A Travellerspoint blog

'Trip' of a lifetime

Still at Sae Lao project in Nathong village, I decided that it was time to touch base with the world and set foot into town for the first time in almost a week. I set about buying some snacks for the kids and a few chocolate bars for us volunteers after Gwen and Phil spent a couple of hours the previous night talking about the confectionery they missed from back home, like it was long-lost memory from their childhood. Next, I purchased a bus ticket for tomorrow, which would take me to Vientiane- the nation's capital. Straying from the path somewhat, I dropped into a pizzeria in town. 'Do you do happy pizzas here?' I asked. 'Yes, you can choose any one and I will put the happy on it. Do you want happy shake as well?' I thought for all of a split-second. 'Err, yes please.' I said and decided not to dictate the flavour for fear of upsetting the balance. I chose a table in the empty restaurant and sat down. In Laos, when the term happy comes before pizza, shake, brownie or just about any other foodstuff served here it doesn't mean it comes with a smiley face. All I knew was that it contained the additional ingredient of marijuana- a misunderstood substance if ever there was one- and that it supposedly made you fly a bit. All part of life's unique experiences I thought. I wasn't an addictive or habitual person and generally knew my limits when it came to life's indulgences. I made the decision as an level-headed adult, and as a person on a journey of discovery. I wasn't shooting up heroin in the streets. The unmistakable smell of grass wafted from the kitchen. Not knowing how many additional ingredients there were, and also what they were put me in a slight dilemma when it arrived with mushrooms on it. Now ordinarily I don't eat fungus, but this was a happy pizza- were they par for the course, or were they extras? Bottom line- I ate the mushrooms. I scoffed the pizza and finished the shake slow enough not to get indigestion and just fast enough to get back to the village before the effects kicked in. I jumped back on the borrowed motorbike and rode the seven kilometres back down the stony road, avoiding all the big rocks, and across several extremely narrow and rickety bridges- one of which crosses the Nam Song river to the West of town. One thing I was happy about was not falling twenty feet into the river while riding the motorbike across its uneven and loosely-planked surface.
I brought the bike to a stop in the front garden of Sae Lao, getting back onto my feet and feeling that my balance was already mildly compromised. I walked over to Khan Kéo who was sitting in the open-air bamboo dining room, and in one of our many broken conversations we 'talked' about the bus ticket I had booked for Vientiane, using mime and the few words that I knew she understood, which you might be able to count on all your digits if you took your shoes off. By this time during my stay at Sae Lao I'd bonded well with Khan Kéo. We had an English lesson every night, right after we ate dinner, there in a circle, around the low bamboo table on the living room floor of the family she stayed with. They ate and muttered amongst themselves and then spoke to me whenever they wanted to ask about an English word they were curious about, or to ask about my job and yearly wage and about how they wanted me to marry Khan Kéo, despite us never having held hands. It had all been quite innocent and child-like, but they seemed intent on marrying her off to the nearest falang.
I sat there in the dining room opposite Khan Kéo, she was visibly saddened by my commitment to leave and held the bus ticket like a police fine, with brewing contempt. But every expression Khan Kéo showed, she showed with marvellous honesty of feeling and with gentle motion. I was sure that she'd never scorned anyone, instead taking life's injustices as just that- a part of life, and smiling on gently with a strong-will and a loving heart.
The moment was sombre. For the past few days I'd genuinely considered how I might stay, and what would happen to me if I did. I was sure life in Essex wouldn't be any more fulfilling. Would I fit in? I could learn Lao, I was sure I could live without the luxuries I was used to in occidental society, I also knew that should it go that way I'd be lucky to have such a diligent and sweet girl as Khan Kéo, and I treasured her fondness for me for all that it was worth.
I began smiling at all the wrong moments. I covered those first few smiles with well-placed secondary expressions and gestures. Oh God, not now, the pizza was kicking in. At a time when I should be showing respect and consolation I was grinning widely like I'd just farted in a lift; thankfully she didn't appear to notice. I felt the nip of a mosquito on my arm and I scratched at the red bump already forming. Go, and go now, I felt a voice say to me from inside my own head. Before you undo this beautiful friendship and offend the poor girl. My mind was warping. I couldn't concentrate fully and my perception of time in conversation was hanging tenuously on a thread of my own paranoia. I scratched again at the bite, this time overly-dramatically, 'I have to go, I have to go and put some mosquito cream on, I'm getting bitten' I said beneath a pained brow and gesturing thoroughly to aid her understanding. I stood up, trying not to show my gravitationally-challenged head and walked out of the dining room. I immediately felt terrible for having gotten up like that and wondered what I might do to prevent offence. For now, I just had to get back to the cabin. About twenty paces from the dining room was a narrow plank of wood which crossed a six-foot ditch, I crossed it everyday to get to the cabin at the back of the field. How was I going to get across this without looking like I was drunk or high, or worse, without falling tragically? I knew I was still in her eye-line, and having gotten up so unexpectedly she would surely be watching. I slowed and put one foot in line with the wood, I took the first step and then prayed like hell the rest would follow. I could neither judge nor see straight, but somehow I made it across in four tentative steps. The one or two minute walk down the well-trodden dirt path began to feel like a day-long marathon, and my mind played sections of that path over and over, making me feel like I was stuck on a journey backed by a theme tune of vaguely familiar music that skipped like a scratched record. At some point in time and space I made it back to the cabin, where Trebooks- one of the French volunteers- was sitting in a hammock out front. As I approached that place I convinced my mind that I wasn't high, I felt my vision phase itself from one dimension and into another, more real and vivid that the first. The transition was like staring into one of those magic-eye posters, so popular in the nineties, but soon enough my eyes fell back into the swirling madness. I stared at him with a helpless grin. 'I'm....I, I'm so high right now, I'm tripping' I said, followed by an exhalation of breathy laughter. He looked back at me, I'm sure surprised at the declaration, but also visibly amused. 'What happened man?' I gathered my thoughts, which were now a few contorted remnants of thoughts and steadied myself to reply. As I spoke I heard myself as a third person, but with a slight time-delay as my drugged mind struggled to register what it was hearing. 'I went into town and had a happy pizza and a happy shake, I'm on a big trip right now, I need to lie down.' I said and I climbed the four or five steps onto the verandah and then walked into the cabin; my feet unsteady on a bamboo floor which seemed to be intent on felling me to the ground. I laid down on my patch of floor, thankfully it was distinctly marked out as an orange bed sheet covering a very thin mattress next to a line of all green ones. Once again I felt the bite of mosquitoes on my forearms and ankles. I grew paranoid that they were after me in droves. I grabbed at my sleeping bag rolled up in a neat pile at the foot of my bed and began to slither inside it in a manoeuvre which took several times longer than a sober mind would have managed, as all my brain functions responsible for coordination and concentration were now on vacation. Eventually I laid flat on my back inside the sleeping bag. I could see the mossies clear as day flying about my head so I pulled the toggle strings to close the head section over my whole face. Now I was lying there, motionless, only my eyeballs visible from the outside, not even the hint of an eyelid was showing. As I blinked, my eyelashes rubbed against the thinly woven material of the sleeping bag. The mosquitoes seemed to have got bored and left, either that or they were now inside with me. At that thought I began to scratch at my ankles in haste, the way you do when watching a nature programme about creepy crawlies; you know there's nothing there, but a physical sensation is the same whether its caused by something real or not, and so you scratch.
I stared up at the bamboo ceiling fifteen feet above my glaring eyes, and the formations of the supporting structures and the thinner bamboo strands seemed to change to a different scale within my perspective. Suddenly I was looking down at a great civilisation from above and each tiny section of bamboo became one of many perfectly symmetrical houses.
A series of banging sounds came from behind our sleeping hut. The innocent noise sparked my mind to create an epic. I was transported into what felt like World War I, as gunshots rang around my head and the faint battle cries of fallen heroes faded into a bloody scene of wounded bravery. All the time this was happening I never felt afraid. I knew it was not real, but I had no choice but to acknowledge the sounds that were being created around me and I reacted accordingly. More gunshots echoed from the battlefield. It felt like a bleached memory, or the midnight dream of an old veteran. My arms and legs began to flinch involuntarily. The scurrying sounds of men or creatures in the roof reached my ears. Everything was aural, I never saw a single apparition, the only tricks my eyes played on me were the distortions of perspective and the hint of something unseen. One thought came through the frantic scene clearer than any other- how could I get a message to Khan Kéo that I was unable to walk her home tonight? I felt desperate at the thought that she might be thinking I'd walked away from her because of our conversation. I couldn't get up from my horizontal position, my mind had put me in a straight-jacket of obscurity. The aural scenes continued to plague my mind and inside the sleeping bag my body knotted in a helpless fit of arms and legs. I never felt any pain, and still I was not afraid; just the disproportionate worry of abandoning my friend, which burst forward into my consciousness with every diffracted thought.
I drifted in and out of visual comprehension. Some time had passed, how much time- I didn't know, but I heard the voices of my fellow volunteers, some talking of the fact that I was riding high on a surge of mushroom-induced lopsidedness. I felt a shroud of relief that others knew about my state and that I didn't have to try to explain. I managed to voice a message to Becky, which again, I heard in the third person time-delay. 'Is Khan Kéo still here?'
'Yeah, are you OK?' I felt surprised that she was still around, and began to wonder of the time. 'I'll be fine, can you tell... her that I can't take her home tonight and I can't...give her an English lesson.' I shocked myself that I'd managed to speak. 'OK, don't worry, I'm sure she'll understand, what are you like!' she said, and my mind grasped at the peace that the short conversation offered me like an outstretched arm grabbing at any available surface before falling into a void of forlorn poetry.
Darkness surrounded me, but the sound of musical beats pulled me out of it and back to reality, or at least a bastardised form of reality. The evening had begun and my friends were preparing to relax at the end of another day. The vibe shifted as the music increased in volume and filled the room with smoothly flowing beats, each of which, to my mind, became a thousand-fold form of itself. I moved in time with the music. What were involuntary jitters before, were now semi-involuntary waves of euphoric expression. From the outside I would have looked like an unborn foetus struggling to get out into the wider world. But to me, I was riding the crest of an ecstatic wave towards conceptual enlightenment.

I woke a while later, feeling drained and weary. I heard sections of conversations around me but I lost time in between the details and couldn't respond with sober replies when the dialogue came my way. I emerged slightly from the sleeping bag. 'God, Adam you look terrible' came a voice from somewhere. 'I'm OK, just...yeah, feeling weird.' I hadn't yet gained my motor senses back in any of their original condition. Instead, as I propped myself up onto one arm, I felt groggy as hell. 'Do you want to eat something? Adam, you should probably eat something' said Becky from the opposite side of the room. 'You're white as a sheet. Don't worry about Khan Kéo, I told her you had an upset stomach.'
'OK, yeah...thanks.' I mustered, and then dropped back down to a torpid sleep.

'Adam...Adam....' called Becky some time later. 'They've made you something to eat, come on, you should come and eat something, they've made it now.' I struggled back onto my feet and straight away began to wobble. I walked with her and a couple of others over to the dining room, tackling the wooden plank again with equal, if somewhat lucky success. The dark of night was in full swing and the camp was deftly silent. Those first few mouthfuls were a real effort. Margo and Ben looked at me with slightly amused, but merciful eyes. I had been in the safest place over these last few hours and I felt indebted to my friends' care and attention. I got up and sat by the bamboo railing which hung over the pond; ready to reject the little food I'd eaten. 'Are you OK Adam?'
'I'll be fine, feeling very queasy though.' I got up again, knowing I couldn't keep the food down. I crouched by the bush and let the inevitable happen. The next thing I knew, I was hunched over behind the bush and began foraging around like a dog in search of something. All I wanted was some tissue to blow my nose, but I was acting like an animal disgusted by itself; hiding in the darkness.

The following morning I came to with a few scars of tainted recollections. It took the best part of a day before my head returned to normal. But still I managed to ride into town, with Aoi on the back and set my bus ticket back one day. Aoi had been with us from my arrival, she was older than the rest of us, and she was from Thailand. She took it upon herself to cook and clean for everyone, going about the duty with guile and unrelenting consistency.
So today, I would recover. We laughed at breakfast and again at lunch at my ridiculous position the day before. I was glad to see that Khan Kéo was fine with me and I tried to explain that my head wasn't right, without mentioning the word mushrooms or marijuana. Otherwise, the day went on with the usual village regularity. The toenail that had been damaged since the Nepal trek came so loose that I pulled it off, hoping another would grow in its place. I knew that soon enough, the other would follow and I'd be left nail-less on both big toes. Before the day ended, my senses had regained their usual form; I should have said no to the happy shake. The double-dose was a little excessive. But richer for the experience, and safe among my friends I laughed about it as a trip inside my own mind.

