A Travellerspoint blog

The Great Indian Railway

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As expected, Bangalore- my en route destination, was absolutely heaving. Millions upon millions of men, women, children, cows, horses, dogs, rats and cats writhing in this progressive city; known for its out-sourcing. A city so frantic that from above it must look like a petri dish of warm flesh and blood; all the time wriggling and threatening to take-over its surroundings. Bulls pulling carts, one red horn and one blue, market traders sat squat on the floor with their produce spread out in front of them, bicycles with baskets of coconuts trundle by, rickshaws pass people and other traffic within a whisker of collision and all the while the rubbish accumulates in the gutter, and the cows continue to eat it. I sat in my room- the room I'd buckled into paying for, due to the twelve hour lay-over here before I set off for Hampi in Karnataka before nightfall. When you're in need of a shower and a lay down, the money leaves your pocket that much more willingly. A small cockroach trailed along the side rail above the bed, I fidgeted and felt glad I wouldn't be sleeping here tonight. I sat silent for a moment when the door handle of the room twisted, but I'd locked it from the inside. It rattled again. I stood up and reached into my pocket, a small Gerber knife that doubled up as a money clip unfolded in my hand. There was silence, a second more, then the handle twisted fully- a key had unlocked it and the door began to swing open. My hand tensed around the small handle of the knife and my first instinct was to slam the door shut. I took a short breath and opened the door again to see one of the hotel employees stare me in the face 'oh...you are in here...' he said. I gave a nod, a nod that still clung to caution and defence and closed the door without a second breath. It wasn't unknown for hotel employees to steal things from their guests, as the saying goes- if you want to know who stole your things, leave them in the care of the hotel manager. Later that evening the door was tried again. After a few seconds I slowly opened the door and looked down the corridor to see a younger porter treading the hallway. I didn't trust this place.
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I left that guesthouse in Bangalore and arrived with a couple of minutes to spare at the meeting point for the bus out, only to discover that it was running two hours late. Either that, or I was at the wrong stop. As long as they were willing to transport me where I wanted to go- I didn't mind.
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I arrived in Hospet (the transport hub for Hampi) very early in the morning, the temptation in those ungodly hours is to take the easier form of transport to your accommodation. 'Rickshaw, rickshaw?' came the call, 'no, thanks, I'll get the bus' I said. 'OK, walk...one minute, bus, right-side.' I was slightly shocked and appreciative that I received directions rather than a lengthy discussion on why I should take his rickshaw for a hundred rupees. It was one of those moments of surprise when your faith in humanity is restored that little bit more. A line of local women earnestly swept the road free of any rubbish and debris, it seemed a job well-organised and pre-dawn in its timing. I stepped onto that bus with a genre of people that couldn't be more aptly described than the whole village. The traditions of dress became that much more remote, and therefore appealing to my Western eyes, and as we squeezed into that battered capsule, ten, fifteen, twenty standing, feet shuffled, eyes roamed and hands clung onto any available rail or surface. An old man who sat next to where I was standing pulled my bag's combination lock into his hand and thumbed it, testing its sturdiness, turning it one way, then the other. There was no intent to steal, of course, often the curiosity just materialises into an innocent tactile investigation of your belongings. A young lad circled his thumb and forefinger around my wrist to look at the bracelets I had accumulated from around the world. Two Koreans sat at the back of the bus looking totally unimpressed, they wore matching 80's spectacles and clung to their backpacks with a firm grip. The young lad that was looking at my bracelets pressed his forehead onto my shoulder bag, I pointed to his stomach and as he looked down I raised my finger to touch the end of his nose. The kind of trick a teasing uncle might play on you as a kid, and you play on your friends every time after that. His face formed a bemused little smile.
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I looked at two guesthouses in Hampi bazaar. I settled on Sree Harikrishna for four hundred. The monkeys on the roof terrace and the centipede that crawled across the page in the registration book affirmed my decision, naturally. I sat up on their first floor open-air restaurant called Paradise rooftop and solidified my opinion within five minutes that paradise is never paradise when you can't relax. This was solely due to the flies. The sandflies in particular had a habit of hovering about 1cm from your eyeball, until you either swatted it away (which would discourage it for all of ten seconds) or it would make a crash landing on your cornea. Not a convenient place for the fly or for me; (the third option was to slap yourself in the face). The houseflies felt as though they could land on you no matter how many times you flung your hands and arms about, because they were quicker than you, and they knew it. The two insects were a constant source of inner rage that I barely managed to contain around India, as it seemed no matter who I sat next to, foreigner or local- I was the only one punching the air in anger and muttering swear words. And don't talk to me about mosquitoes. It seems as though these creatures discovered all the idyllic places in the world first and are not content to let us enjoy them.
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A surprisingly loud bang clapped out across the air, I sat taught. Buswah- one of the young staff, looked over at me. 'Are you shooting the monkeys?' I asked. 'I no shoot monkeys, this holy place. I make boom...monkey go.' Buswah was in his late teens or early twenties, he had an attempt at a moustache and short, wavy, curtained hair. He wore fashionable clothing, urban shirts and jeans that took the term butt-hugging to wincing proportions. 'Do they give you trouble?' (The monkeys I mean, I was sure his jeans did). 'Yes, they come, take banana from inside and go.' Maybe he did think I was talking about his jeans.
'Haha, damn monkey thieves' I replied. He walked away in a half-dance as he often did, re-enacting a scene from a Hindi movie; I started talking with the other guy on shift. He smiled and revealed a missing front tooth, Dev was tall, slim and always seemed to wear sleeveless tops, showing his tattoo-green designs. He was a Nepali and his face shaped around a hooked nose, weak chin and strong, high cheekbones. He told me his name, but via the combination of his accent, his not so much broken as shattered English and my blocked right-ear I thought his name was Dave for four days, so when he told me his name meant God, I took that with a pinch of salt. 'This is very holy place' he said, 'no alcohol, no drugs no hashish.' Then in the same breath he began telling me about the joys of magic lassi and magic mushrooms, 'magic mushroom, ohh, you can have fun good.' he said through the gap in his smile. I sat for as long as the flies would allow me to while I ate my Indian breakfast and then got up to wander. I was looking for a bike to hire.

I located a TVS, another Indian manufacturer of bikes and set out for a ride around this crazy environment. The featured landscape that makes Hampi so interesting was the result of a volcanic eruption followed by subsequent weathering over time. It was the same set of circumstances that produced the unusual Cappadocian formations in Turkey. But due to the different nature of the stuff that was thrown out from the eruption, the resulting topography is starkly different - Geology lesson over - The boulders, numbered in their thousands, maybe millions, came in all sizes. It was as if Heaven chose this place to play a little game of marbles, and then just left the odd few in impossibly precarious positions.
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Every time I rented a motorcycle, it seemed that I was facing more and more obstacles. In Hampi they were, man, woman, child, car, tractor, bike, cow, cow shit, buffalo, buffalo shit, chicken, dog, monkey, potholes and randomly-placed raised concrete. Children waved from cars, from the roadside or from trailers they sat in; beaming smiles of perfect white teeth. 'Hello!' I bibbed the horn with every overtake, as everyone did; mindful of what might lay in wait around the next corner. When the children, or adults for that matter, engage you in conversation, it's always- 'What is your name? Where are you from? First time India?' It amazed me that those last three words were always spoken in the same format, first time India? As if it had been taught in schools that way; a kind of shorthand for interviewing tourists.

The government in Karnataka state were in the process of trying to convince the locals that they should move away from the natural attractions here. As humans, we do our bit to screw-up the environment, we all know that, but I found myself disagreeing with the intentions of the Indian government for proposing this plan. I've been to fenced-off areas before, the attractions that require a ticket to get into. Cordoned-off land separated from human dwelling. As soon as I have to step through a barrier or leave my tripod at the counter, that place loses 90% of its soul. Any wholesome intrigue it once had becomes lost among the information boards and waymarks. Spectacular nature like this should just be accessible, a wander here and a gander there; free, as nature intended. I would much rather see the efforts of the government going towards educating the people on how not to pollute, or by providing a more convenient recycling solution. I have to give the Indians some credit on this last point, as much rubbish as they carelessly throw from train windows and simply drop at their feet, there is usually someone else who's scraping it up for a rupee or two later that day. But it's never enough, and that's the caviat of India's wild charms, it sits there for too long, not bio-degrading.
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Hampi village charmed all, as its authenticity seemed mostly unaffected by the commercial slant that it took and life just seemed to go on, mostly as normal. Women beat their family's wares, rubbing out the dirt upon flat rocks, bulls roamed the tiny lanes. Goats, dogs and children scarpered about with equal connection to nature and dust rose from the ground in the trail of every motorcycle and rickshaw that came rumbling through.
On the last morning I arrived too late to see the bathing of Lakshmi the temple elephant in the river, and instead watched the villagers themselves descend the wide concrete steps that led down to the holy Tungabhadra river, and bathe. Whole families, friends, the old and young; the cleansing of the body was a large-scale affair, done with zero embarrassment and absolute efficiency. The smell of sandalwood soap whispered on the breeze as they lathered-up in the same way that I had done every morning and evening with a my bucket shower and sandalwood-oil soap. A garland of other pleasant smells from India that I'll probably never decipher in my lifetime persisted in the morning freshness.
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I walked back into the village lanes and sat at a local restaurant for one of the most delightful breakfasts that I've ever experienced- fruit muesli with fresh curd and honey. I'd seen the bees flying about in Hampi, they were fat as a small bird and loud like a distant chopper, but God bless them for the honey they produced, light and delicately sweet. The fruit in the muesli was both dried and fresh, big chunks of cool melon and pineapple offset by chewy papaya and banana, and not forgetting the steaming cup of masala chai on the side. It was, as they say...fit for a King, but priced for a servant.
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I spent my last afternoon at Mango Tree restaurant, a kind of bastion for jungle eating. It sat a minute's walk from the dusty roadside on the other side of a small village enclave. The type of enclave so basic in its form that it seemed to stem right from a movie, its function and characters on display in a unit of reel stretched out the length of its main earth road. Think of a stereotypical Indian village scene- and this was it. I'll leave that one to you, go wild. Mango Tree occupied a spot with a clear view out to the bouldered and river-streaked horizon, which was reached via minute's walk through thick banana plantations on a tiny dust trail. The two times I visited Mango Tree I found it an ideal place to relax, breathe the air, watch the giant bees hover past, swat the odd fly and generally just eat and write. A family sat at my table and after a while the man spoke up, 'can I ask you a question...how are you able to get email....'
'I'm not, there's no wi-fi here' I interrupted, 'I'm writing a book, or something like it.' The waiter came with the bill, I paid 120 rupees and put a twenty tip under the clear-glass sugar dispenser after he left. 'Oh that's great' he replied, 'I am also writing sometimes.' His name was Valentino, he hailed from Switzerland. His loose pastel-blue shirt and rough golden fair hair spoke of a free natured spirit. His wife and two boys sat at the corner of the table, attentive to the conversation and smiling, but not speaking a word.
'Well this place is quite good to sit and try and receive some inspiration' I said, 'but as it goes with relaxing places sometimes, my mind becomes mush and I just stare into space.'
'I think after a while travelling you need to stop' he said, 'because the mind and the body become tired and you need to slow down to build up your energy, and when the time is right... you can just move off again. This is my tenth trip to India. But I think this is a lesson for life also, like the boy', he pointed to his kid who was writing diligently in a school book, 'he's doing an exercise in writing, travelling is like an exercise in life. If you're following a path in your life and you grow tired, then you just need to stop and take some time to look around you.' I wondered as he spoke if I would ever get the travelling bug 'out of my system' and would it be such a bad thing if I didn't, as long as I was happy and had someone to share it with. We spoke some more when the waiter came to the table. 'Anything else, sir?'
'No thank you, I'm finished.'
'OK, some people are waiting for a table' he said politely. I gathered my things. 'OK, well it was short, but nice to meet you' said Valentino. I smiled, 'you too. Enjoy' and left feeling slightly rushed by the normally relaxed staff.
Some things do feel too short, but by that very nature, produce gratitude. I was grateful to be travelling as I knew it would feel too short in the timespan of my life. But then who knows what their timespan is?
The solution?
Appreciate everything.
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I sat on the tiled floor of Hospet Junction train station amongst several hundred flies, sandflies and ants. A man lay slumped on the hard-surfaced ground, his white shirt browned around the waist, collar and shoulders. He lay sleeping in a foetal pose, showing his cracked and dusty feet; four toes on each foot. A thousand, two thousand other people sat and lay in the vicinity, some with all their toes in tact. They talked, frowned, smiled and stared at me. Stray dogs limped about, waiting for a scrap of something tasty. The vague sound of station announcements fought with the sights and sounds of everything and everyone else in a hundred foot radius. A tall, skinny man in a mustard-yellow shirt and loose, dark trousers wandered over once a minute and spat red paan juice into a small, disused doorway, too low for even a short Indian to walk through. He spat that juice, which came from the chewing of a plant that rotted and discoloured the teeth, just two metres from my feet. The cream door was stained pink at its base from all the spitting. I seemed to be the only one swatting flies, receiving all the attention from the shit-eating bugs.
'For the kind attention of passengers. Train number 8048, expected to arrive by 14:48, is running late by...one hour. The inconvenience caused to the passengers is totally regretted.' I laughed at the seriousness of the last two words and the accented English which gave them a comical note. I moved to the platform, away from the flies and dogs and into an even denser concentration of people waiting for the same train. After a short time voices began to rise close to where I was standing. A man was busy having stern words with a ticket inspector. The man was short, and vermin-like in appearance, but I felt sorry for his indignant expression, which never changed from extreme injustice. The inspector matched his level of shouting and pinched at his staff-issued tan-coloured shoulder bag in a sign of authority. A second man joined in, a friend of the first. Out of shape, ragged in appearance and with a towel slung over his shoulder, his fist clenched and shook menacingly at the growing opposition as the crowd seemed to side with the station staff; some of whom were playing referee and keeping the men apart. At one point, the ticket inspector slapped the first man's hand as he held out a presumably invalid ticket, the tension thickened in the air. Authorities in India thought nothing of grabbing people by shirt collars, and that's exactly what he did. Twenty minutes passed, threats were exchanged, shirt-pulling and lunges were intercepted by the self-appointed keepers of the peace and the whole debacle was over without serious incident. Indians were pretty good at fighting amongst themselves. I guess that with no clear system in some areas of life, there are bound to be a few scuffles over opinion.

