twenty-five. But what if the tour was for one hour only? He would arrive flustered, be forced to talk to priests and be led like a lost lamb to his tutorial group, out of sorts and bumbling excuses. He would look a desperate fool, and his every effort would be sunk. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, he had decided that it was already too late. He marched off in the direction of his flat; frowning, sulkily barbaric.

Once at home, Oliver paced up and down his flat, regretting his decision not to go. Eventually he took himself to his desk to try to write, but he found it impossible to concentrate and decided to take a walk instead. He had a shower first, changed his clothes and set off for the park at Glebe Point with his camera, a blanket and a book. If he could not write, then so be it, but were he to take a good photograph, the afternoon would not feel so lost.

The sun was warm and a light wind flecked the water with a broken glare. The air was touched with damp scents from the fig trees. The grass was springy and welcomingly soft.

Oliver lay his blanket down and rested on an elbow. He lay like this for an hour, reading about the fall of Berlin, then sank on his back and placed the book over his eyes. He dozed off quickly with his camera stuck in his armpit. Over the next hour he drifted in and out of sleep. He felt serene lying as he was and for a time he lost his tension as the world retreated behind a few snap dreams.

It was five o’clock when he sat up in the lower sunlight. Straight ahead, across the water, stood two old power station chimneys. Before them was docked a jumble of half-scrapped ships. The fading green and yellow paint of an old harbour ferry had blistered with rust like red moss.

Across the face of this setting stepped Lucinda and Cain, strolling slowly beside the water. Oliver’s breath caught as he heard the sound of her voice.

“Oh and I just love what Suger has to say about vaulting. Isn’t it splendid that such books exist?”

Oliver did not move a muscle. Even when Cain, nodding, touched her upper fore-arm and directed her gaze to the boats opposite, he remained perfectly still. The moment their backs were turned he rubbed his eyes and adjusted his hair, then straightened up his clothes. His mouth opened and closed as the decision to speak was revoked. He could not be seen like this. His eyes were too puffy and his face un-alert from sleep. His throat needed clearing and the salt of dried sweat to be washed from his park-lawn limbs. He watched with horror and fascination as Cain and Lucinda stood pointing across the water.

“Look,” she said, “they’ve started removing the panels from the hull.”

“Yes, I saw that yesterday,” said Cain. “My favourite thing is that crane over there,” and he pointed to the horizon.

“Yes,” said Lucinda, “it’s a splendid crane.”

Then, as Cain stood admiring the scene, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Cain looked surprised.

“I thought you said not in public.”

“Well,” said Lucinda, “mostly. Just not on campus, that’s for sure.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, and kissed her back.

Oliver lay straight back down on the grass. He picked up his book and held it in front of himself, blocking the view of his face with its open cover; ruins and a Russian tank.

_________________________________________________

Oliver lay in the bath, steaming. It was pleasant enough in itself to give him second thoughts, but on this matter he was quite resolved. Things had really taken a turn for the worse in the last three months. The decisions he made had left him disgusted with himself and there was little of which to be proud. Pulling out of his thesis was a tragic error, but when Rachel left him for Johannes, the floor had fallen rapidly away.

Despite what he had witnessed between her and Cain, Oliver’s desire for Lucinda would not let him rest. He stepped up his efforts, trying to drive himself like a wedge between the two of them. Oddly, like a man engaging in an undeclared duel, he targeted Cain. He played Cain at tennis and lost. He played him at chess and lost. He played him at Trivial Pursuit and lost as well. Nor could he equal him in a philosophical discourse; the way he was shown up for a fraud on Aristotle was quite the final straw. Lucinda still shone like a beacon, but Lucinda was gone; taken in hand by a lover with glowing credentials. Perhaps, had he not left his trying so late, he might have stolen a march. How different things might have been had he not hedged his bets! Compromise had stifled him and Stoicism had failed him, but this time, he would not fail Stoicism.

“No one else shall have the choice to kill me nor spare me.”

He wanted to laugh at himself for speaking such portentous mimicry, but he had lost his humour a month ago.