And so I left Sae Lao with a heavy heart. I knew the journey had to continue, and although I'd not been here for a significant time, I felt the resistance to leave as if I were one of Nathong's residents. I said goodbye to the friends I'd made, then squeezed onto the back of the motorbike and waved goodbye to Khan Kéo. 'I will miss you.' she said in one of her rare English-spoken sentences. And with that, I was gone, back down the tumbling road from where I came.

Posted by kookie888 21:24 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The road to village life

The wall of humidity smacked me in the face as I nonchalantly walked out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport into the bus and taxi forecourt. I remember this feeling. I had been in Bangkok less than a year ago and I never really got used to the suffocating atmosphere; being the only person sweating in the street or on the bus was a constant source of annoyance. Sweat dammit sweat! But they never did.
I barely had enough currency to book the bus to Khaosan. My incompetent bank had again blocked my card abroad. But having dug deep into my pockets I boarded. A proper bus! Wow, this was luxury, and it was only a shuttle service. I'd come to adopt the standards of the sub-continent, so now this was really something. Along the journey through Bangkok's metropolis, the concrete carriageways had never seemed so appropriate and serviceable. I felt like I'd been dropped back into civilisation, but I was only in Thailand, this wasn't bloody Zurich.
Public displays of affection stood out so vividly, bare legs, smiles- all the things I'd been so used to not seeing from the average person going about their usual business. The land of a thousand smiles was living up to its name.

Making for Chiang Mai seemed like the most reasonable course of action, since I'd already travelled the South, eight years prior. It was time to see what the North was up to. In a move of unknown wisdom I managed to avoid the political demonstrations which crippled Bangkok for three days in a heaving mass of millions. The red shirts were in protest at the corruption of the current government, and the yellow shirts in support of the regime and against the former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Back in the UK we'd heard reports that the money Shinawatra had used to buy Manchester City football club, was laundered from the Thai government. 'No, the government now, they chase him away, this new government, they the ones taking the money. Shinawatra, he used to help the poor people of Thailand and that's why the people love him.' said Stella. She was the chef at Green Tulip House, my chosen guesthouse for the next five days. She was manic, so happy, chirpy and exuberant with jokes (few of which were understandable), she was absolutely infectious and you couldn't help but laugh along, and at fifty-two she held back the years with a brick wall. She didn't look a day over forty. large_DSC_3027a.jpglarge_DSC_3030.jpg

Green Tulip guesthouse was a real misnomer among the backpacker scene. It stood as solid and welcoming as heaven's iron gates. The building didn't promise much from the outside. But inside, the solidly thick, highly-polished wooden floors, sturdy, non-creaking and wide staircases led to spacious and equally solid landings with a touch of simple design class in every piece of wrought-iron furniture or painting upon a wall. The dark shining wood really gave the place an immaculate feel, and it was incredibly clean. No shoes beyond the first step. If an earthquake were to hit this town, Green Tulip House would be the place to hang out. Single-handedly the most impressive budget guesthouse I've ever stayed, £3 a night. How did they do it?
Chaing Mai was a perfectly livable city, no skyscrapers, but a network of grid roads and all the amenities you could ever want. There was nothing handsome about its streets, but almost three-hundred Buddhist temples were in existence here and provided some degree of flamboyance to an otherwise plain Thai city. It was also the surrounding area that drew in the travellers, bamboo rafting, zip-lining, mountain biking, elephant treks, it was all here. But trekking here would have been like being offered a plate of cress after the slap-up delights of Nepal's Annapurna.

When travelling twenty countries in eight and a half months, as I was, it made sense to maximise time in places that offered something different. Having been to Thailand twice before, as much as I loved its ease of travel and intriguing people, it occurred to me to move on and use the saved time somewhere else. Laos was one of those countries that, a good percentage of people would absolutely never have heard of, let alone be able to locate it on a map; I liked that. Plus, it was the ideal place to relax, due to the laid-back nature of her people. I took the bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong- Thailand's border town in the North. I picked up my visa at the window and added a couple more friends into the bargain as well. Tobias and Andreas were winging their way through this border as much as I was, and so our three bemused and clueless faces attracted to form a union. If this border post had a more, lets say...money-oriented reputation then I'd not have been so carefree about it.
Tobias, a tall, blonde and youthful looking German lost his arrival card and walked around in circles outside the visa window looking like a dog chasing his tail. I picked up the piece of paper from underneath another man's bag. 'Ah! You're my hero' he declared and scuttled off to procure his own visa for Laos. At passport control Andreas began patting his pockets in haste. 'I had it just now, where is it?' he asked and then went off into a string of German that was beyond my comprehension. Andreas was about my height and his darker, neatly-styled hair and well-balanced feature set gave him a different look to Tobi, as he was originally from Timişoara in Romania. He rushed off, back to the visa area. He strode back, and set his bag down, rummaging through its main compartment. I walked over and pointed to the pocket at the back, he plunged his hand in and pulled out the passport with relieved eyes and faint smile. 'You're hero number two' he said, and I knew that I'd got me some mates. Andre spoke in decent, but overall more basic English than Tobi. He worked for Lufthansa and seemed to have the typical German fortitude for organisation. Tobi worked for IBM and one day dreamed of living in London. There was none of the usual I know everything bravado that infected so many travellers who thought they'd achieved enlightenment somewhere along the trail. We stayed that night in Huay Xai, after having crossed the Mekong on a longboat from the Thai side of the famous river. In the simple town of Huay Xai, Friendship guesthouse had a perfect three-bed room.
Somewhat reminiscent of a childhood sleep-over, we three began chatting nonsense in the dark, one bed beside the other. But having rarely had the opportunity to talk to Germans, and intent on repairing the dent in my mind of the very first German I met while travelling in Timişoara before Christmas, I asked some questions about the German psyche. 'We pay 5.5% of our wages towards the Unity of Germany', said Tobi. 'To help rebuild the infrastructure in the East.'
'So there's still a bit of a divide from East to West?'
'Yep, things are still a little less developed in the East.'
'It's funny' said Andre, 'before the recent world cup in Germany, there was no national...' he paused for the right words, attempting to translate from his internal dictionary. 'There was no national pride' offered Tobi. 'But then, throughout that tournament, the German people were proud again, proud to be German, waving their flags and enjoying the whole thing.'
'That's good' I said, aware my nodding in the dark went unnoticed. I had nothing whatsoever against German people, and the old wartime rivalry meant nothing to me among this generation. 'Tell him about the taxi ride' said Andre. 'Oh, the first time we arrived in Thailand, the first day, we got into a taxi and the guy was like, so where are you from? And when we told him we were from Germany, you know the first thing he said? Hail Hitler!' We all laughed like scouts at camp. 'I think he was joking' said Andre, 'I hope he was joking.' he added in an amused half-laugh. And with that, two krauts and a rosbif let slumber pass over them till morning.

I'd heard that Laos was something of a bitch to travel in. Flat tyres, screwed departure times and long delays. Having bought our tickets for the VIP bus (meaning: bus with air-con) to Luang Prabang, we arrived at the station and boarded the empty bus. The bags had barely touched the bus floor when the assistant of the travel shop came aboard and handed Andre a mobile phone. He passed it to me. 'You're better in English' Oh thanks Andre, I suppose I am.
'Hello, remember me?'
'From the travel shop.'
'Oh, OK.'
'So... the bus is full, erm, if you take the local bus I'll give you ten thousand back.' The ticket cost a hundred and forty thousand kip. About eleven pounds. None of us wanted to spend fourteen hours on a local bus, I for one felt like I'd paid my dues on transport like that for the time being. So far Laos was living up to its reputation. Good-o.

Me and the krauts, my good buddies, decided to travel separately, they took the masochistic fast boat up the Mekong for four-hundred thousand kip, but as the river was low at this time of year and I didn't want the vibrating nuisance of an outboard motor in my ear for six hours, I took the next VIP service at five. That journey introduced me to an American dude on the bus. He was so bang-on with his humour that all I could do was eavesdrop on the conversation that he struck up with half a dozen English first-timers. There's something about a good sense of humour. Just when you're laughing at the last gag, the mind of the joker is already searching for the next thing to say, and so the conversation goes on, one-sided, but enjoyable for all. Before the bus set in motion and rather attractive, auburn haired lady came to the rear of the bus and sat next to the yank. She was a Spaniard and had quite an unbelievable bum, shown off in tight black leggings. The conversation started off politely. It took maybe a half hour before she was grabbing his arm and doubling over in fits of overly-loud cackles. Play fighting, teasing, charades- all the signs one needs to be sure of the next step. If she was a dog she'd have pressed her arse up to his face for a sniff. They'll be getting it on tonight. I was sure of it.
All along the winding roads, small villages of wooden houses and bare-footed children dotted the journey, to the side of the road. Houses on six-foot stilts. The more solid of which were made from wooden planks, and the less extravagant from bamboo-weave sheet walls and roofs. Small fires and dim electric bulbs lit up the places of human activity from the darkness of the midnight road. Anyone looking for an place to find village life can come to Laos and look no further than the main highways.

Luang Prabang, a pleasant town in the centre of Northern Laos, and popular with travellers laid before me as I sat at a riverside spot, awaiting a room at Pathoumpone Guesthouse. I never did like to stay in the thick of it, and the guesthouse was a only a very short walk away from the main street. The morning had that special feel about it- the fact that not everyone had yet awoken and the day was still in the throngs of a really long yawning stretch. I sipped my Laos coffee, a newly discovered vice. A motorbike carrying several hundred eggs as panniers burbled past, the cocks crowed, a hen waddled across the road, followed by a beautiful rooster and half a dozen chicks. The distant chatter of a new language rolled out from the quiet coffee house, as did the sound of water draining in to the river below. A young monk glanced over at me as he walked past, dragging his flip-flops and scattering two dried leaves in his meandering wake. The cock crowed two more times and light traffic drifted past. A woman wearing a conical bamboo hat strolled by, carrying two large portions of fresh fruit on either end of a bendy bamboo rod slung over her shoulder. Life in Laos did lack that chaotic flavour that gave India its character. I felt glad and at peace being here. I think Laos will suit me.

In the quick farewell to my new German friends back in Huay Xai, they'd encouraged me to find them here in Luang Prabang. That evening I spotted the two of them at the roadside night market. This market took up an entire section of the road leading into town and sprawled across its entire width for a good few hundred metres. On show were a whole new genre of trinkets for the passing tourist. This stuff, along with Thailand's souvenirs, was of a far superior quality to anything found in India, but still short of the real thing where copies were sold. That night, Tobi, Andre and myself dropped by the Hive for drinks and a few laughs. I was glad to feel that I'd met a real good couple of guys, and that evening helped to solidify the fact. 'You should come to Frankfurt.'
'Yeah, I'd like to, I'm always hearing about these cheap flights to Frankfurt, there must be something going on there.'
'Well, those flights don't go to the real Frankfurt, it's over a hundred k's out of town. But you can stay at our place, we'll take you out and show you all the German girls that the British voted as the ugliest in Europe.'
'Yeah, but you voted the British as the ugliest in Europe too, I don't think it means anything.'

The next day, on the way to Kuang Si waterfall, I was once again amongst the village picture of wooden houses and frolicking children, if this were a Constable painting I'd be a boy on a bicycle, trundling down a well-worn path. 'Sabaidee' the children uttered as I scooted past on the Suzuki moped. Some children waved, others did a little dance. One thing's for sure, they all had character and a zest for life. After the thirty kilometre ride, I arrived at the swimming lagoon. A body of water, milky turquoise and inviting to the eye. The first jump off the rope swing is always the least graceful I told myself as I swam back to the rocks to have another go. The surrounding land was jungle-like in appearance and the calls of a hundred tropical birds amalgamated with the din of insect calls and excited laughter of the occasional Laos child.

At Wat Xieng Thong later that evening- one of Luang Prabang's Buddhist temples- I arrived just in time to see the last of a group of young monks, dressed in orange robes, entering the temple. I walked in to the sound of chanting, a layered song of many harmonies; a hypnotic, reverberating collation of human voices, creating an effect greater than the sum of its parts. They bowed from their kneeling position every few minutes and continued to sing again. I left to the same sound, and to the thought that they must have terrific discipline to carry on for so long.

I jumped back on the bike and drove to L'étranger, a café in town with a ground floor stacked with books for part-exchange, a small verandah, to the far left corner a steep staircase leading to an upstairs area with floor-lounging furniture, and wood- everywhere. On the walls upstairs, were plastered the last ten years of National Geographic, solid, dark, wooden tables sat low to the floor, so you didn't have to sit up to sip your beverage, and a large Sony TV was situated in the far right corner. Solid beams and planks made up the walls, horizontal at the bottom half and vertical at the top. Gaps in the heavy wooden beams showed a slither of light from the lower floor and it became all to easy to sit back and lounge the hours away. At seven o'clock, a knocked-off copy of a recent movie was shown, and just before the movie began, there walked in the Spaniard and the American from the bus; looking as comfortable with one another as ever. The enthusiastic laughter had been replaced with a genteel acknowledgement of each other, and the physical contact, less intense, but more practiced. Yeah, they definitely shagged.

On the bus from Luang Prabang, we headed South towards the capital- Vientiane. I would be getting off a few hours before that at Vang Vieng. Among the travelling community Vang Vieng is known for decent night life and tubing. Tubing was a water activity in which you allow yourself to float down the river in a rubber ring (a tractor inner-tube), and as and when the mood takes you, you catch the rope of the nearest waterfront bar and pull yourself in for a banana shake or hash brownie.
Along the journey through Lao country, it became clear why the skies had been so filled with haze. Vast expanses of hillside were burned to the ground, it was a process of controlled burning which would allow the planting of the next rice crop. Other massive patches were flattened, but lacked the charred layer of the burnt ground, instead looking like a fresh graze on a child's leg, with only the odd tree stump defiantly pointing to the sky. The roadside walls rose up and looked as though they had been heavily scraped at by a set of huge industrial iron-claws, the dry twigs laying flat across their rippled surface. The rushing coach passed several kids by the roadside, some with blackened faces from carrying charred wood on their backs, and other small, feeble and half-naked children watching as the bus shot past, I couldn't help thinking how insignificant an obstruction one of those kids would be to the momentum of the bus, but the children here didn't have to be watched at the roadside, they just seemed to know how to look out for traffic. Nervous Mums would have keeled over at the sight of this proximity. The incredible forms of the surrounding mountains, called limestone karsts, lifted to the sky like peaks in a bowl of whipped cream, rounded at their tops and forming a layering effect so that each one behind was painted with a colour a little more watered-down than the one before. The central peak rose up like a lotus flower with petals protruding at its sides. The wild of the landscape never ceased, and I became captured by its untamed anatomy.

At Vang Vieng, I stepped off the tuk-tuk and walked the wooden bridge, to the begrudging cost of four-thousand kip and found myself a guesthouse pitched among lush tropical gardens and the same layer-faded view of stunning green mountains. There are times in your life, like the mornings in the Nepali mountains, like the off-roading in Cappadocia and the misty, festive evenings in numerous European cities, that you realise very quickly you'll remember these moments so vividly for the rest of your life.

Trundling down the earthen road on a little Kenbo scooter and through the village of Nathong shall, for cumulative reasons, always remain with me. Idyllic village life in perfect and peaceful environs. I was on my way to Poukham caves and swimming lagoon. There was only one way in and one way out via the stony dirt road. The lagoon shone a rich cobalt blue colour and was deep enough in the centre to allow a high dive from an overhanging tree branch. I think if you don't do these things as a kid, then you never really have the courage, or the mid-air poise as an adult. I played on the rope swing like a good boy. Treading water for some time, I got chatting to a Hungarian girl, but the rambunctiousness of a dozen dive-bombing Israelis convinced me to leave soon after. They might not make up the largest demographic of travellers, but they know how to make the most noise.
Only one minute back down the dirt road and I pulled over at a curious little place called Nature View Restaurant and Sae Lao Project. It was the bamboo sign Shake Shack: Shakin' it for the kids, that pulled me in. It was some kind of volunteer establishment, I was feeling particularly parched, so I dropped in. The patch of land by the roadside had several bamboo shacks erected at random locations, tropical plants growing from flower beds marked by large grey rocks, a dining area which overhung the pond and the greater area of land verdant with long green grass and wild growing nature. Thirsty and hot, I attempted to order a water, to the cutest vacant expression, sparkly brown eyes and smiling giggles of the waitress. She had no idea what I was on about. 'Water?'
'Erm, water?' I repeated.
'Wall-tahh' she said in the most adorable attempt at an English accent.
'OK, banana shake it is then. Banana shake.'
'Bah-nah-nah shek.'
I nodded, 'khorb chai.'

Khan Kéo was twenty six. There must be something in the water- if they had any- because she didn't appear to be anywhere near her twenties. Her roughly tied-up hair like a changing autumn leaf had mellow streaks of auburn through is length, her eyes were like perfect strokes of Chinese calligraphy and the gentle curve of a shallow nose above succulent pale cherry lips finished the equation in style. I settled in to the easy stroke of time while sat there, I gestured like a polite Neanderthal, with no common language you begin to notice and appreciate the unspoken nature of a person's spirit; un-blinded by the fiction of words. This was a charming place and I wanted to be a part of it.

The next day, there I was, catching a lift on the back of a motorised contraption, on my way back to Sae Lao. I decided to stay there, I could volunteer. I didn't care what I'd do. The location and the people matched the experience I'd been looking for; the experience that I imagined before I left England. We vibrated our way down the road, myself and half a dozen villagers. Imagine the front end of a tractor, the engine, the front wheels, and then scale it down 500%. Then add in a long-reaching handlebar and a wooden cart on the back, and that's pretty much what we were riding here. I clung to my bag at the rear, the stony dirt road produced a fair amount of bumps, but to me, this was just another moment that made up the grand collage. A Lao woman wearing a conical bamboo hat crouched in a field, next to neat rows of blooming herbs. Two children, one stark naked, stood by a creamy-green watering hole and watched us pass by, and then waved cheerily with tiny outstretched fingers in the wake of our slowly-rising dust. The cows chewed happily in the green of the field, meanwhile the crimson sun approached the outline of a watery-blue painted karst as the day began to fade away in a bed-time story of colours.

'I was giving the kids cheese, but every one of them was like, blurghh! It's so funny, they eat squirrel on a stick, but they don't like cheese.' said Phil. He was the shake-maker of the group; a German. His fuzzy hair and bearded face hid an intelligent humorist, in English too. The rest of the volunteers, besides Becky- who was one of the two English teachers, were French; including, bizarrely, the other English teacher. Maybe the fact that Laos was a French colony in the past has something to do with their return. I'd seen a more frequent appearance of French people here than in any other country so far.

As the days went on and I became a part of this project, the work didn't prove too difficult and it was carried out with a great sense of group-effort. Whether it was hauling mud-bricks into storage from the sun-blessed field, teaching English to the village children, or helping to build practical structures for everyday life. For the outdoor oven, we lay down a bamboo framework and layers of mud mixed with rice husk and water onto its domed exterior; our fingers and nails caked in the thick gooey mixture. With each layer, the mud oven grew in stature and came to represent-like so many things here- an achievement of the generosity and hard-work of the people. The Laos folk of the village leant a hand in everything, faces became familiar, personalities shone, and when there was work, it was done without the question of effort. We all slept together in a large bamboo hut at the back of the field. Clothes, hands and dinner plates were all washed in the small stream by the kitchen, which had a family of fish that fed on the scraps, and dragon flies that zipped around your head as you bent and scrubbed. Khan-Kéo became more fetching as the days passed, attempting to pronounce the English I was teaching her with the most deeply-engrained local tongue and sweetly staring eyes. Her talents as a cook and industrious worker helped keep the show together, and kept us all fed with the combined efforts of a dozen helping hands every day of the week. I was going to have to be careful. You hear of people deciding to stay in places like this, never again to return home. I knew that if I hadn't booked my flights in advance, I wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry.
On some days charred embers rained down from the surrounding mountains as the burning continued. And sometimes, thumping explosions swept through the valley from mining expeditions, but daily life at Sae Lao was peaceful and naturally beautiful. Today I took a shower with a frog, several spiders and a praying mantis. I'd never seen so much wildlife as here in Laos. The small population has not yet erected a network of concrete towns to drive away nature, and so it sits at your door, or under the toilet-seat in all its eight-legged horror. I'd not been so fortunate to see a snake yet, I'd often been told 'I saw a big snake in the shower', or 'yeah, there was one in that tree a moment ago', but I never seemed to be around at the right moment.

On the evening of the third day, it came about that a ceremony was to be held for Josh, one of the French workers who'd been here for three months and integrated himself with the Lao people by learning good portions of the language. The whole village seemed to attend. They appreciated his presence and his ability to communicate with them, so it was important for each one of them to wish him farewell. Preparations had been under way the whole day, and Josh himself had made a trip into Vang Vieng to buy gifts for his more personal friends among the Lao people.

I approached the community centre, the hours of darkness were already upon us. Sitting under the roof of the centre and within its thick stone pillars were a hundred people kneeling in rough concentric circles. It was a baci ceremony. This was something the Laos did for important occasions. From the central tiered platter emanated dozens of lengths of white string, reaching out to the periphery of the crowd; everybody clasped the string between their hands while in prayer and as the elder of the village began chanting, a sense of belonging washed over me. It touched me deeply to see the unity and devotion to each other in such a display of pure accepting spirit, I was overwhelmed. Amongst the crowd were adults I'd never seen before, the word must have spread about the leaving of a long-staying volunteer and they felt they should be here to pay their respects. When the chanting finished, the white string came apart in pieces and one by one the children knelt humbly in front of me and tied the small lengths around my wrist as a kind of bracelet, saying prayers as they did so. It represented the returning of your 32 Phi or spirits back to your body for a safe journey. A few of the more distinguished adults did the same, gracefully attaching each one with a smile and a prayer. Some of us had small chocolate snacks and banknotes tied to the bracelets. More than ever, I didn't want to leave. And I felt it in my body. I was rooted to the ground, paralysed by the gesture, instead just smiling and soaking up the penetrating atmosphere.

The drinking began. First- the elder came around to each of us, pouring shots of làos-láos- the local spirit-and watched as we drank, and as we winced. Làos-láos had a tendency to hang around in your mouth like burning lava flow a good while after you've downed it, and you knew instantly you'd regret it in the morning. Secondly- clay pots filled with rice husk and unknown additions then topped up with water, or beer or more spirits. Then as the liquid seeped from the brim to the bottom and gathered up all the sweetness along the way, you were to suck at the bamboo straw until the contents were gone. Well, you couldn't very well refuse could you? I didn't want to offend the spirits, the holy spirits.

The feast came to the community centre, which was essentially a pillared building without walls, and we sat on the floor in a long line, side by side, and enjoyed the Lao food together. Sticky rice became a stalwart of the Lao diet, you'd eat it by scrunching it into a dense sausage-shape in your right hand and picking off pieces to eat with the contents of the communal bowls. Lao food was delicious, it was true that these people will eat almost anything, but they'd prepared it in such a way that the spiciness could be added to each diner's taste, a consideration that meant something to our Western palates.

The night drew on and not one person seemed tired of the celebrations, such was the mood. Farther into the night a small group of us lit a camp fire, songs were sung on guitar, and just about anything you could beat a stick on became an instrument- I got a rather nice rhythm going with a couple of Coke cans. Stories were exchanged. Smiles and laughter and then warmth and contentment swept the rest of us towards the slowly drawing end to the evening. I saw a beautiful side to humanity that night.

Posted by kookie888 11:02 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Nepal: on top of the world

The thing that Pokhara was most famous for was its potential for world-class trekking. Fair enough Mount Everest was more to the East of the country, but at 8,091m Annapurna I was no mole-hill. So there I was, back in my Sarajevo walking boots, the boots that left my poor suffocated feet bruised and battered in Europe. Somehow I forgot all about this and thought that these three days in the mountains would require the sturdy footwear and I'd be right as rain. On those first few hours, I realised I was in for a tough challenge. I was no mountaineer, so it was a good job this trek didn't involve any rock-climbing, but the unrelenting and innumerable slate steps that lead up to Ghandruk on that first day was enough to tire even the freshest of legs. Apparently this didn't include our guide Bishnu, who only ever looked like he was on a trip to the local shops for a snickers. I guess if you do this everyday it becomes something of a stroll in the park. Ghandruk stood at 1990m above sea-level. We'd not go much higher than this. The highest peak in Britain was Ben Nevis at 1344m. I'd never climbed it, and never wanted to, but being higher than that felt good at least. During the journey up, I couldn't help but notice that the women on the mountain were especially beautiful. Tanned skin, long, shiny hair and pretty eyes. Eyes which looked at you with a mixture of feist and respectfulness.

As we sat there by the river, eating rosti, a kind of fried potato dish, the sound of the white water rushed over the rounded rocks, exotic birds chirped and the layered mountain fronts faded away towards the horizon, I felt very lucidly how blessed life can be. 'What's the difference between chow mein and veg chow mein?' blurted Anka, in a wholly unnecessary question. The tranquillity was broken like a rock thrown into a still lake. This kind of pointless inquisitiveness continued for three days and two nights.

Along the rocky mountain path, local Nepalis, of different castes, pass you by, sometimes with a namaste, sometimes without. But something in their image makes you wake up and remind yourself where you are. I'm trekking mountains in Nepal, I'd mentally say to myself once or twice an hour. There were certain qualities that stood out visually. The topi was just about the most obvious sign that I was in another country. The Nepalese traditional hat is worn by numerous men wandering the mountains and just about anywhere else in Nepal. Topi, literally meaning Hat in Nepali. It's also worn by Indonesians and Afghanis, and with a straight-up design and no peak or decoration, it was a simple and humble vestment.

It is well-known that Indians, as well as many Africans carry their working loads by balancing the package on their head- an iconic image of India if ever you needed one. It fascinated me to see it in the first few days, but like anything, it became a normal sight. Here, in Nepal, these people were loading up the doko, a kind of bamboo basket, and using its long strap to place around the forehead, allowing the bag to rest on the back. The heft that some of these men and women were carrying was highly impressive. I genuinely remember the long, hot summer days at school, when walking home in the sun drained your already knackered body, there were times when I did the exact same thing. I placed my school bag, hefty with books and chocolate bars, at my back and brought the strap around onto my forehead; it was an amazingly easy way to carry a bag, even after a day of double science. God only knows how heavy those books were.

So that night in Ghandruk, at Trekkers Inn, we sat, relieved to be past the first test. 'When would you like to eat?' asked Bishnu in his usual humble fashion. 'In ten minutes? No, at seven-fifteen, or..yes, or seven-twenty' stammered Anka. Nothing was ever simple with Anka. I was beginning to realise how socially congruous I was. I was Mr Easy-going compared to this circus of demands and details. And as with every order she made, it ended with 'no onions', this of course was after she asked 'what's the difference between so-and-so, and the so-and-so' and everyday the same question- 'how much are we allowed to spend? How much can we spend Bishnu... how much? No onions.'

I took the opportunity as Anka retired for an early night to sit with Bishnu and wind down the pace with him to show I was not subscribing to Anka's stress-inducing inquisitions and to allow him to be friend rather than guide. But credit to him, his patience was unshakable when it came to dealing with her. I asked him casually about Nepali culture and about himself. He was one of nineteen children. 'Twenty years ago, you could have two wives, so my Father he marry two women.'
'Oh, wow, OK, so do you all live together?'
'Yes' he said with an amused little smile. 'I have three Grandmother, nobody can believe.'
'And so you just live at home, with your Father and his two wives, and one is your Mother and the other...'
'My first Mother and I have second Mother. Eight Brother and ten Sister.'
'Right, so you call her your second Mother, that's nice. That's a big family Bishnu.'
'Before, people could marry at eighteen year old, and for woman...thirteen. Because, that time, people have no education. Now...to marry, it's twenty-nine or thirty. I am twenty-four. Now I am...' he paused for a while searching for the right word, '...perfect man, because I have no knowledge of woman.' I felt admiration and sorrow at this thought. I wasn't sure it was natural to hold out so long, don't people go stir-crazy if they're pent-up for thirty years? I mean...what must his body be doing to stay so solemn? It didn't bear thinking about.

The subject changed and we began talking about Hindu and Muslim celebrations. 'In Hindu culture, September/October festival, called Badadashain, we kill goat on eighth day for the Goddess Durga. We always cut from the back of the neck' he raised his hand in a karate-chop motion behind his head, 'but the Muslim, they cut the throat.' I considered the notion, quietly to myself. I deduced that they were both unnecessary. I don't think Durga gives a toss either way. I believed her to be a figment of an imaginative past and it is the people who needed this sacrifice, as some kind of peace-offering. A way of gaining peace and favour with themselves, consciously or sub-consciously. He went on, talking now about the different castes of his mountain nation. 'If you are Brahma... and I am...example... lower caste, if I touch your water' he gestured with outstretched fingers towards the bottle in front of me, 'then you will never drink it.'
'No, really?'
'Yes, there are four main castes in Nepal, and sub-caste...there are so many.' He was now in the flow of teaching me about the unusual aspects of his culture and seemed as entertained with the old ways as I was. 'And if you have five Brothers, you can have one wife for all Brothers. So they share the woman. One stay at home with wife, one going to work, then after...two months, change. This happen only in one district, that district on mountainside. But now people don't want this system.' I couldn't imagine in the spirit of sharing how this could be possible. The poor woman. How would she manage the laundry?

I wanted to ask Bishnu about the years of Maoist rule. I'd read a little about them, but always valued the opinions that came from local mouths. The Maoists were a terrorist group who took control of the country by force some years ago. 'For ten or fifteen years, ten-thousand people died in Nepal. It started seventeen years ago. When they came to power, the King and his children went [fled] to Singapore. All parties banished Royal family at that time because the second son of the King, who was called Paras, killed his siblings to become King when his Father died.'
'Noway! He killed his own siblings, just so he would gain the throne?'
'Yes.' Bishnu drew out the Royal lineage in the white margin on the page of a magazine, and as he repeated the story he crossed out the name Paras in mild disgust; the very long fingernails of his left hand grasping the pen lightly. This was not something the Nepalis were willing to bear, hence the fleeing of Paras to Singapore. As far as I could establish, he still held his status as King of Nepal, but from a safe distance. The Maoists gave back governmental power to the main party of Nepal after a time of unsuccessful rule; apparently they just couldn't cut it. Now they remained an opposition party, causing the odd atrocity and declaring their wishes for Nepal with a clenched fist. If they wanted a power-share, the Nepali government placed conditions to quash their violent behaviour within the country. It was up to the Maoists if they wanted to play fair. I got the impression of a petulant child who can't follow the rules. This seemed to be the main talking point of Nepali politics. I listened throughout the entire discussion with Bishnu, he really was an honourable gentlemen- kind, patient, mild in manner and totally respectful at all times. I wondered how much of that was due to his abstinence and how much of it was due to being part of a large family. Either way, what a blessing it was to have him there on that mountain with us.

Today was hard. The seven hours of walking had done me in, and my feet, not to repeat the point, were now extremely battered and bedraggled. As we reached the final few steps leading to Pothana, I conceded that the walking boots had to go. I couldn't take up all that space in my bag for something that was crushing my toes and scraping at the back of my heels the way these shoes were. All ten toes had blisters and the white wrinkled skin from the sweat that couldn't escape the weatherproof exteriors stayed for hours after the shoes were off. Anka suffered the same in her basketball boots. I limped up the last few steps. We checked in at See You Lodge- a basic, wooden guesthouse with walls and floors that bore no soundproofing whatsoever. The wooden plank floor was covered with a thin roll of lino, and as the sun was now behind the mountain I placed my hope in the thick blanket on the bed to get through the night. Anka put up a fuss about the room, the lack of electricity, ergo the extra charge for hot water, then the shower mechanics. The female guesthouse manager showed her how to get the hot water going, turning a few knobs and waiting a while for the gas bottle heater to kick in. Five minutes later Anka burst out of the shower hurling insults. At her wits end she screamed, 'she put the water so hot, fucking shitter!' The insult was extremely distasteful and came out of her mouth from the pit of her stomach and through trembling lips. I hoped none of the hospitable Nepali people across in the other building heard, I myself, couldn't help but laugh, shitter, that's a good one. Anka was on the edge of crying and I consoled her with as much reason as I could muster. I didn't think she was being fair, but Anka seemed to like me and I didn't want to turn on her and make her day even worse. She enjoyed her comforts, I suppose the string of mild inconveniences had built-up for her. I interjected and simply turned down the temperature dial on the unit. She was so angry that she didn't even allow herself to see it.
I couldn't let myself get upset, this was travelling, sometimes you stay in decent places and other times you find yourself in a dirty room, no loo roll, a leaking toilet cistern and a dozen little cockroaches, get used to it or go home. Despite the pain in my numbing toes, the atmosphere on the mountain just wouldn't let me get mentally stressed. The morning walk in Ghandruk was so utterly serene and starkly authentic. The undulating stone paths led to traditional Nepali houses, where women put out washing, or prepared food. Buffalo climbed the slate steps and curious children did the same, but with wider, more exaggerated strides from their little legs, all in front of an incredible mountain vista. The golden morning sun lit up the peaks of the Annapurna range more beautifully than I ever imagined. It was a sight that took me aback and kept me there, just staring; thankful to be so close to the top of the world.

After a warm shower, we grouped in the dining room for a meal. Anka was calm, I was glad and Bishnu was his usual altruistic self. With a couple of hours of card games and food, the night grew cool and the last day of trekking drew near. All I could think about was laying flat on the bed and surrendering to a comatose sleep, away from the aches and pains.

The easy last day, of four hours scheduled walking, slowly turned into five, then six, then seven hours as Anka and I slowed, slowed some more and randomly stopped to wince in pain at the raw skin and salty sweat build-up that stung the wounds. It was a perfect contrast to the idyllic mountain surroundings. The sheer beauty of it pulled me out of my state of affliction on several occasions, standing, breathing in the invigorating air; squinting eyes towards the sun. Small children passed us on the mountain path with an enthusiastic 'namaste' complete with a prayer-hand style wai greeting. On this third day Anka didn't respond to a single one of those children, such was her pain. I ripped off the boots and strapped-on Bishnu's spare sandals, which brought so much relief that my pace quickened. Bishnu was still hopping over rocks like a mountain goat and Anka lagged at the back in a sweating silence. Why do we do this to ourselves? Well, I can tell you why. Because, despite the hurt, despite the sweat, despite the physical exhaustion, and when all's said and done...it was totally worth it. You don't get to see this beauty everyday; unless you live here, of course

Arriving in Kathmandu was a real shock. A widespread, crazy city, full of activity. It also took the term signage to new levels. I would find out over the next few days just how medieval the power grid was, how crumbled the buildings and streets were and how homicidal the motorcyclists behaved. Kathmandu was unapologetically scruffy around the edges. Despite these factors, it retained a distinctly other-worldly flavour. I definitely felt like I was a long way from home. One of the first things you notice while walking around the narrow streets is the proximity that the rickshaws, motorcycles and little white Maruti Suzuki taxis drive to your arms and feet. After the trek, I was feeling extremely protective of my toes, this made for a nervous few days. Beneath the mountains of signage were miniture-violin sellers, tiger-balm sellers, music shops blaring out Tibetan music and shady men offering marijuana. Every two minutes it's- 'rickshaw?' or 'you want smoke?' I found myself dreaming of a world which doesn't have trade as its main attraction. The prime reason for taking to the street is to buy this, or buy that. How nice would it be not to be consumed by consumerism and instead have the streets decorated with art and quirky things of interest; sure, we need things, but it doesn't have to take over our lives and the face of our towns. We're humans first.

While walking around Kathmandu, taking the odd back lane or gated entrance can reveal historical edifices a thousand years old or more. Sometimes surrounded in its own tiny courtyard, sometimes by the side of a shop, sometimes even tiled over the top of it to match the owner's doorstep. It is with a sense of belonging that that these people live alongside such important artefacts. The ancient monuments are shrouded in trade shops so much so that it can be difficult to find them. How many wood carvings, padlocks and packets of Shaka-Laka Boom! noodles can one city really need?
I walked inside the White Temple grounds to the smell of pigeons and a less frantic degree of trade bustle- half in shade and half in blinding afternoon sun. The two-roofed temple housed a thousand roosting pigeons in amongst its outer beams. A woman with layers of rags as clothes and a white cloth wrapped around her wrinkled brow sat crouching with her knees under her armpits, laboriously brushing clean each edge of the surrounding stone relics using water and a limited stroke, due to the iron railing that stretched around its circumference. The little scene seemed to play out with peaceful regularity.