I went to the other end of the platform where more people leered and sat and spat. The train rolled-up, and before it stopped, two guys boarded at a run. In a rush maybe? No, I was about to see why. The moment the wheels stopped turning, everybody on the platform charged at the open doors of the train, a few passengers managed to get off, but I could see through the sprawling mass of bodies, one Western backpacker struggling to make it near the train door at all. Her wincing face and one flailing arm barely visible through the brown mass, that brown mass that were now passing large parcels of goods onto the train before really letting anyone else off first. There was just no sense in it. I'm constantly reminded how true the stereotypical British sense of decorum is when I see such things. Even the Central Europeans thought nothing of barging in front of you when boarding a bus. I lost count of the amount of times I had to bite my lip on my own continent. How did we get to be so civilised? It was one of the points of British life that I came to appreciate throughout my travels.

Among the crowd I saw another Western girl in hippie-clothing, she had a shaven head, but her fair curls were beginning to grow a few millimetres in light swirls. Her defined features seemed to suit the hairstyle and she looked at me and smiled a warm smile, walking on up the platform and through the crowd of bodies. Before the pushing and shoving died down she appeared next to me. 'Do you know where you're going? I'm going to an ashram...' she said in an unusual declaration of volunteered information. I pulled out my ticket for the tenth time, failing to remember the destination again. 'Guntakal' I said. 'Yep, this is you, enjoy your journey' she said in a European accent. And then she was gone.

As soon as the animal fare calmed somewhat, I climbed up onto the top bunk with my two bags. Someone else's bag took up a corner of my bed, a black sports bag with red pipe-lining, which left me about one square foot of hunched space to arch my back into a crippling position and my legs dangling in the face of the woman below. When the aisle was clear I lowered the bag down to its owner and got comfortable; but only as comfortable as you can get on a thinly-covered hardboard platform, which is more than a bare floor but less than a hostel mattress- the other bain of my life.
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A fat man lay snoring in another of the top bunks; his disgusting feet pointing in my direction. Everyone else was sitting down together, in usual Indian fashion; chatting and staring out of the windows. The fat man woke himself up when his own snoring reached epic levels. The sway of the train eased everyone from side to side as another argument broke out between a burly Indian wearing a blue and white stripy shirt and thick moustache and a middle-aged lady wearing an emerald-green sari. The bullishness in which the man raised his voice and spoke to the lady disgusted me, but then I realised after twenty or so minutes that he just had one of those voices, like a WWE wrestler screaming in deep, croaky bellows. Still, he was a foul man, who oozed filth and brashness in every intonation of his shouty voice and with the narrowing of his belligerent eyes. Just then, the fat, snoring man on the top bunk let out a fart so comical that it could have come from a BBC sound effects library. No one batted an eyelid. I picked up my book and began to read, but a series of loud claps and pauses echoed from further inside the train. And then again. As the claps came closer I saw a woman down at floor level whacking her hands together and saying something in Hindi, in a cheeky, demanding tone. She wore a golden dress rich in beads and sequins, her short, black hair held back by a golden hair-slide. Her head turned to the side and I could see instantly that it was actually a man. He clapped his hands in the face of a young Muslim, a good-looking man wearing a taqiyah cap and a smart, white zip-up shirt. The Muslim blushed out of embarrassment and the lady-boy clapped again in all their faces, his gold bracelets jangling in fake promises. He placed a hand on the Muslim's chin and swatted at it as if to say...such a sweet face, but no money. I remembered seeing a programme on TV about gangs of eunuchs in India who've been cast out from society and go around demanding money from local shopkeepers with surprising vehemence and high-pitched wails. Maybe this was one of them, I wasn't going to ask though, I fell back into my bunk, pleased at not having been noticed.

I stepped off the train and dropped my bag into a woman's face. Such is the mad rush they force you into, it was bound to happen. Just as that thought passed through my mind, a man with a large cardboard box on his shoulder ran into me, pushing the box into the side of my head. Scores even. Adam 1 – India 1. I waited for my connection there at Guntakal station and spent thirty rupees on the stalwart of my Indian diet- an egg biriyani. It was always a safe bet and my vegetarianism in India steered me towards it on several occasions. The white, flowery tiles on the wall led up to a dirty magnolia section, and painted, wooden plank ceiling. A notice on the wall read:

CUSTOMER AND RAILWAYS BUSINESS CONCERN

'A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependant on us, we are dependant on him. He is not an interruption to our work, he is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider of our business, he is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him, he is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so.'

'MAHATMA GANDHI'

I should think this Mr Gandhi would do well in a telesales team. Perhaps he was involved in outsourcing in Bangalore?

I had been on the train for eight hours when I woke at 03:30 to my watch alarm and began packing my things ready to get off for the next connection from Ahmedabad to Jodphur. A clarity of mind slowly came to me and I began to realise that I was a little ahead of myself. This leg of the journey was not eight hours, it was a day and eight hours. I was preparing to get off the train a day early. Bewildered as to how I managed to misjudge it by such a large degree I went back to sleep and tried not to think of the bugs and mini cockroaches that I knew were crawling around. At six-thirty I rose to the sound of hocking and spitting and phlegm-choked elderlies. A quick wash at the basin of the over-treated chemical stench of the toilet (toilet, definition: hole in train floor) and a fresh chai, and I was ready to face a whole day and second night on a train as the only white sheep in the herd. I sat eating the spicy mash and savoury doughnut thingy and talked to the other passengers. The freshness of the morning air whipped in from the train windows and the sunshine took its usual diffused form before reaching a full midday crescendo. After a couple of stops, the morning begging began. A man with one eye and no arm below the right elbow entered the carriage. The man next to me handed him a coin and a single chapatti wrapped in a palm leaf. I gave ten rupees to a man with sporadic vitiligo across his face; a skin disease virulent among the poor.

The afternoon sun blazes through the windows as the train sits still on the tracks, catching the skin on my arm and determined to turn me a deep shade of red. Refreshments are still being offered, vendors marching up and down the train at irregular intervals- the shouts come often and brassy. 'Chai!... Goan cigarettes!... Cooold drinks!' Everything but the one thing I wanted- coffee. Two women sit by the window, cross-legged. One reading a large hard-back book through convex spectacles, the other dipping a fresh-smelling roti into a masala sauce. 'Chai! Chai! Chai!' Three children squat by the far-side tracks defecating in a line. After a while only one remains, struggling to pass his breakfast. The smaller child dances about and jumps two-footed into a shallow puddle; his little brown legs now glistening in the intense sunlight. A man who had been sitting in the next row of seats stares at me from outside the train through the window bars and through slitty eyes, and only after an awkward stare-down holds up a bottle of water in offering. I politely refuse and look away. He was a rare individual whose face looked evil when he smiled, as if he'd been cursed as a child by an evil Aunt. Still no coffee. Two teenagers outside my window on the track side walk along the green water pipe that runs alongside the train and off into the converging lines of the perceivable distance. Water drips generously from a badly-sealed washer. An old grey-haired woman, looking slightly aboriginal in nature and wearing a sari that's as battered and grey as the plastic sack that she has slung over her shoulder scuttles past the window. 'Cooold drinks!' A young girl, no more than ten, creeps along the carriage floor on all-fours, sweeping dirt with with a hand-made broom and wearing a dishevelled expression of hopelessness. The hand goes up to the mouth: give me money for food. Before I can reach into my pocket, she slithers away. I play with a five rupee coin in my pocket. Ten seconds pass and the slight hand reappears from behind the chair, it has one and two rupee coins in the palm, I place the coin in the hand as it glides away, faceless. 'Egg biriyani! Veg biriyani!' The woman who was eating her roti is now talking on a mobile phone, stern-browed, arm across her body. A child across the aisle sits on her Mother's laying body and stares wide-eyed at me with a beautiful ochre glare. The water outside the window continues to drip and catch splinters of reflected sunlight in the corner of my eye. A mobile phone rings, a Bollywood ringtone, tinny and high-pitched, it sails out into the tunnelled carriage atmosphere. Meanwhile the station announcements continue to ripple out vacuously onto the emptying platform and the train refuses to move. The rag-bag lady walks past the window two more times. The flies begin their assault in a weak army of five or six. Without hint, the train begins a silent motion forward and the people flock back to rejoin the gliding cage. So it is, with the great Indian train journey, and so it continues.
'Coooffee!'- ...finally.
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Posted by kookie888 15:54 Archived in India Comments (0)

South of Mumbai

One of the blessings left by the British in India is the extensive network of railways. It journeys through the entire country, moving millions by the hour, while the roads attempt to do the same in often endless, gridlocked snakes of beeping metal. This 15-hour journey from Margao to Ernakulam- the transport hub for Cochin- would be my first on the famed people-railway, and I felt like a little piece of India was waiting for me when I boarded that gigantically long metallic python as it screeched up to platform two that evening. One thing about Indians is that when they travel, they travel with baggage, and by baggage, I mean baggage. It usually takes the form of an large, overly-wrapped cardboard box, or several sacks of grain, or rice, or spices. They used trains and buses like cargo services, moving whatever goods they needed moving. And in that moment- the moment when the train completes its approach and grinds to a halt, all hell breaks loose in the scramble to board.
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The three-tiered platforms inside, topped with a layer of spongy foam and faux, blue leather didn't horrify me as much as I may have anticipated, they were adequate, if a little tatty around the edges, and if not for my two bags, would have allowed me to sleep outstretched from head to dirty toes in fair comfort. There were no glass windows, only hollow spaces and prison cell bars. The first thing I did is chain my bag up to the metalwork on the bed, via the adjustable, sliding steel frame on the bag's shoulder straps. Second thing I did is buy a chai from one of the many tradesmen that worked the train while it was still on the platform. 'Chai-chai-chai-chai...chai-chai-chai-chai' came the high-pitched call from the scrawny-looking man as he almost too-quickly came past me on the top bunk. 'Yes...please', I said. 'Chai?' He replied, I took it as sarcasm that the only word he said through out that whole train had to be confirmed when I said yes. Oh, forgive me, I thought you said Spanish omelette I was tempted to add, but I resisted in case he hocked in my tea after I paid my ten rupees. The second man that came past offering coffee just didn't cut it, for me. A deep bellow resounded from several carriages away, 'café.....café.....café.' It had neither the audible charm or the cheeky mellifluousness of the chai man's chant.