“Fortitude, constancy and self-reliance, versus avarice, greed and time-wasting.  Bugger.”

With the weighty results of his disappointment, his fortitude was failing. His constancy was long since tried and proven to be hollow. His self-reliance was exhausted if unflinching, yet he was tired of having to do everything for himself. Avarice, yes, in the desires of the heart; Greed yes, in the form of his lust; and time-wasting in the drinking brought on by his depression.

It is a terrible thing to forget to be nice to the right people.

He took the razor and held it to his left wrist.

In the pointed style, but again he was too heavy to find it amusing.

He squinted and clenched and drew it towards him, running smoothly with a bitter sting.

The red line rising in the wake of its passage took its time to flourish, yet from this deceptive innocence a gushing flow soon sprang.

Oliver blanched at the sight of his own blood and closed his eyes in horror.

“What have I done?”

He felt sick enough to vomit, though he merely gagged and tautened. He peered through his lashes and felt a strange tickle, but could not bear the sight of his wound. There was so much blood! When Seneca took his life he’d had to cut his wrists, then ankles, then the backs of his knees and he still did not bleed fast enough. Indeed from here, in what had been such an apposite and inspirational gesture for Oliver, Seneca was then thrust into a warm bath to accelerate the flow after a walloping dose of Hemlock. Yet, neither poison nor the hot waters were sufficient to break his constitution, so he was finally rendered unto Caesar via a suffocating steam bath. Such heroic misery was not forecast by Oliver and, in his case, as he now acknowledged with his slitted, frightened eyes, the hot bath was working all too well.

He took another look at his wrist; all scarlet and curlicued on the drop-studded armrest; it was scathing beauty, so perfectly bright. The wound pulsed and surged and he flinched from its slow throb. He turned it upside down then thrust it away from himself.

“Holy fuck, holy shit,” there was panic upon him, but with his eyes locked shut and his stinging wrist resting now cold and downturned on the bathside, he felt a certain calm regained through the warmth and faintness prevailing.

He sunk his head back and tried to think clearly, for he had indeed predicted that the action itself would unseat him. He inhaled deeply and felt his shoulders bristle with cooling sweat. He slid down further so the bath might cover him and turned his head upward so that when he opened his eyes, they would not behold a vision of horror.

There was no hope now of going through with his other wrist, for he could not look down at all. Surely it would not be necessary. If he lay still enough he would drift into cloudiness, then fade away for good. He had to overcome the immediate panic and consider his decision with the reasoning that had led him to this bath. And what was that reason, he asked of himself – an absence of hope?

The sting was growing and brought its own inevitable caveat. Yet, just as he had predicted, once the first step was taken, the consequences of living with the psychological ripples from a failed attempt would make his life all the more unbearable in any possible aftermath.

With his eyes still closed and the back of his head tingling with watery nerves, he forced himself instead to think of his philosopher heroes. When Thrasea took his life his friends gathered round as they had with Socrates, to watch and assist in ending his days. Likewise with Seneca. And these were the most educated men of their times. Even if branded traitors and told that they ought to kill themselves, or, like Socrates, sentenced unfairly to death, still they went ahead with it, with friends about and in good humour. And still, such a thing was acceptable, even honourable, even for young men.

How different the world was today, in which so few respected the decision to end one’s life! Certainly Oliver respected it – at least for himself – though perhaps not for everyone.

“And how might that be justified?” he asked, trying to regain some mental equilibrium. “If such a course is suitable for me, surely it is suitable for everyone. But what of those who are not ready? Perhaps they should only allow suicide for those who have a thorough philosophical education.”

He became quite resolved on this point and, momentarily, cheered by it. It would have been splendid if someone were sitting next to him and he could have sought a second opinion. Oddly enough, the most appropriate candidate was Cain – quite the sharpest mind he knew when it came to philosophical dialogues. And Lucinda, of course. She might have smoothed his brow with a cool washer and, if she were made of sterner stuff than he, which he didn’t doubt for a moment, then perhaps she could have assisted him by slashing his other wrist.