At the temple structures around Itum Bahal, a man approached me among the writhing blanket of pigeons and urinating cows, cows who defecated on these historical monuments without a moments' notice. 'Hello, how are you?'
'I'm fine, thanks.' I replied. He began explaining to be about the festival today and about the three-year-old living Goddess. 'You have travelled more than me, you have seen many God and Goddess statues, to see a living Goddess- this is not so easy.' He raised his eyebrows. 'She has to pass many tests, she has to be born on a full-moon night, she has to have thirty-two teeth. She stays inside the temple because if she falls down and blood comes out- then she is not Goddess anymore.' He began selling me his guided tour, but I'd been travelling for four months now and the funds were diminishing fast, I promised myself I'd have a frugal day. 'I....really don't want to, thank you, but I'm sorry.' I said trying not to offend him, but also trying to get the message across without much of a debate. 'It's not expensive, whatever makes you happy, makes me happy.' If only it were that simple, I'd heard that one before. He showed me a scrapbook of recommendations from a smattering of international travellers. Thank you Rajesh, you opened our eyes to the sights of Kathmandu. The warm wind blew, a flight of pigeons took to the air in their hundreds and I was forced to repeat myself several times. 'I'm sorry Rajesh, I just don't want to spend any more money today.'
'I asked fifty-five people today', he closed his book and at that moment his eyes filled with slight indignation. 'You are number fifty-five. Everybody no, no, no. I don't know what is wrong with humans, it is a problem.' I could tell that last phrase was born out of a desperate place in the lowly depths of a wounded and struggling heart. He walked away, and not for the first time I was left feeling guilty and with every pulse a sense of sad pity; firstly for him, and then for us all. One question stayed with me for the rest of the day- What is to be done?

A black and white cow chews on vegetable scraps, two others flinch from an army of persistent flies. A holy man dressed in red robes and long, yellow scarf with red inscription, complete with painted face, long beard and orange flowers wrapped around his hair in a top-knot walks up to me and mimes that I should take a picture of him, 'picture' he says, innocently. But the smile hides a secret. I point to his silver pot. 'No money.' I said.
'No picture?'
'No money.' Jeez, even the holy men are at it.
I walked on, lest I get touted by Shiva himself. A rickshaw cycles past, his horn sounding like a screaming duck, hwaaack, hwaaack. Through the trading lanes, shop owners throw buckets of water down onto the narrow road, presumably to stop the dust from taking to the air with every passing rickshaw or motorbike. Many of the locals went about their daily business while wearing face masks, clasped around each ear. I felt dirtied in my airways and knew I'd made a mistake myself for not getting one.

Now I was here in Kathmandu, with some new friends. I met Michael in the seconds after getting off the bus from Pokhara. 'Do you know where you're staying?' I asked him as we collected our bags from the back of the bus. Which effectively means help me out with a place to stay, where the hell are we anyway? All backpackers understand this one. He was getting verbally assaulted by offers of a taxi at the time, when he burst into a firm speech. 'I know where I am! It's just round there! I don't need a taxi do I!' And with that I either knew that he was a funny guy, or he had anger issues. As we spoke, on the way to Fairview and Yellow House, it was clear he was from the Midlands somewhere. Michael was from Derby and he pronounced all the unlikely t's in his sentences. I would find out in the days to come that he was actually a very funny chap, and always took his time to deliver the right line at the right time. Sat in the sunny garden of Yellow House, Michael introduced me to his Australian cousin. Jim lounged back in his chair, his big white teeth backing up a unique smile, and there in that garden began the show of a well-practiced comedic duo as they caught up over the last few weeks or months that they'd been apart. Jim had a way of involving me in the conversation, he asked plenty of questions at a time when it would have been easy to dismiss the stranger and catch up with his relative. I appreciated that of Jim, the mark of a true gent.

In a moment of unrealised folly, a gathering group of us, about ten, ragged, international travellers found ourselves at a bar for some Experimental Electronic Folk music, whereupon an expressive American lady, with electric guitar and sound-looping equipment proceeded to make random noises, loop them back, and make other random noises over the top. She plucked the occasional string on the Fender and sung sadistic lyrics like- What about the pain, what about the pain, what about the pain, what about the pai-eee-ai-eee-ain? The clue was in experimental.

The conversation, however, was dynamite. Amongst the group was a Spanish girl named Montse. Unfortunately for Montse, she didn't get any of our humorousness, and just sat there, moving her head this way then that, as if searching for a clue, but the clueless smile on her face gave her away; her top lip disappeared completely, revealing all her upper teeth in a kind of half-grin coupled with worried eyes, it was really something of a curiosity. So we tried to make her feel comfortable, you know...I can relate to you, I know something about your culture, that type of thing. So there we were, chatting about Spain, 'Yeah, so your name- Montse, it's like that Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballé. 'Yea, it's amazing that you knew that Michael, not many people have heard of her.' she replied, impressed. After a couple more semi-respectable anecdotes about Spain, Michael was scraping the bottom of the barrel, 'I watched a couple of Spanish movies once.' he said, so matter-of-factly that it belied the weakness in the confession. It was now going badly, we began a series of infectious giggles, this caused Montse's top lip to recede even further into itself. Someone had to save the moment and spare us the embarrassment over our cultural ignorance of Spain. 'I know where Milan is.' offered Jim. That was the point at which we all lost the plot. A kind of helpless belly laughter killed the three of us in fits of convulsive roars; tears streamed down my face. My stomach ached from tensed muscles I never knew I had, I know where Milan is, each time we thought about the irony, volcanic eruptions of painful cackles gripped us with a suffocating embrace. All kinds of equally- but this time- intentionally stupid comments burst into the chuckling conversation, 'I know Antonio Banderas', being my favourite.

We left that place, both regretful for the experimental electronic folk 'music' and still in the aftershocks of self-igniting laughter. Sam's Bar looked interesting, and after three slightly attractive (from a distance) women came to sit next to us, it made sense to stay for another drink. The fourth guy in our group was Luke. A tall Parisian with a rounded accent, intelligent glasses and floppy hair. Imagine an Englishman with a tongue too big for his own mouth attempting to sound very French, and there you have Luke, only he was a real frog, and a genuinely nice chap. The females, now amongst us, had been attempting to escape the attentions of a Nepali guy, intent on wooing the girls with stories involving I don't know what and I don't know who, but in a clever move, he moved with them, failing to take the hint. Bridget- the only mildly attractive one of the three, gave Luke all the right signals-falling into helpless laughter, touching his arm, smiling intently into his Bordeaux-slurping eyes, but he failed to capitalise; maybe she wasn't his thing. The dread-locked freakshow chatting to Jim had such an incendiary personality and became so utterly animated that as she jittered about and the candlelight cast a spooky shadow of her thick-framed glasses across her face, you'd swear she'd just come straight from the loony bin. She stood up at one point and began playing sadistically with the burning candle wax, poor Jim we all thought. And as Michael and I joked like schoolboys, the Irish lass next to me interrupted every thing I had to say, spitting on my arm from behind goofy teeth in the process. 'Two non-starters and a lost cause' I reflected, Michael and I chuckled at the hopelessness of the evening as a whole, but through a combination of random humour and a measure of self-deprecation we got through it with a laugh or two.

Reflecting upon the evening at breakfast, Michael, Jim and I were joined by Hilde, who made the right decision to stay at the guesthouse that evening and avoid the whole debacle. Hilde was a Belgian, pretty and blonde, she'd maybe had a little too much sun, but overall she had a certain draw to her image and she was one of those in a group who made a good place for your eyes to rest on; her one wonky incisor didn't trouble the look too much. She was an art designer for music festivals- a predominantly male environment, and she showed her resistance to that with a hardy personality that seemed not to be phased by anything at all. This was much to my advantage as I set upon a conversation with her, and then said all the wrong things. Hilde had a Chinese tattoo on her right arm. I guessed that she was in her early thirties and thought I could remember when Chinese inscription tattoos became popular. 'So, Hilde, you must have been one of the first to get one of those...' realising I'd made her sound like an ancient relic, I tried to reel it back in. 'No, I mean..like, oh...' no use. Some while later, the conversation, strangely, changed to fairies, and how Hilde's friends says she was akin to one of the winged sprites. 'What kind of fairy would you like to be?' asked Jim. The air grew silent as she thought. 'Michael Barrymore?' I suggested in a low voice, it was in no way suggestive of her innate mannish ways. Thankfully it was taken, mostly, in good humour. As always, the conversations within that company never quite made it into the realm of normality. 'Hilde, what do you think Adam's like when he gets excited?' asked Michael, in the most random change of subject. But I liked the fact I'd been embroiled into the group. Hilde thought, struggling to voice her opinion, but considering it intently nonetheless and preparing her proficient level of English. Jim interrupted, 'I think he'd get pretty, you know, well... I don't think he'd go off like a frog in a sock...' and yet again the laughter caught us, nearly making me emit my morning coffee from my nose.

On the trip to and from Bodnath stupa, a kind of Buddhist structure for worship. I realised just how much of a structural mess Kathmandu was in. This was a capital city, and they had no electricity for up to sixteen hours a day. That's not to mention the crumbling buildings and piles of rubble which littered every road in the area. Truly one of the most unkempt and dissolute places humans have touched; and all in the country of Earth's most heavenly platform. There's something morbidly fascinating at watching this play out, I don't know whether these people live more at one with nature because they shit into so directly, or whether it's all the same in the end. The stupa, neverthe less was beautiful. Stupas typically contained ancient relics such as remnants of Buddah or some such revered artefact. We walked around the heap-like structure watching the monks pray and the tourists take their snapshots, spinning prayer-wheels along the way.

On the way to the airport, I witnessed another accident. Blood stained the road surface, a crumpled motorbike lay in a heap with the rider surrounded by the blackness of the night and a crowd of locals. It was with a car crash in Mumbai that I was welcomed onto the sub-continent, and now with a bike smash I was leaving. Goodbye chaos, you charmed me with your heartfelt hospitality, blessed my eyes with colour and vibrancy, touched my spirit with your gentle hand and frustrated me with thoughtless corruption. You're one of a kind.

Posted by kookie888 17:08 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

International Hell Bus

On the last day of the desert trek, Johnny and I separated again from the caravan and trekked the Thar until we reached a large, flat area of dry bush land. I picked up the stick Johnny had been carrying for the last two days, 'this good stick' he declared as I swung it about trying to hit dried nuggets of horse manure, softball style. 'Sometimes, man coming...and take money', he gestured with two fingers and a thumb dipping into his shirt pocket; the same shirt with black stripes, and beige slacks, that he wore since I met him. 'Take money...and then go.' I swung the stick again to feel the striking-weight behind it. 'Oh, you mean bandits?'
'Yeah...together fight, so they not come.' I was unaware that bandits occasionally patrolled this area, and there was me thinking that Johnny chose this stick as a kind of walking pole.

One of a number of small black goats grazed nearby in the unforgiving dust, his underbelly showed bright, rusty brown fur, as if he'd been laying in a damp toolbox for years on end. The small flames of the fire licked at the arid air, the occasional tweet of desert birds rang out across the plain. The four other guides arrived at a canter and dropped down from the high perch of their camel's backs. And there, on the dusty plain, we played cricket with a red tennis ball and the gnarled tree branch that might double-up as a fighting stick. The boys scrapped over who would bowl, pitting their passion for the game against one another. Once tired, we rested in the shade of a scraggly tree and ate veg masala and chapati. Three eagles soared overhead; the goats continued to forage.

After some time, the others left, and Johnny and I entertained ourselves by throwing dried poo at each other and hitting it for six with the stick. I successfully managed to karate-kick several of the mummified lumps with a swift roundhouse. We were two men in the desert with nothing but sun-baked animal dung and three days of slightly pent-up boredom. I left that day pleased to be going back to my hotel and to a lovely cool shower. Here, the sand settles on your skin, and with a mixture of sweat and grease, leaves you with a permanent exfoliant grinding at your hands and face; twas a bit scratchy on day three.

I boarded the train the next morning and set my bags down next to two English girls. 'Yay! A westerner!' said the girl to my left in a pseudo-celebration, since Indian trains were always packed with... Indians; and curiously, mostly men. Kirsty was from Manchester, her refreshing accent, athletic figure and perfect white teeth made the journey a more pleasant one. She wore beautiful, golden-yellow pantaloons with intricate design, which distracted from her well-kept - if hugely long and broad- fingers. Her sister, Penny, who sat opposite us, by the open window, was well tanned and had short, but extremely well-styled feminine, neck-length hair framing a very pretty face. When she smiled, it was perfection, she could win awards with that smile and those lightly dimpled cheeks. She was a fitness instructor and had an Aussie accent. Both of them had lived in Australia for ten years as children, and then moved back to England. Penny returned to Melbourne some years down the line and picked up the accent; which has to be one of the most infectious on suggestible Britons. Kirsty led the conversation and sprinkled a cute laugh at the beginning of every amusing story. Penny listened, spoke less and smiled that amazing smile, thankfully, quite often. The overnight journey passed with rapid ease, despite the constant staring by Indian eyes.

I had arrived in India's capital. Along the last few miles of train track, every kind of squalid human habitation flanked the rail line. It seemed to me that Delhi had the worst of it all. There were over twelve million people in this capital, and they had to fit-in somewhere. Delhi was a large city, but somehow the poor always took up the worst locations, in dirty, rat-infested territory, beside roads or train tracks. I was hoping to have arrived at New Delhi station, but instead realised this was Old Delhi. I walked, or rather, squeezed through thick crowds of brown bodies to reach the ticket counter. I didn't have the small change for the two-rupee (three pence) ticket, she waved me away, letting me take the ticket and my one-hundred rupee note back to the platform.
Walking back up the stairs I saw half a dozen monkeys, sitting and eating grapes. The largest of them all looked at me with cold, evil eyes and as I walked by he swiped at my trousers and then grabbed my arm with his claws for a split-second. I looked at the disgusting beast and kept walking, my wrist had grape juice and a slight bloodless scratch. I bloody hope that vile creature doesn't have rabies. I'd soon find out, since, without a prophylaxis, rabies invariably causes death by accute encephalitis- a swelling of the brain.
I stood on platform four, for twenty minutes, then sat for twenty more. The scratch bled a little. A man on the opposite platform crouched at its edge, in this busy station, and peed onto the tracks from his open dhoti, then took up his walking stick and strode away. This was considered normal behaviour. Walking to the dirty toilets was obviously too much hassle. Besides, most Indians bore the attitude that they could throw whatever they liked out of train windows and onto street floors, so defecating on a railway line was nothing. I marched out of the station, feeling that the stagnant air of expectation would not bring a train any time soon, I felt both tired and hungry and just wanted to lay down on a proper bed.

In those first few minutes, watching from the pre-paid auto-rickshaw as it threaded through cars, bikes, cows, trucks, cycle-rickshaws and the New Delhi population, it astounded me how one of the world's biggest capital cities could still be so different from its more organised Western counterparts. In a mixing bowl of man, animals and machines, machines which you'd swear were on their last legs and animals which chew from the gutter, and shit where they chew. I plied the busy lanes of Paharganj district on foot and checked-in to Smyle Inn, situated in a small backstreet of uneven pavement and dingy exteriors. I walked around Delhi that day, continually amazed at its untamed enculturation, nowhere else had I been struck so many times by passing vehicles.

I'd often heard that the Taj Mahal was absolutely worth seeing. And as it was just a 3 ½ hour train ride East of Delhi, I decided to go and see what all the fuss was about. Why was it such a big deal in India? I disembarked from the train and shared a rickshaw with two English travellers, fresh out of university. Sidhartha Guesthouse, close to the Taj's West gate, would be my home for a day; it was simple but comfortable. I stood in line waiting to buy a ticket and immediately got filtered out of the line to the much smaller queue for foreigners. Oh, this is good, I thought. Special service. Then I looked at the price above the ticket window. 750 rupees! I could get a week's accommodation in Rajasthan for that. The queue to my left, the queue I had been in, was marked up at 10 rupees- for Indians. Well, what was I going to do? I suppose this is the only way the people of this nation can afford to come and see their proudest monument. I coughed up. What I wasn't happy with was the same old crap that really burnt my bacon. 'This...sir, this..not allowed' said the official, pointing to my tripod and looking like I'd committed a crime. Not this again. I could have punched the dude right in the gut. I'd had enough of this idiocy. I stood strong and held in the temptation to bite back. I dropped it back at my hotel and calmed myself before entering the gate.

In a story that has been told many times, the Taj Mahal was built by The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 when giving birth to child number fourteen. The sheer size and symmetry of the monument has to be seen to be believed. It is without doubt one of the greatest creations of mankind on this Earth. Created no less, by the greatest emotion of all, pure Love. At the Emperor's death in 1666, the year London was burning up in a little fire, he was buried beside his Love, inside the mausoleum. From start to finish the Taj Mahal took 22 years and 20,000 pairs of hands to build; at the cost, in today's money, of 40 million rupees. Such was the financial extravagance, that the Emperor's son had him put under house arrest in Agra Fort upon its completion. The artisans created something so special, that the myth of amputating their hands so that they may never again create something as beautiful, still flourishes despite there being no evidence of such an atrocity.
I approached the archway and wowed at the framed glimpse of its translucent white marble far in the distance. The place was heaving with tourists. Ninety percent of whom were Indian. It was a revelation just how many Indians there were in this awesome space. But at ten rupes a pop, who would blame them? Through the archway and the elbows and cameras, I entered the showdown for prime position, which was the central eye-line which runs down towards the Taj along the garden fountains. The key to the appeal here was the creator's penchant for symmetry. The Taj is exactly as wide as it is high, at 55m. As the sun moves in the sky, the colours and warmth of its pure brilliance changes accordingly. The gardens, implement British-style lawns which remain from the period of the early twentieth century when they undertook a restoration project, after having defaced the Taj in 1857 following the Indian uprising of that time.
I spent a few hours wandering those gardens and taking my time to appreciate its exquisite presence. I found almost as much entertainment watching the Indians and foreigners bask in its shade as the sun began to set on an immaculate azure-blue sky. There was such a sense of pride and enchantment that everyone wore a smile, the kind of smile that reflects a satisfied stomach after a hearty meal.

Back at the guesthouse I sat with a plate of banana pancakes, reflecting on the once in a lifetime sight of old Jahan's Taj. He'd done well. I'm not sure I could have knocked up something like that in a hundred years, let alone twenty-two. I might have managed a small pile of housebricks and some ropey cement, I might've even envisioned a small wooden door or a corrugated iron roof. But anyway, that's beside the point, old Jahan gave us all something to do in Agra; feck knows there's not much else going on.

Behind me I heard a sudden voice- 'whoops.' I turned around to see sweetly smiling Western girl on the table behind me. 'Sorry' she said energetically, 'I almost fell off my chair.' She was typing at a small laptop. I looked at her, and straight away felt her approachability. It was in her eyes, as obvious and clear as that first sight of white Rajasthani marble between the curvaceous arch leading to the Taj's full frontal. The girl's name was Sara, she was from London and had the well-spoken of the two London accents. She was of my age, and pretty, with gleaming eyes and a healthy, smiling expression. Upon her invite, I joined her at her table. The evening flowed as we spoke about India, vegetarianism, how to break a stray puppy's neck, the Ganges and how we both needed to sort our lives out. The puppy thing in relation to the problem of stray dogs in India. Sara was a pure animal lover, but her two-handed mime wrenching at the imaginary puppy's head seemed out of character and just made me laugh. When she smiled, she gave it one-hundred percent, showing top and bottom teeth; her eyes involved in the equation as much as her mouth, she was a humorous girl. Sara was half-Argentinian and raved about the stark beauty of her Father's homeland. 'The steak is the best steak you will ever have.' she said, confirming the very thing about Argentina that I'd heard from many a steak-eating mouth. She was also writing a book about her travels and we found much common ground on that territory. She loved India, you could say she fell for it in a big way. It was quite surprising how juxtapositioned our lives were, following a similar time line and with twinned sentiments.
I went to bed that night pleased with the day I'd had. I doused myself with a warm bucket shower, squished some mosquitoes and took an early night, I was catching the six o'clock back to Delhi.

After some running about in Delhi and thinking I'd been cheated out of a deposit I'd paid for a bus ticket to Nepal, I found myself on that bus, not cheated, but slightly concerned that the luxury coach that I paid for was, in fact, a beat-up old shit heap of a vehicle with ripped interior felts and, as I would find out later, absolutely zero suspension.
'Hello, what were you told about this bus?' came a voice, 'because it's not what I was expecting, I was told it would be a....luxury...'
'Yeah, I know! Me too, I mean, what a piece of crap.' I replied to the girl who'd turned and spoke to me as the only other white person on board the sweaty-hot bus. 'I feel safer now that you're here' she said, smiling freely, suggesting that the tourist bus we'd paid for was looking more and more like a state bus filled with locals. But it was a tourist bus, the tourists that were on the journey with us were Nepalis. I suppose in India, if you say a bus will have a lot of foreigners in it, well...then technically they weren't wrong. The girl's name was Anka, she was a curly-haired blonde from Russia and she'd been on the road for a year and a half; her well-tanned skin backed-up that fact. As she spoke of travelling she came across as unsure and wary of her surroundings, something that struck me as very strange for someone that had been travelling for so long.
Now, this journey would be around the thirty-six hour mark. Thirty-six hours on this cramped piece of metal and foam, a bus load of Nepalis and a paranoid Russian. As the bus took off, I sincerely hoped that the bumpy start wouldn't continue beyond the first hour. However, I was to find out just how much worse it would get over the next day and a half. To the untrained eye, the road surface looked so-so, not too bad. But when this bus tore up the route without slowing for any of the pot-holes or dips (and how could he? For there were thousands of them) then you were in for the most uncomfortable, bone-shaking ride of your life. Every hole in the road felt like a genuine car crash. If you rode this bus along a smooth road and then you went over one of these bumps, you'd swear you'd just hit a car, head-on; they were that violent. If I'd spent a day and a half getting hit in the head with a hammer, I'd have been no worse-off.
I always made the mistake of not wrapping up soon enough when trying to sleep on public transport. So, that night, I went all-out and climbed inside my cocoon-like sleeping bag, head and all, and pulled the toggle strings tight to avoid the mosquitoes. I was mummified. I spent the next six hours trying to sleep in conditions not unlike a particularly poorly-maintained fairground ride. Not a wink. I'd eaten some dried apricots that an Indian from Darjeeling had offered me a few hours before, and now, inside the cocoon, came the terrible wind. I was bound-up inside a straight-jacket of my own farts and insomnia. I was beginning to get a sore-throat from smoking a beedie cigarette on one of the last stops. It was a curious little cigarette with a tiny amount of tobacco, wrapped in a dried, green leaf and tied with a length of cotton at the flat end. I didn't even smoke back home, God knows why I bought a pack of twenty; but they were only seven rupees, it was a steal; I didn't touch another after that.
I had mosquito bites in strange places, they were in fact the only places that I failed to spray the foul-smelling citronella; the side of my left palm, my forehead and both ear lobes. The bus veered side to side, braked harshly and I'm sure, hit every crack in the road, sending us all a good six inches off our seats. Being hit on the arse by a cricket bat every thirty-seconds might produce a similar result. I thrashed about inside the sleeping bag, arms swinging wildly and totally enraged with frustration, pain and tiredness. I must have looked like an angry butterfly trying to escape from a chrysalis. Every time the driver braked it sent us sliding down the seat, towards the footwell in front. The provision of an overhead storage-rack meant that if we hit a particularly deep hole in the road, you'd be sent skywards with the possibility of cranial-fracture quite likely. The ends of the rack were sharp with exposed metal too, and wouldn't you know it, I sat at a seat which was below the very edge of the left-side rack, and towards the rear of the bus, where the bumps were more pronounced.

When, eventually, we reached Sunauli- the maniacal Indian border-town, I crawled off that bus, into the light and dust, with a aching body and forcibly decompressed spine. But after an hour wandering about and successfully gaining my visa application, I had to re-board and cross into Nepal on the death-machine once more. I noticed that the faces began to change, the eyes more Chinese in appearance.
One change of bus and several hours later and we were in Pokhara, Nepal's premier jewel in the crown. A beautiful lakeside town with endless opportunities for hiking and just about anything else you might want to throw yourself at. The peace I felt on this side of the border was immense. I'd enjoyed India greatly, but the sense of chaos had now been taken down several notches, and I felt relieved and positive about that; it was time for a new chapter, and time to recover from the hell-bus.

'Why do people from London sound like they want to shit?' asked Anka as we organised our bags in the room. She bargained hard, as she always did, and managed to get us a rock-bottom price for a twin room in a guesthouse close to the lakeside, and was now grilling me over the London-lilt. My accent was very neutral and didn't conform to the common Essex patois, instead being just South-Eastern in general. Anka always said what she meant. When she bargained, she did so with a mostly dismissive attitude and a voice that complained in its intonation. She hid none of her disparaging comments, if a place was dirty, if the price was too high, if she felt like she was being cheated, she would come right out and say it. I covered my embarrassment many a time with a laugh or by simply walking away and leaving her to it. Over the next three days we would spend together, I grew to tolerate it, but credit to her, she got us some good prices; and underneath it all she was quite sweet.

'OK, now I can tell you the real reason why I am here' she said to me, as we sat drinking chai on the first evening at Norsang Guesthouse. 'I'm a criminal, in India something happened and I am running away.'
'O...kay...' I replied, surprised at her sudden confession. 'I hired a motorbike, and there was an accident, well, a woman, she walked out into the road without looking and I hit her, she just ran out in front of me. That's why I have this...' She lifted up her short trousers to show me the scars on the sides of her leg. I'd seen them before, on the bus, but in her self-protective state she explained them away as a simple topple from a scooter, but from several different countries. 'I was in hospital, and so was she, but her family, they tried to blackmail me and get money.' She drew at the cigarette between her index and middle finger and breathed out the smoky cloud into the cool night air. 'I moved out of the hospital and spent thirty-five days in an Ayurvedic centre and received treatment every day. It was very good for me, it also helped me to feel more calm about it and more positive. But I spent so much rupees, and I paid for a lawyer, who didn't really help me, I ended up spending a lot of money on that whole situation, but I didn't give them what they wanted. A friend of mine told me, Anka, just run away and leave it behind. So I did. I left without saying anything to anyone, early one morning I packed my things and left.'
'Wow, Anka. That's terrible, if this lady walked out in front of you- then you needn't feel bad for getting out of there, even if she was injured, they were trying to clean you out; that's disgraceful.' She was obviously still scarred from the whole event and I could perhaps see why she was taking being cheated over prices personally. The greed for money had clawed at her, at a time when all she needed was to be looked-after.

On that first morning in Pokhara, wouldn't you know it, we'd stumbled into a place that celebrated the Holi festival of Spring. Today was the day that the festival of colours was kicking off in a big way. To celebrate this day, all the locals threw, and then rubbed, coloured powder into you, as well as throwing coloured water and water-filled balloons. Apart from the odd water balloon landing at my feet, I was surprised by the Nepali's manners in making sure they asked you first before covering you with a handful of neon-pink powder. I remembered back to the days of Thailand's water festival, you could be riding a motorbike round a corner only to be doused with an entire bucket of water as you zipped past. Leaving electronic appliances in your room during this time was definitely a wise move. In Pokhara's streets I was greeted with 'Happy Holi' a thousand times over, it made a change from the usual 'namaste' which the Nepalis normally greeted you with. These were cheery and open people, but much less in your face than the Indians. Good bless them Indians, they might as well be on another planet, but I can see why so many people raved about India's chaotic charms.
So all in all, it took only thirty-seconds after leaving the guesthouse for six hands to rub three colours all over my face and head. Anka didn't want any part of it, but she laughed freely at me- and it was always a loud, throaty laugh with Anka- and she replied with a chirpy 'Happy Holi' as and when required. Another three or four smotherings and I was ready for a shower, my white shirt had had it. Holi, or Phagupurnima, as it is also known, literally meaning colour/full-moon, was a happy day for all Hindus, Buddists and Sikhs involved. It impressed me that the the major religions banded together with this common celebration; a unity rarely seen amongst other cultures. An example to Nepal and its neighbours, an example to the world that it can be done.

Posted by kookie888 17:57 Archived in India Comments (2)

Desert days

Three days and four trains later I arrived in Jaisalmer. It was cold, and five in the morning. Back at Jodhpur station, only a few hours before, I'd got talking to a young man of twenty on the platform. He'd asked me where I was staying in Jaisalmer, 'Shahi Palace Hotel' I told him. 'I used to work there' he said with an amused smile. Before I knew it he called and made a reservation in my name and arranged the pick-up service for my arrival- a relief, because I didn't have a plan for how to get there. He spent the rest of his time telling me about his worries having to spend 4000 rupees- which he didn't have- for his girlfriend's birthday, whom he was going to meet for the first time tomorrow. Each time she would call him during our conversation his head would drop into is hands and the worry lines grew deeper.
For the first time in my life I became one of those tourists looking discriminatingly for the wooden board with my hotel name or my name on it. 'Are you Adam?' he said, as I walked up to his board. 'Yep, God it's cold' I replied in a short outburst, and hopped briskly towards the Indian Mahindra jeep.

Morning came, I trod the solid steps up to the Shahi Palace Hotel rooftop restaurant. The sun's warmth-giving rays shone unobstructed from the azure-blue sky. The radiating sandstone fort of Jaisalmer glowed like a frontier of copper-clad soldiers, defiant in their stance to defend the city. I immediately thought back to Savur in Turkey and its similar rustic, sandy hues. You know you've arrived in a special spot when your first reaction is I wasted time in other places when I could have been here. This was my first thought at the sight of those walls.

Upon my first walk around the fort area, I realised the sheer amount of sandstone in this town was of an exuberant scale. Then there were the usual carpets, crafts of wood, stone and brass and clothes of every kind sold by more moustachioed-men and shrieking women in brightly coloured saris, adorned with jewellery on every limb.

From the rooftop of Free Tibet Restaurant the sweeping veins leading in and out of Jaisalmer could be seen along with the tetris-like shapes of its homes and businesses. The new world encroaches on the barren horizon- wind turbines rotating in the dry desert sirocco. Meanwhile Jaisalmer sinks on its foundations due to the implementation of a porous drainage system and the inadequate approach to solving the issue. This fort was built without any water. Due to the fact that water was a little hard to come by in the desert. The huge sandstone blocks were designed with an interlocking feature to keep them together in the absence of cement. Modern life- if you can call it that in these parts- has weakened the dry, hardy strength of the glorious structure and placed it in jeopardy.

I stumbled across a haveli in one of the narrow lanes- these narrow lanes that display Indian life in all its basic fascination- and I began talking to the man who owned the crumbling property. A haveli is the name used to describe a stately home, decorated with unimaginable detail on the sandstone exterior. They were used as meeting places for village issues and as lodgings for Royal Maharajah visits. The haveli was as much a part of the whole scene as any other building here, but the outer splendour of its carved brickwork was out of this world. If it was wood, you could imagine how it could be done, but surely the sandstone would just crumble? The sun beats down, penetrating the meandering pathways and catching the jutting carvings; accentuating the deep-cut nature of their form and perfect symmetry. 'I want to renovate my haveli' said the man, 'this house is four-hundred years old. I do not push, if you want to buy something then I am very happy, I need good karma because this house needs much repair. If you spend money and you not happy, then money not work for me, I need good karma.' He showed me around the various floors and rooms. Rooms that once were fit for a King, were now a shadow of their former glory. He'd kept many of the original artefacts, such as a hundred-year-old bed, and ageing, wooden photo frames. The house was full of wondrous little trinkets, and everything, everything, had a thin layer of dust, as if to declare its authenticity. The personal security men who protected the Maharajah upon his visits were framed proudly in old photographs and paintings. These men were the family of the man standing before me. One of them was his great-great-great-great Grandfather. They were Brahman men. And so was Raju. 'I am six-generation Brahman' said Raju with a subtle lick of pride that this house had been in his family for so long. Brahman were highly regarded among the community as the top caste in Indian culture. His devout ways had a hint of humility and reason. The dash of red between his eyes, and the gap-toothed smile somehow complimented the honesty in his eyes, although if you thought you could trust anyone with a tilaka you'd be mistaken. He seemed he'd rather struggle than be dishonest. And he gave me an honest price on everything. Linen, patchworks, a brass scorpion padlock, opium boxes made from wood and camel bone, Ganesh and Shiva carvings all adorned the house in haphazard style. It wasn't laid out like a shop, he'd just let it be, if you found something charming, all the better for you. I learned that Shiva was the Father of Ganesh. Ganesh being the elephant-headed God and the remover of obstacles, and the supreme Shiva being the God of destruction.
Some of the doors were very low, so much so that you had to crouch to get through them. This was done for three reasons. When a visitor came through the door, he came in a bowing position, which showed respect. Secondly, if the house was stormed by enemies it would be hard for them all to filter through during an attack, the first man to do so would have his head cut off from the back of the neck. This reason reminded me of the low tunnels in the Cappadocian underground city at Derinkuyu, it was a similar concept. Thirdly, to keep the rooms cool in summer. The rooms also had cow dung ceilings to stay the heat away. The Maharajah had ten villages in his care and the appointed persons would would come to the house to see the secretary who would then consult with the Maharajah himself. The Maharajah would then bring his solutions to the villagers. Could this have been a political system that actually works? Fancy that.
I walked around that house for an hour and purchased myself a beat-up old incense stick holder, I gave him more than he asked for, a strange reversal of logic, but I wanted to help him, and he was true to his word- he didn't push, I appreciated that.

I walked some more, passing numerous cows, dogs, children and all their excrement along the way. There was always something to watch out for, at any level. I began taking some photographs of a man and a dog crouched on a set of stone stairs (doesn't sound like much, does it), and as I clicked away I imagined how strange it would be to see an Indian tourist taking photos of an old man and his dog back home. A voice came from behind me, 'you are taking a lot of photos, you will need many albums.' The man was selling camel-leather diaries and albums, hence the suggestive quip. His name was Kamal and he invited me to sit and talk, as did most of the people who greeted you from shop fronts; an obvious tactic to get you in their trade space. I knew that. I sat anyway. Kamal was also Brahman. 'We can't eat onion or garlic- not at home anyway. We can't drink alcohol either. It is hard for people to understand, even for me.' I purchased a diary with an imprint of the moustached Hindu Sun God on the front. Kamal had been making them since he was ten-years-old, twenty-seven years ago, but now he had an operation set-up in which his neighbour's children were doing the handiwork for him. I was feeling generous. 'I'll give you full price Kamal, OK.' I looked at him with a knowing glance that the price should have been knocked down, but that I was doing him a good turn. He smiled with paan-stained teeth. We sat awhile. During our conversation I got the usual response to my status as a divorced man- 'Marriage in India is for life, you can argue, but you always stay together.' He had a wife and two kids himself. 'Do you want chai?' he asked. 'OK, why not, let's drink chai, thank you.' He bought me a drink and we talked as the strength of the sun gradually relented a little and the contents of the small plastic cup receded. 'I have to go to temple now, let me take you where you want to go, you going back to hotel?'
'Yep, I'm off back to Shahi Palace, thanks Kamal.' He shut up shop and I jumped on the back of his Honda Hero motorbike, a ubiquitous sight on any Indian road. On the way he stopped off at a small shop to feed his addiction for more paan. Then came a slightly needless declaration- 'first I must pee-pee', he walked over to a designated spot in the street where he stood and urinated on a rock. I walked the last two minutes, getting slightly lost, keeping to my usual habit.

On the second day walking around the fort I sat talking to two guys that motioned for me to come sit with them and chat. We talked in the shade of the hanging carpets in their dusty courtyard. The one largish man had green-brown eyes and paan-stained teeth. He sat with such indolence that you wondered if he had any motive to move at all. His few grey hairs were like shooting stars in the black night sky. The other gave me his chair and grinned a straight smile with small black eyes and a sun-wrinkled and moustached face. He had the hint of a mullet and a flighty demeanour about him. I learned the men's names but quickly forgot them, such was my overall discomfort sitting in their company, they were nice on the outside, but something kept me from endearing myself to them, even a bit. I talked and remained polite, joking with them when I felt I could rouse the effort but never giving more than a slightly otiose part of myself in conversation. The large man had the insistent tendency to ask me if I made boom-boom in each country I visited. He did so with the double handed ketchup bottle gesture, patting one clenched fist with the open palm of the other as if trying to get the last of the sauce out in one final drip. The filth in his green-brown eyes stayed my own eyes away as he patted away with red-stained teeth dictating the most awful smile. He was desperate to get his hands on a white woman. I was unsure who would possibly oblige. But I entertained his idea with questions, simply out of not knowing what else to say. His moustached companion backed up the obscenities with a mousy grin and occasionally offering his hand for a gimme five.

An Indian girl wearing jeans and Western clothing walked past the swaying linen in the courtyard, staring at her surroundings behind tan sunglasses. The large man called out to her, as he did with any tourist, and they spoke for a minute or two in Hindi. I could see he was gesticulating for her to come and sit with us, after a few polite refusals, she eventually relented. He spoke in fast, slightly frantic Hindi. She consistently replied to him in educated English, perhaps for my benefit, or maybe she was just so well versed that it was natural for her; as she listened, she took notes. Her tied-back hair blew gently in the warm breeze and the sunlight glinted from the tinted lenses of her sunglasses as she spoke about the fort and its impending structural hardship. She was a masters student in architecture and was working on a paper based on the old structure which stood just thirty feet away. She held eye-contact and spoke in such a way that it was obvious her mind was very well put-together; full of reason and abilities in deep analysis. She looked out of place in Jaisalmer, hence the reason why the filthy man had beckoned her over to talk. Her jeans and trainers stood out from the traditional dress which 99% of women wore all-across India. Her educated discourse was quite intriguing, not just from the content of her mind- which expressed itself with such adeptness, but for the fullness of her pale lips and the gentle features of her lightly tanned face, the mild downward curve of her nose and depth of her rich brown eyes sat in perfect proportion to the rest of her features, and added a sense of appeal to her overall character. The Olympus camera around her neck and the incessant note-taking interested me, after all, they were two things that I was also doing on my trip with equal industriousness. She asked me the usual questions one faces when travelling and then after some time she bid us three farewell and went on her way. Mullet-man looked at me and threw his head in the direction of the girl in a sharp nod. 'You should go talk to her, she's not that far away, catch her man.' He'd been leering at me and gesturing with similar nods while she sat there, raised eyebrows and widened eyes in a pantomime of suggestiveness that the girl was attractive; as if he was asking what do you think of her? I saw it as an opportunity to leave, I'd been there too long and the atmosphere was fermenting. 'Yeah, I'd better be going anyway' I replied, and I got up and left. I walked a little faster than usual and caught up with her after a minute or so. 'That kid has been asking me to take his picture every time I walk past here' I said, as she clicked her camera's shutter in the direction of a waving toddler. 'Oh, really?' she replied, and smiled a good smile. We began walking again, always with less consideration for traffic dangers than when you walk on the road alone. I asked her about the architecture of Jaisalmer fort and about her feelings towards the problems it faced. We walked for some time and before I knew it, we'd walked the entire circumference of the fort and were back at its entrance gate. I asked for her contact as I'd be passing though Delhi in a few days and maybe she could give me some pointers about that and about the things we'd discussed. She was wonderfully colloquial and I always took that for all its value, I liked genuinely approachable and easy-going people; absolutely one of my favourite traits. With a polite farewell she walked back inside the fort walls, into the place that five-thousand people call home.

As I walked away I realised I'd have to pass the guys again. Oh God. I reached that place in no time, and the hawking eye of Mr Grim became inescapable, as did the jubilant waves. I walked over, determined not to stay a second longer than I needed to. 'So, did you find her?' asked Mullet-man. 'Yeah' I answered matter-of-factly. 'We talked for a while and walked around the fort.' His eyes beamed. 'Oh man!' he turned to Mr Grim whose green-brown eyes lit up in equal fashion, 'he's so good!' he continued. He pivoted on excited feet. 'Did you get her number?' I realised this was going to be a big deal even though it was purely platonic. 'Erm, no..I asked for her email address' I replied, feeling a little too drawn-in to the game. The congratulations grew louder and they both looked at each other and then back at me with childish excitement. They both spoke in turn, but with such frenetic liveliness that it was hard to tell who said what. 'You have to email her, and you should tell her that you like her, and that you want to meet her in Delhi, then you should invite her to your country! I will go and find her, I will ask her something about....about going around here to look at some sights, yea...that's right, OK, right, I will give her a price to take her, then I will tell her some things then I will change the price and I will confuse her, and she will go with you instead. I'm good at confusing girls' he said, quite possibly without taking a breath. His mullet swayed behind his gleaming face and he hopped about like rabbit in an orgy. Mr Grim stood up, I took that as his statement of excitation. 'You have to go slow, you write to her' he gestured with typing fingers, 'ask her some questions and I promise you that you will get her. She will marry with you. Indian girl is good. Then she will go with you to your country because all the time Indian girls they are thinking outside of India.'
'Yeah she likes you!' said Mullet-man, 'I knew it!' they both laughed and patted me on the back. I didn't quite know what to say, but I let them have their fun, without encouraging anything; they were so ecstatic. My genuine attempt to establish a platonic contact had turned into an arranged marriage in the making. 'You take motorbike' said Mr Grim, 'I let you take it, you don't pay, you take, I give to you for free and you go find her and you ask her if she wants to go out for a lassi.' He slowed his pace, 'then you tell her what you think of her, you pay for lassi, always the man pays, Indian girl never pays, OK. Then you tell her that you love her and you want to meet her family.' Then as I watched the love-struck eyes of the Grim and the depraved Mullet, I saw that they really had turned into two small boys who felt that first swathe of love in the gentle touch of a childhood sweetheart. Then I realised, it was true. In India, love comes above all else. I once read that love didn't come from India, but it was perfected here.
I met those guys a few more times as their shop lay between my hotel and the entrance to the fort, and Mr Grim never missed a thing. I was continually greeted by the same initial question- 'Did you meet her again?' When I told them no, they consoled me (despite there being no need to) and told me it would happen in time and that we would definitely marry and have kids. I remembered back to the first day I met Grim and his pal, he tried to read my palm and got everything wrong.

The time came to leave Jaisalmer for a few days and head out into the desert on a camel, as you do. During the Mahindra jeep ride, which would take us to the start point, we stopped off at the Cenotaphs. It was the burial grounds used for the Maharajah. The intricacy of the stone work was every bit as good as the delicate carving on the havelis inside the fort. The place was deadly silent. If my ears were any better I'd have heard the swiping blades of the wind turbines which dotted the landscape nearby and out towards the horizon. The Jain temple, on the second stop, was exactly what I'd come to expect from the temples of the Jain religion- an elaborate display of similarly detailed sandstone brilliance, but with only the natural colours of the rock itself. Hinduism however always struck me as a very colourful religion- they've got a blue elephant for a God, I mean...how cool is that?! None of this screaming martyrdom of a God in human guise, they've got Shiva the destructor, Hanuman the monkey, and Gods with elephant heads- hell yeah! But anyway, I digress.

A woman wearing a sari of white, red, blue and orange sat in the centre of the temple. Her gaze was fixed directly ahead on the white statue of the God Adina, and her posture one of complete devotion. She clasped her hands together and bowed her head, the small group of Indian visitors behind her did the same and prayed in song, which reverberated around the angles of the temple. A humble servant stood inside the shrine, rubbing down the black statues of Pashna- the 23rd prophet; Adina being the first. 'Everyday, we pour milk on the statue' he said. I asked him about Jainism, but his accent was so incomprehensible that I only got twenty per cent of his replies, I nodded, of course. I walked outside, between blazing sun and cool shadow. Chipmunks and crows scrambled about in the dust. We got back in the jeep and darted off to the start point.

'Yours is Mr India' said the one of the guides, as the camel rose up from its knees and onto tall, thin legs, flinging me back and forth in the manoeuvre. The three guides themselves were young and scrawny. The camels were also smaller than I thought they would be. I felt bad.
The long sweeping gait of the camel's strides moved us through the sandy scrub land, which I thought would be a topographical of the start point, but as it turned out, it was the main facet of the landscape as a whole. The Great Thar desert had sand dunes, but they were infrequent, and not a defining ingredient. The camels shit and pissed much of the way.

Stopping under the shade of a thorny tree, the boys gathered firewood. I could not expect great conversation from the guides, but they were extremely hospitable and wouldn't have you do anything if they could do it for you. They lived in the desert, the desert was their back yard. A small village we would visit on the third day was theirs. Three rocks were placed in a triangle and a blackened pot placed on top, over a small fire. In no time at all, a dish of vegetables and spices was bubbling away; they continued to feed the fire with dry sticks. The camels were unburdened of their load and allowed to wander in the near vicinity to chew on tree leaves. So that they wouldn't get too far, one of the boys had placed a twisted rope around both front legs, which, rather comically, made them look like they were walking with their pants around their ankles. Vultures circled overhead, small goats attempted at nibble at our food supplies and two Indian gazelles leapt gracefully in the distant brush land. One of the boys, Johnny as he was called, collected the dirty dishes and the did something unusual. He grabbed at each plate and cup with both hands and scraped it in the dirt. He rubbed the dusty ground into the metal crockery and utensils as a cleaning agent an then rinsed them with water. It was a novel idea, God I hoped there were no diseases out here.

After only a few minutes of riding, and with the the metronomic pace of the camel's silent steps, Santa Claus is coming to town became embedded in my mind, I don't know why, it just seemed to fit the visual beat. This would not be his preferred environment I'm sure; old Kris Kringle. A few hours later the caravan arrived at a magnificent sand dune. My eyes widened and I realised this would be our home for the night. Straight from the camel, I went off exploring. The huge mounds of fine, golden sand rippled and undulated over a considerable distance and the clearest of clear blue skies beat down overhead. The sand was warm on my feet, but not hot. I remembered back to the sand on Goa's beaches, at midday it was hot enough to scold. My feet sank deep into the dune, labouring my steps, but I didn't mind. It reminded me what I was stepping on. I saw a tiny reptile dash off and bury itself into the sand; so quick that I couldn't distinguish exactly what it was. The hiding wildlife made those next few steps all the more tentative.

Night fell, the temperature dropped, and the fire burned. Indian songs were sang with the support of a few beats on a plastic water cannister. The stars appeared, and after each passing hour more and more took their place in the depths of a morose heaven; gleaming through the existless expanse. We placed more wood on the fire, but it burned quickly. I spent that night with a couple from Holland and I suggested we might throw some dried camel dung into the flames. As it happened, it burned quite well. In fact, placed correctly, it smouldered like coal, giving off a foul, but sweet and earthy smell. I moved upwind.
The flames vanquished and all that was left was the mild smell of burnt poo, the sound of camels chewing regurgitated cud and faint moonlit slithers of white outlines. I retired for the night to a couple of duvets and a pitch of cool sand. I laid under the duvet, still dressed, and stared upwards. Thousands of white, blue and rose dots decorated the sky. A shooting star zipped downwards at speed, and while waiting for another to appear, I drifted off under the starry blanket, into a night of free and colourful dreams.

Someone turned the dimmer-switch to God's sky. Wispy pink clouds adorned the Easterly horizon between two glowering dunes, and the sound of grinding camel teeth lingered on a light morning zephyr. They'd done the same thing for the whole of the previous evening, and farted gas that smelled like strong seawater; not an aroma you expect to smell in the desert.

Johnny gathered more firewood and began a pot boiling. Kesko, the youngest guide, who was only nine years old, but who carried impressive experience and an industriousness beyond his years, untied the one camel who woke us all on cue with a sunrise groan. He threw the slack rope over the camel's head, so as not to let him trip, and slapped his arse. The camel waddled away with bound ankles in that comedic fashion; it made me chuckle. Kesko never once acted like a child, the years of responsibility had turned him into a hard-working and conscientious person. The desert birds sang and hopped around last night's discarded food. We all noticed tiny claw tracks in the sand, leading up to the beds, and diverting off again. In fact, the desert was littered with the same curious markings. They were extremely close together and one metre must have had about a thousand imprints in a single line. It was obviously something small, but I didn't ask. Whatever they were, they'd been impressively busy in the night. There were also numerous holes in the ground at any given location, a kind of burrow. These were dug by mice, but I never saw a single rodent. At first glance you'd swear there was nothing capable of living here, but hiding from the sun and hiding from each other, the desert's inhabitants were many.

Johnny and I pressed-on alone through more arid scrub land. Out of the simmering distance appeared a dominating tree. Domed on top, but so flat on its underside that it looked as though someone had taken a pair of scissors to it. A kind of basin-haircut, if you will. In reality, it was the camel's grazing that created the effect. However it looked, it provided some magnificent shade from the high noon sun. Johnny squatted, cooking in his usual crouched posture; his knees under his armpits- the same posture I took on the streets of Mumbai on day one in India, as I sat there sipping on the newly discovered wonders of chai. I was sure it was an Indian thing, that posture. About a hundred yards away, I saw two flashes of colour in the bush. I got up and walked over. There were two goat herders crouching in the same way, smoking a cigarette. One wore a dazzlingly bright orange turban, the other an equally impressive red one. Apart from these two beacons, they blended in quite well. 'What is your name?' the one asked me. I introduced myself, at which point he told me his most unpronounceable name which I forgot almost instantly. I pride myself on being able to say strange names well, but I only managed the one time, and daren't attempt it again. We talked awhile, right there in the scrub. Thorny bushes all around, their baby goats foraging on anything they could find; they liked green leaves, but beggars can't be choosers. The one with the orange turban slipped it off his head and placed it unceremoniously onto mine, took my camera, flicked some buttons (copying what he'd seen me do) and snapped a camera-shake ridden photo. The men were from Barna village, the same village as Johnny, and it felt like one of those moments in life that you could never have imagined from back home in your former reality. I tended to be an adaptable person while travelling, I had to remind myself where I was most of the time, and here I was crouching in the dust, schmoozing with to two goat herders in the Thar desert.

That night, pitched-up at another sand dune, we all watched the sun go down; and by we all, I mean the camels too. They had an unusual fascination with the sun and they all stood together staring at its fading glory. The last of the warm light illuminated their sandy beige fur in deep a golden chromaticism. The night sky crept in, around the camp fire I saw a large dung beetle, the size of a matchbox, crawl up to us; shiny-black as the night. The camels alone provided them with plenty of guano. I scooped a handful of sand and tossed it away. But not before I realised one thing-its tracks. They were the same as those which trailed up to each bed and covered the camp site on that first night. So with that in mind, I went off to sleep, toes tucked in and prayed I wouldn't shit myself.

Posted by kookie888 15:14 Archived in India Comments (0)

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