The thing that struck me as odd on this journey was that virtually no one sat on their bunk alone during the daytime hours. Instead, they sat together on the bottom bunk and either talked amongst themselves or ate, or read the Indian Express. These men didn't necessarily even know one another, but still they stayed together until the day came to a slowly-rocking close, with the blowy sound of the industrial fans overhead and the tu-tum tu-tum.... tu-tum tu tum sound of the rails guiding our path into the night. As dawn broke and the slats of new daylight pierced and swiped at us from the open windows, people roused, and sucked back the night's phlegm only to spit if out the train in one big lump. Morning time in India just wasn't the same without that sound. 'Hocccchhhhh...*pause*...twuhh!' Splat. Now, if that doesn't get you in the mood for breakfast...
Breakfast came round in two forms, each in a silver chinese take-away tray, but with a different coloured lid. When I couldn't establish the nature of either dish with the man, I chose one at random and enjoyed the spicy mash with savoury ring doughnut with every budget-priced mouthful. Food in India was really beginning to surprise me. I'd imagined that the strangeness of dishes and the desperate attempts to make something that wouldn't normally be considered food, into food, would put me off. But India wasn't like that at all. Food is an art form, and the stuff that even the poorest people eat has been prepared with centuries of knowledge and years of practiced hands. India was also heaven for vegetarians. An egg biriyani for lunch or masala dosa for breakfast would leave you perfectly satisfied without a single thought given to meat or poultry.
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I arrived in busy Ernakulam and walked the mile or so in the blazing heat to the ferry port, picked up some oral replacement salts along the way, in case of a sudden bout of Delhi-belly. I was absolutely fine so far but my guess was that in the event, searching the streets for a chemist when you can hardly keep your bowel's in check would be a task best avoided. Paying for the ferry introduced me to the paise, the unit of currency, a hundred of which made one rupee. There were about seventy-four rupees to one British pound, you'd have to get pretty thrifty to start paying for things in paise. The sights from the ferry were industrial and progressive. Large factory sites and waterside construction areas abounded on the banks of the Vembanad Lake. Ernakulam was on the mainland but Fort Cochin and Mattancherry- the sites of actual interest- were situated on islands, thirty minutes away. The state of Kerala itself occupies a slither of land on India's South-West coast and with its slow pace of life, idyllic beaches (with treacherous undercurrents), healthy wildlife, arcadian villages, high altitude tea plantations and the network of waterways which flow past rice paddies and onlooking villagers, Kerala was one of the most beautiful corners of the sub-continent.
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In normal fashion I was approached by a rickshaw driver upon arrival at Fort Cochin, 'Do you need room? I can show you one room, homestay, very nice, clean room, en suite, nice family.' I judged him to be a fairly honest fellow, but it was natural for me to protest a little. 'No, I want to stay at Princess Inn.' I replied. 'Princess Inn, no rooms, rooms for couples, rooms for ladies only, no room for single man.' I looked at him with automatic suspicion, again, out of habit. It was more to show that I wasn't going to accept the first thing someone says rather than the fact I couldn't trust him. 'I don't know, I'd like to take a look at Princess Inn, to check. He smiled and wagged his head, the Indian wag that I'd adopted almost as involuntarily as any of the other billion people in this country. 'No problem, I take you to Princess Inn, no rooms, I show you Honolulu homestay and you don't like, you don't stay, no problem.' We established a price for the fare, I jumped in with my bags and took to the road with the distinctive and unmistakable burble that all rickshaws emit from their weedy engines. His name was Shinas, he was a Muslim and his his face fell in a naturally approachable expression and then occasionally shone towards a white-toothed and narrow smile, surrounded by a trimmed beard and well-balanced feature-set. He was right, Princess Inn was full and Honolulu homestay was a decent place, I could also see at once that the proprietor, who's name I never did pick up, was as amiable and caring as proprietors get. I freshened up and at two o'clock met Shinas outside the homestay for a tour of the town. I wouldn't normally take a rickshaw for sightseeing, but I felt as though I could trust Shinas and I appreciated his smile and levelled demeanour. In a rare show of honesty he asked me if I would like to see the town for the price of only fifty rupees, if I let him take me to a few shops along the way. I knew the system, it was the same in Thailand. Shops pay commission to rickshaw drivers who take foreigners along for a look, and sale or no sale the driver gets fifty rupees for his troubles and fuel. I spent 5-10 minutes pretending to be semi-interested in the first shop, to ensure Shinas got his reward and then left, assuring the shop owner that I don't buy on sight and that I may come back (which of course was highly unlikely, I was paying less than five pounds a day for accommodation, I wasn't going to spend four-hundred pounds on a silk carpet). 'You were long time inside' said Shinas, 'just two minutes only, enough time for them take my rickshaw number, that's all.'
'Ok Shinas, no problem' I replied.
I was reminded of the one and only time I found myself in this situation in Bangkok eight years prior. I never saw it coming, and before I knew it I was being coaxed into a silk shop, sat down and assisted by the shop owner, then shown catalogue after catalogue of suit cuts and styles. I had to pretend I was interested in order for the tuk-tuk driver to get his commission, it was the last day of a round-the-world trip that took seven months and right there, on that last day, I fell into the trap. I had hours to go before I flew home and with little money and no clue where in the huge metropolis of Bangkok I was, I felt I had to play ball and get the driver to drop me back. After I assured the shop owner I didn't see anything that I liked and thanked him for his time, he turned from my new best friend into my worst enemy. 'You waste time Bangkok people like this, you get shot in face' he said. I'll never forget those words as long as I live.
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Three hours looking around the sites of Fort Cochin, playing tourist, and I was done; in need of some relaxation. Ayurveda was an Indian form of massage based around the three Humors of air in space, fire in water and water in earth, and it is when these three principles are in balance that the body is free from disease. Now, I'm no pervert, but being rubbed down by two men is never quite as pleasurable as receiving a massage from a woman. A woman's hands just feel more natural to me. The point at which these two men enclosed me, in what looked from the outside, like a rudimentary drinks cabinet, with my head sticking out the top, and turned on the steam, I was already wishing for a nice, traditional Thai oil massage. The fact that the one man actually ran his fingers over me the way a lover might do, to put a tingle on your skin, and then finished up by circling his fingers around my nipples...well, it's safe to say I won't be looking into Ayurveda again. I knew it was just part of it the system and not an act of indecency but, men...would you want another man's fingers on your nipples? I didn't think so. Game over.

In need of re-beefing, I decided to stay at the Greenix centre and watch a show of traditional Kathakali dance. I know what you're thinking, how can a man regain some manliness by watching other men dance around in elaborate costume? Well, there were ladies dancing some very interesting and mesmerising dances too, and at the risk of glancing over that very seductive point, the men's performances were extremely, how do you say? Hilarious. I found the face-pulling and expression art to be absolutely priceless. I wouldn't want to ridicule anyone's national heritage on purpose, but the painted faces and cartoon expressions just couldn't be taken seriously. When I looked into those faces, I could see back in time at how primitive we were and how we adapt to our need for meaning in everything we do and invent, placing importance on simple things and eventually growing in complexity the more we evolve, until a million unsaid things become part of our daily comprehension. I sat watching men act like buffoons and the women dance like angels. If this was real life, it'd be the perfect scenario for any man who does neither.
Tomorrow I'd be going on the backwaters of Kerala so I retired for an early night with the outline of Kathakali movements and colours still vivid in my mind.
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I sat on-board the wood and coconut fibre boat floating down the backwater canals of Cochin and a sense of anaesthesia began to expand inside me. I saw the plush green coconut groves and felt vagueness, I saw the horned cows chewing on the verdant banks and felt numb, I saw the village women bathe fully-clothed in the waters of the gently flowing river and felt empty, and I saw the way in which these people wove fibres, carved crafts and brewed alcohols and I felt artificial, removed and haughty.
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If I had come here on invitation or by haphazard chance and taken the punting pole into my own hands then I'm sure I'd have plugged the pins of my involvement into the socket of the backwater vibe. But as it stood, I was slumped in a wicker chair, under shade with twenty other people being punted upstream by a local man, whose expression bore the sentiments of a denizen invaded.
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Each time the boat moored up onto the banks of a house or spice farm, we'd get out like a coach load of Japanese middle-aged tourists, (you know the ones) and wander around their private property to be entertained by their demonstrations of village life. A young boy held two small and brightly-coloured fish in his hands as a small group of us gathered around to see the paused hint of a performance smile upon his little Indian head. Camera shutters clicked and voices rippled as if they'd never seen a fish before. I'd love to say that as I skimmed the outer edges of that circle I didn't raise my camera and press the button, but I did. I don't know; mob mentality or something. I felt a momentary surge of self-loathing surround me and I turned to walk off into an empty corner, away from the herd.
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The contraption for weaving coconut fibres into rope sprung to life as the old, dirty motor whirled and the two land-owners stretched the dried fibres through spinning wheels and wooden guides out into a length more than twenty feet long. And with every step back that they took with that hardy rope I felt myself distance more and more from the reasons why I was here in the first place. I felt like I was invading their lives. I felt like I had no right to be there. They benefited from the money spent at their shop- packets of cashews or black pepper sold, wooden elephants bartered for and endless bottles of packaged drinking water purchased. But the piles of plastic, the debasing shows of handicraft and the indigence for currency in the first place made this an unnecessary museum of the needed and the needy in a bizarre and unlikely interaction between different worlds, which otherwise, might have been a wholesome experience. The spirit of adventure, the spirit of connection was missing that day, but still my shutter finger clicked for its money's worth. Funny that.
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In a paradoxical turn of fortunes, it was the other tourists that I met on the boat that saved the day from being totally bastardised and cringe-worthy. Jim, the animated Australian, who wore an expression of listening poise on his gently smiling, sun cream covered face, made himself known with zero social hesitancy. His every sentence brought with it the kind of over-gesturing that distracts from the content of his softly-spoken stories rather than contributing to them. He struck me as the type of guy who didn't need to try that hard to be liked, but managed to do so, to such an extent that I wanted to calm him and say it's alright mate, we're all friends here. Katya, the mindful American, whose face lit up to epic proportions with her smiled as intensely as it dropped when she didn't. Her straight-backed posture gave away her interest in yoga, and as a student of Ayurveda, I never did give my real opinion on its fundamentals. Then there was Yi-shan, the Taiwanese traveller who wore an array of hippie clothing, but with such amazing penaché that I couldn't help but watch her for what would have been an uncomfortable duration had she noticed my leering on the morning before we spoke. The rebel bandana, folded and tied across her forehead and keeping back her straight black hair, the flowing patchwork skirt gently conforming to womanly curves beneath and the subtle crocodile skin patterned blouse that finished roughly below the elbow gave her an image which I felt was a real cover for what was actually a very docile personality. The wide-eyed picture of her eyes shone from beneath her large, bronzed sunglasses and her hesitant voice, high in feminine pitch spoke in charming semi-stumbles and spurts of surprising humour. That evening, the three of us, along with an overly sun-kissed, middle-aged Argentinian, went out for dinner and drinks which continued long into the early hours. I had a bus to catch in the morning and excused myself before the others.
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It occurred to me while walking home in the eerily quiet streets - the streets I had gotten lost in for hours the day before - that I was very vulnerable to a pack animal attack. Street dogs have a strong sense of territorial defence. I walked, confidently, but couldn't help the flashbacks of a very close call I had a week before in Goa. I came to realise that after dark in Goa, the pack dogs that make their home on the beach, absolutely do not like to see people walking in the shadows near the water's edge. The lights and safety of the beach bars is in perfect contrast to the barely moonlit shores of the lapping waves only thirty or forty feet away. If one dog spots you there, or anywhere in shadow, one bark becomes two barks, then three or four defensive animals gather in large snarling groups around the unsuspecting loner. On one night, I was walking halfway between the bars and the shore and one particularly riled mongrel of a dog barked and prowled up to me. I walked on, determined to show no fear. The barks went out across the vicinity and I could see other dogs running towards me. Now I had two vicious, blood-thirsty beasts on my tail and I felt the one, more aggressive animal close-in on my legs, his incessant bark became a growl of lethal intent, and this was it, this was a moment that paused and lingered for all eternity as it beckoned on me that he wanted to kill me. There was something other than the usual anger in that growl, it was as sharp and maligned as any lion's roar before a confrontation with a fearsome rival. I remember thinking very clearly how vividly evil it sounded. By this point there could have been several dogs surrounding me, I didn't know. All I knew was that there was me, and the one pack leader. It grew more and more confident as the seconds ticked on. There was no way that I could continue walking straight. My instinct took over and I barked back at the animal, all the fear and injustice of an attack, if that is what this was to become, came rumbling up from my throat and through flared nostrils as I gave my own snarl. I showed my gritted teeth and widened my eyes to a bulging rage, raising my arms outwards, making myself appear larger and more offensive. The pack leader edged closer and on lowered paws snatched at my ankles, barely missing the skin. The growls surrounded me and I knew that my only chance was to concentrate on that one animal, the one that incited the wrath in the pack to saliva-dripping proportions. I grew taller and more aggressive, letting out an almighty bark and lurching forward in a fake-attack, but as fake as it was, if that animal had grasped at any part of my body with its rabid teeth, I was intent on killing it with my bare hands, such was the anger I felt for being in this ludicrous situation just twenty feet from where other people sat, people that were winding down with another beer, hearing the barks in the shadows and thinking nothing of it, as we all did, every night. The dog momentarily backed away from my aggression as did the others, and I knew he was the key to getting out unscathed. It edged forward again continuing a sinister growl and breathing on my legs, I sensed it was testing me and without hesitation I gnashed my teeth and clapped a deep bark and growl from the depths of my stomach out into its face, moving forward and looming over the animal in a dominant pose. It backed away again and circled me to the side, and with my back to my destination I took a few slow steps backward, retaining the aggression in my eyes. The dog ceased its attacks. It was over. I was lucky not to have been touched. After the dogs left and I felt safe I turned and walked forwards. The adrenaline faded, and as it did I realised the small knife in my pocket would have been useful, had I remembered it was there. Kicking sand in the dog's face might also have stayed it away. But I was unhurt and survived the test of my instinct. For that, I was very relieved.
I made it back to my homestay in Cochin, although locked-out, I had to climb the wall and wake the owner to let me in. Three in the morning is always a most unexpected time to be woken. I apologised and went to bed for a few hours sleep before a trip to Munnar in the morning.
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From a few hours of attempted sleep, I rose tired and irritated. I'd spent most of the night clawing and scratching. In the night, my feet had bitten by something, something in need of my blood. They were marked by red itchy dots that just wouldn't let up. I checked the rest of my body to see if I had caught chicken pox, but I was fine. It didn't feel like mosquito bites, they were way more itchy than that.
I spent a good portion of the five hour bus journey from Cochin to Munnar feeling travel sick and irritated by the incessant need to scratch. On arrival at Munnar I managed to forget about the itchiness, for the most part, as I became absolutely awe-struck by the spectacular landscape I had landed in. Munnar was an elevated village which sat amongst a greater area of lush-green tea plantations on a hilly topographical dream. I immediately regretted giving myself only one day here, a bus would take me back to Ernakulam tomorrow afternoon and onward, same day. So what I thought would be a refreshing day and night away from the planned route, turned out to be a teasing whisper of what could have been had I given it longer. As it stood, I had less than 24-hours to enjoy this amazing place. There was only one way to do it. I hired out my first Indian bike- a Bajaj 150, and set upon the roads with swift riding, which always put me in danger of mishaps due to the inability to stop myself gawking at the scenery around every bend. The roads wound around the mountainside like a string of spaghetti thrown at a leaning window, on all sides intense green fields repetitive in their colour, but endlessly capturing in their splendour wrapped around me as I carved a path through the landscape on the grey man-made tarmac arteries. I stopped so many times to take it all in by the roadside, and as quickly as I stopped, I kicked the engine to life again and sped to the next set of corners. I didn't want to overdo it and career down a steep bank, so I took it slow, on instinct and saved myself becoming part of the landscape on a more permanent basis.
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That night, the itching and scratching became absolutely unbearable. I have never been so close to hacking one of my own limbs before as I got up three or four times in the night to scrub my feet and ankles with soap; anything to stop the torturous sensation. Both my feet were now in a full flourish of red spots that just couldn't have been mosquito-born. I suspected the one thing that all backpackers dread- bedbugs. The homestay in Cochin didn't strike me as a dirty place that would host such creatures, but I guess you never really know until it's too late, and it was too late. I went out, bending down from the handlebars of the bike and clawing at my skin as I rode and pulled-up screw-faced outside a chemist stall. I showed him the hideousness of my condition and he sucked through his teeth, disappeared to the back of his medicinal hut and pulled out three treatments, two types of tablets and some antibacterial/antifungal cream. I took the lot, for less than a pound, and over the next few days popped the pills and applied the cream religiously as the only relief available. My potential demise at my own hands hung in the balance, should I claw myself to pieces or take a big machete to end it all in one big chop. It was that desperate.