He liked this way of thinking, as the steam and heat began to ripple his skin. Lucinda would at least understand the bravery in all this. And she loved Tacitus as well, and Tacitus, after all, had told the best stories about suicides ever recounted. At least in ancient literature, and there wasn’t too much to be had from the moderns on the topic. Or so Oliver thought, for whom such certitude from a position of relative ignorance was not atypical.

Oliver was still too terrified to look to his wrist. He had not moved it since he had lain it along the bath’s edge, cut facing downwards. From those opened veins he could feel a vibrant pulse. His life! The blackness was still at a significant remove. There was as yet little of the static with which his eyes were flooded when he had fainted in the past. Perhaps because he was reclining, perhaps because his head was supported against the back of the tub – either way, he was not dizzy. Indeed, he felt particularly energetic, something he had not felt for some time. There had been the throes of bingeing to carry him briefly, but on the whole his spirit had been lacklustre and weighty.

Unsurprising that it should come back to him now, but he recalled a conversation in which he denounced suicide as pathetic; a spineless, selfish course of action. Had he not once declared that before taking such a measure one should try every chance at happiness? Had he not then said that should the sorrows grow so great, he would rob a bank, fly to Venezuela and burn his passport? Anything, however extreme – a chance must surely be better than no chance. He felt himself to be, to some degree, a hypocrite.

He had been right, he decided, but the words were spoken with energy and passion and not from a body that had become lethargic and moribund. He lacked the energy to rob a bank. Indeed, it was precisely that sort of effort that shamed him now. If he had the urge to get up and get on with things, then he would not have taken this course in the first place.

Oliver edged himself up in the bath with his feet. Perhaps he was now feeling dizzy. The corners of his vision were tingling with flickers of black, creeping like noise into a photograph. He was on the brink of wondering where he stood on all these matters, but a mild panic now arrested him. He felt too hot and prickled and, not wanting to fade in discomfort, he reached out carefully, without catching sight of his bleeding arm, to turn on the cold tap.

Socrates.

He had had something to say about suicide.

“Tell me then, Socrates,” said Cebes, “what are your grounds for saying that suicide is not legitimate?”

“No doubt you will feel it strange,” said Socrates, after a fashion, “that this should be the one question that has an unqualified answer.”

Oliver had been reading the Phaedo only that afternoon and found himself questioning the merits of the dialogues.

Socrates said: “I want to explain to you how it seems natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished.”

“But you weren’t an atheist!”, Oliver protested. “For all your quarrelsomeness, you thought you were going somewhere better. And if you weren’t, then hell, you were an old man. You had lived!”

Oliver took his hand from the cold tap and shook it in the ugly, leering face of Socrates.

“You claimed that a philosopher spends his life preparing for death, denying the visceral in favour of the intellectual and spiritual.”

The static was building behind his eyelids, accompanied by a mild and sweet nausea. The water was cooling quickly and his body temperature was spiking between heat and chills.

“You spent your life trying to divorce your soul from your body,” continued Oliver, reassuring himself not with his words, but the sound of his voice, “but I’ve spent my life improving myself for this world, not the next. As an atheist, how can I even fathom the end of myself, let alone sanction it?”

The cold flow was snaking across the surface water.

Wincing now against sharpening discomfort, he thought more on the matter. For all his qualities as a disputant, Socrates’ arguments seemed poorly structured and full of non sequiturs. He was like a television journalist who loves tearing people apart but never really asks the right questions.

“You were surrounded by sycophants! All your bum-chums loved rolling over and pissing on their bellies. They loved wriggling around in your spurious horseshit.”

Oliver began to giggle at the vehemence of these words. This was a man he had always admired! He was being so unfair that he was sure he must be getting delirious. Often, when overtired he found himself able to laugh or cry at the drop of a pin and just now he was shaking his head.

This was a time both for laughing and crying.

He was getting off track too, thinking about anything and everything. He needed to bring it on home.

“What would Thrasea have to say and do?” he asked. “Old Thrasea just went right on and topped himself. It was like he couldn’t wait, like he’d been itching all along to have a slash at his veins.”

Thrasea had gathered his friends around and called on the sharpness of a philosopher friend in the form of Demetrius, yet no one knows what the two men said. Unbelievably, in perhaps the greatest cliff-hanger in the entire history of western literature, the manuscript of Tacitus breaks off with the line: “then, as his lingering death was very painful, he turned to Demetrius…”

“What did he say?” asked Oliver.

Oliver had a friend called Demitri, perhaps he should call him up and say nothing? But seriously, what might Thrasea have said? Probably something dull, but profound. Then again, knowing Tacitus, some immensely subtle and scathing indictment of the emperor that would only stink of dissidence to those who could do cryptic crosswords.

Oliver’s wrist was killing him now. The sting was sickening and a dull ache had spread all the way up his arm and into his biceps, through his shoulder and along into his neck. This secondary agony, this sympathetic warning…

Christ, he thought. If I was Thrasea, I would have hot-footed it out of there. Perhaps what he really said was “get me the hell out of here. Bind my wrists, grab me a toga, get me some wine, roll me up in a carpet and smuggle me the fuck to Egypt, you doddering homo!”

Oliver laughed again, this time in a hiss of piping giggles. He hadn’t felt such levity in months! He lifted his head forward from the back of the bath and felt its weight on his neck; it lolled and his eyes rolled and he put it straight back down; fearful now of losing consciousness. He was closing in on dissent against himself and could not afford to lose the chance.

The more he thought about it, the more Demitri seemed an ideal candidate for someone to have by his side. Demitri always cut through his pretensions like a knife. Whenever Oliver got worked up about something, Demitri would call him “poofter”. It had been going on since high school and perversely, it gave him great pleasure. Indeed, so run of the mill had it become that whenever he phoned Demitri now, Demitri would answer “is that you, poof?”

How he relished it! Maybe he wasn’t a poof, but a fool, yes, indeed – for why was he now thinking he wanted Demitri beside him? To cut through what? His other wrist, or his immense stupidity? Had he not told himself that his sentencing must be carried out beyond the shadow of a doubt? There could be no doubt at all, either reasonable or unreasonable, and from the moment his wrist had begun to spill he had questioned both his motive and goal. He couldn’t even hold a decent philosophical discourse with himself without piddling about in childish tangents.

He reached out and placed his hand under the cold tap which was still running. He cupped the cold and threw water across his eyes. He repeated this several times before reaching for a face washer lying on the bath’s edge. Folding it into a triangle with one hand, he raised his bleeding arm and shook with the image it brought him. He did not hesitate and nor did he flinch as he slapped the washer hard against it, wrapping it tight and binding it into a knot with his teeth. The water in the bath was colder now and he was starting to shiver. His eyes were holding out just fine, but he was fighting strong against the swoon.

With his foot he worked out the plug. He heard the lurching gurgle as the pipes took the flood, then reached for his mobile phone. He had left it on the bath-side stand and knew exactly what had to be done. It was there should he need it and he had hoped he would not, only why was it there were it not for his habitual failure of nerve? Bah! he was no Stoic, he was all cry for help.

Then, as he lingered in the bath with the water draining about him and his body growing heavier each moment, he hit Demitri’s number.

“Is that you, poof?” asked Demitri.

Oliver did not laugh this time, but rather, he explained himself by saying the following…

Seneca

Read Full Post »

Rhinestone Cowboy

There are many songs which I have known throughout my entire life. Clearly, these are songs I heard when I was a child, either played at home on the scratchy old record player and woolly-headed tape deck, or heard on the mono AM radio. As with most toddlers and young children, the music you listen to is your parents’ music. Be it through choice or accident, or the inundation of regular exposure, many of the songs make a significant imprint and don’t ever go away, for better or for worse.

My parents primarily listened to country and western when I was a child. This seems oddly incomprehensible in retrospect considering they were middle class people living in the very middle and upper class suburbs of Woollahra and Paddington in Sydney, but it makes more sense when you consider my father’s country town origins, blind attachment to 50s rock and roll and my mother’s preference for songs that “tell a story.” Country and western, which I too can appreciate for its narrative elements, is not exactly one of my favourite genres these days, but pretty much topped the billing as a kid. I had no idea to what degree, even in the mid to late 70s, country music was marginalised from the mainstream.

My favourite singers were Tom T. Hall, Frankie Laine and Marty Robbins – singers who, unsurprisingly, no one else at school had ever heard of. I found them to be a mix of wonderfully wise and mature and pleasingly harmonious, but most of all I think I enjoyed the narratives. Consider the song El Paso by Marty Robbins, which tells the tragic story of a young, impulsive cowboy who, overcome with jealousy for the beautiful Mexican maiden Felina, shoots another cowboy in Rosa’s Cantina and is forced to flee. It was not merely the lyrics of the song which appealed to me as a young child, but the beautiful harmonies and inexorable momentum of the flawless cadence.

El Paso – Marty Robbins

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl.

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina,
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden;
I was in love but in vain, I could tell.

One night a wild young cowboy came in,
Wild as the West Texas wind.
Dashing and daring,
A drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina,
The girl that I loved.

So in anger I
Challenged his right for the love of this maiden.
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore.
My challenge was answered in less than a heart-beat;
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor.

Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done.
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there;
I had but one chance and that was to run.

Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran,
Out where the horses were tied.
I caught a good one.
It looked like it could run.
Up on its back
And away I did ride,

Just as fast as I

Could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the bad-lands of New Mexico.

Back in El Paso my life would be worthless.
Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death.

I saddled up and away I did go,
Riding alone in the dark.
Maybe tomorrow
A bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing’s worse than this
Pain in my heart.

And at last here I

Am on the hill overlooking El Paso;
I can see Rosa’s cantina below.
My love is strong and it pushes me onward.
Down off the hill to Felina I go.

Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys;
Off to my left ride a dozen or more.
Shouting and shooting I can’t let them catch me.
I have to make it to Rosa’s back door.

Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
Though I am trying
To stay in the saddle,
I’m getting weary,
Unable to ride.

But my love for

Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen,
Though I am weary I can’t stop to rest.
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle.
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.

From out of nowhere Felina has found me,
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side.
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for,
One little kiss and Felina, good-bye.

http://bit.ly/ElPasoMartyRobbins

Whether or not you appreciate country and western music, this song is a masterpiece of narrative song-writing with exquisite attention to lyrical technique – a natural, unforced rhyme, a constant, flowing rhythm, emotive language and genuine pathos.

One day in 1996, on my first trip around Europe, sitting in beautiful afternoon sunshine streaming through bay windows in a pub in Newcastle in the north of England, I found this song on the dukebox. I hadn’t heard it for years and simply had to put it on. When I did so I was so moved – as much by  nostalgia as  the song itself – that I listened to it three times. I made sure to get a copy of it a few years later and it’s now been on my iPod for some years – pleasantly surprising me here and there when it turns up on random.

Yet, as ever, I digress. Apart from country and western music, and the classical records given to my mother by a friend of hers, which I diligently went through at the age of 8 – settling on Tchaikovsky as clear favourite – there was the radio. My mother listened to AM radio stations, which played more classics than contemporary songs. Despite growing up in the 70s, I never, for example, heard Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple or even any disco for that matter, but I heard a hell of a lot of Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Roy Orbison and the like. I remember how astonished I was at the age of 10 when we went away on holiday with another family and they listened to a more contemporary radio station. Suddenly, there was a whole other world of music  – Kiss and Meatloaf were topping the charts.

Amongst all this, two songs really stuck with me through my childhood and have come, in retrospect, to be the ones that bring out the most nostalgic feelings of all: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy and Captain and Tenille’s Do that to me one more time. The latter was actually released in 1980, but was just the sort of easy-listening croony ballad that wasn’t going to cause any controversy and thus was safe to play on the rather conservative stations to which my mother listened. Rhinestone Cowboy, on the other hand, was, purely and simply, a massive hit that had never really been off the radio since its release in 1975.

Though I didn’t really understand it as a kid, I loved that song and always wanted to sing along when it came on the radio. It’s not that the song’s lyrics are especially complex, indeed, they are very simple, but the song’s sentiments reflect those of the struggling artist or performer dreaming of the big time when the chips are down. The romantic evocation of the struggle itself and the heartfelt jubilation of at last hitting the heights are perhaps best appreciated with a little more life experience.

As a child, I loved the easy rhythm of the verses and their gradual rise through minor flourishes to a soaring chorus. It wasn’t the lyrics that appealed to me – though the word “cowboy” was evocative enough to gain my interest and the song certainly is narrative – but Glen Campbell’s voice, which is fatherly and unpretentious and has a natural and beautiful clarity to it. As I grew older and continued to hear the song in various circumstances, the lyrics came to make a lot more sense to me. It wasn’t until about eight years ago, however, when I had lived a good deal more and been trying for some time to make progress as a writer, that the song became a sort of personal anthem.  The song was not actually written by Glen Campbell, but by Larry Weiss, for whom, in 1974, it fell rather flat. When Glen Campbell re-recorded it a year later, it went global.

Rhinestone Cowboy – Larry Weiss

I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long
Singin’ the same old song
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway
Where hustle’s the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain
There’s been a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Well, I really don’t mind the rain
And a smile can hide all the pain
But you’re down when you’re ridin’ the train that’s takin’ the long way
And I dream of the things I’ll do
With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe
There’ll be a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Rhinestone cowboy
Getting’ cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo

FADE
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting’ card and letters from people I don’t even know

http://bit.ly/RhinestoneCowboyUT

There are few songs which have the same mysterious impact on me as this one. Whenever I hear it I’m pretty well guaranteed either to tear-up and get very emotional, or to feel a powerful, uplifting desire to succeed and bask in the glory of having made it. I find the song incredibly, unbelievably, almost incongruously moving and usually, when it comes on random on my iPod, I have to go back and immediately listen to it again to try to enjoy the emotional stimulus once more. It’s never quite as good the second time, but it’s still good enough.

There are many things I love about this song that transcend my nostalgia for it. One thing is the wonderfully provincial nature of its interpretation of making it big. He’s not dreaming of being a movie star, or even having a number one hit as a singer, but instead the song is about becoming a rodeo star – something very American, indeed, but also very southern and western USA. I like the way it reflects a more local, regional cultural expression of the big time. The rodeo itself has no appeal to me, but I can deeply sympathise with how for the song-writer, it is everything. It tells us something about fame and how provincial it can be. Often the people we most want to impress are the people we know and understand, not the whole world who might not really get it anyway. This expression of success is so refreshingly particular and modest and so adorably unfashionable outside of the country and western circuit – a far remove from the usual – the currency of fast cars, bling and hot women. Don’t get me wrong, this song is about bling from its very title, but it’s not quite the bling we’re used to, and it’s less about the possession of bling than the experience and status it entails.

The lovably innocent line “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know”, offers a splendid vignette of how fame might surprise those unused to it. The word even is pivotal here for emphasising how curiously astonishing it is that total strangers might write to someone they’ve never met on account of their rise to popularity.

There is also something enticingly bohemian about the song’s expression of being down and out. The simple metaphor of walking the same old streets and singing the same old song celebrates the experience itself whilst lamenting the drudgery of it. I really don’t mind the rain either, and the song acknowledges that the struggle itself, the long road or slow train ride, are a mix of pleasure and pain. “And I dream of the things I’ll do, with a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe” further reminds us that the struggle is romantic, in its freedom and possibility, yet ultimately, without success, it is exhausting and demoralising.

There is always, for most people, a “load of compromisin’”, both in art and in life, but the goal of making it is great enough to keep on trying. And that, ultimately, is the great appeal of this song. When Glen Campbell leads into that chorus with “I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me”, everything is not merely okay, but everything is possible, and, hearing it, I believe, perhaps more strongly than I can believe at any other time, that one day, somehow, I too will be riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo, so to speak.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: