Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Travelogues’ Category

The Search

20161130205342_1

I eased out of hyperdrive with mild pangs of space-sickness. Too many dizzying rides through the waves of stretched starlight; too many juddering descents onto unknown worlds. My eyes, tired from scanning the systems for habitable planets, from gazing at landscapes both fertile and barren, from staring through the atmospheric haze of a hundred disappointments, now longed to rest once more on the soft, green grasses and gentle skies of Leura Falls.

Looming before me was a familiar sight – the unloved furnace of Fustung. Through the gaseous blur of this reddish sphere, I spied my destination – a massive waterworld, a super-Earth with ninety percent of its surface covered in blue ocean. It was here, on one of the many green islands which dotted the briny waters, that I was determined to make my home.

20160821232020_1

Leura Falls – or so I thought

I pointed the nose around the apex of Fustung and punched in the pulse drive. One more bumpy skip through the asteroid belts and I would be home. As the planet lined up in my sights, the targeting computer locked on and planetary data began its read-out on the screen. At first I paid little attention to this, so that I was already familiar with this information. Then, taking another glance, I saw the planet’s name, and blinked: Injamiaogul.

I was shocked. Wasn’t this Leura Falls? Was I not in the right system? I checked the galactic charts to confirm my whereabouts, and there was no mistaking it: I was unquestionably in the Faren Sav system – a system in which I had discovered every planet and landed on their surface. What then was this other planet? There had been another water-world in the system – Three Sisters – was I mistaking the two? If so, why would its name have changed?

I pulled up abruptly, cutting the engine and bringing my ship to a barely perceptible drift. Turning in a circle, I visually scanned the system to see if my would-be home was elsewhere. Perhaps there been another planet here all along, hidden from line of sight by one of the others. I looked closely into the seemingly endless sphere of space that surrounded me, yet there was nothing; indeed, I could not see another water world at all. Leura Falls had somehow changed, yet Three Sisters had been erased from existence altogether.

20160819001905_1

As I hoped to find it…

I turned back to Injamiaogul, taking a closer look. Perhaps merely the name had changed, or the planet had reverted to its pre-discovery place-holder, which I could no longer recall. Perhaps if I flew down to the surface I would find things much as they been before and be free, once again, to name and claim the planet.

I kicked in the engine again and sped towards the surface. Upon closer approach, it was immediately clear that this was a different planet altogether. The colour of the islands had changed as well as that of the oceans, and my worst fears were confirmed when I broke through the upper atmosphere. Gone was the green grass and the swishing trees, gone were the docile grazing beasts I had spent some time studying. In its place was a lurid nightmare; a reddy, yellowy mess that felt wholly uninviting. I was, to say the least, gutted.

Such was my fate when I logged back into No Man’s Sky after its first major update – Foundation. The update has made significant changes to the algorithms that procedurally generate the planets, and, as a consequence, some have been re-generated from scratch altogether. The Foundation update had taken me by surprise – I was totally unaware of its release the day before I published my review of the original game, and was both shocked and excited upon discovering it.

no-mans-sky-foundation1

Reading through the notes, it was clear that much had been altered, making the bulk of what I had written about game strategies worthless. This was, admittedly, a little frustrating, but such was the promise of the swathes of changes to the game, that I was keen to get stuck in. Having just written about the game, and thus being on something of a roll, it made sense to play through the new material and review it as quickly as possible. The update has introduced the ability to claim planets as a home-world and build bases on them, and so it was that, upon logging in, I warped hundreds of light years across space, back to my favourite planet, in order to begin laying the foundations of a galactic empire.

20160822002923_1

I could not find this planet at all, or was it perhaps Leura Falls that had disappeared? Confusing

 

The loss of Leura Falls seemed a pretty rough fate. It never occurred to me that it might not be there anymore and thought I would always be free to return here. After all, weren’t our discoveries in No Man’s Sky supposed to have the integrity of a real discovery? That what we found would be there as long as the game’s servers continued to run? I felt so deflated that I was ready to give up there and then. How many other planets? Did the same fate await me in all the systems I had explored? It seemed logical to assume that this was the case. Why some and not others? The missing planets were still showing in my records; still listed as part of the Faren Sav system, yet they were no longer in the game world itself, certainly not as they were. It was only later that I noticed that all my discoveries on the surface – flora, fauna and mineral – had been erased from the planetary data.

"What happened to Buzz-Saw ?" "He had to split."

“What happened to Buzz-Saw ?” “He had to split.”

My first thought was that this was only going to piss more people off. No Man’s Sky has, since its release, become a favourite whipping boy of gamers with accusations of fraud, dishonesty and deception circulating alongside a general anger at the lack of communication from the studio. Was this potentially going to cause another public relations nightmare for Sean Murray and Hello Games? As a fan of the game, I certainly hoped it wouldn’t, though I did feel let down on this score. I took a deep breath and put things into perspective. Okay, losing my favourite planet sucks, but if this is the price of having a much better game, I’ll be willing to wear it. There was, after all, a huge amount of new material and changes waiting to be explored. It was time to get stuck in.

20161201222044_1

Time to get started again

Fortunately, the deletion of Leura Falls turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The tragedy of its destruction gave me pause. I didn’t want to found a base just anywhere, so I would need to find a suitable planet and this would take time. And anyway, what was the hurry? What was the rush to found a base? I had already learned to love No Man’s Sky for what it was – a game of exploration and discovery, of the freedom to visit quintillions of worlds, of the chance to sustain a restless, endless wandering. Settling down immediately might put an end to the joy of discovery. Could there possibly be anywhere near as much pleasure in construction and crafting as there was in discovering wholly new planets? Perhaps more importantly, I now at last had a real purpose to my quest; a real reason for this endless journey: to find a planet so utterly beautiful that I would actually want to live on it.

20161130114506_1

20161130105036_1

20161130004321_1

How many worlds would it take to find a new home?

Thus began what can only be described as an epic journey across the cosmos. In three days I warped through more than thirty star-systems, flew through three black holes, caused the birth of a new star, visited more than a hundred planets, took part in numerous local conflicts, mined and traded millions of credits in minerals, and all the while I burned with a restless energy to find the perfect planet.

20161130123156_1

20161130125347_1

20161130172546_1

In retrospect, I can say this much; there is no such thing as the perfect planet. Yet there are many planets which are remarkable, indeed, jaw-droppingly beautiful, along with many that are, in their own sweet way, appalling. The new algorithms and the new designs in flora and fauna have expanded the richness and diversity of worlds in a welcome way. Water is more interestingly distributed on surfaces and can even be found in dry places, such as the squelchy floor of a rocky canyon on an otherwise parched planet. It pools in the lowlands in a wider range of depths; some lakes are so shallow they never even bother your knees.

20161130173721_1

20161130200013_1

20161130004902_1

20161130124533_1

20161130201622_1

All told, when it comes to planetary generation, the Foundation update is a huge improvement. In every other regard, it is practically a new game, very different in what it asks strategically and considerably better balanced. Nearly everything said before about mining and resources is now redundant, such is the manner in which they have been reworked: their frequency dramatically nerfed; the ability to mine them now contingent on technology; the range of elements significantly expanded; their distribution and appearance on the surface radically altered. They are also needed in new and more specific ways, along with being less interchangeable, as a source of recharging for example. Thus resources such as Plutonium and Thamium 9 become immensely valuable for survival, if not monetarily.

20161130173012_1

20161130180012_1

20161130174138_1

20161130172809_1

20161130195509_1

There is much more to be said, but I’ll save that for a review. This post is really a travelogue; a photographic journal of my desperate quest across time and space before settling on the planet Sollomyth. One of the great pleasures of No Man’s Sky is that it offers an immersive experience of travel at a time when, on account of having a two-year old son, I can’t easily go travelling. As a photographer, this game lets me shoot scenes I could never dream of framing, outside of being a citizen of some intergalactic empire. The gorgeous rendering of these incredible places is nostalgic in tone, born of a love of the dreamy visions that adorned the covers of space-race science fiction. Often, everywhere you look is a potential book-cover, a fine example of art by algorithm. And, while it ain’t exactly the real thing, this simulation is almost as good as a holiday, a key sign of which is that the photographs fill me with a similar, if less potent, form of nostalgia.

20161130180215_1

20161130124440_1

20161130200532_1

20161130180616_1

20161130203604_1

20161130195826_1

20161130205444_1

20161130204949_1

20161130213138_1

20161130203625_1

20161130211708_1

20161130195800_1

20161130202603_1

20161130210720_1

20161130211040_1

20161130211046_1

20161130213449_1

20161130212355_1

20161130213638_1

20161201113726_1

20161130211933_1

20161201114457_1

20161201214522_1

20161201115240_1

20161201214628_1

20161201111745_1

20161201212032_1

20161201222945_1

20161201230225_1

20161201225530_1

20161201230753_1

20161202000739_1

20161202111129_1

20161201223346_1

20161201235019_1

20161202005303_1

20161201234030_1

20161202000951_1

20161201225936_1

20161202003739_1

20161202002341_1

20161202005935_1

20161202112939_1

20161202113216_1

20161202113354_1

20161202120435_1

20161202114906_1

20161202124051_1

20161202123412_1

20161202122140_1

20161202130032_1

20161202123940_1

20161202133322_1

20161202005527_1

20161202132143_1

20161202144027_1

20161202132451_1

20161202144158_1

20161202145540_1

20161202145835_1

20161202145844_1

20161202213431_1

20161202220902_1

20161202222520_1

Home at last

Read Full Post »

Varanasi

This collection of photos was first included as a gallery at the end of a short story I published in October 2012: Hot and Bothered, which is a largely autobiographical story fictionalised with my favourite literary “avatar”, Dirk. The photos, however, seemed to be languishing in a not especially well-presented gallery, so I decided they deserved more prominence. A couple of these shots have already been published in my Favourite Shots collection, but they belong with the others and so are republished here.

The short story, Hot and Bothered, pretty well sums up my experience of Varanasi. I arrived there tired and somewhat melancholy, having just left the beautiful mountains of Darjeeling. Varanasi was fascinating and engaging, yet it felt too crowded, hot and dusty, so I retreated inside myself and just focussed on taking photographs in relatively short outings. I was very happy with some of the photos and will always remember Varanasi as something that goes above and beyond the rather mediocre mood I brought with me.

Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi train station

Varanasi washerman

Ganpati Guest House, Monkey deterrent

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi

Sleeping man, Varanasi

Varanasi

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi muscle-man

Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi

Band - Varanasi

Varanasi - the goat-keepers

Dudes Inc.

Read Full Post »

Hampi is a striking place – an odd landscape of giant, tawny granite boulders, strewn across dry river plains and low hills. The weathered, rounded rocks protrude from the rusty, orange soil like scattered marbles, giving the place an otherworldly feel. Hampi is not only a geological wonder, it is also an archaeological one. Having once been the capital of the Vijayanagaran Empire – at its height between the 14th and 16th centuries – the site is full of monumental stone ruins – covering a whopping 26 square kilometres.

Hampi Bazaar

2583 Hampi

2851 Hampi stones and palms

3030 Epic landscape

The city of Vijayanagara was founded on the Tungabhadra River in 1336 by two brothers – Harihara and Bukka, and quickly rose to become a major centre of trade and Hinduism. Its wealth came primarily from cotton and spices – a market monopolised by the local rulers to great effect. With such ample stone reserves to be quarried, Vijayanagara experienced an extended construction boom which peaked in the early 16th century under the rule of Krishna Deva Raya (1509-1529). It is from this time that many of the major structures are derived; vast temple complexes and colonnades, bath-houses, cisterns, aqueducts, palaces and elephant stables.