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I enjoyed another couple of hours out on the bike, taking the road up to the top station which sat fifty or so kilometres from the pot-holed roads of Munnar town through perfectly surfaced, winding tarmac heaven. The ride was so unreal that I promised myself a bike ride through India just had to be fully-exploited at some point in the future. I could spend a week here riding the same roads everyday, and the high-altitude views and peaceful, clean air begged me to stay. But I couldn't, India was acting like a black-hole, sucking up time and space, and I hadn't even progressed North of Mumbai yet. I had a destination. Nepal, and I had only three weeks to get there.
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On the bus out, I watched through the missing windows, children playing in the Muthirupuzha river and white long-horned cows chewing cud on the luminous green banks, with a perfect backdrop of mountainous and sun-beaten glory in the layered distance. Everywhere there were signs for Toddy, which was an alcoholic drink they beat from the coconut bud over a course of a few days and captured in clay pots. It was clear that virtually very community on Earth had such a vice, extracted from one plant or another; our need to escape reality from time to time. The bus bolted at nothing less than the fastest speed possible, given the conditions and state of traffic, and sometimes seemed to even exceed those factors; grazing past roadside workers who carried the most basic tools for what seemed like a comprehensive job of maintaining the roads to a drivable state, their faces covered with shawls and scarves to keep the dust being kicked up from beneath the wheels away from their eyes. It's a hard life in India. I recalled speaking to a Kashmiri man in the lanes of the market stalls in Cochin, Shinas dropped me there on my day of sight-seeing, the man sat crossed-legged against a wall outside his shop and spoke to me from a distance, as they all did, to coax you into a sale. His otherwise darkish features were offset and dominated by light blue eyes that seemed not to belong. 'Are you enjoying India?' he asked me. 'India's very beautiful and the people here are interesting.' He looked fairly pleased at my answer and nodded with me. 'Where are you from?' I asked, insistent not to sound like the million voices that had asked me the same question here, or in any country for that matter, but I knew his eyes placed him elsewhere. 'Kashmir, I come from Kashmir' he replied in a friendly and proud voice. 'And you're English?'
'Yes' I replied. 'London?' he asked. This seemed to be an obsession with both the Turks and the Indians, an obsession with trying to pinpoint your exact home town, but by displaying such ineptness with English geography that London became the only guess. 'No' I replied casually,'close to London, about an hour away.'
'I love London’ he said, ‘I lived there for a few years, for me, it is the greatest city in the world. India is nice place to visit, but life is hard here, you know. You are always struggle here.' I had to agree with him on the finer point, I could see it in their faces, and although they smiled and greeted you, sometimes with relentless affability, and you respectfully interact, their lives strive to continue on in the swamp of human survival as soon as you turn the next corner, with your back them and their struggles.
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As the bus trundled at an impossible pace through roads that clearly had not been designed for such a large vehicle, but somehow still managed to sustain one, I became lost in the language of horn driving. Until this point the infinite mix of car horns, bike horns and all the horns in between had been blasting my ears with considerable annoyance. There's a certain stress that comes from a cacophony of irritable sounds, which is why, as a biker, wearing earplugs is a good idea. It will ultimately reduce the noise-induced fatigue from your engine and wind blast when riding. I was learning to distinguish, however, that there were a series of determinable phrases that came from every blast on that horn from the bus drivers right hand. There was the I'm coming up behind you, move over you insignificant streak of pig sweat- 'beep beep.' There was the Why the hell are you still in my way? I'm clearly faster and more crazy than you- 'beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep bib bib beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep' (which continued in a sustained blast until the other driver relented.) And then there was the I can't see a way through, but I've already committed myself, we might not make this one- ' ** total silence ** '. It's a serene moment that you face, when your possible demise with a half-open mouth and misplaced trust in your driver begins to unfold. As you emerge, surprisingly still alive, the honking continues, directed at the next obstacle in the road, the driver already 'over it' and planning the next lucky escape; pedal to metal. It was during that journey that I realised the fastest thing on any Indian road is the state bus. The beat up old state bus that carried me and a village-full of other people across hours of rough terrain and jammed highways. God bless that bus.
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Posted by kookie888 07:54 Archived in India Comments (0)

First time Bombay?

With my days in Turkey behind me, I flew to Cairo. I waited in line at the transfers queue. Tired in body but alert in mind I looked up and saw a familiar face walking in my general direction. I know that face, I said to myself. But I was in Cairo airport, I've never been here before in my life, how could I know this face? He looked back at me after a few moments, and as our eyes locked, the two of us began firing cerebral connections in an attempt at recalling the other's identity. He won the game. 'Hey, how you doing Adam?' he said, in a voice that matched the memory of the face in complete synchronicity. I knew him from work in London, but still I failed with the name. 'Hey, good, how crazy is this?' I replied acknowledging the chance meet. I pointed to his chest and pulled a face which symbolised my struggle to recollect his name, the expression bore an instruction for him to prompt me with it. 'Hugo' he said, I repeated it immediately to show it was on the tip of my tongue, 'yea that's right, sorry Hugo, we worked together at Wood Lane, it's all coming back now' I said, nodding all the while as if the memories were rushing to the front of my brain and jolting my head forward. 'This is my wife, Melanie'. I shook her graceful hand as she looked at me in a mixture of congeniality and surprise. I'd never met her before, but remembered the odd conversation with Hugo in the workshop stores on-site about the fact he was married, and that I no longer was. I also remembered the many conversations we had, while we should have been working, about travel and the planning of this trip in particular. It seemed only right that we should see each other while I was on it. 'So you're still on your travels man?' He turned to Melanie, 'he's on a big world-trip' he said, her already radiant eyes grew larger in fascination. We reminisced about the days of working twelve hour shifts in White City, London. Right opposite the BBC television centre, we played our roles in shaping up the new Wood Lane underground station; Hugo as a store man and me as an electrician. He thought I'd been on the road for a year, but I explained briefly the patience-test I went through when I had to postpone my plans for over twelve months. It was due to a back condition, which, appropriately enough, turned acutely into complete debilitating agony towards the end of that job in London. I lost work and I lost money because of that turn in my health, it was the first time I'd ever been so physically vulnerable, and for so long; it still troubled me up to the present time. The pack on my back was perhaps not such a good idea, considering. But I was doing OK.
'We're going back to South Africa' he said in the advertent tone that I always liked about him, '...to see the family and get some sun for a while.'
'Oh good, the British winter must be wearing you down, I don't blame you. I can't believe we've run into each other in such a random place as this.' We chatted a while, his open and attentive disposition bringing back oodles of similar conversations from a year and a half ago that endeared me to him back then. He had a lazy way about his facial expression, all his charisma was packed into his voice, right up until the point when he broke into a wide, boyish smile; you couldn't help but smile too. Melanie tilted her head at an angle and stared even more attentively into my eyes with stately upturned lips as I spoke of the route I'd be taking in the next six months. Her eyes were emblazoned with tropical green and flecks of darting patterns weaved in complex structures around her pupils. 'OK Adam, enjoy your trip man, I'll check up on your progress.'
'Take it easy Hugo, nice to meet you Melanie', we shook hands and went on our way. How odd, I thought to myself, slightly disorientated from the conversation and walking in the wrong direction.

I walked into the waiting area at the gate, the connecting flight was leaving very soon. I noticed as I looked around that almost all the women were hidden behind the blacked-out facade of the famous burkah. Head to toe, with their faces covered up to the bridge of the nose. Some women even wore matching black gloves with concentric lace frills extending up to the wrists. I fought a smile as I scanned the room of grimacing and moustachioed Arabian men that stood aside their all-but concealed female treasures. I felt unprepared for that reaction and the corners of my mouth tightened into an unintended smirk with the ridiculousness of it all. And it was ridiculous, at least to me. The concept didn't seem to have any function based on anything other than inequality. I took my seat and tried to remain inconspicuous. Pretty much impossible while waiting for a flight to Yemen, considering the differences in dress. I wasn't staying in Yemen, I would be flying out sixteen hours after landing, and didn't plan to leave the airport. I looked around me aware of the fact I'd slowly been acclimatised, culturally, from Central Europe and on through Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. At each phase skin tones deepened, eyes became more frequently dark and religion and traditions evolved into more and more unfamiliar concepts to my own Western norms. I was enjoying the ride, the slow-boat through the river of human deviation. Soon I would be in India, but I knew nothing could prepare me for that.
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As I stood alone in the tiny Yemeni airport in Sana'a, I recalled the words of a young Dutch traveller I met a short time before on the runway shuttle bus. I was explaining my reason for not staying in Yemen and I got the reaction that I knew my decision deserved. 'You shouldn't believe things you see in the media, there are quite a few Europeans out here at the moment and it's never as bad as they like to portray. What is reality anyway?' I shared the sentiment, but somehow hearing it come from someone who was minutes away from roaming around a country that I'd been looking forward to seeing with some intensity, made those words all the more relevant and piercing. I carved my own opinion on the relationship between global media and reality a long time before now. I knew it was flimsy, at best. I felt jealous that he would get to see Sana'a- the world's oldest city, and I would be hauled-up for more than half a day within these four walls- quarantined in a cage of my own caution. My only consolation was the time I'd had in Turkey, and appreciative of that fact I filed a future trip to Yemen in the to do section of my mind. The Dutchman threw his thumb up from across the arrivals hall, 'good luck!' And with that, he was gone.
I remembered that when coming in to Sana'a, Yemenia airlines provided an in-flight meal like any other, but the provision of a proper metal knife, fork and spoon made me smile. While we continue to hack away at our chicken kievs with bendy plastic knives on most other airlines, the Arabians, who come from the nations that worry our pathetically terrorist-fret minds, bypass the stupidity and keep the steel. From experience, I have to say that the plastic stuff was actually sharper. Now there's an irony.

The plane touched down on Indian tarmac. I walked through the miles of corridors which led to arrivals and baggage collection; not a single moving walkway in sight. I prayed the prayer that we all whisper to ourselves while waiting for our bag to appear on the luggage belt. The thoughts of insurance claims and emergency clothes shopping disappeared to cinder as my backpack rolled through the black hole. I put on my most innocent face to pacify any staff responsible for random baggage checks and booked a taxi for the half-hour trip into Colaba, it was five o'clock in the morning, and it was hot. After being asked where I'd be staying, I told the guard at arrivals that I planned to stay at India Guesthouse, when in fact I'd just plucked it from a book I was reading which was set in Bombay twenty years ago. 'Where is...this...India Guesthouse?' he asked, presumably trying to catch me out. '...Colaba' I answered, unjustifiably sure of myself. I was in. The Indian tourist industry, enforced by the police, required that every hotel and guesthouse provide a C-form during the check-in process with the travellers' details and passport information, along with arrival and departure dates. I was starting off with a kind of vagueness that had taken me the last three months to shape with impressive precision; it was a proud paradox that I now possessed an aptitude for.
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The pre-paid bumblebee taxi ripped through the empty broadways. There were forty-thousand taxis in this city and most of them sported the black and yellow paint scheme and aged and oft beaten body panels. I sat straight-backed in the rear seat, slightly concerned that the seatbelt was jammed behind the seat mechanism. After maybe five or ten minutes, from the centre of my eye line, a little white car on the opposite carriageway jerked and flipped over onto its roof. 'Oooo! the taxi driver gasped, with a heavy exhalation of breath.' A large grey, concrete slab of rudimentary central reservation slid over onto our side of the road. We slowed, and as we passed by I could see streams of glass and a detached wheel laying in the road alongside the upturned vehicle. The driver was visibly slumped in the side window, his neck at an awkward angle. A few onlookers on the roadside waved down the following traffic, one man crouching near the car and waving for the driver to get out right away. Road traffic accidents bore serious consequences in Mumbai. Mob mentality would quickly lead to a vicious beating of the culprit, right there at the scene. It's all downhill once, and if, you manage to crawl out from the wreckage. No one wanted this kind of trouble on the roads and it showed in the kicks, punches and gouges that followed such an incident. We didn't hang around to see such a kerfuffle, but I was sure it wasn't going to be a good day for the driver concerned.
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That journey, that first journey was long enough to introduce me to the perils of the road, the homeless sleepers on the highways, the feeble shacks flanking miles upon miles of snaking roadside, the wandering cows and the many, many people living their life in the gutter, brushing their teeth and sluicing water over themselves in an attempt to stay clean amongst such disparity. The taxi driver drove as much with the horn as he did with the steering wheel and we soon arrived in Colaba, a district of Mumbai. Each time I tried to check-in at a guesthouse that was full, he stayed on the pavement until he knew I was OK and had a room to go to. I knew that about Bombay taxi drivers, if they like you, they'd wait for some time to ensure your situation was confirmed. It was an estimable habit.
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After being turned away sharply by the Salvation Army fellow at reception until a decent hour was upon his watch, I wandered the streets with two Australian backpackers by the name Ben and Joel. Ben, a young man with youthful looks and a moustacheless beard, seemed to have a kind, listening heart and was easily led by his equally shaggy haired pal Joel, who took a much more pessimistic view on prices and of the Indian personalities giving them. Every time we looked at another guesthouse while wandering, Joel would summarise the price with 'nahh, it's too much man' and walk off without so much as a hint of eye contact from under his black beanie hat. He was an affable enough guy once you got him talking, there was no poison in his words, but I found him to be awfully dismissive of the Indians that kindly offered alternative rooms at better prices. I didn't care if the price was inflated at first asking, I was here to connect with these people and I found myself infuriated at Joel's lack of trying. Why come here if you're not going to enjoy the people too? It was their country and they deserved better from him.
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The three of us crossed the road, to a small group of men around a chai shack. Indian chai was of legendary status within the travelling community. It resembled milky, sweet tea, but with extra flavour of even sweeter spices that only India could provide. And as we sat there, crouched on the backs of our legs on the side of the street, just like three homeless vagrants, we sipped the twelve rupee drink and every mouthful became a promise of what was to come from India.