3352 Temple platform Hampi

3217 Hampi 2

3064 Hampi Temple

4393 Bicycle and ruins

3695 Elephant stables, Hampi

2720 Hampi

Much of the architecture bears similarities to Hindu structures elsewhere, particularly with regard to the temples, yet Vijayanagara also reflects a local bent for ingeniously blending its buildings into the rocky landscape. It is a busy style, sporting countless high relief carvings and patterned motifs which give the buildings an organic quality.

3112 world of Conan

3291 Horse with horse motif, Hampi

2956 Hampi

2859 Temple, Hampi Bazaar

At its height, Vijayanagara, which means, city of victory, had a population somewhere upwards of 500,000 people, making it the second largest city of its day – surpassed only by Beijing – and a rival to ancient Rome. Vijayanagara fell not long after reaching its peak – sacked by a coalition of Muslim rulers from the north – the Deccan Sultans, who defeated the Vijayanagarans at the battle of Talikota in 1565. After the 16th century, the city fell into decline and ultimately, ruin.

Vijayanagara, and modern day Hampi, are both major sites of ongoing archaeological activity and popular tourist destinations. The town itself – Hampi Bazaar – is tiny, a mere village of neatly swept dirt streets populated as much by animals as people. The town was, until very recently, a good deal larger. Concern about overdevelopment and the locals’ tendency to re-use the ruined buildings as dwellings or for commercial purposes led the local authorities to demolish a number of structures built in the last 50 odd years, and to evict people from re-purposed medieval buildings. Despite this, Hampi Bazaar still sits right amongst the ruins of Vijayanagara and the transition from one into the other is seamless.

2978 Medieval gate, Hampiu

3969 Hampi morning

2822 Ruined street, Hampi bazaar

2793 Clothes line

Hampi Bazaar, whilst by no means an inhospitable place, is likely not for those who are used to luxury – most of the hotels are very basic and some lack hot water and private bathrooms. Many hotel rooms are also quite musty and mouldy – a consequence of the humid conditions and walls apparently lacking damp protection from the earthy foundations. Yet it is a lovely place to stay – the colourful houses are intimately close together, and the local people can be seen getting on with their lives in the midst of the tourist hordes who inevitably fill this place.

2818 Dances with goats

3823 Hampi Bazaar

2799 Simple street Mandalas

3963 Hampi

It is especially popular with younger, more alternative travellers – some of whom come to Hampi and get stuck for days or weeks. It has a very chilled aspect to it and the many roof-top restaurants, despite the disappointingly average quality of the food across the board, are excellent places from which to view both the village and the surrounding landscape. The proximity of the torrential river makes the setting all the more idyllic and exotic.

2394  Temple, Hampi

4011 Tourist

3954 Hampi ruins

2599 Hampi

3867 Tourists, Hampi

As noted above, Hampi Bazaar has its fair share of ruins and intact medieval structures. The monumental Virupaksha temple, flanked by an epic cistern, seems almost embarrassingly oversized for the modest village. Yet this but a taste of the wide array of impressive structures and temple enclosures dotted around the huge site. The number of temples is astonishing and their intactness gives some parts of the site the sense of a ghost-town, hastily abandoned. It is possible to walk for hours, for days and still only touch on what is on offer here.

2836 Virupaksha temple 2

2513 Temple and tank, Hampi

2895 Hampi Temples

Following the river to the northeast leads one through a glorious landscape, past a fantastical collection of ruined complexes to the immense Vitthala Temple with its famous stone chariot – the wheels of which still turn. Though it is less than five kilometres, one could spend at least an entire walking there and idling back, exploring the temples and enjoying the natural setting.

2761 Hampi, Age of Conan

2579 Hampi

2602 Hampi 2

2651 Hampi

2586 Hampi, rock cut steps 2

2580 Hampi

The Royal Enclosure, to the south of Hampi Bazaar, marks the old centre of the medieval city. It is here that some of the most impressive monuments are to be found – such as the Lotus Mahal – said to be the queen’s pleasure palace, and the elephant stables. At least a day is required to satisfactorily explore this wide area, depending on your patience, curiosity and temperament. Either way, be prepared for a lot of walking, or else hire a motorbike or auto-rickshaw with driver as the massive scale of the site means many of these monuments are widely spaced.

3579 Vijayanagara

3044 Hampi temple

3720 Elephant stables, Hampi

3088 Hampi Temple

3083 Rocks and ruins

3794 School group, Hampi

Whilst the landscape seems, for the most part, dry, rusty and scrubby, it is full of bright green palms and banana plantations. The rich, dark soil of the flood-plains also yields brilliant, emerald green rice-fields which illuminate the dry, toweringly smooth rocks with radiant verdure.

4349 Near Anegundi

3321 Sitting under the tree

3135 sensuous bananas

4257 Anegundi

4218 Goats eating cornhusks

It is a curious mix of the lush and the semi-arid, and can also contain some nasty surprises should one venture off the beaten track. Hard, sharp white thorns, up to an inch and a half long and strong enough to penetrate a rubber sole, often lie in the undergrowth. I learned about these the painful way, when I put my full weight on one in a pair of thongs and nastily punctured my foot which then spasmed awkwardly for the next two minutes. The thorn went so deep into my foot that it nearly came through the other side and for days afterwards walking was a very tender exercise.

3141 Thorns

Another place worth visiting is the small, historic village of Anegundi. It lies a few kilometres to the north east of Hampi Bazaar and, without taking an enormous detour, can only be accessed by ferry.

4113 Ferry crossing

Construction of a bridge crossing at Anegundi began in 1999, but was halted the following year over concerns about the impact on the site, both physically and visually. Shortly after reconstruction was resumed in 2009, the bridge collapsed, killing eight construction workers. It now lies like a crooked slippery dip, angled into the river – an interesting modern ruin.

4056 Collapsed bridge 2

The local people remain with no choice but to take the tiny ferry or another, private boat, across. A few motorbikes can fit aboard the ferry, but cars are forced to drive some forty-odd kilometres to access the nearest bridge.

4091 Off the ferry

A local guy from Anegundi with whom we spoke on the ferry was very vocal, if philosophical about the bridge. It was corruption, he said – poor construction due to cutting corners. “This is an India problem,” he said. So it seems.

4166 Anegundi

4135 Anegundi

4175 Anegundi

4202 Anegundi

4408 Happy locals

With such an unreal and captivating landscape, Hampi demands being seen at both sunrise and sunset. There are many vantage points which will yield a mind-blowing view, and the elevated places immediately outside Hampi Bazaar are some of the best. At these times of day the landscape’s colours are smoothed with an orange wash from the low-hanging sun. One morning, V and I set out before dawn to climb the rocky hill at the eastern end of the town. The wan light of morning was powerfully evocative of sunrise on another planet.

3903 Sunrise on Mars

3897 Sunrise, Hampi

When we descended from the boulder atop which we had been sitting, we came across another temple site we had not found yet, nestled between hills and palm trees. The heaviness in my heart and guts was the heaviness of awe – weighty feelings of eternity and mortality, fuelled by aesthetic beauty and the visceral freshness of the early morning grandiose. For four days Hampi had me under its spell – it is not something I’m ever likely to forget.

4270 Near Anegundi 2

4426 juicer

3956 Coracle crossing

4234 Hampi rocks

3938 Hampi 2

3643 Hampi

3746 Shrines on the rocks

2426 Street scene, near Hampi

3634 Islamic quarter, Hampi

2965 Tending the lingam

2461 Hey ladies

Read Full Post »

Rainy Season

Four years ago I’d never been to Bali, and now I’ve been there three times. It has become something of a habit – either as a destination in itself or a stepping stone into Asia and beyond. At only six hours from Sydney, the flight is just short enough to feel smooth and easy. So short in fact, that I ran out of time to enjoy the various entertainments I brought along to pass the time. That’s a good thing, I suppose.

This was the rainiest holiday I’ve ever had. We knew it was the wet season and had both brought collapsible umbrellas, but this was the rainiest rainy season I’ve ever encountered. Rather than the regulation afternoon downpour, which did characterise the first few days, towards the second half of the week it rained pretty hard most of the time. Fortunately, I love rain, and only once did it prove to be a real nuisance – when we found ourselves without a hotel in Candikuning. The rest of the time, it was wonderfully atmospheric; drumming on roofs, bonnets and brollies, slicking the abundant lush foliage, and pleasantly cooling the air with fresh scents.

I don’t intend to go through this holiday in step by step detail, but rather cover the basics and toss in a few anecdotes. We flew into Denpasar as per usual and were picked up by a driver to take us up into the hills around Munduk, where we spent the first two nights.

8618

8706 Munduk

8708 Temple, Munduk

On the second night in Munduk, we stayed in the very same place my brother and I had stayed in four and a half years ago, which was surprisingly nostalgic (actually, not surprising considering I’m the most hopelessly nostalgic person I know).

8842 Waterfall, Munduk

8825 No women no cry

8901 Munduk ricefields

8928 Munduk 2

8930 Bilby, Munduk

From there we took a drive north west to Pemuteran, a coastal strip along black, volcanic beaches, where we assiduously avoided requests to partake in “activities.” Pemuteran offered up an interesting palette, with emerald green escarpments interrupted by patches of black volcanic cliff; black sand soft as soil on a beach strewn with orange and peach-coloured flowers not unlike hibiscus.

8939 Driving to Permuteran 2

8975 Road to pemuteran

8961 Road to Pemuteran

A green onion-domed mosque, young, immaculate cows amidst the blue and green outriggers beached along the bay, conical Javanese volcanoes on the horizon, all from the safe oasis of another beautiful, luxurious, indecently cheap resort, redolent with that curious blend of homeliness, perfection and transient soullessness.

9074 Pemuteran

9047 Permuteran

9049 Blue

9051 Boat, Pemuteran

9091 Hanging nets

9087 Nets, Pemuteran

9100 Pemuteran, surf and turf

9127 collecting

8992 Adi Assri, Pemuteran

From Pemuteran, we drove to the Jatiluwih ricefields – a heritage protected area of rice terraces which have been in constant production for hundreds of years. The rain eased off to a mere sprinkle for the hour or so we spent walking around this beautiful place. It was especially attractive under the stormy skies, with filtered sunlight adding luminescence to the red rice crops.

9257 Bobble-head dog

9359 Jatiluwih ricefields

9324 Jatiluwih ricefields

9375 Jatiluwih

9314 Jatiluwih

From hereon the rain set in with real fury. We drove on through the downpour to Candikuning, where, at the height of the storm, we found out the hard way that the hotels we had in mind were all full. We bid our driver farewell, not wishing to inconvenience him further, and plunged into the rain and rivulet streets to see two awful musty hotels, whose abject cheapness was never going to be a good enough sell. This business, sloshing through a magnificently derelict road, shin-deep in water, brought us into contact with a most insufferable tout who at first seemed just irritatingly cheerful and assertive. He showed us to a dirty, musty room and so assumed we were going to take it upon showing it to us, that he was quite thrown when we indicated otherwise. We told him very politely, somewhat bemused, that we didn’t need his help, but he followed us all the same, hurling out offers. At first it was almost funny, but soon became rather tiresome. People in Bali, with the exception of some heavily touristed areas, are not usually so persistent, so it seemed out of place in this dead town. He also wearing a Soeharto tee-shirt, which didn’t exactly enamour me towards him. For some reason, I suspected he was from Java.

We got away and wandered into the market, where we downed umbrellas and sat in the local warung. We thought we were in the clear until our pursuer appeared again and sat at our table uninvited! Here he persisted in hurling constant, annoying questions about where we were from, what we were doing, which services we needed and the like, which we chose increasingly to ignore. Indeed, he only left when the owners, who clearly couldn’t stand him either – no doubt he had a reputation for acting like a big shot – asked him if he intended to order something, and when we began, quite simply to ignore him completely and pretend not to hear his words. A message for all touts out there – if you have no empathy with potential customers and don’t know when you’ve pissed people off to the point that they can’t stand you and are forced to pretend you’re not actually there, you should not be in the business of customer relations. The food in the warung, incidentally, was bloody amazing.

9390 Road to Candikuning

9423 Candikuning

9460 Boy and rabbit 2

We organised a driver with some far more congenial and amusing locals, who had a much better idea of how touting can be done in an amusing and entertaining way. They were trying to sell me watches, but were good humoured enough to make fun of how “genuine” their watches were, and laughingly told me they would last a hundred years. He even used the term “100% pure plastic”, which warmed my heart.

9465 Servo toilet sign

We had said at the start of the trip that we would try to avoid going to Ubud and see other parts of the island instead, but stuck in Candikuning without a hotel and unsure where to go next, we figured Ubud, which we do rather like, would be a pretty nice lay-up in the rainy weather. So, two hours south with a couple of local stoners in the front, brought us to the Honeymoon Guesthouse. Like almost all hotels in Ubud, and indeed, Bali, this place was astonishingly beautiful. We chose the most expensive room, which was a mere sixty dollars, and was, like so many rooms in Bali, actually a suite with a huge terrace balcony and epic bathroom. The local architectural style, so old-world Asia, all stone and carved wood, bamboo blinds, four-poster mosquito net king sized bed, polished flagstone floors, high, pointed roof of wood and thatch, no ceiling, surrounded by lush gardens, dripping with rain. I went onto the balcony and spent the next five minutes in reverie, for this was my long yearned-for favourite melancholy mood made real.

9480 Honeymoon Guesthouse

Ever since I was a child, all I’ve wanted is to be inside, looking out upon rain falling on plants, ideally in a jade green, evocative and beautiful place, with nothing to do at all, free to indulge a mood of nostalgia or fantastical escapism. Fed fatly on the fantasy genre, be it through role-playing games or literature, I longed for these worlds, which, somehow, I always imagined to be rainy. There’s something so compelling about rain – how it quietens sound with its pleasant rush and drum, how it smells so fresh and refreshing, how, in the often dull light it causes everything to wetly glisten. On that balcony, with its high outlook into trees and flowering shrubs, and views of the other hotel buildings – imposing, yet homely stone, elaborate wooden features, hanging screens – I felt such intense repose that I wanted to curl up on the divan and never say another word for the rest of my life. Someone had bottled the heart-wrenching sadness of Crouching Tiger’s lush and dreamy aesthetic.

Then, however, there were the frogs. The block adjacent to our room was vacant and overgrown – banana trees entirely covered with creeper, just a few propeller-blade leaves poked from the clambering carpet – and it was full of loudly belching frogs.

9566 Banana trees

9573 Ubud

The man who showed us to our room initially laughed them off. “Ha, the frogs,” he said. “Because of the rain.” We rather figured they would stop croaking at some point – surely they couldn’t go all night? Yet when we returned from dinner later (a smashing meal at Casa Luna, the Honeymoon’s celebrity-chef restaurant a few hundred metres walk away), the frogs were going harder than ever.

9521 Honeymoon

9528 Ubud

9519 Honeymoon

Now, it might seem ridiculous that frogs could be so loud as to drive you from your room, but there were so many of them and they must have had some real mother air-sacks in their throats, because the sound they produced, even with the doors and windows shut, was like having a group of men in the room, cupping their hands and clapping as loudly and resonantly as possible. Or, for that matter, a gang of drunken young men burping into megaphones. In ten minutes, I had a headache and couldn’t hear myself think. Sleep in that room was out of the question, so we had to toddle off down to reception and, after looking at three other rooms, move house, so to speak. I felt very sad to leave our perfect room, yet we moved into the very one I’d been looking across the balcony to, and it, though not as absolutely perfect as the first, was still, let’s face it, borderline perfect.

From no plans to visit Ubud, we spent three nights there. Partly because we didn’t feel like doing another journey after a bunch of longish drives over the last few days, but ultimately because I got sick. For the first time, I was struck with Bali belly, as it’s called, and spent a couple of days feeling weak and on the toilet. This wasn’t so bad in the end, because I didn’t really want to leave my amazing hotel room which also had a huge terrace “balcony” with divans on which to lie. I went to the local book store, bought a copy of The Life of Pi, hurried home before I pooed my pants, and spent the rest of the day lying on the divan reading. I’ve written elsewhere of how, when I had a similar stomach problem in India, I spent two days reading in a gorgeous room in Pushkar, and this was an equally lovely experience.

9719 Reading spot

9591 Ubud

9605 Ubud

9594 Ubud

9653 Creative tattoos 2

9598 Rice

9621 Ubud streets

9689 Ubud

When we finally left Ubud, the rain had set in permanently. We took a car all the way down to the Bukit Peninsula, where we had to wait three hours for our room to be ready, despite their assurances that arriving early was no problem, got jacked off, told them to forget it, walked down treacherous stairs to Bingin beach, sat a while under shelter from the rain watching the cranky surf, then went and found another hotel, checked in, found the bed to be too musty, checked out, grabbed a car and told the driver to take us to Balangan beach, totally on spec. Through bucketing, piss-down rain, past the basket-wrapped corpse of a lorry driver from Flores, who had tragically fallen foul of the treacherous weather, our driver took us to a bloody splendid place – another “perfect” resort, La Joya, with gorgeous “bungalows”. The inverted commas are appropriate here, because traditionally bungalows don’t have epic sliding walls of rounded glass, nor a “lovers corner” of plumped cushions tucked behind curtains, just to the side of the requisite four-poster…

9776 Bingin

This again offered a sweet, melancholic reading retreat. It rained almost the whole time, and when we went to the beach, it was wonderfully apocalyptic. Indeed, I’ve never seen a beach so covered in drift-wood and detritus, fronted by stilted shacks beneath whose raised floors, the relentless, stormy ocean had eaten away most of the sand, and dangerously exposed the foundations. Driftwood, erosion, shambling shacks. It was like the aftermath off a tsunami, only the buildings were still standing. The churning water was full of soil washing down in the river that cut between the shacks. It roiled in the surf; brown water and soiled waves beneath the alienating sky; an uncomfortable colour, a sickly pallor, the decay of the end of days.

9957 Balangan beach

9868 shack stairs

9917 Beach kid

9896 Balangan beach

We took our fourth massage the following morning – the most hardcore of them all, which left me somewhat sore, and that was rather that. Paid an extra half-day at the hotel, chilled and swam and read all day, then took an early evening car to the airport for a late flight to arrive home Christmas morning.

All in all, a good break – a last minute, unambitious holiday where, for the first time ever, I had absolutely no goals, no targets, nothing. Indeed, the motivation was simply that it seemed crazy to have time off work and not go overseas. Equally unambitious were my photographic efforts. Point and shoot, stab and click, but not much attention to detail. Well, the results show this – some nice atmospherics, but nothing striking, and really, I’m okay with that.

Sort of.

Next time, the sniper is back in charge.

Read Full Post »

One constantly hears the word “Chaos” associated with Greece. Anyone reading or watching the news is presented with a pretty clear narrative of economic chaos, civil disorder, strikes, protests, the rise of ultra rightwing political parties, mass unemployment, increasing socio-economic division and ugly violence.

Greece riot 5

Consider the following report, which typifies the language and tone in which Greece is spoken about:

Evidence of a state tottering on the edge of complete dysfunction is apparent everywhere in Athens,” says a report by The Economic Times (ET). “Traffic signals work sporadically; a sign giving the shortened hours of one of the world’s great museums, the National Archaeological Museum, is haphazardly taped to the door; police officers in riot gear patrol the perimeters of the universities, where a growing population of anarchists, disaffected young people and drug addicts congregate in communal hopelessness.

Yet our image of the state of affairs in Greece is significantly distorted by these messages, which fail to report that most of the time life goes on in Greece, with much of the country retaining its functionality and most citizens obeying the law. Let me be perfectly clear from the start here, I am neither questioning nor denying the scale of Greece’s economic and social problems, which are quite extraordinary, rather I’m calling into question the image that is being painted of Greece by the media, which may ultimately make matters worse for a country so heavily dependent on tourism. During a recent visit to Greece, albeit for a mere ten days, I was continually surprised by how little “chaos” was evident. I don’t pretend to have sufficient knowledge or experience of what is happening across the country, but only wish to explore this whole question in the light of my limited experiences.

To begin with, I spent most of the time I was there on the islands, travelling from Rhodos, to Santorini, then onto Mykonos via Paros and Naxos. In none of these places was there any evidence of economic downturn. The islands, in fact, were booming with tourists.

1476 Rhodos

In the last two weeks of September, Rhodos was drowning in Russians, to the point that at times the streets were packed to a degree for which Venice is famous. Our hotel owner in Fira, on Santorini, told us that this year was the busiest he had ever seen, with the season seemingly extending its high point into early October.

Fira, Santorini, B & W

There was no evidence of disorder, poverty, homelessness, nor shut-down businesses on either Paros or Naxos, and Mykonos was as busy as ever, if not more so than usual. The people I spoke with gave no sense of any crisis taking place. Indeed, the only crisis they seemed to be facing was meeting demand.

It goes without saying that, economically, the islands are very different to the mainland and, in many cases, attract more tourism. They are far less reliant on industrial production and are largely comprised of small businesses, rather than large-scale corporations. The islands are also diverse enough that each faces its own particular set of circumstances, and there are likely worse sets of circumstances in some of the less heavily-touristed places. Crete, though also a popular tourist destination, has been home to political protest and unrest.

We must also consider that the ability of the islands to weather this kind of severe economic downtown is largely built into their seasonal business model. If you run a business that shuts down during the off-season, you likely have measures in place to survive through extended periods without income from that business. Of course, one high season with few customers could make it impossible to survive through to the next high season, yet most businesses do appear to have survived through this period, and some have thrived. And, so far as I could tell, the ferries still run on time.

2773 Naxos

2713 Ferry to Naxos

Again, this might simply be a consequence of the fact that tourist numbers have not significantly diminished on the islands, in some cases, quite the opposite. Anyone who is considering visiting the Greek islands as a tourist should have no concerns beyond finding cheap accommodation. The islands are as calm, fun and beautiful as ever.

3011 Venice of Mykonos

3163 Delos

3057 Mykonos

Athens, on the other hand, was a different affair. It was clearly evident that a large number of businesses had shut down across the city centre, which was now more covered in graffiti than ever. Slogans of protest very prominent among the tags and murals, but mostly the graffiti seemed to be just the kicking out of frustrated, unemployed youths. There were a lot more street buskers and musical troupes plying the restaurant scene than I recall, but no sense of systemic collapse or dysfunction. Sure, on the evening we arrived in Athens, via the port of Piraeus, two of the metro stations were shut down – including Syntagma – on account of a protest taking place outside parliament. This, however, was merely a large-scale, non-violent protest which caused a brief disruption to the service. Otherwise the metro ran perfectly smoothly. The mood of the people seemed more positive than I expected, though perhaps this is simply because, in the centre of Athens, there was, as on the islands, no shortage of tourists.