Crouching beside us, a mystery character of European origin began to involve himself in our company. 'Do you want a good place to stay? Cheap price.' We shook our heads as his finger pointed to what looked like a bombed-out building along the road on the opposite side. His name was Evo and he hailed from Poland, but had lived in Holland for a significant time; his story heavy with indignation. He was young, maybe early thirties, and he was a tall, slim man, dressed in dirtied remnants of clothes. Tattoos proclaimed messages of LOVE and HATE across his knuckles, a small solid tattoo of a mushroom took pride of place like a teardrop from his left eye. Bearing down from inside his knotted hairline and to a high point of his forehead, italic script bore the short message- Loco Loco (Crazy Crazy). A naked woman with unnaturally large and pert breasts graced the space on the back of his right hand and the quote- We struggle, we die. We struggle, we die, stretched across the space on his left upper-arm. His hair was long and dreadlocked, his flat face held appropriately shallow features and from the side, despite his forlorn expression he actually possessed a good-looking profile. Front-on, the indignant screw in his eyes alone was fully realised and you began wondering what kind of miracle it might take to save his soul from the clenching hatred he wore for Mumbai and her people. 'I can't leave this fucking city man, the fucking police man, they've got my passport so I can't go anywhere. I did some time in Arthur Road prison man, I had a lot of drugs and they put me in that fucking prison man.' Two khaki-uniformed policemen wandered past with their lathis waving about their sides, a kind of long wooden stick used to beat people into subservience. 'Those fuckers', he said in with an outstretched, accusatory poke, 'they're the ones who put me in that fucking place man. In that fucking hell.' I winced, half expecting that lathi to come swinging our way, but it never did. Arthur Road prison had fearsome reputation for squalid cell standards and a rough system of 'justice' on the inside. Body lice and worm-infested shower water being two highlights of the prison's past, if not its current state. I didn't get those questions into the conversation to establish its current running standards, but I'm guessing it's no Hilton in there. 'I'm stuck in this fucking shithole, I've been stuck, on the streets for the last two and a half fucking years'. His hoarse voice grazed its way through messages of disgust for the Bombay mentality, accompanied by drawn-out, harsh criticisms of their values and customs. More than one of the chai-drinking locals stared at us four, us four goras on the pavement. If it weren't for the fact that the people of Mumbai were obviously familiar with Evo, I'd have tried to distance myself from him a little more to establish my non-conformity on his opinions, but despite his understandable grievances he remained conversive, calm and placid towards us, seeing us as allies in his war on India. He obviously needed baksheesh (bribery money) for the police that were involved in his case, in order to regain his passport. But not once did he ask us for a contributory offering and I respected him for that. He hated the mindset which revolved around money and I credit Evo for not subscribing to it himself, despite his desperate situation. Mumbai had its ways, but I couldn't say I had a chance to feel any kind of injustice yet. It saddened me to see the man disillusioned with his surroundings and the locals dismissive of his viewpoint. I couldn't see a way out for him.
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I checked-in at the rather, militarily-run Salvation Army later than morning. The building was a real dive, and from the state of the bathrooms I wouldn't come to expect much from the rest of India. Within thirty seconds of walking the street that morning I had a tie-dye rope bracelet wrapped around my wrist, a red dot tilaka between my eyes and a lotus flower to keep. 'Krishna, Hare Rama... for luck' he said in a soft, peaceful voice., I gave the only change I had, in offering to the bearded holy man, but despite my inexperience with the typical cost of things in India, I knew it wasn't enough; I wasn't going to part with a five hundred rupee note for being graffitied on the head. The air was alive with new smells, jasmine, coconut, Indian spices, petrol... it was an interesting blend. Side roads were a neutral territory, no longer dominated by cars. The frequency with which beggars would attach themselves to your side was not overwhelming as such, but frequent enough to make you sigh after the third or forth person in so many minutes. The tips of the fingers and thumb on one hand converge and the hand sways back and forth from the mouth to signify an eating motion, I need food, it says. But the majority of people spoke decent English and didn't know how to take no for an answer. 'I already gave to three people this morning, I can't provide for everybody' I'd say in my own little plea for peace, 'no, no everybody, no everybody, don't give money, buy me one food, don't give money, buy me one food, you buy me one rice, if people they come- you don't buy, OK... no everybody'. Begging was an art, it seemed to be perfected in this city, and there was an answer for every protest. The children held by 'Mothers' and the children held by young girls were not certain to be relatives, they were often passed around as a sympathy-inducing affliction, to raise more money. The tactic of asking foreigners to 'buy me one food, buy baby one milk, buy one rice' was used so often that I suspected as soon as you decide to cut them a break and buy a bag of rice, that bag of rice would find its way back to the returns counter for a refund. I'd heard a lot about the system of begging here and the awful debilitating things that happen to children within the ring, but I gave to the elderly, the meekly quiet homeless and those I judged to be on their own.
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Showing tourists to a hotel and offering to carry bags was one way of earning a kindness. That morning, myself, Ben and Joel found our own place to stay, but that didn't stop a local man walking with us and then standing at the front of the establishment as if he had hand-picked it for our comfort. But I liked his humility. Every time Joel cast one place aside and a walked right past the man without a word, he dutifully took the criticism and offered another place around the corner, looking at us for a positive reaction, his eyes almost defeated and standing with one arm holding onto the forearm of the other by his side. It was a tame pose and I found myself hanging behind the other guys to talk to him and explain what we were looking for, or why Joel was being such a douschebag. When we walked into the Salvation army building and he was left out on the porch, I turned around to talk to him, I placed ten rupees in his hand, it was the only small money I had, but he bowed his head in modest thanks an kissed the note in a quiet prayer. It was the only time in Mumbai that I wished I'd given more.
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I walked up towards the Gateway to India, a grand basalt arch on Mumbai harbour. It was built in commemoration to King George V for his royal visit in 1911, during the days of British rule over India. I walked along Strand Road, by the water, thousands of people gathered here and thousands more as the sun began to fade. Horses and carts beset with kitsch neon lights trotted along the straight road and Indians from all over the country revelled in the unique atmosphere by the Arabian Sea. A man approached me on Colaba Causeway, he wore a scruffy white shirt, on his cheek was a noticeable lesion, but I couldn't take my attention away from his eyes. His eyes were bulging like that of an escaped psychopath, he looked deep into my own and simply said, 'Ice?...Crack?' with chilling quietitude. I shuddered inside and replied with a simple 'no'. Drugs were very much available in India and tolerated to a degree, but the prisons were an apt discouragement for the wise.
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There will be a time, if a conscientious man spends enough time in India that he either goes broke or receives a blow of atrocity to the heart. Most often, it's the latter. It will come at a time when you are on the brink of giving money, but have a change of mind without a change of heart. Your fingertips play and fold at the notes in your pocket, shall I? You ask yourself. You may have given before, you may have given a hundred times, if the answer to that questions in no, after you've played with the idea, be prepared for the cold steely blade of emaciated hope.
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I decided I needed a few days to relax and unwind from city life, so after my time in Mumbai I jumped on a sleeper bus (who thought that would be a good idea?) to Anjuna in Goa. Sharing a bunk with a stranger with nothing more than a hair's width, and sometimes not even that, separating you, is not my idea of comfort. When you add that to the lolling corners, ice-cold air-con and shaky driving techniques employed by most Indians at the wheel and you have a recipe for a sleepless night.
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I arrived in Anjuna- a long time hippy retreat, and checked-in to a basic room, set back from the beach and amongst village roads and dusty trails of red, powdery earth. The room consisted of a rock-solid double bed, and by rock-solid I'm talking about the mattress, not the frame, covered with a material that closely resembled bedsheets, a concrete window opening with metal bars and loose wooden shutters that left gaps you could spit through, and finished off with a dim light bulb and a fan. The flea that jumped on my leg was an added extra. Keen to get out for some fresh air I rented a Yamaha cruiser motorbike, and over the next three days bumbled about on sweeping local roads, avoiding dogs, cows, rickshaws and people along the way, while leaving time for cheap, but sumptuous Indian meals, reading, sunsets and a lifetime of daydreaming.
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When it came time to leave, I managed to share a ride in a taxi with a fellow called Mike, I knew his name was Mike after eavesdropping on his conversation with two other people at the guesthouse. It went like this:
'OK Mark, good to meet you, where you heading?' Said the one man.
'It's Mike.'
'What?'
'The name...it's Mike.'
'Mike?' said his wife.
'Yeah.'
'So...we've been calling you Mark for two weeks now and you didn't say anything?'
'Well, no, it's all right.'
And so the conversation went on for another twenty minutes. So Mike and I rode the taxi to Panjim, the capital of Goa. Mike was a weathered man in his fifties, or an extremely weathered man in his forties, I'm not sure. His bald head clung to a tufts of long, sweated and scraggly grey hair above his neckline and his nose peeled badly from overexposure. His ceaseless expression of grumpy expectation matched his hunched stance, complete with ape-like motivity. Whenever he didn't hear what you were saying he'd shoot the word 'what?' out of his mouth like an swift arrow, with emphasis on the breathy 'wh' and a thwacking 't' to round it off. If you didn't know him better you'd take the simple inquiry as an insult. If at any point in the conversation he couldn't believe his ears he'd press his top teeth against his lower lip, roll his eyes in the their sockets and throw a limp hand up onto his face as if rehearsing for the lead role in a silent movie. He was a comical gentleman, full of quirky habits that could keep you watching for hours at a time.

Panjim to Margao and Margao to Palolem. On that second leg, the bus journey that I'd expected to experience in India reared its head. A small, square sign in the bus' interior stated NO SMOKING - NO SPITTING - 11 STANDING. Yeah, ok... 11 standing before the second row of seats began. I had a seat, so I looked on in a mixture of fascination and relative comfort when the already packed bus picked up more passengers at every stop. Arms and legs contorted into a ball of Indian bodies that shifted and writhed with every bump in the road, and there were plenty of them. In the driver's cabin a religious, framed edifice to Krishna took pride of place and the flashing green, red and blue LEDs flickered intermittently in a show of technological exaltation. In front of me, a young lady stood dressed in a flowing orange sari with stitched sequins leading to small depictions of summer flowers in bloom in bright complimentary colours. She was of the absolute slightest build, beyond the usual constraints of the word petite. Her long brown-black plaited hair shone in aromatic coconut oil, she glared hard-eyed onto the horizon with the endless sunshine glancing off her darkly-tanned skin and the wind carrying a corner of her sari out of the window in a swift, graceful dance. Her delicate fingers wrapped around the window's edge and no matter how full the bus became, her poise and elegance never faltered. Many Indians are born into chaos and their minds just seem to cope with the daily grind of it all. I could see how it would be easy for our delicate Western spirits to become saturated in an Indian assault on the senses that would either eventually become too much, or become part of our own music too.

That evening I sat in a beachside bar called The Nest. Palolem catered for tourists in a big way and the beach was lined with bars, some more lively, others easy-going, with slow synchronous trance beats touching the emptiness of background amorphousness. The atmosphere serene with sand floors, simple bamboo furniture, the sound and break of the black and silver moonlit waves and the orange, feint-red and watery lime-green paper lanterns gently blowing in the whisper of an Arabian Sea breeze.
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Three more days in the more Southerly beach of Patnem, sitting shaded amongst mangrove trees and quietly staring into the dolphin and shark inhabited waters as it slowly turns from morning faint to evening hue, and I was ready to either give up and surrender to a timeless vacuum or move on and find the tranquil incantations of the Kerala backwaters. I decided upon the latter and prepared to take a train down two states and fifteen hours into the tropical network of live-giving canals. I moved on in hope of something different, and in hope of finding a room which didn't have the large cockroaches and tiny fire ants that infested the room I had there in Patnem. The beach hut in Patnem was fine, the sandy floor and minimal space, defined by four modestly-sized walls made from interwoven coconut leaves was almost too natural to host any animal life; bar the rat prints in the sand under the bed. But when I got moved into an actual room on the last day, with four very-solid concrete walls, it seemed of much more interest to scuttling roaches and stinging ants which, when you forgetfully stood near their patch by the bedside, crawled onto your feet and set your toes alight with fiery malice. Beach hut was the way to go. It seemed to me that other than the basic nature of the beach hut, the only downside compared to a budget room was the likelihood of being burned alive during the night. The heavy duty chain which you used to lock the hut at night was so awkward to thread through the coconut leaf and sheet metal door, that in the event of a fire during the hours of darkness- and there were candles provided due to the lack of electricity -you'd be a crispy French fry before you even found the key to get out. Without doubt, those things would go up like dried kindling. The huts were also close enough that one fire would surely lead to another, and another. But there's nothing like looking on the bright side, eh.
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I left Goa feeling totally relaxed and thankful that I'd found a place to catch up with myself. If the India I'd seen so far was any indication- I'd need a full battery to take the rest head-on.
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Posted by kookie888 14:16 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kurds & Turks

For my last day in Göreme I did an unusual thing- I joined a group for a day tour around the natural wonders of Cappadocia. Denrinkuyu underground city didn't fail to impress. The entrance to the city looked quite inconspicuous, although I suspect before it became a tourist hot-spot finding a way to get down there would have required a fair bit of savvy. The city was created out of necessity. An escape from persecution. Religion was an important part of Cappadocia's past, and early Christianity gave rise to cave churches which had been carved all across the region. The soft clay rock allowed digging by hand or with sticks, but still supported the vacuous tunnels beneath the untouched earth. Stairways led to cave rooms, which led to tunnels which led to narrow corridors and passageways. Fifty-five metres below the ground at its deepest point the air was no less breathable thanks to the ventilation shafts they dug to feed the oxygen supply. Cooking was saved until nightfall when the rising smoke could go undetected by enemies on the outside. They dug wells for water, special corners for livestock (to limit the smell) and underground altars, to pray to their new Christian God. Some corridor ceilings were kept achingly low and narrow in places, it would confuse their enemy if there was an infiltration. Stone doors which rolled into place were implemented to halt the progress of a chasing outsider. Once the stone was fixed in place, another stone was wedge up against the edge of the first to stop it being rolled back again. A hole in the centre of the stone door served two purposes- to allow the use of a stick to roll the rock, and secondly to poke your spear into the body of your enemy on the other side when he least expected it. I felt strangely comfortable in the city, but then maybe it was due to the cave room I'd been staying in and the fact that I was roughly hobbit-size myself.
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On the walk through Ihlara Valley, steeped on one side by a canyon rock face and on the other by a collection of boulders on a long grassy bank, I found myself side by side with a young lady by the name of Gülşah. Her hair flowed as naturally in light golden curls as the river flowed alongside us in sweeping blue arcs. The piercing green-blue in her eyes gave her face an appeal which went way beyond the sum of her other features and her smile was the fuel which stoked the flame in those eyes to burning heights. 'I saw that' she said to me, pointing at the shemagh around my neck, 'it is what attracted me to you.' I noticed she wore one too, in a deep red, beneath the collar of her jacket. They served an important purpose in desert countries as they could be extended across the face to keep the sand out; sometimes they were called Arab scarves.
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She stood small in stature, but big on personality. 'Where are you from?' I asked in a strange roll-reversal. 'East Turkey' she replied with a strength of emphasis on the East which begged further investigation. 'East Turkey, are you...Kurdish then?' The pride and openness of heart gleamed in her eyes, 'Yes, I am Kurdish.' I found myself filled with positivity, which in my innocence of Kurdish struggle, came to me unimpeded. 'Ah good, it's nice to meet a Kurdish person, I don't think I've met even one yet...that I know of ' I said, not wishing to make her people sound like a novel feature of Turkey just waiting to be experienced on a list of veritable highlights. 'I've met a lot of Turks... and they're great, lovely people, and if you're anything to go by (and it turned out that she was) the Kurds seem like charming people too. So...what's the deal? What's the problem?' I said. I asked the question with a level of light-heartedness after I judged that she was in fact as easy going as she looked. She laughed in nasal exhalation, 'that's a good question, we just want peace, you know. I grew up and I don't even know my own language properly, I mean, I can speak it but I can't read or write in Kurdish, what a shame.' Her expression turned to one of comical defeat in the craziness of it all but twisted with a sanguine aftertaste. I guessed that the latter came from the fact that she knew who she was and the fact that she was still standing, along with the other 14 million Kurds in Turkey, half of which inhabit the Eastern Anatolia region of the country. 'Yes, I know' I replied with unfortunately hollow words based on nothing but some light reading 'you're not even taught your own language in schools.' We looked down at our feet, the undulating terrain presenting obstacles with every few paces. 'It is quite amazing how a minority group such as the Kurds, don't have their own country, I mean, there are millions of you...but there's no official Kurdistan' - the phrase was often spoken by Turks in reference to the region to the South-East. 'I just want to be able to say officially that I am Kurdish, I want to be recognised. On my I.D card, we want to have Kurdish, not Turkish.' I took the words in complete respect and could see from her eyes, from the startling cosmos of her impossibly complex irises, that she deserved that right. 'Isn't that a human right?' she asked. I had to agree and found myself feeling only appreciation for our differences of race and heritage, and nothing of the choking sense of separatism. 'That's the problem isn't it, the differences between us, as humans it tends to be what we concentrate on. When we look at ourselves from an outside perspective, it's the similarities which are far more profound and encouraging.' I said. Every time she spoke, she turned her face towards mine to see my reaction; my reaction was light and unhurried. Her face bore such character, the gentle hook to the bridge of her nose, the way in which every muscle around her eyes seemed to work in unison to speak to me in expression alone, and the devilish, but oh-so charming reveal of her teeth encased in a smile so effecting that I just had to return the gesture with an honesty that two people rarely share after only five minutes.

We arrived at Selime chapel. A rudimentary church complex carved out of the massive rock formation and overlooking the glory of the distant charms in Cappadocia's panorama. The form and swathes of curvature ultimately seduced, and the enticing arcs of open doorways, windows and dark passages fascinated my wondering mind towards complete excitement. Every dimly lit corner dared to be explored and I gave it my best shot in the twenty minutes we had. In reality, anyone could stay for half a day here. What I failed to feel in Bergama's otherwise pretty ancient sites, I felt in waves here amongst the incomparable unique beauty of it all.
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We stood in the darkened night and light-falling rain, the bus had dropped us off back in Göreme and I needed to buy a bus ticket for onward travel the next morning. 'If you go to that one' said Gülşah, pointing to the stand for Göreme Travel, 'they will help you', I nodded my head. 'So you're off home then?' She stood and looked at me through the constant stream of rain, 'yes, I have to wait for another bus, I just missed the five o'clock.' We shook a gentle shake of hands and walked away, dispersing beyond the small group of people from the tour. I got my ticket and then afterwards walked one way, then another, to get my bearings back, and heard a voice from behind me once, and then again. 'Adam...' I saw Gülşah walking towards me across the coach park and I joined her in the middle. 'Did you get your ticket?'
'Yep, I'm going to Mardin'
'Ok great, via Keyseri?'
'No, it goes to Diyarbakır and I change there for Mardin.'
'Oh, good, well I have to wait still.' I thought for a moment that she was prompting me for something. 'Ok, I'm not doing anything now, do you want to get a coffee, out of the rain?' She looked around her, judging the time. '...I can't' she replied with regret 'I have to stay here, I don't have too much longer until the bus arrives.'
'It's ok, no problem. It's been a pleasure to meet you' I said with earnest tones. She gave me the smile that I'd enjoyed seeing all day. 'Me too' she replied, in such a way that could have only meant the truth in her words. I knew that as a Kurd, it was more difficult for Gülşah to travel, and she took the pleasure in meeting other cultures that came to her homeland. It was a good meet. I came to far away lands to find other cultures myself, she had no such luxury. It was one of those moments of symbiotic advantage, via my freedom and the British passport in my pocket.

I arrived in Mardin a little disappointed. I'd read that it was pretty as a picture but just didn't feel the truth in those words. Trouble was, it was covered in fog and rain clouds. Later that night I strolled out to get some food, underestimating the hill that led to the old town from the one semi-affordable place I was staying in, which was situated in the new part of town at the bottom of the hill. An hour later, tired, hungry and exhausted I saw an imposing statue lingering in the night fog. It was a large eagle with outstretched wings carved from a jet-black stone. I took out my camera, the autofocus struggled in the density of the mist, I heard a voice, and then it called again. I got the feeling it was directed at me. From the shadowy depths of thick, wet fog a man appeared, in uniform, and with a rather large gun strapped to his shoulder. He spoke no English. I glared at the shapes beyond the statue- barbed wire, sturdy sliding metal fence, oh dear. It was an army barracks. There I was, lurking in the fog, professional-looking camera in hand pointed right at his command post. He demanded to look at the camera, I held it out in front of me, flicking through the shots of Göreme, 'Cappadocia...Cappadocia...' I said with every picture. He invoked a disapproving glare into my eyes and snatched the camera, checking me up and down and repeating his unfathomable words over and over and flinging his hands about in the direction of the military establishment. 'OK, OK, look, I'm sorry' I said, knowing he didn't understand the details, but hoping the body language would go a bit further, 'I didn't know, I couldn't see through the fog, I just wanted to take a picture of the statue.' I made wings like an eagle. He scowled at me with an unforgiving stare and handed back the camera. I walked on after a hard-fisted gesture to sling my hook. I felt mild discomfort over what had just happened, thinking through dinner how bad a spy I would have been had I actually intended to covertly photograph the place. I found myself mentally planning how I might have switched the memory card by sleight of hand before he noticed, yes, that's right, I'll get you next time.

'Otobüs ne zaman kalkacak?' What time does the bus leave? I asked the driver, self-conscious of my fake Turkish accent. Then came a reply so fast, it was like a whip across my ears. I understood none of it because the reply was in Turkish. If a foreigner asks a question in Turkish you're supposed to give him the answer in Turkish, right? Well, this was the unfortunate battle we face in trying to be understood. I nodded with a slightly open mouth, as if ingesting the information he'd given me, then silence fell. I'd been sitting on this dolmuş for thirty minutes without sign of any other passengers, and there was no way they'd leave for the journey with a lone white man in the back. These tiny buses were not best-used unless they were at full capacity- with another four sitting in the aisle on wicker stools, two more standing and three or four kids in the boot with all the luggage. Another half an hour passed and that's exactly how it turned out. Luckily I had a seat at the front. During that time I realised that the word sifir meant zero or none. I'd pretty much been across the whole country at every ticket counter, tram token kiosk and restaurant and asking for sifir bilet, sifir jeton, sifir iskender kebap. It all made sense to me now, when I thought I was asking for one ticket, one token and one iskender kebab in these places I was constantly being met with a confused face and a finger held aloft with a confirmatory reply 'One ticket?' I thought it was just my accent, but obviously I was being stupid. Yes sir, can I have zero tickets please? It was precious, and I had to laugh at myself.

I sat next to a man in his fifties, he wore a smart brown felt jacket, his face was dominated by a neatly-trimmed silver moustache and metallic-rimmed spectacles. Within ten seconds of being on the dolmuş he offered me a dozen nuts, held primitively in his palm. I gratefully accepted. 'Oh thank you, teşekkur' I blurted, not realising the double entendre at accepting a palm-full of nuts from a stranger. 'These are from Mardin.' he said.
'Oh they're local? Very good.' I muttered while chewing, then clumsily flinging one nut across the bus from its paper-thin, slippery shell. 'Whoops', I said. He picked it up and ate it.
I noticed along the journey, as I did with many Muslim men in this country that he was flicking through a set of prayer beads, solemnly quiet and looking forward into the ever-deteriorating road surface ahead. Ten minutes later, he held the beads in front of me in offering. 'Oh...thanks' I said surprised at the sudden act of kindness. My fingers worked through the dark wooden beads with gawky malpractice, but after a few minutes I found it very relaxing. He plucked a small glossy booklet, about the size of a playing card, out of his inner coat pocket and handed it to me. The cover was written in Arabic, as was the content within, decorated along the outer edges in typical Arabic patterns. I flicked through the small pages, paying attention to each passage, but totally devoid of any comprehension. It was an excerpt from the Qu'ran and despite my position as a non-believer, I found the gesture to be good-willed and I appreciated the warmth of the act with total acceptance. His name was Imam, he was calm in his disposition and with his speech. His self-respecting deportment spoke of a mixture of discipline in his religion with an amiable streak reserved for all who chose another path in life. I didn't put the beads down for the rest of the journey; locked in a therapeutic count. 33 beads counted three times makes 99, for the 99 names of Allah.

The final destination of Savur, a little known village, perched on a rising peak like an upside-down funnel clutched at my imagination right away. Someone cranked up the Turkey meter because this place was superb. An old trading street cut through the village from the hilltop and ran down gently, passing old shops selling anything from working tools, to irons, to plastic junk made somewhere in China, and day-to-day requirements for all who lived here. People stared, some greeted me and others talked amongst themselves about me. I began walking up the hill. I asked a young teenager of the whereabouts of Haci Abdullah Bey Konağu. It was one of the only hotels in the village and I was sure someone would have heard of it. He paused for a moment and grabbed the arm or a passer-by, an even younger lad, perhaps fourteen-years-old. The young man nodded dutifully and reversed the direction of his path to show me the way. The lanes were occupied with children, chickens, pigeons, cats and donkeys. It only took three or four minutes before we arrived at the door of the hotel. But the steep nature of some of the back streets, that, and the smattering of crumbling steps, archways and hairpin bends made it a significant deed to go out of his way like that. How many teenagers in my home town would have done the same? More likely a shrug of the shoulders and 'Arr dunno.' The generosity didn't end with the adults here. It was ingrained in the youth as well. The old lady that answered the door spoke little English. She seemed to know the boy, as he came inside, they talked like Mother and Son. I wouldn't have been surprised if he was from a different family altogether, that was just their way with each other.
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Savur was, by any standards, a slow-paced village. I came to Eastern Anatolia to feel the rhythm of Turkish life and I was feeling that rhythm within minutes. The close-knit community seemed to work together and made me feel welcome, as I suspected, as the only yabancı, foreigner, in town. Walking leisurely down the main stretch, boys in their teens walked alongside me, just for casual conversation. Groups of young schoolgirls fresh from class followed behind me, walking faster to catch up every time they wanted to ask a question and then falling back to talk amongst themselves about my answers. Others waved and called 'Merhaba' in enthusiastic fashion from deep inside their shop or from passing tractors. The only man in Turkey I'd seen with a shaven head trundled down the street with a troubled gait, he wasn't quite all there. A man close to him, seeing the camera in my hand rounded the wandering fellow up and placed him in front of the beautiful backdrop that surrounded the entire village, goading me to take a photo. The troubled man looked down at his feet and gingerly stood in place, I felt terrible, but such was the other man's insistence that I snapped a quick portrait and walked on, feeling slightly shameless. He patted the man on the back and the slight sense that he knew and loved the man made me feel minutely better.
'Merhaba!' came a thunderous shout from inside a grocery shop, the middle-aged gentleman spoke only in Turkish and swept his hand toward himself in encouragement to take a photo. One of the men sitting next to him posed joyfully and the other, not so. I left the shop and took a side street into the aged network of houses and overgrown yards. Three boys shouted and wrestled with a donkey twenty metres ahead. As I approached them I could see one boy was restraining the beast with a rope pulled through a metal structural beam and one of the others lifting and unfolding a rudimentary metal rack onto its back for transportation of goods. The rambunctious young boys darted in and out of my camera's lens, playfully posing with the donkey as one of the family. These people aren't camera shy I thought as I walked away to waves and jovial laughter.
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I returned to the main street and felt a touch on my arm, I turned to see a Turkish man complete with obligatory moustache facing me. 'You can stay Haci Abdullah Bey Konağu, you know it?' he asked. 'Oh yes, I am. I am staying there, my bags are up there now.'
'Oh, oh, errr... I and Mama, errr sit...Bey Konağu.' It was a fairly badly worded sentence but I could tell what he meant. He ran the place with his Mother and family. We shook hands. 'Great, OK, well, I'll see you later.' I walked away, only to see Imam from the dolmuş trip, he was talking with three men, but he took two side-steps towards me to shake my hand again. This is a small town I thought. Having seen about as much as there was to see in this tiny settlement, I retired to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. Haci Abdullah Bey Konağu was a 230-year-old stone building run by friendly proprietor Aydin Öztürk, set on the top of the village looking down at the glorious scene below. A typical Turkish cylindrical wood-burner sat at the foot of my bed, and filled the air with wholesome organic aromas of the outdoors. In fact wherever I went in Turkey that smell was never far away. Sandy stone-coloured walls, Turkish carpets and church-like arching ceilings that converged in a sweep of gracious angles defined the space with taste and solidarity. The brass-framed bed and room-length padded bench lent a degree of comfort that was always welcome in the unknown quantity that awaited me in any new town. I threw a few logs inside the fire. A little later, a multiple-course meal was laid out in front of me. I ate stuffed sheep intestine amongst a table-full of much more delicious foods and I slowed to Savur's pace, and with every sip of the complimentary local red wine, fell deeper and deeper into the silence of village dusk.
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I arrived back in Istanbul late at night the next day after a flight from Diyarbakır. I stepped out from Aksaray metro station, knowing the tram from here onwards ceased operating at midnight. 'Taxi!' came the first call. 'Sultanahmet...ne kadar?' Sultanahmet... how much? I asked.
'Sultanahmet?...yirmibeş lira' he stated. I laughed. 'Yirmibeş lira? Hiyır.' Twenty-five lira? No.
'OK, yirmi lira?'
'Yirmi? Hiyır teşekkur ederim.' Twenty? No thank you. As the charade continued a short, straight-faced driver intercepted the debarcle and while going for the handle on my bag, came in with 'OK, on lira', OK, ten lira, as a statement rather than a question. 'OK on lira' I said relieved that someone wasn't afraid to cut the bullshit. Getting out of the cab and onto Sultanahmet square at night, the deathly silence of bad weather and low-season filled the air in peaceful droves. I looked up at the dual mosques, the heft of Aya Sofiya and the exquisite precision of Sultan Ahmet- Blue Mosque, and felt quite at home in the scene. One more night, then a great deal of transit flights tomorrow and I'll be in India. Yemen was, unfortunately in the spotlight over Christmas over claims of terrorism and support for Al-Qaeda. People had died and attacks had been made. The decisive point came from a friend who had a family member at MI6. He advised, strongly, against all non-essential travel as things were beginning to kick-off in retribution. I didn't like to be so easily swayed, media portrayals are rarely as bad as they seem, and besides...the prices would be low. But in the end, I knew that family would be worried, and as the old adage goes- better safe than sorry. I mumbled this to myself through clenched teeth.
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'Come my friend, let me give you a discount' he said to my back and in a speaking voice deserving of a stage and drawn-back curtains. I umm'ed and ahh'ed over the purchase of a small hardback journal from inside a souvenir shop the next morning. I was flying out today, but I needed some things- a journal, a guidebook and some cake and salep...naturally. The shop stood at the exit to Istanbul's Cistern, a giant, old underground water system. Five minutes before, I managed to get one shot down there before I was told the usual crap by a security officer that bothered me so much in places like this, 'excuse me, no tripod, tripod is forbidden.....professional.' I'd heard those words at other attractions and became infuriated every time. Because of other people's ignorance in photography, my pictures had to suffer. Having a tripod doesn't make anyone a professional, it means you know about the slow shutter speeds that underground places dictate to your camera, and the need to keep the whole thing steady. 'If tripod....ten thousand lira' he justified in a continuing ball of nonsense. I took it as an insult to my intelligence and will never understand the rule as anything other than pure stupidity.
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'On lira?' I asked the shop assistant, taking four lira off the price myself. 'OK, no problem' he said with a contented smile 'ah, you speak Turkish?' he chirped in a wholesomely pleasing theatrical fashion, surprised at my apparent grasp of the numerical system. 'Errr...no, not really' I replied, tailing off and bringing a smile of my own for the fact that I managed to fool someone. His name was Hayreddin Soykan. 'Where are you from?' he asked, his fair- almost golden, long wavy hair matching his generous beard and friendly, enquiring face well. 'Inglitere' I replied. His eyebrows raised, impressed at my continuation of Turkish words. But that was it, I was done. 'And what do you do for... for a job?' he asked. I sensed a degree of creativity in is expression and I was buying a journal for writing, so I went for it. 'I'm a writer...'
'Me too, and an editor' he replied. Oh crap. I thought I might get away with this one. 'Yes, I am a writer...and...militant'. My mind caught the wind of his statement and came to full attention. 'Oh, have you...fought, in Turkey?'
'Yes, three times, and I have spent three years in prison, I spoke out against the regime and they didn't like that.' His face looked as positive as ever as he spoke the words. 'So, who do you write for?' I gave myself a second. 'I'm unpublished, but I'm on a world trip just now, so I have something to write about.'
'Great, great' he said with pleasing enthusiasm, 'if you don't mind, I would like to take a look, can you write it down for me?' He tore a square of plain white paper from his till and I wrote my details for him, pleased that Turkey, even in its last hours, was not failing to throw randomly interesting characters my way. 'Do you study anything?' I felt a slight inadequacy, and always did, with this question.
Fresh out of college in 1998 I went to university in Devon, but didn't go beyond the first year. In that one year alone the debt mounted and without a real passion for the sciences of biology and chemistry, I left. I married my teenage love and went to work with the Salvation Army on a children's camp in Texas for a while. My real passion at that time was the possibility of travel, a passion for culture and far away corners of the Earth. Now, more than ten years down the line, I was at it again; on the road. 'No' I answered plainly, 'actually I am an electrician by trade and I write on the side' I said, making it sound more than it was. I hoped that it would be something, I hoped with all those days working at jobs that brought me down to the monotony of the daily slog, that it would be something very real. It gave me a sense of purpose beyond survival. He rose from his chair behind the till and fetched a book and handed it to me, 'this is our teacher.' I failed to take note of the author, but it was a book on the socio-political issues within Turkey. 'They put me in prison for one and a half years after I wrote some things, for a magazine'
'Oh, OK, wow'
'I have been to four different universities, but, the things I believe in have caused problems'.
'So, are you, from Turkey?
'I am from, the Balkans, and Bulgaria...I have some roots in those parts. But I am a human.'
'I nodded inside, aware that I was trying to pigeon-hole him, the way we do when we meet someone new. I felt compelled to place some synapse associations that would connect with his kind, friendly face. 'Well' I said 'often the greatest minds don't quite fit the system.' I offered it as consolation and as a compliment in roughly equal measures. 'Yes, you are right...you are right' he replied and then continued, 'When you are honest with yourself and you feel responsible for something, as a human being...' He didn't need to finish the sentence, I could see Hayreddin felt a certain draw to his beliefs and I liked his bravery, it was obviously a bravery that had balls. I found myself agreeing with him, with the idea of embracing minorities, allowing states within a greater state, everyone under one banner but with allowances for culture and uniqueness to flourish. Our differences as human beings should be celebrated and our similarities enjoyed.
'Unfortunately, and for whatever reason Turkish people don't get a good press where I'm from' I said. 'I don't understand it, it's not even based on first-hand experience, it's probably not based on any experience at all. I guess it's just a case of opinion conformity'
'Yes, and maybe the Turkish people that live on the outside...don't form the best model to represent this country.'
'Yep, well, these are the people that chose to live abroad, so, maybe they're not; you could be right.' Other customers were standing behind me and purchasing things from behind my back, he was doing his best to serve them with bright enthusiasm and honest prices but it was the right time to leave after a good few minutes of talking, plus I was keen to get some copy down in the journal, I felt slightly backed-up and I couldn't bare to have any more fading pencil-written notes on napkins grace the depths of my pockets. He raised his right arm in a high arc ready for a handshake, I put my hand out and he threw his own hand right into the centre of my palm in a cheery farewell. 'Good to meet you, have a good holiday Brother'. I returned the well wishes, my head turned to walk away, I glanced back past the threshold 'may God be with you' he added through a gracious smile and fumbling the words slightly.

I sat inside one of Sultanahmet's becoming cafés for coffee, cake and salep. Through the glass shop front rain-soaked tourists and locals strode past. The people of Istanbul were not happy with this, but I was from England- this was normal weather. As an exception the umbrella-sellers seemed pleased, and upped the sales pitch accordingly. During that time I relaxed, mused and breathed-in my last ration of Istanbul air. I'd grown fond of the unique blend that made this city what it was. One of the world's great cities felt strangely like home, in a way that I could never even have felt about London. Istanbul as a whole, was one of those tourist attractions that I, for one, came away totally enriched from, and in a way, I envied the twelve million people living out their lives among the mix. Thank you to Turkey and your people.

Posted by kookie888 20:59 Archived in Turkey Comments (1)

Amongst the Fairy Chimneys

I decided that what I needed more than anything was a unique experience. I left Selçuk to the sound of camels and bells. A procession of brightly adorned camels- each frothing at the mouth, were slowly paraded down the main stretch of road in anticipation of the annual camel wrestling celebrations in a few days time. We had asked several people the obvious question- do the camels....actually wrestle? Apparently so.
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I reached Denizli otogar the next day via a huge luxury coach. I was trying to get to Pamukkale. I collected my bag and stood waiting with Paula and Dave, whom I'd met in Selçuk the day before. An Aussie couple in their late thirties, from Perth. I couldn't have felt more comfortable with two people. Dave, a mixture of politeness and loungy ways, conversed so informally that his accent never swayed from full-Aussie, even with Turks, especially with Turks, it seemed. I found that to be both amusing and admirable. Plus I'll never forget the way he presented me with my backpack in such effortless fashion from the bus, he gave it to me one-handed, in his other hand was another huge backpack. The guy was a damn gladiator. Paula showed interest in my life with questions and encouragement. She complimented Dave with her own easy vibe and together they made a cute couple. I never would have guessed they'd been together for less than two years.

The three of us quickly became abducted by a minibus driver as we got off the coach, he pinched six lira back from the coach driver for his troubles and carted us off to the very hostel we'd been talking about staying in. There was something about sitting in the back of a transit van with three strange men in the front, driving you through the darkness in an unknown town that gets the adrenaline flowing. None of us knew what was happening. I found myself letting loose, just going with it, and found that all the more enjoyable.
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I'd eaten my fair share of kebabs back home in England. One thing I know several people will relate to is the ubiquitous poster found in most kebab shops. You know the one. The poster is of a beautiful scene of a dozen shelves of calcium-white and naturally-occurring shallow pools hanging from the hillside with azure-blue water cascading down from one to the other like an overflowing pyramid of champagne glasses. At the top of the poster it simply declares-'Türkiye'. I particularly liked the slogan for Turkey which I saw in many places within its own borders- Don't waste time anywhere else. It was...to the point. Well, those posters were of Pamukkale and I was here to see if it bore any resemblance to the real thing. Plus, secretly, I wanted my own anecdote to tell every time I found myself in the bright shop lights of Essex Kebab with a mate back home.
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I walked up to the entrance, paid my fee and began the ascent up to the travertines, which was the correct name for the pool structures. Their shapes were formed by the deposits left behind from the flowing calcium-rich water. A uniformed attendant instructed me to remove my shoes part-way up. The tiny ridges in the ground played havoc with my feet. Barefoot and inquisitive I walked, climbed and waded my way to the top through warm water, cold water, hot steam and such a surreal environment that I can barely begin to describe it. This is what I was looking for. Something so unique that it didn't matter if I was alone or in a group, in a good mood or a bad one, you can't help but take note of the extraordinary surroundings and credit nature for being such a freak in situations such as these.
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On the walk up the this site an hour or so before, I got talking to a stranger in the street. He introduced himself as Hassan and with a sturdy handshake smiled right through to the end of the conversation. The usual questions passed by, then we got to the meat of the conversation. 'I live here...' he swayed to his right with palm open, presenting what was in fact a barely-standing stone house. 'This, my office...' he pointed to a more modern annex built on the side. 'It is empty'. I was feeling relaxed and more in tune with the Turkish people by this stage and engaged him in converstation as if I'd been here a few years. 'How old you think... I... am?' he asked. He'd already told me he was forty-years-old about one minute previous. I used that as a get-out clause to this cringe-worthy game. 'But if I did not tell you, how old you say I am?' I was backed into a corner. 'Most people say I look maybe 32...' I felt my back press even harder against the clammy, metaphorical wall of good manners. I thought he looked 42. 'Ah, you...erm, well it's hard to tell because you are Turkish and I'm not used to judging different enthnicities' I knew he didn't understand, but if I could just keep on talking a phone might ring somewhere, or a pot boil-over. 'I am alone here, I have no wife.' he said. It was not conversation gold, but I welcomed the change of subject. His hands were clasped firmly behind his back and his short, portly stature was about as unthreatening as you can imagine from a stranger. 'If you like, later you can come, my house, we can have drink, talk...because...I am alone here.' His friendly face showed a life of solitude, his closed-mouth smile reached an unlikely distance across his face for such a lonely man. I felt pity for him and genuinely considered that I might drop by later for çay and a chat. But I never did make it back, and genuinely regretted not popping in. At a stage when I felt open enough to do such random things, I just didn't find the time. With more flexibility I could have had a free stay and some weird conversation, I'm sure of it. His existence was different to my own in many ways, but we had one thing in common. We were both alone in life. I felt the brotherliness that connected the bretheren of men here. He'd thrown me a rope, but I failed to catch it. For now I'd wade in the pools of my own isolation. But the Turks really were something else.

I stepped onto the bus at Dinizli the next day, after leaving Pamukkale. Dave and Paula had made the same plans and so again we would be travelling on the same coach and plying the same path into more of Turkey's vast landscape. My ticket had a seat allocation, but throughout my time in Turkey I'd never quite managed to spot the corresponding numbers on the seats themselves. I waited until Dave and Paula took their seats and then I grabbed an available seat myself, next to a young Turkish woman. As I sat down I could see from the corner of my eye that she had turned to face me and spoke a few words in my direction. I looked at her and with a few barely audible words expressed that I could not understand Turkish. She gestured over her shoulder at the other free seats on the coach. Her face displayed such hostility that it began contorting out of disgust; whilst looking for a dose of sympathy. There was at least one other person in every double seat grouping throughout the bus so if I moved I knew I would have to sit next to someone. I remember feeling slightly offended that she was suggesting I move elsewhere just so she could enjoy a bit more elbow room. She looked out of the window and in a mild panic shrugged her shoulders as if declaring her innocence and that she had no control over my decision to sit there. She grappled with her mobile phone and began the process of writing out a text message when her boyfriend (whom she had been saying goodbye to) stepped aboard the bus and spoke to me in a soft Turkish tone of reasoning. I began to realise my mistake. It was not customary for a man to sit next to a woman on public transport in Turkey, especially if that man is a young foreigner; this was an Islamic nation. I knew this was going to end with me looking like a fool and for that reason the pride kicked-in and stuck my bum to the seat for a few extra seconds while I scrabbled for a way to protest my innocence. Meanwhile, the boyfriend called over to the rather porky waist-coated man in charge of the seating arrangements. He floated over and with the most headmaster-resembling face I've seen since my days at at Chalvedon school, blasted a cacophony of Turkish arrogance into my face. His words were a gigantic prayer bead of chastisement, each word thrown from his babbling mouth with the same force that I'd seen seasoned Muslims thumb through their beads with at alarming pace and with effortless dexterity. One of those words stood out like the large leader bead after the thirty-third- bayan. I recognised it, ironically, from the many toilet stops that the coaches made on journeys like this. It was written on the ladies toilet entrance and it meant just that- female. I knew exactly what he was saying, it went something like this: what do you think you are doing you silly boy?...Sitting next to a woman on a bus, can't you see that she's mentally disturbed by your foreign presence you bloody idiot, this is Turkey, not America, I mean look at her, you've practically mounted the poor girl, what will her parents say? I got up, still protesting my innocence in the most down-to-earth English I could muster from the dark and musky den of my indignation. It involved a lot of palms held out and smooth high-pitched and wide-eyed appeasement. Dave and Paula looked on with no clue about what and why. Curves of pretentious laughter rippled out amongst the other passengers. I was a lone elm in a forest of supercilious oaks. Each jibe and whispered condemnation chopped at my roots, they were felling one of their own because I had different leaves.

Travelling alone brought its share of unique angles to the equation. I remembered the words of a philosophy teacher that I'd been speaking to in Pamukkale's hotel. He was in his mid to late thirties and displayed a sort of nonchalance with his rough designer beard and grey lapel jacket while working through the home-cooked meal that evening. 'Travelling alone, forces you to wrestle with your inner-demons'. I could see he'd had his wars and came to a point on the battlefield where he accepted that he'd taken enough ground. I'd had mine in the past and from time to time had to face others along the path of the lone traveller. As I thought that through, I was reminded of a scene in Selçuk's ANZ hostel a couple of days previous. An Australian girl had been sitting at the communal computer writing an email, as new arrivals often did in a new town. The familiar colours and typeface of Facebook brought a sense of home to an unfamiliar set of surroundings for a lot of young travellers; usually within five minutes of setting their bags down. Her travelling buddy, a slightly camp and stick-thin blonde lad came up from the basement dorm and approached her, 'I'm gonna go get something to eat, do you wanna come?' She turned to face him 'yeah, I'll just be five minutes'
'Oh, you wanna come?' he asked in surprise.
'Why? Do you not want me to come?'
'No it's OK' he replied in innocent protest 'I just, o...kay well, I don't want to go just yet, I want to read some of my book for a while.' And at that point, with a heaviness of his social retraction causing his bottom lip to hang free he sauntered off back down into the dorm. I was sitting next to an American named Mark during this hilariously awkward exchange and we were both thinking the same thing- jeez, how long have these two been travelling together?

Mark was a gem of a man, his high-school curly brown hair, boyish face and gentle movements belied his advanced assimilation with the English language and all its conversational prowess. He had an ability to use the angles of innocent Christian fellow and bend them slightly to observe the curious shape of humanity in all its humorous nature. I liked Mark very much, it was easy to sit and talk with him and as a history and archaeology student he mastered the art of not judging until you have the facts. Mark travelled ahead of the three of us a day before to reach Cappadocia, a region of Turkey famous for its unusual rock formations.

The town of Göreme would play home for a few days, it sat right in the middle of it all- canyons, fairy chimneys, caves and underground cities. I was gradually traversing Eastwards towards the region of Anatolia. The South-Eastern part of Turkey had a denser population of Kurds, as did the area across the border in Iraq. I'd heard the expression Kurdistan on several occasions, but knew that it was not an official land area. The fourteen million Kurds in Turkey- along with those elsewhere, didn't have their own country. They were the world's largest ethnic group not to have that privilege. It was an ongoing struggle. One that could be written about with whole books; and it was. I faced the question are you a Kurd? From a man in the bathroom on a toilet stop to Göreme. He was Turkish, and pointed to the black and white shemagh I had wrapped around my neck- it was part of Kurdish traditional dress. His eyes were lazy but streetwise and I felt the question would be a two-part one had I answered yes. I acquired the scarf in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic and throughout Europe the shemagh was worn in the name of fashion. It was proving extremely useful as a go anywhere travel garment, I just hoped it wouldn't get me into any trouble out of mistaken disrespect.
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In Göreme the three of us stepped down from the coach after I was prompted by the man in seat thirteen, a warm and affable Apache pilot for the Turkish air force, that this was my stop. I had been sitting next to Ibrahim who had been the perfect example of Turkish open hospitality, buying me a çay at one of the night stops and talking to me most of the way in an attempt to share my language. When we alighted, it was the last I saw of Dave and Paula, they were changing-up to a more expensive hotel, while I was going to look for the cheapest option in town. The Turks at Denizli bus station had been laughing at Dave's ¾ length cargo trousers the night before, he stood defiantly and took it in good humour, just one of the traits that I could see in him that gave me hope in humanity. The weather at this point was brisk and rainy, I guess he just had really toasty ankles. Paula looked at him up and down several times and with her tactile hands and semi-lisp performed the mock-charade of lovingly smartening him up with the straightening of a collar or brush of the hand, it was affectionate and it told me she loved him for all his rough and readiness.

I chose my pension and immediately crawled into bed for a five hour kip. I wasn't good at sleeping on buses. I woke with the sense that I'd made a mistake in choosing a dorm room in this unusual town. There were so many cave and fairy chimney rooms available in this town it would almost be an insult not to stay in one. I switched to the cave room. I stepped inside and wowed with a giggling sense of hobbitness at the low, roughly carved ceilings and small passageway leading into the main bedroom. This was worth the extra money and I knew I'd remember it in years to come for the fact I'd never stayed in a cave before, albeit a decked-out room with beds and bathroom. Cappadocia had a long history of religious survival when Christianity came here, and it had to, literally, go underground for fear of persecution from the pagans of that time. Homes, churches and cities formed like an ant kingdom deep under the Martian-like landscape. Houses were also build on ground level, but in those times each one had a secret passage leading down to connect with their subterranean life during times of incursion. The name fairy chimney was spawned when traders, who plied this route through Cappadocia saw the lights glowing from high, carved windows in the sandstone, cone-shaped structures and believed them to be the homes of fairies, quite simple really, if a little off. It makes me wonder what they were smoking.
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I needed warming, the weather was fickle and the air breezy. I sat for a while inside Nazar Börek- a tiny outdoor food hut on the main street with three tables and a carpeted floor area around a low table. Göreme was a small town and the people seemed happy to be living here, the proprietor was particularly chirpy. The sosyete böreği went down like a treat and as I sat in the warmth of the wood-burning fire and listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops on the plastic-sheet roof, I couldn't help but eavesdrop on the next table. An over-the-top blonde Kiwi with a wonky-toothed smile and googly blue eyes sat drinking çay. She wore a puffy body warmer, a gold nose ring and inch-long back roots were showing through the bleached blonde of her yellow hair. As was often the case in Turkey, a South Korean girl walked into the hut. She sat at the only space available opposite the Kiwi. The over-simplified caveman-like English that spurted from her mouth, toward the Asian girl, made me cringe. 'Where you come from?' 'Bad weather today, yes?' 'You go Istanbul?' 'I writer for guidebook, I stay Göreme one month.' I tried not to listen but her shrieky, tooth-filled mouth drew me in when all I wanted to do was put a sock in it. Noun-verb-noun-verb, all in the present tense and all as demeaning as could possibly be. The Korean girl's English deserved better. The Kiwi's behaviour was that of a person who was becoming familiar with her surroundings and with the local people, but overly suggestive of it. 'Oh watch out for this one, he's trouble...' she'd say with rolling eyes. I prayed for it to stop. The only way it would stop was for me to leave, and that I did- gratefully. You meet all sorts of people while travelling, I was learning to despise the fakery as much as I was learning to love the honesty of genuine connection. If only we could spare the bullshit on a regular basis. I recognised something of that in myself and always wanted to break down the social wall. Out of our own insecurity came brick after brick of defensive wall-building. I remembered back to a shopkeeper I'd been talking to in Pamukkale- 'You want to sit with a çay and have talk?' he asked. I told him I had to get back to my hostel. And in Bergama, a friendly carpet salesman- 'If you like, later, you can come by the shop and we go out for a drink in evening?' I didn't make it, my response was 'OK, maybe', knowing I would have to push myself to go. Why was I avoiding the very thing I was looking for, just because they had asked me, and were perhaps a little different?
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I met up with Mark for a beer that evening and I considered how different I would have felt if I'd have accepted one of those invitations, or one of the many I'd had in Istanbul from strangers that were just being nice. It just wasn't usual for me to do such a thing, but I wanted to work on it. I knew the experience would expand if only I loosen the reigns a bit more. The thrill of the ride was dependent on the tightness of my grip. It was in my hands to take it up a notch.

The next day, despite the inclement weather I decided to rent an off-road motorbike and go tear up some dirt. I had my bike licence back home, after passing the test first time round in one of the most torrential downpours we saw in the bleak summer of 2007, so I was confident I could handle the 200cc trailie. I twisted the throttle and blasted off down the twisty road that left Göreme and branched off into the land of the fairy chimneys. The dirt trail bent up and down as much as it did left and right, the smile on my face was impossible and the rate at which my confidence grew surprised me. I'd never been off-road on a motorbike before but my God was this the place to do it. The sandy ground was packed hard in places but loosened under the tyres and patches of sludge allowed for slippery-sliding and maximum fun. The surrounding chimney rocks towered over me with impressive presence. I climbed a steep hill and allowed myself to get lost amongst the narrow gauntlets that raised on both sides creating a tall groove for me to funnel through. At the top of the hill and after some butt-clenching moments I appeared unobstructed at the best seat in the house. The view over Rose Valley was sublime. The heated red rocks reminiscent of Arizona and the wavy swirls of sandstone monoliths reminded me of Australia. The fact that it had all come together in volcanic explosions made it unique. I had no idea before stepping foot in Turkey that a place like this existed. I was a very happy man.
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I descended down the steep embankments and once again entered the area of the towering cones. I got off the bike for a walk and when I returned I pressed the engine ignition. Nothing happened. The engine ticked over but I had no idle. I attempted to push the bike into a jump start but again- nothing. I was stuck, in the middle of a natural wonder, miles from the town, and dusk was approaching. I tried to push the bike up the trails to at least get back to the road, it was no use. I had no choice. I had to leave the bike there and try to walk back and hope for a lift on the way to the rental shop. I made my way and after a while I spotted an old, blue Ford Cortina perched on a hilltop. I made for the car and when I got near I could hear the presence of an occupant before I could see him. Turkish music blared from the speakers and as I got closer I could see a middle-aged man smoking in the front seat. He was on the phone. Bingo. 'Ah, excuse me....my bike, it's not starting and I have to talk to the rental company. I don't suppose I could use your phone? I have the number.' I reached for the contract in the side pocket of my cargo trousers. 'Err, yes, ok...you have the number?...Oh that is a free call, the network, they are having special promotion for this number today.' My luck was in. Fifteen minutes later the distant fleck of a young man shifting along quite quickly, neared from the horizon towards me, about 100 metres from the roadside. He had brought a scooter. Great, I thought, that's not gonna get us far, but still feeling grateful to see I'd been rescued out of a tight spot. He hinted that I jump on the back and I indicated where the bike was with a big pointing arm over his right shoulder. What happened next was slightly embarrassing for me. I thought I was doing all right on the trail bike, but this little dude tore up the sand and dispensed with the hills like they weren't even there- with a scooter and a pillion on the back. 'You've been here before?' I asked rhetorically. 'Many, many times' he confirmed. I immediately felt reams of jealousy. We reached the bike in what seemed like moments, after a few hairy bumps. 'I think I know what is wrong' he said before approaching the green bike. 'There is a switch, I think you pressed it.' He inspected the right handlebar, 'yep, it's what I said'. I looked at the switch and felt the shame of stupidity. It was the big red engine cut-off switch by the right thumb. The one that you learn about on day one of bike training. He also saw that the one of the leads was hanging out of the engine block and so pushed it back in and brought the bike to life with a braap-braap! Let's just say that the adventure in my riding style was shoved into overdrive after he left. Well, I had to regain some manliness for such a big fail, and besides... it wasn't my bike.
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Posted by kookie888 11:17 Archived in Turkey Comments (3)

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