3914 Acropolis from the Areopagus

Of course, this is a first impression and inevitably an oversimplification. The problems of reduced pay, loss of savings and earnings, stress, struggling businesses and, indeed, homelessness, might not be immediately apparent to the outsider who doesn’t have to rely on Greek public services nor pay the bills with a significantly reduced pay-packet. I am not for a second suggesting these things aren’t happening – indeed, they are happening on a dramatic scale. But they are happening in a way that, despite the narrative generated by the media with its constant negative reporting on Greece, has not sent the country into outright lawlessness, nor made it an unworkably dangerous place to visit. Before going to Athens, I read the following:

Long prided as one of Europe’s safest capitals, this ancient metropolis is cowering in the shadow of harrowing crimes and lawless rampages.

Written in the wake of the brutal stabbing murder of the anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas by a member of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn political party earlier this year, such a statement would be enough to put anyone off going to Athens. The aftermath of this incident did indeed cause a fresh outbreak of violent clashes in several cities; Patras, Thessaloniki, Xanthi, Larissa and in Chania on Crete. In Athens, two days after the murder of Fyssas, mobs of ultranationalist youths ran through the centre of Athens attacking illegal immigrants.

GREECE-UNREST-PROTEST-POLICE-EXTREMISM

Many of the huge demonstrations that have taken place across the country have resulted in violent clashes. When the Greek parliament voted for austerity measures allowing them to access a 130 billion euro bailout, the parliament building was ring-fenced by roughly 4,000 police officers. In the riots that followed, the city’s best-known cinema was burned to the ground, along with nine other national-heritage sites. That protests should turn violent and destructive is always a concern, yet, as with the London riots, this phenomenon is sporadic and linked with political decisions. It is by no means an everyday occurrence.

Greece Shooting Anniversary

Violent crime has indeed increased significantly in Athens since the debt crisis struck, and there are legitimate fears that it might get worse before it gets better. Armed robberies were at historic lows in the capital in 2007, but the figure had more than doubled in 2009, the onset of the financial crisis, according to police data. Thefts and break-ins jumped from 26,872 recorded cases in 2007 to 47,607 two years later; homicides likewise nearly doubled in the period. Cuts to government budgets have left the police unable to pay for equipment maintenance and replacement, resulting in, for example, only a third of cars and motorcycles being available for patrols. Still, as alarming as a doubling of the crime rate is in any society, it does not constitute the complete breakdown of law and order.

Greece riot 6

The rise of ultra-rightwing parties has, quite naturally, alarmed both Greeks and international observers. Golden Dawn, whose senior members have expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler whilst denying that they are in fact a Neo-Nazi group, won nearly 7% of the vote in the general election last year.

Golden dawn

More recent polling indicates support as high as 12%. Members of the party and their supporters, often dressed in black shirts and combat pants, have been responsible for a large number of attacks – beatings and stabbings – across Greece, many directed at darker-skinned migrants. Again, however, we must put this into context. Those figures likely represent a proportion of the population who would normally hold more strong, rightwing views – but circumstances have encouraged them to voice sentiments they might otherwise keep to themselves in more moderate times. Let’s not forget that in the presidential elections in France, in 2002, 17.79% of the people voted for the ultra-rightwing National Front president Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose views on the holocaust, Islam, race and AIDS have been highly controversial. In 2007, he received 10.4% of the vote; still a strong level of support, but diminished in better economic circumstances. The popularity of extreme political positions has long been tied to the economy and Greece is no different in this regard.

The seeds for all this were sewn long ago. The origins of the European debt crisis go back as far as 2002, in the immediate wake of monetary union. Low interest rates and a booming housing market in Spain and Ireland led to exorbitant, unaffordable borrowing, which brought significant instability to the banking system. Greece, from the start, lied to the European Union about its level of debt in order to conform to the strict rules of the monetary union. A misdiagnosis of Greece’s problem only exacerbated the situation. Initially, Greece was thought to be suffering from a liquidity problem which could be solved with large loans. Greece was advised to balance its budget, increase taxation and reduce spending, yet the real problem lay in a lack of economic growth, in part a consequence of policies which, in effect, discouraged private enterprise. Indeed, at the start of the crisis, Greece ranked 100th on the World Bank’s ease of doing business list – behind Yemen. By 2012 this position had advanced to 89th, and in 2013, to 72nd, a significant improvement.

The strategy of implementing vast cuts in one of the most comprehensive austerity programs in economic history, ultimately backfired by further reducing economic growth and causing unacceptable levels of public suffering and systemic dysfunction through reduction in services. According to an IMF study, the increase in the share of the population living at “risk of poverty or social exclusion” was not significant during the first 2 years of the crisis: the figure was at 27.6% in 2009 and 27.7% in 2010 (and only slightly worse than the EU27-average at 23.4%). In 2011, however, the estimated figure rose sharply above 33%.

One of the principal goals of the austerity measures was the restructuring of Greek debt – to reduce the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio to roughly 160% of GDP from a forecast high of 198%.

Greek debt

This figure, as its name suggests, measures the ratio between a country’s national debt and its annual gross domestic product. A low debt-to-GDP ratio indicates an economy that produces and sells goods and services sufficient to pay back debts without incurring further debt. Governments aim for low debt-to-GDP ratios, and whilst some countries maintain ratios higher than this – Japan current sits at roughly 204% – in Greece, the figure was unsustainable. In other words, they were unable to service their debt and thus avoid its continued escalation. The strategy employed by Greece is based on the principle that lower interest payments in subsequent years, combined with fiscal consolidation of the public budget and significant financial funding from a privatisation program, should ultimately bring the debt-to-GDP ratio down 120.5% of GDP by 2020.

3711 Graffito, Athens

It doesn’t help that since the crisis began, Greece’s GDP has continued to decline. Since 2008, real GDP has fallen by more than 17%, and some forecast this figure to bottom out at 25% before it turns around. Greek GDP suffered its worst decline in 2011 when it clocked negative growth of −6.9%. In that same year, Greece’s industrial output declined 28.4% and 111,000 Greek companies went bankrupt (27% higher than in 2010).

Of course, the numbers say nothing of the pain and suffering involved in this process. Unemployment has grown from 7.5% in September 2008 to a then record high of 23.1% in May 2012, while the youth unemployment rate during the same time rose from 22.0% to 54.9%. This roughly mirrors the decline in employment in America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In mid 2013, youth unemployment reached almost 65%. An estimated 800,000 people, in a population of just 11 million, were without unemployment benefits or health cover.

4109 Meat market, Athens

On top of this, Greece now has an estimated 1,000,000 workers who regularly go unpaid, and yet who remain employed and continue going to work for fear of losing any chance of being paid altogether. With the banks unable or unwilling to lend money to businesses, one of the few means they have of freeing up capital is to hold onto money earmarked for wages and salaries.

The social effects of these austerity measures have been savage to say the least. Some Greek citizens have resorted to seeking help from NGOs to replace cancelled government welfare services, others have put their children up for adoption. The suicide rate, once the lowest in Europe, has risen by 40%. Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old pensioner, shot himself outside the Greek parliament in April because the austerity measures had “annihilated all chances for my survival.” Patients with chronic conditions receiving treatment at state hospitals in Athens have been told to bring their own prescription drugs. An estimated 20,000 Greeks were made homeless during 2011, whilst almost 20% of shops in Athens were shut down. In 2012, statistics indicated that 1 in 11 Athenians – roughly 400,000 people, were visiting soup kitchens daily.

There has, of late, been some faintly hopeful news for the state of the economy. On Monday, Moody’s announced that it was upgrading Greece’s credit rating from C to Caa3, a two step jump up from the bottom of the ladder. Moody’s further estimated that Greece will in effect have balanced its budget by the end of 2013 and move into surplus in 2014. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras announced they were expecting economic growth of 0.6% during 2014. “The sacrifices of the Greek people are paying off,” said the deputy finance minister, Christos Staikouras. Yet all would agree that the scale of that sacrifice has been far too great.

3618 Lady with broom

One of the biggest problems Greece faces is the old bugbear of tax evasion and corruption. Each year government revenues have been considerably lower than expected, with tax evasion estimated to cost Greece almost $20 billion a year. It’s easy enough to conclude from this that all Greeks must bear responsibility for the crisis – but ultimately the responsibility must rest with the government who are in a position to allow or put a stop to tax avoidance through legal action and legislation. All governments know that their citizens will try to avoid paying tax, the question is how effectively they prevent them from getting away with it.

There is much more that could be said here – the whole debate around the pros and cons of a Grexit – Greek exit from the Euro; the fundamentals of the Greek economy – which boasts the largest shipping industry in the world (yes, that is correct), and further exploration of the political and social conditions across the country.

4122 Stay or go

Yet, the point I am making here is that despite these seemingly insurmountable and crippling problems, Greece retains a great degree of social cohesion and order. It has not, in fact, collapsed into chaos and lawlessness as some reports seem to suggest. Indeed, I would argue that Greeks have shown a quiet restraint and, comparative to the scale of the economic crisis they are facing, an appropriate level of righteous indignation. Who wouldn’t be up in arms if corruption and poor economic management, as well as lax oversight of taxation had practically bankrupted not merely the present, but also the future? That the Greeks have not yet had a revolution and overthrown their government is a testament to the high levels of education, community responsibility and general good-naturedness amongst Greek people. How long this can go on for, how much Greeks can learn to live with any further entrenchment of these conditions in the long term, is yet to be seen. But, it is irresponsible to give the impression of the country being in a state of chaos, especially when they so desperately need our tourist dollars more than ever.

Parthenon

All this is very tragic indeed. In the long and remarkable narrative that is the history of Greece, the turn of the twenty-first century likely marked the country’s economic highpoint since the Byzantine era. That they should fall so hard after just a few minutes of economic sunshine is indeed unfortunate – a fate no one could wish upon them. How long it will take to turn this around and what it will ultimately cost is uncertain, but we certainly can help by going there. The fact that tourist numbers seem as strong as ever, may make this whole discussion redundant. Yet Greece has a hell of a long climb to get out of the hole into which it has fallen and needs all the help it can get. So, go to Greece I say, and not only will you have a wonderful time, but you’ll be helping the cradle of democracy and western philosophical inquiry get back on its feet. If you think about it, the debt we owe Greece is far greater than the debt they owe to their financiers. After all, it’s only fucken money.

2692 Ferry to Naxos

 

Disclaimer: All of the photos of the riots were sourced from various news sources on the net, whilst the graph hails from wikipedia – the rest of the images are my own.

Read Full Post »

By a happy accident, V and I arrived in Fort Kochi just as India’s first ever Biennale got underway. We knew something was up as soon as we reached Ernakalum, the chaotic hub on the mainland, across from which Fort Kochi sits. From here one must take either a ferry or a long ride across several bridges to reach the old fort on its island promontory. The queues at the ferry ticket office were beyond even typical Indian crowds and contained a high number of foreign tourists, many of whom did not fit the backpacker profile. We had a long wait in the segregated queues – one for men, and one for women – mystified by the heartbreaking openings and closings of the ticket window. I came close to cracking in the hot press for the dusty box office – not even on the Tokyo subway do people cram so close. After perhaps an hour, we finally secured passage and were waved through the exit gates onto the pier. Here the low-slung ferry was waiting, at the back of the throat of a glittering, industrial harbour.

Ferry crossing, Fort Kochi

Kochi, port

We’d had a glimpse of the peculiar geography of this place on the way into Ernakulam, on a bus from Alappuzha. Chugging across the sunstruck water offered further insights into the arrangement of this huge, natural harbour. From the air, Kochi and Ernakulam appear as a network of rivers, channels and islands, much like the rest of the Keralan Backwaters, only in this case, thoroughly developed. Fort Kochi itself sits at the tip of a long finger of land stretching roughly north – south along the coast; one of the headlands across the harbour mouth. To the west it looks out into the Arabian Sea, from whence had come the Portuguese traders who first established a European colony here.

Kochi Map 3 crop

Dutch Kochi 1665

The site of Fort Kochi, originally occupied by a fishing village, was granted to the Portuguese in 1503 by the Rajah of Kochi, after the forces of Afonso de Albuquerque assisted the Rajah in defeating a local rival, Saamoothiri of Kozhikode.

Chinese fishing nets

The Rajah gave the Portuguese permission to build a fort to protect their commercial interests – Fort Emanuel – the first association of this place with a defensive fort. In 1683 Fort Kochi was captured by the Dutch East India Company who ultimately made it the capital of Dutch Malabar. The Dutch reduced the area of both the old Portuguese town and the fort, and destroyed many of the public buildings. They developed the harbour and piers and constructed many merchants’ houses and warehouses, much of which survive today. In 1795, Fort Kochi was captured by the British, who further developed what had become a vibrant and important commercial centre on the Malabar Coast. Fort Kochi remained in British hands until Indian Independence in 1947. This rich colonial heritage has left Kochi with a mix of architectural styles which lends the old town a very European character, something immediately evident upon arrival.

Kochi

Stepping off the ferry we came face to face with one of the longest and thickest queues I’ve ever seen – the poor suckers waiting to get back across to Ernakulam. This crowd was a real mix of middle class Indians and foreign tourists, many of whom appeared to have been waiting for a long, long time to board a ferry. Whether we liked it or not, accommodation or otherwise, we were not getting back across in a hurry.

Our walk into town was a two-way procession – those entering and those leaving – past tired old warehouses and administrative buildings, many of which displayed signs for exhibits within and to and from which people joined and left the procession. Away from the docks and closer to the centre of town, the architecture became more intimate and residential and even more distinctly foreign – was this some dusty, forgotten, southern European port or a city in India after all? Huge fig trees loomed over the junction of Tower Road and Princess Street – the centre of town – creating a shady and remarkably quiet space. The relative absence of the many cars, buses and auto-rickshaws that give much of India a harassed vibe, leant this place an unexpected calm.

Fort Kochi, Biennale

Princess Street was a history lesson in itself. Just wide enough not to be called narrow, the melange of styles – half-timbered frames, Dutch and Portuguese colonial – with, in places, low, terracotta-tiled awnings – offered a charmingly disordered appearance. Nothing was quite new or polished and was instead pleasingly rusticated by time. It was here that we began our quest to find a hotel room, an exhausting process that took three hours and created such a mood of frustration and desperation, that it doesn’t bear recounting. Suffice to say that we eventually found adequate accommodation right where we had begun our search, just in time to settle our fractured nerves and head off in search of more fish curries.

Fort Kochi was crawling with hipsters and art-lovers. Before dinner we stopped in at a “family restaurant”, which everyone used merely as a bar, to find a crowd not unlike that of the Newtown or Surry Hills café scene. Indeed, the people all around us seemed to be from Sydney, Melbourne, or New York. There was a positive and excited atmosphere all about the town – not just from the tourists, but from locals who found themselves with a whole new clientele.

Biennale, Kochi

9737 Biennale, Kochi

Everyone seemed friendly and energetic; all sharing in this curious combination of place and venture. It was at this point that it struck us just how exciting it actually was both for us and for India that this event was taking place right here and now. As wanky as it sounds, I do firmly believe that art has a vitally important role in bringing people together and getting them to think – whether you like the art or not doesn’t matter so much – it’s a great stimulus to look at the world in a fresh way, however briefly.

Biennale, Fort Kochi

9711 Biennale, Kochi

0195 Fort Kochi

The next two days were dedicated to visiting the various exhibits of the Biennale – all covered by the same cheap ticket. Fort Kochi is an ideal place for a public display of art, full as it is of cavernous old colonial warehouses and administrative building in varying states of repair. After an excellent street breakfast, we began our wandering between these echoing, dusty places. Many of the sites appeared to be disused; cobwebs removed and floors swept, art installed and people invited in.

0080 Biennale interior space

0023 Violins Biennale, Kochi

0095 Pendulous

Much of the time the location was as much of an attraction as the art, which varied significantly both in scale and quality. We wandered up ladders, down long corridors, through unexpected courtyards and cloisters, in and out dusty old doors, at times completely taken by something, and at others indifferent but never really disengaged or disappointed.

0037 Kochi

9806 Biennale

0062 Staircase, old warehouse, Biennale, Kochi

9969 Biennale, Kochi

Without a doubt the highlight for both of us came ironically from a Sydney-based artist – Angelica Mesiti – whose high definition video installation called Citizens Band on four walls of a dark wooden warehouse room absolutely blew us away with its intimate portrait of four public performers and their incredible performances. The combination of the space and quiet, with the moving, intense music created by these individuals was mesmerising. Bukhchuluun (Bukhu) Ganburged, in particular, with his Mongolian horse fiddle and traditional throat singing, left us both in tears of wonder.

Even without the Biennale Kochi is a place worth visiting. It has a quaint and pleasing homeliness to it and many curious aspects on account of its history and geography. We ended up switching hotels three times in three nights, on account of the scarcity of accommodation during this busy time, but this also gave us new perspectives on the town, coming at it from different angles, so to speak.

0304 Pretty autorickshaw

9677 Photostat

9951 Friendly bloke on the bus

9625 Fort Kochi 3

0160 Fort Kochi

0273 Jewtown, Fort Kochi

9902 Gardener plus cricket game

0394 Beach, Fort Kochi

0413 Fort Kochi, beach 2

0339 Beach, Fort Kochi

On our second day there, we took a rickshaw down to Jewtown – a place whose name rather too deliberately makes plain its origins. There is a beautiful old synagogue and warren of streets, and it is likely the one Jewish community in the world in which the swastika is displayed publicly – often with the names of local businesses. This must seem a most confronting and bizarre juxtaposition for any visiting Jews, and one is forced to accept that, after all, it was the Nazis who appropriated this symbol from its far more peaceful origins in and around the subcontinent.

0299 Holiday planners

0242 Jewtown, Fort Kochi

0267 Jewtown, Fort Kochi

On our final night there we dined at a place called Oceanos, famous for its seafood. I mention this as we had, over the past week, been on a quest to find the best fish curries in India. By this stage, we had been very successful on Varkala beach – discovering a restaurant whose name escapes me – where one could, whilst listening to the plash of the surf, eat juicy Kingfish Marsala that, flavour and texture-wise, ranks as the best dish I have ever eaten. On that final night in Kochi, we again struck gold with all three fish curries we ordered. Again, the fish was fresh, cut into large, tender chunks, and cooked to perfection in astonishing marsalas and the Spicy Syrian Catholic Fish Curry left us reeling in paroxysms of pleasure. I could not recommend this dish more highly, and quite literally, for I do not think there is any dish in the world that can top the orgasmic joy that flooded us both as we savoured every last morsel.

Chinese fishing nets, Kochi

0396 Fort Kochi beach

0330 Beach, Fort Kochi

9765 Chinese fishing nets, Kochi

Read Full Post »

With so many dusty Kingfisher beer advertisements painted on the walls of Varkala town, it was odd that none of the shops sold beer. It was Christmas Eve and V and I had spent the last hour wandering around this small town in search of supplies. We had already purchased abundant chilli tapioca chips and plenty of cashews, but nothing remotely approaching a tipple. Was this actually a dry town, with no booze at all? If so, then the countless advertisements must be one hell of a prick-tease.

The town itself was wonderfully chaotic; the usual mess of cars, buses, trucks, rickshaws, people and animals dancing. It even hosted a vehicle graveyard at its heart, where derelict autos sat rusting and sprouting grass.

Bus conductor Varkala town

Varkala town

Ripped labourer

Varkala town

What it didn’t seem to have was a booze shop. We finished a circuit of town, confident that we had checked every general store. Most didn’t even have fridges, though we would have settled for something warm if necessary. Not because we are desperate alcoholics, but it was, after all, Christmas Eve, and we had just arrived in Kerala from Singapore the night before. This was a time for celebration.

Kerala, on the south west coast of India, has a large Christian population and Christmas is a popular holiday. Driving in the taxi from Thiruvananthapuram to Varkala Beach at midnight the night previous, we had passed a number of small churches, many hung with colourful, illuminated stars. These stars, with light-holes patterned like snowflakes, were strung between trees and hung from houses and shopfronts; a pretty adornment in the roadside dark.

Our arrival had seemed inauspicious – being overcharged by the taxi driver and then arriving to find a very disappointing room at palatial prices. It had taken some getting as well – with V diligently phoning everyone in two guidebooks from Changi before finally making a hit at just under 100 dollars – almost unheard of for India. The room itself was in no way superior to those for which I’d paid ten dollars in the past, and we fell into a glum mood – the product of a long and tiring day as much as anything else. My first moonlit glimpse of the Arabian Sea, however, standing atop the cliff at the back of the property, offered welcome relief and the hope that things would turn out well. The long reflection of the moon was a bridge between continents; pointing the way to the Arabian Peninsula; the salty warmth it radiated was evocative of the ancient spice trade, and the Roman historian in me saw their fleets snaking down the coast.

Varkala Beach

The following morning we set off early for the beach. We had reserved a nicer room with a view over the phone, but were concerned about the cost and decided to check with other hotels closer to the main beach. At the back of the hotel was a lumpy, well-watered lawn with scattered palms, leading to the rocky cliffs. Here, a stone-cut staircase zig-zagged down to long stretch of sand curving down the coast. To the south the view was lost in the hazy headland, while to the north, past the hotels, the red cliffs dwindled into a forest of tilting palms. It was an unfamiliar and exotic landscape.

The beach was largely empty – just a couple of tourists doing yoga and an Indian runner, sprinting with light feet along the sand. Until this point I had been half asleep, yet, as the runner approached me I felt a sudden surge of opportunity, whipped off the lens cap and started firing. As he passed and receded down the beach, my excitement rapidly grew. How delicious it was to be back in India, where almost everything is worth photographing.

8074 Varkala Beach

The beach just below our hotel was connected to the main beach by a narrow strip of rocky sand that took some negotiating. Dodging the incoming waves proved a pleasant game and, when I reached the other side, having been liberally splashed, I was in a great mood of expectation. Here a number of rituals were taking place. Men in white cloth were making offerings to the sea – turning their backs and throwing in flowers and rice. A priest sat on a carpeted mound of sand, surrounded by onlookers and with an elderly couple kneeling before him. There were fishermen too –some repairing nets, others out riding long, narrow, tapered punts, and some giving rides to tourists. It was not crowded, but it was lively. The morning sunshine was warm, without being too fierce. It was difficult not to photograph everything.

8118 Varkala Beach 2

8096 Varkala Beach

8329 Varkala beach idol

8111 Priest, Varkala Beach

8138 Varkala Beach

8332 Fixing the nets

8143 Varkala Beach

This was where the road from Varkala town hit the beach. The town proper was a few kilometres away and, at the end of the road, which spilled into a natural cut between the cliffs, there was a collection of small shops.

An open-decked two-storey restaurant built of palm trees sat right on the beach front before the trodden dunes. We walked behind this and followed the path that led up along the cliffs. Soon we were on the main tourist drag – a narrow road lined with hotels and shops, mostly selling souvenirs, clothing and the like, snaking along the front of the cliffs.

8318 Varkala Beach

V and I walked slowly, admiring the elevated views of the beach and ocean. We wandered into all the hotels, asking about rooms. There were many to choose from, with a variety of accommodation ranging from bamboo huts to more permanent and luxurious structures. It took us roughly an hour to reach the end of the strip, where the hotels dwindled into nothing. In the distance, amidst a forest of palms, the twin spires of a temple rose from the fronds.

Coastline, Varkala Beach

We weighed up our options and made a tentative reservation at the place we thought most reasonable. Everyone was charging ridiculous prices at Christmas, which put things more into perspective, and we were still tossing up the idea of taking the room we had reserved already from the airport, which we hadn’t actually seen yet. Needing breakfast and some time to think, we sat down at one of the tourist cafés for coffee and banana pancakes.

When we returned to our hotel and asked to see the room we had reserved, we were instantly inclined to take it. That we apologised and politely told the guy no, then, ten minutes later, changed our minds and apologetically said we would take the room, says something about the state of mind we were in – somewhat disoriented and indecisive. Once we checked in, we never looked back. It was a wonderfully light and clean, with cool tiles, a large white-sheeted bed, ceiling fan and balcony. The upper storey of a standalone structure, we also had access to the open roof. Now all we needed was a swim, some local grass for me, and then a trip to town to acquire alcohol. This was Christmas after all.

8176 Varkala hotel

So it was that two hours later we found ourselves wandering through Varkala town in search of booze. We were on the brink of quitting, having already doubled back for a second look. Standing on the road that led back to the beach, looking to flag an auto-rickshaw, V caught a glimpse of some frantic activity down a narrow side street.

“What’s going on up there?”

“I don’t know, but it looks busy.”

We could see a truck parked at the end of the lane, and through the narrow space beside it, a queue of men was visible. A moment later a man emerged from the lane, carrying a plastic bag. From the bag came the clink of bottles and, like a pair of desperados, we were over the road in a flash.

As we walked up the rocky lane, past a couple of women begging with their children, the sounds of excited activity grew. We rounded the truck and came upon a most remarkable scene; a crowd of eager men, lined up before a wire-meshed shop front, waving pieces of flimsy paper. Here, so the battered old sign read, was the Kerala State Beverage Corporation, and from behind the thick wire grill, men were handing over bottle after bottle of alcohol. From the back of the truck, a couple of wiry workers were unloading crates full of booze and passing them into the store.

The men in the queue were mostly old, with worn and leathery faces; many with white hair and beards in contrast to their deeply dark skin. They had an almost desperate, unsettling eagerness in their faces – the eyes of addicts. They were patient, but determined, standing so close in the queue that they pressed against each other. V and I stood back and watched, too timid and uncertain as to how this all worked. What was truly extraordinary was how they were paying for the booze. None of the men were handing over money – all of them had some kind of paper permit – a ration card perhaps? My limited knowledge of Kerala included the fact that it was the only state in the world to have democratically elected a communist government. Was there still a communist government in Kerala? Was this some kind of regular allocation or allowance? Had they been paid in booze for something? Had they purchased the permits or received them in exchange for something else? Was this related to the Christmas holiday or a regular occurrence?

8281 The booze truck cometh

I was hopelessly ignorant, but the scene was suggestive of so many things. We stood and watched for five minutes, quietly fascinated. My thoughts soon turned to the social implications of this scene. Was alcoholism a problem in Kerala? What percentage of these men’s wages were going on the alcohol? Could they really afford it? What were the moral implications? Domestic violence, abuse, neglect? Or was this just the rare chance for these hardworking men to relax and let go in a challenging life? Unlike the men selling the alcohol, none of these people looked wealthy; their worn features and lean bodies spoke of a life of physical toil.

V and I stood dumbstruck – not wanting to plunge into the mayhem until we knew exactly what was going on. There were a couple of other westerners hanging about, who seemed to know what they were doing. Seeing us standing there so indecisively, a Dutch woman soon approached us. “You can go to the front, you know” she said. “If you are paying in cash it’s okay. Just go to the counter, this side.”

Still we hesitated. What did we want, anyway? On the wall was a list of prices – all stupidly cheap. For six large Kingfishers and a bottle of rum it would set us back eight Australian dollars. The cost was immaterial and it was really a question of how much we were likely to drink over the next two days. After another minute or two spent watching the weathered faces, the quiet desperation, the tired old counter and the men unloading the truck, we finally drummed up the courage to approach the counter, feeling guilty that our money let us jump the queue.

A moment later we were crouched in the lane, stuffing bottles into our bags. Still pondering the many possibilities of what we had witnessed, I went and gave some money to the begging women, a small gesture to ease my conscience. As we sped back to the beach in an auto-rickshaw, talking keenly about all this, our thoughts began to shift back to self-indulgence. It’s Christmas, for god’s sake, we reminded ourselves for the umpteenth time.

Christmas itself proved a splendid day; a lot of swimming, a lot of friendly exchanges with locals and other tourists, a lot of drinking, smoking and eating. The cliff-top strip was buzzing with travellers, both local and foreign, and down on the beach, many Indian families were letting go and enjoying themselves. It was lovely to see Indian people in a festive mood and to see the way they interacted with both the foreigners and the beach itself. Most of the women remained completely clothed, while the men happily stripped down to briefs and plunged into the water. Many of the men were drunk, walking arm in arm and offering endless cheery greetings as they passed.

8360 ladies on Varkala beach

8512 Men on the beach, Varkala

8352 Varkala beach

8497 Varkala Beach

8349 Varkala beach

8514 Beach scene in Kerala

8420 Big night

8432 Boat, Varkala

8530 Varkala beach

Despite the clear, almost shocking contrast between European women sunbathing topless or lounging in bikinis, and the very properly dressed Indian women, there seemed no displeasure between the two groups – no sense of outrage or offense. Perhaps it is the nature of Varkala Beach, which seems well-used to western exhibitionism, or perhaps it was the sense of liberation that comes with a public holiday, but either way, there was harmony right along the beach.

8697 Snake charmer, Varkala Beach

8718 Twin cobras

8727 Two cobras, Varkala Beach

8731 Snake charmer, Varkala Beach

8814 Varkala Beach

8403 Kerala beach scene

8570 Sunset, Varkala Beach

That evening, having watched a snake-charmer and a blind woman with a heartrendingly beautiful voice singing Bollywood songs on the beach, we decided to try the palm-built restaurant. Sitting upstairs at the front, we could see and hear the constant plash of the waves stroking the beach. Downstairs, the restaurant displayed its daily catch – a collection dominated by a magnificent king fish. It was this that we ordered – the kingfish masala, along with another fish curry. We had come to Kerala in search of hot, sour fish curries, but never could we have expected anything to taste as good as this. It was a veritable foodgasm – large, succulent, tender chunks of kingfish, cooked to perfection in a mind-blowing masala. Never in my life have I made so many exclamatory remarks about the quality of a dish, and despite several equally knock-out fish curries we were to eat in the coming weeks, we always came back to this one. When the meal was done and we sat back stuffed and drunk, feeling the salty warmth roll in off the Arabian Sea, it was hard not to feel that this was the best bloody Christmas ever.

Read Full Post »

Gallipoli – Part 1

“Otogar, Otogar,” the man insisted. He seemed almost desperate, as though my life depended on it. If I wasn’t somewhat sympathetic to his situation I would have laughed at this exaggeration. Either way, I knew how to get to the bus station and wasn’t about to pay someone to show me.

The tram platform was raised above the street; the main drag of the Sultanahmet district, Istanbul. The man walked up and down, nose to the opportunity. All about were tourists, travellers, pilgrims; some were bound to be clueless.

The day was still crisp with breakfast; fine air ticklish with desiccated leaf. The order hereabouts – neatness, monumentality, soaring, ancient stone – was an island. Outside Sultanahmet the tides of Istanbul pulsed and surged; everywhere a little busier, a little dirtier. I was still in two minds about the place, though I was reluctant to leave. Love took a little longer these days, but I figured it would eventually arrive. It wasn’t, after all, my first time there. That had been five years before; tired after five months on the road; a sad, reluctant coda, oddly non-plussed.

The tram filled up quickly. The carriage was full of other travellers; pilgrims I suppose, come to pay a sort of homage. The purpose was still indistinct to me and the rationale unclear. It was homesickness, adventurousness, a good excuse to go back to Turkey and see more ruins. Anzac Day at Gallipoli.

I stood by the doors at the carriage’s end. Before me were a group of Kiwis and a tanned and freckled, blonde, weathered Australian. He can’t have been a day over thirty, but his face was lined from squinting against the antipodean glare. I hadn’t seen anyone who looked so Australian in a long time. He was accompanied by a young black man. I told myself he was Kenyan, a refugee, on no good grounds whatsoever. Another guess, but one far less informed. He smiled at the blonde Australian and smiled at me as well. I thought he looked nervous, something was in the balance.

“Are you from Australia?” the blonde man asked me.

“Yes. But I live in England.”

“Right. I’m an Aussie too. From W.A. Name’s Scott.”

He sounded very Australian indeed, dry and broad. There was distance in his eyes. Open space or tiredness? I couldn’t tell.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Gallipoli?”

“Yeah, mate, s’right.”

“Me too. Headed for the bus station?”

“Yep. That’s the one. This bloke’s takin’ me there.”

“Aha,” I said, unsure how to follow it up. “So, you know where to go then?”

“Yeah, well this bloke does. No worries.”

Scott had a tired and guarded look about him. The way he stood with his back against the wall spoke both of practical common sense, but also a certain deficit of trust. The “Kenyan” standing next to him kept smiling at both of us, almost sycophantically. I figured he must have latched onto Scott in the hope of getting a tip. Scott pointed a thumb at him and said:

“I gave him twenty US bucks. He’s helping me out.”

“Okay, nice.”

Twenty bucks. US. Phew. It struck me that here was a bloke who was really going to get taken for a ride in Turkey if he wasn’t more careful. Then again, Scott looked like he could afford it and no doubt the Kenyan needed the money more than him. I thought about saying something, but didn’t want to patronise him or insult the other chap. My mind wandered back to a scene from the film Gallipoli, in which gullible Australian soldiers get ripped off in the bazaars of Cairo. It was at this point that a thought first occurred to me that would stay with me over the next twenty-four hours – Scott was just like one of those original Anzacs.

I thought I ought to make small talk and asked Scott what he did. He told me he was an electrician who worked in rural Western Australia. He’d just arrived that morning at the end of a horrifically long journey. He’d flown back to Perth from the States where he’d been on holiday, met his brother at the airport who had packed his gear for him for his three-month trip to Europe, and three hours later he set off on the twenty-hour flight between Australia and Turkey. No wonder he looked tired.

Scott struck me as an old-fashioned Australian; quietly spoken and with a country formality about him. He was curiously, almost stiffly polite, saying “thanking you, thanking you,” to even the smallest offer of help or advice. He seemed to be utterly genuine in what he said and did – devoid of pretence and incapable of telling a lie. He didn’t exactly volunteer information, but was willing to talk once he got started.

I had often imagined a character such as him sending a postcard home with a touchingly simple message on it – his first communication in months. It would read something like this:

Dear Mum,

I’m in Turkey and I’m alright. Don’t forget to feed the chooks. Hope the tractor hasn’t broken down again, love to Gran,

Scott.

When we finally arrived at the bus station some fifteen minutes later, I gestured and offered Scott the door.

“After you,” I said.

He smiled and replied in his dry accent.

“Thanking you, thanking you.”

At the bus station we fare-welled Scott’s helper who had long ago realised he was redundant, but showed impressive loyalty for sticking it out. The main bus station, or Otogar, in Istanbul is a massive hexagonal affair of tall, brutalist concrete bays, accessed by spiralling overpasses. Like a temple complex for machines, the scale of it would be dehumanising were it not for the buzz of human chaos that fills it.

Scott and I followed the New Zealanders who had stood near us on the tram and bought tickets for the next bus down the coast. Having flown in first thing that morning and had next to no sleep, I really hoped I might be able to doze on the bus. Once aboard, however, I was too restless. The Kiwis from the tram ended up sitting opposite us and we all swapped stories along the way, taking in the dry landscape with its concrete communities that looked like so much scattered lego.

When we finally pulled into Eceabat, I was instantly struck by its scrappiness. The roads were full of holes, many of the pavements were dirt and rubble, and a considerable number of the houses and shops were half-derelict. Turkey is no stranger to that peculiar Mediterranean phenomenon of the concrete skeleton. Everywhere there are unfinished developments, many standing alone in the middle of nowhere – usually three to four storey apartment buildings, with the walls yet to fill the framework of concrete pylons and floors. Eceabat had a number of these skeletons on the outskirts of the town, and it was here that we headed after alighting from the bus, for at the southern edge of the town lay the famous “Vegemite Disco Bar.”

The Vegemite Disco Bar was ramshackle to say the least. Thrown up without symmetry or polish, the brick and breezeblock structure was a glorified shed, though in no way glorious. It was patched here and there with corrugated iron, fishing nets and pieces of board and was ennobled by a sloppy yet commercially accurate mural of the Victoria Bitter logo. The place had the feel of a post-apocalyptic survivors’ refuge; a last chance saloon of sorts. And so it was.

They did of course, sell dirt cheap beer – a snip at five hundred thousand lirasi – and it was cold. Just before embarking on this trip, the Turkish Lira had taken a nose-dive and was once again spiralling out of control. It lost half its value against the pound in little over a month and one pound now bought around two million lira. As a consequence of the insane level of devaluation and inflation that has plagued Turkey over the last few decades, they now have a ten-million lira note, which is truly spectacular to behold. The most alarming thing about the banknote, however, was that even for the seemingly impossible number of zeroes on it, it was still only the equivalent of a fiver.

Scott had worn a strained expression on his face for the last few hours, which I hoped was due to his epic trek across the world and not my conversation, but once he got a can of Troy Lager in his hand, he looked decidedly more relaxed. We were instantly accosted by a garrulous Kiwi who asked if we had anything to smoke. Sadly no, but he seemed an amusing bloke, so we walked outside and pulled in along the stretch of concrete beside the water, now crawling with southern hemisphericals. Some smiling Turks had a barbecue going and the smell of kebabs grilling over the coals filled the air.

We sat on a small, rickety wharf leaning out from the broken concrete, so rickety that we soon moved off it onto the concrete. Simon, our new-found Kiwi friend, proved a real barrel of laughs. He can’t have been more than about twenty-five years old, but he claimed to have just sold his house, left his girlfriend behind and left New Zealand “for as long as it takes.” I soon enough gleaned that the house had come into his hands as a consequence of some apparently very profitable drug-dealing. We chatted for a couple of hours, sinking cans of Troy in the warm afternoon sun. Clearly satisfied with the size of the crowd, the guys running the bar put on a cassette recorded off Triple J radio station in Australia. It must have been quite an old one, because after about half an hour the music was interrupted by a news flash in which there was mention of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who hadn’t been prime minister since 1992.

A light breeze blew over the water and I took great pleasure in watching the glittering ripples across the bay. It was joy enough to be beside the sea once again and the scene was almost picturesque. By around five in the afternoon it started to get a little chilly, and I realised that the clothing I had  was not going to be warm enough to get through a night sitting on a windswept beach. What had I been thinking in bringing so little – and no sleeping bag? Scott looked ready to move. I think he was feeling sleepy after four beers and a kebab or two, so we fare-welled our new friend and set off along the main drag towards the bus-station.

I wandered into the first clothing shop I saw and bought a discount jumper that didn’t fit me in the slightest, but had potential life-saving qualities. We grabbed a couple of bottles of water, some snacks, hot and cold, fruit, and a large bottle of raki for emergencies, before grabbing one of the many taxis buzzing around. Our driver was an affable bloke who told us this was his fifteenth run out to the beach that day. During the course of the conversation, Scott somehow found ample opportunities to roll out his charming mantra of “thanking you, thanking you”.

On the drive out of Eceabat, we passed lines of people walking to the beaches and a number of flat-bed, horse-drawn carts topped by beer-swilling antipodeans. We drove through darkening fields and copses of pines glowing a pale magenta in the westering light. As we reached the other side of the neck of land and saw the horizon again, the richly coloured sunset had such an impact on me that I asked the driver if he would stop a moment so that I might take a photograph. I caught the sun as it was halfway towards night; radiating echoes of burnt orange past distant hills. In the foreground, a sea of purple shadows was topped by dulled silver. It vanished quickly and the oranges darkened; the sky’s reflection faded into the blackening waves. We climbed back into the taxi.

North Beach, where the ceremonies would take place at dawn, was a well-landscaped site with neatly cut lawns and three flagpoles bearing the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand flags. A large crowd had already gathered, spread out along the lawns and the beach itself. Stepping out onto the newly bitumened surface, we spotted a bunch of blokes playing two-up down beneath the flags.

“Okey dokes, ladies and gentlemen, place ya bets!”

Having been away from Australia for a couple of years, I felt a mix of nostalgia and self-conscious embarrassment. It was, however, something of a relief that people had not come here to sit about in mournful silence. This more spirited, larrikin attitude to the occasion struck me not only as appropriate, but as being what the original diggers would have wanted. Scott and I had hardly dumped our stuff and taken a slug of raki before a game of Australian Rules football started up. We shifted our gear and joined in the game.

It was now about seven thirty in the evening and there were probably only a few hundred people about, spread over a rather broad area. Once the game had broken up, we sat down and had another hit of raki, but neither of us were in the mood for drinking. Scott seemed to be fading fast after so long without sleep.

“Mate, I’m butchered. I think I’m going to crash for a while.”

“No worries. I’ll take first watch.”

“Wake me up if anything happens.”

“Will do.”

Scott climbed into his sleeping bag and curled up on the grass. In a moment, he was fast asleep, like a cocooned insect.

Now a game of rugby league sprang up in the middle of the “field”. Being a New South Welshman, this was more to my taste and I volunteered my services. Two teams were immediately formed and, what started as a game of touch footy soon upped a gear into full tackle rugby league. A bunch of Turks who were sitting alongside the road watching the activities decided to join us, getting right into the spirit of it. Fast asleep in his sleeping bag, Scott was chosen as one of the corner posts. It was little short of miraculous that during the next hour of noise, mayhem and vigorous tackling, he not only avoided being stepped on, but did not even bat an eyelid.

When the game was over, things slowed down a little and everyone sat down in groups, drinking and talking. People continued to arrive in a steady trickle until all the grass we’d been playing on was covered. Some of the new arrivals couldn’t resist planting the Australian flag, which struck me as both unnecessary and discourteous. After all, the Turks had been kind enough to fly the Australian flag over this hallowed ground, and to want to claim it all over again seemed not merely arrogant and thoughtlessly nationalistic, but also naively disrespectful of the Turkish victory.

Indeed, I was struck by the ridiculous amount of Australian flags on shirts, singlets, bags, towels, you name it. One woman was completely decked out in the bloody thing. She wore a flag tracksuit, the top of which was undone to reveal a Tee-shirt with the Australian flag on it  – it was all over her socks and beanie, and just in case you hadn’t got the message, she had a flag draped over her shoulders. I have never ever been able to understand this expression of nationalist fervour and find flags horribly offensive and aggressive. Maybe it’s just me, but is it really necessary to shove your nationality down someone’s throat in a foreign country? Who gives a rat’s arse where you come from? A lot of people seem to think that the only level on which they can communicate with foreigners is to discuss their foreignness, rather than just assuming that they too are human beings and can be engaged on all manner of other subjects. They say travel broadens the mind, but for a lot of people it makes them increasingly militant about their own identity, which seems to be reduced to a bunch of symbols and clichés.

I sat there listening to people talking around me, bemused by the snippets of conversation I heard.

“Gee, it really makes you think, dunnit?”

“Musta been tough for those blokes on that first night.”

“Yeah, you can really feel the history, eh?”

I passed the time writing in my diary, listening to my walkman and occasionally taking swigs of Raki. I thought about going and making friends with some random people, but it just seemed like too much hard work, and from what I was hearing, I felt as though the conversation might be lacking something. I turned to look at the cliffs behind me, visibly outlined against the stars, and spent a good hour with my eyes fixed on a neck of land that looked like the head of the Sphinx. It might have even been called the Sphinx, I can’t remember. It had been beautiful just after sunset when the sky was still a darkening blue, and it was still beautiful now in the moon and starlight.

More and more people continued to arrive, and by around eleven-thirty at night, things had become a little ridiculous. Coach-load after coach-load was turning up, until the road behind was completely filled with huge tour buses and every inch of ground for a considerable distance was covered with people in various states of repair. As the evening wore on, so the sea-breeze wore on in, and gradually, it wore me down. I’d started out feeling vaguely warm, but by around midnight, I was freezing cold. I had no jacket with me, and so my only option was extra layers. I put on another tee-shirt, which got me through until around one. I then had to put on another and that got me through until about two. By three, I had no choice but to wrap my last tee-shirt around my head and put on a collared shirt under my jumper. By then it had become quite ludicrously cold and I was exhausted.

All this while, Scott had not moved at all, but had remained fast asleep. He was now surrounded on all sides by the crowd, and I lay down beside him in the small space that remained, head on my bag. I tried to sleep, but was far too cold and damp and lay there shivering miserably. It was so cold my entire body started aching, my head most of all. I cursed stupidity and bitterly passed two of the most miserable hours of my life. Why had I not brought a sleeping bag, or at least a coat? Hadn’t it occurred to me that Turkey in April was cold at night? Obviously not, and admitting my folly was no consolation. All I could think of was dawn. The sun would rise and so would the temperature. I would survive to see this great event, and gradually my body would thaw!

When things began stirring for the dawn service, shortly before dawn, I dragged myself from a despairing huddle and stood to attention. Imagine my displeasure when it was announced that the Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, was going to address us. I was certainly no fan of the man or the government of which he was a part, and was not pleased to be reminded of why I’d been so glad to leave Australia.

I woke up Scott and we both stood like zombies, watching the service. I tried hard not to laugh at Downer’s teddy-bear intonation, but could not take the man seriously. The New Zealand foreign minister was a little more inspiring, despite equally dealing in platitudinous clichés. One line stood out, however, and I got over myself and remembered the individuals who had come here in the first place.

“When they first got to the beach, there was no battle plan, no orders, just sheer heroism”

Sheer heroism indeed. And standing there, cold, exhausted, surrounded by a bunch of jingoistic antipodeans and having survived a speech by Alexander Downer, I felt like a bloody hero as well.

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 »

It seems ironic in retrospect that I doubted the wisdom in returning to Darjeeling. After all, I had spent nine days there on my first visit and wondered what was left to do and see. Much of the joy of my first visit had come from being alone and spending my time thinking, walking, smoking, photographing and taking notes. The battle against the elements – my undying hope of seeing the mountains on a clear day – provided an exciting and compelling challenge. While my failure to see the mountains was a huge disappointment, the excitement of getting up at dawn in the hope of doing was more than enough reason to be alive and in Darjeeling. Much time was spent watching the sunrise, or sitting in silence at the tea shack on the corner of Chowrasta, watching people and enjoying feeling completely and utterly free. Would Darjeeling have the same appeal a second time around, and now, with someone else in the picture?

When we woke up that first morning and saw the mountains on the horizon, it was immediately clear that we had made the right decision in coming there. Not only that, but as V and I contemplated what we might do over the next few days, it dawned on me how little actual sightseeing I had done previously. Sure, I had walked all over town, up and down and around the fringes back in 2010, but apart from a few outlying monasteries I had come across, there was much that I had ignored: The Zoo, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the Happy Valley Tea Estate, the view of the sunrise from Tiger Hill. Admittedly, I had ruled out the zoo, having mixed feelings about such places, and, despite being interested in the history of regional exploration, never worked up enough excitement about the Institute. I dropped Tiger Hill on the grounds that the mountains were not visible anyway and I didn’t need to ride in a jeep somewhere NOT to see them, when I could do that perfectly well from the town. As to Happy Valley, however, it was just an unfortunate oversight.

Two kids, Darjeeling

Darjeeling bearers

This time around we determined to try to see everything we could, as well as do a lot of wandering about. We spent the first day doing the latter – wandering about and re-orienting. I was trying to avoid that terrible habit of constantly referencing experiences from my last visit, but the excitement at seeing things again was too great. The one major disappointment for me was that my favourite tea and momo stall on the edge of Chowrasta was not open. After the first couple of days, I’d eaten almost every meal there and drunk a river of tea. I figured they must be having a day off as their signage was still in place, but felt a sense of foreboding that I would not see them this time around.

Prayer wheels

Darjeeling Monastery

The second morning was even clearer than the first, without a trace of cloud anywhere to be seen. After some strong coffee and a huge breakfast at Sonam’s Kitchen, we set off for the Happy Valley tea estate and promptly got lost. The road we took, however, turned out to be that which led to the Zoo and Mountaineering Institute, so we decided to go there instead.

Local Motorbike enthusiasts

It was a lovely day of bright sunshine and cool air – around 11 degrees – just warm enough to wear a tee-shirt when walking keenly. The road we followed afforded occasional jaw-dropping glimpses of the mountains on the horizon and sunlit views of Darjeeling, houses stacked up above wooded slopes.

Mountains

The zoo brought out the usual combination of excitement and pity one experiences in such places. Seeing a snow leopard, a Bengal tiger, a panther, red panda, bears, Himalayan wolves and the world’s oldest living variety of deer was all very pleasing, yet seeing them in cages was not. Their miniature habitats, where some effort had been made to provide a natural environment, were just a bit small for my liking.

Yawning leopard, tres cute

The Bengal tiger certainly made an impression – after we found it, that is. Its enclosure was one of the larger ones; a sloping hillside, overgrown with trees and shrubs, full of camouflaging shadows. Our first sighting was of the tiger’s enormous head, surrounded by dark vegetation. There were not many people around, and little of the excited noise that often assails one at a zoo, and the tiger seemed languidly un-harassed. Its eyes stared ahead, straight through the fence and beyond us, as though, with appropriate contempt for its captors and tormentors, it had managed to pretend we didn’t exist. Later, we found it pacing about behind a tree, which was an altogether sadder sight. The weight of its muscle was evident, and despite its obvious agility, it had a fearsome heaviness about it. Such great power, when combined with adrenaline, must be one of the most awesome sights in nature. As we walked away, I remember thinking that at least this one was safe from the poachers; a thought swiftly followed by despair at just how dire the tiger’s plight now is.

Red Panda

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute lies directly behind the zoo and is available on a combined ticket. After a couple of circuits looking at the animals, we followed the path to the courtyard outside the building, in which the centrepiece is a statue of Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two men, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, to climb to the summit of Mt Everest in 1953. Originally born in Nepal, Tenzing moved to Darjeeling at the age of 19 and, on account of his incredible achievement, he is revered by the locals with no small amount of awe.

Standing before the statue, inspired by the weather, the views, the cool crisp air and full of the spirit of discovery, both V and I were deeply moved. There was something so heroic about this handsome man who had done such extraordinary things. In the statue he seemed happy and kind, humble and unassuming. My father, who dreamed of climbing Everest for years but never did so, had told me about that first ascent in my childhood, placing, with his classic socialist support of the little guy, appropriate emphasis on the role of Tenzing Norgay, whose name I had never forgotten.

Tenzing Norgay - what a handsome dude!

Tenzing was one of my early heroes, though I knew very little about him, and standing there before his statue I felt myself choking up. What a champion! What an incredible thing to do! It was almost as though I was finally meeting him after all these years. V, funnily enough, felt just as I did, and both of us came away with moist eyes and lumps in our throats, appetites keenly whetted for the Institute itself.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is certainly worth a visit. It is full of wonderfully tired old displays – decrepit stuffed birds, dusty, mangy wildlife and lots of climbing equipment from various eras. The displays trace the history of Himalayan expeditions in a series of time capsules full of equipment from different mountaineering teams, which map the gradual evolution towards the present. Despite the obviously more primitive nature of the earlier expeditions, some of the equipment seems surprisingly modern and ahead of its time – which, no doubt, it was when they set out. The museum also displays a lot of old photographs and newspaper clippings, which remind one of just how important the climbing of Everest was in the popular imagination. These days, the North Face is more like a busy highway, though no one in their right mind would belittle the effort in climbing it.

That same day we checked out of the Dekeling Hotel and into the Windamere Hotel for one night. This was in fact a belated birthday present for V. Back in November, I’d given her a mocked up “Passport to pleasure”, entitling her to a night of luxury in India. Originally I’d had the idea of staying in a Maharaja’s palace somewhere, but things didn’t quite work out that way and the Windamere seemed like the best option.

The Windamere Hotel, once described as “One of the three jewels of the Raj”, is actually a converted boarding house for bachelor English and Scottish tea planters. It’s cozy collection of wooden cottages wasn’t converted to a hotel until just before the outbreak of the Second World War, thus making it something of a late-comer to the Raj. Located on Observatory Hill, it occupies a special place in Darjeeling both geographically and historically. We arrived to find that we had received an upgrade, to one of the Colonial Class cottages, if I remember correctly, which was everything I was hoping for. The cottage included a sunroom, a large bedroom, small dressing room and a lovely bathroom. The wood-panelled walls, the antique fittings, the historical photographs and prints on the walls, the gorgeous carpets and furnishings, all exuded a charming Britishness that was both quaint and tasteful.

Windamere Hotel, our sunroom!

Devonshire Tea at the Windamere is listed among the Darjeeling things to do highlights, and we weren’t about to miss it. At 1600 that afternoon, we were shown into the reading room – another time capsule of colonial luxury and restrained decadence. As we waited for the tea and scones to arrive, we explored the hotel’s common rooms – the bar, the music room – it was all bloody splendid, what.

When the tea arrived it came not merely with a couple of scones, cream and jam, but with a large tray of cakes and pastries. My excitement at this was only slightly diminished by the knowledge that we were booked in for a three course meal later in the dining room, which promised to be lavish and hearty. Wanting to enjoy the hotel as much as possible, we stayed there all evening, taking baths, lying in bed with the coal fire burning and only venturing out for what proved a smashing dinner.

When the alarm went off at 0330 the following morning, I can’t say I was keen to leave the hotel. We had, however, determined, on the back of the amazing weather, to go out to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise. This, we thought, would be easy, because the Lonely Planet suggested that all one had to do was walk down to the bus and jeep station and there would be a positive scrum of tourists and drivers ready to roll. Whilst this may be the case in the high season, nothing could have been further from the truth for us. Indeed, when we did finally reach the bottom of the town, rugged up as best as we could against the still freezing darkness, there were just a few locals kicking around, none of whom were planning on driving to Tiger Hill.

We asked around, followed the odd moving jeep, then finally, out near the Toy train station, found a driver who had arranged privately to take a couple of other tourists out there. He said we could wait and check with his customers if they were okay to have us along. We ended up waiting with him for almost half an hour, before another jeep full of Bengalis up from Kolkata swung by. The driver said we could squeeze in the back, and so we did at around 0430.

I can’t say I was very happy at this stage, being overly tired and insufficiently warm. The ride itself was interesting – rocking back and forth in the steamy jeep, full of dark men in dark clothes, occasionally muttering to each other. We smiled and were friendly, but I was too tired to be open and affable. When we did finally arrive at Tiger Hill, after a half hour drive, I was still not in the best of moods and kept sullenly to myself.

Considering how quiet it had been at the bus and jeep stand, we assumed Tiger Hill would not be so busy on this occasion. When we pulled in, however, the dark road was thick with jeeps. Up at the observation point, there were already hundreds of people all huddled together, waiting for a view of the sunrise. It wasn’t an easy wait, either. The biting cold crept slowly and painfully into my fingers and toes and I tried to keep them as warm as possible, but had no gloves and was wearing thongs with socks. When the sky finally began to lighten and I started to take photographs, my fingers soon became so stiff and sore I could barely adjust the settings on the camera and struggled to hold it steady. I wondered if it was really worth being here at all, and then, something incredible happened. The sun came up.

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

It was, in itself, a beautiful sight, even before its rays had hit the mountains. Yet what was so great about this particular dawn was the collective gasp that came from the huge crowd of frozen, anoraked, beanied and gloved-up people. The exhalations of the watchers were full of excitement and wonder and an almost desperate relief. It was not merely a beautiful sight, but the sun’s warmth was so utterly necessary in the cold.

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

The sun rose slowly but surely and cast its light across the long range of the Himalayas. The view left nothing to be desired. From Tiger Hill it is possible to see a very long, craggy stretch of the range, including distant sights of Everest. As the sun struck Mount Kangchenjunga, its bold ridges came starkly alive with gold.

Himalayan sunrise

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

We remained on the Hill for another half hour or so, before finding our way back to the jeep. The road home included a couple of other pit-stops. One, a splendid view point, and the other, a Ghorka war memorial.

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

Ghorka war memorial

By this stage, however, despite feeling fully respectful of the Ghorka people, we were ready to go home. I took a few more photographs, but was feeling pretty sore from freezing and thawing a few times. We returned to a marvellous breakfast and spent the rest of the morning luxuriating in our warm hotel room. At midday we were to check out and move back into another, different and equally cosy room at the Dekeling Hotel.

Traditional outfits

That afternoon we finally found our way to the Happy Valley tea plantation. There the land view really opened out, for the slope was very steep and covered only by the low, hardy, neatly-clumped tea bushes. We followed the rocky road down the undulating hillside, sunshine belting on down. Below, the road was lined with tall cedars, straight and magnificently proud. We found a nice place and sat a while in the sun, still feeling some of the morning’s chill in our bones and muscles.

Happy Valley tea estate

A local champ who wanted to pose for me!

Local kids, Darjeeling

Earlier, at the hotel, V had arranged to go one a one-day trek into Nepal the following morning. I was interested in going, but initially opted out because I had no shoes other than my flimsy, worn-out thongs. It had seemed crazy to buy a pair of shoes I would not keep just for a single day of walking, but then, sitting there amongst the tea bushes and soaking up the afternoon sun, it ceased to seem crazy at all. I knew how much I would regret missing the experience and decided to go after all. The real problem was going to be finding some shoes that fit me in a country full of small feet, and once I’d decided I wanted to go, the search for a suitable pair of shoes could not wait. Up we got, a little reluctantly, and began the walk back into town.

Darjeeling shop

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: