Tuesday, November 27, 2007

amazing coincidence #2

3rd October 1998

Writing the recent post about Lake Titicaca reminded me of a great coincidence that I witnessed. (Agreed not MINE but I was there so stop your whinging)

I was travelling from Cusco in the Andes, which is a beautiful little town set high in the mountains where most Macchu Pichu trekkers go to acclimatise. I had just finished the 4 day walk and was heading to Lake Titicaca by train with Helga and James, a couple I had met on the trek.

The train covers almost 400 kms between Cusco and Puno, climbing to 4,690 meters above sea level at the highest point. The scenery is quite spectacular in places.

As the railway line comprises of just a single track, and one train a day goes in each direction, there necessitates a split to a double track around halfway in order for both trains to pass. This also means if one train is a little early, or the other tardy - one train must wait for the other.

We arrived first.

Out in the most barren of landscapes, with no hint of civilisation in sight.

But within moments, as if out of the very earth itself, a swarm of villagers appear carrying baskets of bread, fruit and strange steaming delicacies and begin the daily task of earning their living.

Sitting here in the middle of the Peruvian Andes you can quite easily feel small and insignificant, many hundreds, perhaps thousands of kilometres from the nearest espresso machine, convenience store, scented toilet rolls and Wheel of Fortune.

As I casually sit swatting off sellers of blotched bananas and knitted alpaca egg warmers, the other train rolls into the sidings where we are waiting. Very slowly it rolls to a complete halt.

Curiously Helga, James and I crane our heads to peer at the South-Northers (being North-Southers ourselves) to see what could possibly attract them all to doing this journey in reverse.

Suddenly James yells out something and dashes off the train. Perhaps he saw someone selling miniature-llama woollen leg warmers or an authentic Andean plate of Pachamanca.

About 20 minutes later, when we were getting concerned that the trains were going to set off again James returned with a huge grin on his face.

It turns out that sitting in the carriage directly opposite ours, on the other train was one of James' work mates from Amsterdam in Peru on holiday.

James had no clue his mate was even coming to Peru, and to run into him in the middle of nowhere was quite bizarre.

What made it all the more unusual was that his friend had to be sitting in the window seat of the exact carriage that pulled up alongside ours or he would never have been spotted.

And dammit, not a newsagents in sight to buy a lottery ticket. Tut.

Friday, November 23, 2007

stewed tea and charades.

23rd May 1990

I was abruptly woken by someone shaking me on the shoulder.

“Tatvan….Tatvan” shouted the elderly Turk.

I jumped out of my seat half asleep and grabbed my daypack, reached overhead and pulled my backpack from the luggage rack and staggered down the smoky aisle to the front of the bus.

Thirty seconds later I stood in complete darkness as the bus disappeared into the distance. I looked at my watch. It was 3.30 am. It was pitch black and I was on the edge of a small town in the far eastern reaches of Turkey.

Earlier that afternoon I clambered on board the bus in Malatya where I planned to catch a ferry across Lake Van from the lakeside town of Tatvan on my way to Mt.Ararat on the distant border of Turkey, Iran and Armenia.

A miscalculation of the bus times by yours truly meant I arrived at Tatvan in the ungodly hours of the morning instead of 7am, as I had planned.

Six months earlier the prospect of arriving in a remote eastern Turkish town at 3.30 in the morning would have scared the beejeezus out of me. But having by this time already been travelling for several months I was able to take it in my stride and was (surprisingly) unruffled.

I wandered along the unlit road towards some lights in the distance. Before long I found myself in the middle of town and to my surprise I found a small tea-shop open, its dim interior lights glowing like the soft embers of a dying fire.

Inside were 5 or 6 people all of whom looked up when I entered. They gazed at me with that look of curious perplexity that you might develop if a tap dancing badger were to appear at your bedside one morning.

“Merhaba” I said smiling. Everyone smiled back warmly and then they all went back to their conversations.

I settled into a seat and was brought tea. The tea here in Turkey is a thick, dark brown stewed bitter experience, served in small liqueur glasses, which needs several spoons of sugar to make it potable. I grew to really like it.

Soon a young man came and joined me. He spoke no English whatsoever. From his appearance I took him to be a soldier, which he was, and we sat for several hours communicating through a mixture of pantomime and the limited Turkish I had so far managed to pick up on this trip.

Mustafa I discover, had been on sick-leave from his regiment in Van and was on his way to his wife who lived in Diyabakir, near Batman. (I just put that in because I love the fact that there is a place called Batman!)

This way, I was able to pass quite a lot of time until the sun came up and life once again began in Tatvan.

I left the tea-house and went in search of the tourist office, where I was able to buy the ferry ticket to Van.

The ferry, it turns out, was primarily a goods line ferry, which also permitted a train carriage to board and drive off the other end. Pretty neat I thought. It was also almost completely devoid of passengers. Apart from myself, the only other passengers I saw was a Turkish family who stay well below deck for the entire trip.

From my diary:

“This 4 hour trip across the fishless alkaline lake is both beautiful and relaxing. The scenery is spectacular - rivalling parts of the Swiss Alps.

Behind lies Küçük Nemrut Dağı (‘Little Nemrut’), an extinct volcano with a 7km wide crater - one of the largest in the world. To the north lies Suphan, a large snow capped mountain, dreamlike in the afternoon haze. On the south-side of Van Gölü the ferry passes close to the mountain range that separates Tatvan and Van.

Mountains rise and fall, snow lays on the upper reaches; and a volcano, one entire side blown away by some ancient cataclysm lies silently yawning to the lake like an open wound washed clean by the water. Its sides softened by grass looking like a mossy cloak wrapping old shoulders.

Lying alone on the sun-warmed wooden deck, I feel drowsy and dreamy, the setting sun and haze wash over me and my head is drunkenly light. The boat rolls ever so gently, and the wake flickers and glistens with the suns’ final rays and I drift into sleep.”

Ferry across Lake Van

Lake Van


citadel of Van

view from the citadel

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

titicaca - more caca than titi

4th October 1998
It should have been a warning. Our hostel owner who was taking us to the ferry turned up in his car drunk. At 9 in the morning.

I was heading out onto Lake Titicaca which lies on the border of Peru and Bolivia. I had arrived the night before with some friends made on the Machu Picchu trek at the town of Puno (pr. 'pooh-no' - appropriate really because it was a s***hole)

But we made it to the ferry in one piece and boarded our boat. Then we were offloaded onto another.

It was a short trip out to the floating islands, a small community of Uros natives numbering around the 2,000 mark who live and eat and sleep on islands made entirely of reeds.

Leaving these islands we head out into Lake Titicaca to visit a community living on Isla Taquile. Right out into the lake (which has a temperature of 4 deg. Celsius) we break down. Eventually another tourist ferry arrives and tows us to the island where the boat crew assure us they will have the boat fixed by the time we return.

Up on the island, which has wonderful views over the lake,

we find the village in the middle of what looks to be a fairly important town meeting.

When it is time to leave, I discover ours is the very last ferry to depart.

About 300 metres from the shore we break down again. There are no oars. No radio. No lifejackets. No flares.

But one of the crew members has a small hand mirror. Oh whoopy do!

At this stage the second last ferry to leave is already a speck on the horizon.

The crew member with the mirror is on the prow trying to flash the dying suns rays on the mirror towards the now dissappearing boat in the distance.

After what seems like an eternity, he yells a cry of delight and we realise the ferry has seen his signal and has turned around.

20 minutes later our rescuers arrive and as their boat pulls along side us we ram it with our prow and punch a hole in its side.

So now our fully laden boat disembarks onto the other (fully laden) boat with a hole in it for the 90 minute trip back to safety.

We were kept afloat, I think, by sheer bloody willpower and the accumulated desire of 40 nervous passengers to live.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

odd things I've seen on planes #1

31st May 2001
Leaving Bergen in Norway for Prague.

Its not a large plane, possibly one of the smaller 737's.

About 20 minutes after the seatbelt lights go off I crane my neck around to see if the rear toilet "occupied" sign is lit.

Several rows back on the other side of the aisle was a standard tree.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

one big mother-clucker

29th July 1993

With Miriam and Stan, two French pals that I had met in on the road, I found myself wandering around the dirt paths of a small village around 25km outside of Dalat in the highlands of southern-central Vietnam.

Extraordinary as it was to find extremely basic living conditions such as mud huts with grass roofs and lack of even basic services like electricity or running water, what was even more surprising was to find, in the middle of this primitive-like existence, the presence of a very large concrete chicken.

To say we were perplexed is an understatement.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

the lei of the land

20th June 1990

Arriving in Bucharest on the overnight “gypsy train” from Bulgaria I was completely ignorant to the fact that Romania was in the wake of an attempted counter-revolution, having only just executed the tyrant Ceausescu approximately 6 months before.
(More information: here )

The streets in central Bucharest were strewn with the still smoking shells of burnt out vehicles. Buildings, freshly glazed after the 1989 revolution were now skirted with glittering shards, and amidst fresh bloodstains on the streets were some hastily constructed wooden crosses hammered into the road surface. Tanks patrolled the streets.

On the positive side there were no other tourists.

Bucharest was partially through a process of street renaming, so none of the maps I managed to obtain were of any use. Navigation around town meant a careful study of the shape of a street rather than its name.

Food was scarce, in fact most types of goods were scarce and the value of the lei was so low that I had trouble finding enough things to spend the $30 I had changed.

Wandering the streets was unsettling. People avoided me. Later I realised this was because they were suspicious of me as the only Westerners in the city at that time were usually journalists covering the rioting.

One morning out walking, I turned into a street to be confronted by an entire platoon of soldiers who were arranged side by side across the entire width of the road from wall to wall and around 10 men deep. The front row of soldiers had their rifles with attached bayonets pointing straight out from their hips and the whole throng were marching down in an apparent street-cleaning exercise. I hastily retreated.

Bucharest, for whatever reasons (and there were many back then) was extremely depressing. So I stayed just a few days before deciding to head off to Hungary which proved more difficult than I had anticipated.

Arriving at the main railway station I was confronted by scenes of chaos. Crowds everywhere, at every window and at every counter.

I joined a queue which I hoped was one that would sell me a train ticket to Budapest in Hungary. A 20 minute wait and I reached the front.

“Ticket please to Budapest”.

“Globstak kboshtok aksorak snajlak”

“Ummm.. ticket…train..Budapest?” (pleadingly)

“Globstak kboshtok aksorak snajlak. SHOBNARG!”

At which point the 145kg woman behind the counter scrawled an address on a scrap of paper with a 3 cm stub of pencil grasped between fingers that looked like enormous pork sausages, which I gathered was the address of a tourist agency in the town centre where I was to purchase my ticket.

So I shrugged my (heavy) backpack higher up on my back and headed off into town - a good 20 minutes walk in the blazing sun.

Once arriving at the agency which I found more by sheer luck than by any orienteering skills, I was confronted by scenes exactly like those in the railway station. So once again I joined a queue.

“I was sent here from the railway station to buy a train ticket to Budapest. One single please.”

“Aksorak globstak snajlak kboshtok”

“Ticket…train…Budapest.” (emphatically)

She wrote out the address of the railway station on a bit of paper.


Back to the station. Back in the queue. Back to pork sausages.

“Ticket…train…Budapest.” (slightly hysterically)

She began to write the name of the agency on a bit of paper again. Suddenly I could see myself dying here in some Eastern bloc version of Groundhog Day. I was hot, tired, frustrated, hungry and very, very annoyed. So I did the only natural thing under the circumstances.

A major HISSY FIT.

I began yelling loudly about how I had BEEN to the $&?@&$!!* agency, they had sent me back, how I HATED this #@*!^#@!X country and wanted to leave and that’s just what I couldn’t do, how I was HOT and HUNGRY and I didn’t want to keep walking backwards and effing forwards for eternity.

Finally, in a paroxysm of utter frustration I took my backpack off and THREW it as far as I could down the main reservations hall of Bucharest Central Railway Station. Then I charged after it and started to put the boot in.

After an unspecified period of pack abuse I finally vented and sat down wearily on my gear to ponder my circumstances. I looked up to find around 300 pairs of eyes staring at this crazed Westerner doing his nut.

Finally, out of the crowd appeared a knight in shining armour. Or rather, a tall thin angular man with a briefcase who approached me and said haltingly

“You have problem?”

“Mate you have no idea!”

Vasile as it turned out spoke almost no English and as my Romanian was equally lacking we communicated via a mixture of bad high school French and gesticulations.

He managed to import that the country was in a state of partial lockdown and that the Government had stopped all cross border travel. Getting a ticket to Hungary would be difficult. He provided a welcome solution.

He invited me to stay with him and his family in their village in Transylvania (I know what you are thinking - but I checked his teeth and they looked normal) which was on the way to Hungary. He said he would get me on a train to the town on the Romanian/Hungarian border to which a ticket would be obtainable. As the train crossed the border I simply had to stay on board and then buy a ticket at the first stop on the other side to Budapest.

A man with a plan - I love it.

So thanks to this amazing Romanian factory worker, who, you must remember, had the strength of resolve to approach a ranting histrionic foreigner and offer aid (let’s face it - faced with the same situation in your railway station would you?), I found myself in the modest apartment of a Romanian couple with their young daughter in the middle of the countryside being the guest of honour at a dinner party.

The following day Vasile took me to the station, organised my ticket to the border and waved me off. All was going exactly to plan. I arrived at the border and the last of the passengers left the train. I know what you’re thinking… suddenly the train reversed and started going back the way it came. But no, it didn’t. It rolled on towards the no-mans land of the border crossing.

I left Romania and crossed into Hungarian territory.

Customs came on board and checked my passport.

He looked at my visa, then me, then my visa, clucked a little like a chicken with a stutter and then looked at me again with a frown.

The he walked off with my passport.

Five minutes later he came back with 6 armed soldiers and they escorted me off the train and took me away to a building not too far from the station and locked me up.

For 4 hours.

With an armed guard.

No explanation, no Consular representative, no détente, not even any spoken English.

Finally, the customs fellow returns. With 6 different soldiers. They walk me back to the railway station, put me back on a train and send me BACK to Romania.

As the train pulled out I leant out of the window and plaintively yelled

“I don’t want to go back to Romania, I just left there. I hated it.”

The guards, in a particularly Soviet way, starchly waved me goodbye.

So to conclude, here I was rolling back through the Romanian countryside wanting to be anywhere else but rolling back through the Romanian countryside.

On the train I chatted with a German journalist who was heading to Bucharest to cover the riots. He suggested that I try crossing the motorway border as they had a temporary visa issuing office and that if there was an irregularity with my visa they should be able to sort it out.

I hopped off the train at the first stop and flagged down a taxi. Fortunately I still had a couple of dollars worth of lei. Not sure of its exact worth, I waved it at the taxi driver while pointing to the border town on my map.

Well his little face lit up like a beacon and he grabbed my pack and threw it in the boot in case I was just some sort of magical mirage and was about to vanish like breath on a cold day.

He drove me the 50 odd kms north to the border, the last 5 of which we encountered a line of parked cars backed up on the roads completely blocking the single lane northwards. Many of the occupants were sleeping, stretching, or had set up blankets and were lunching on the verge. Mr Beacon simply crossed into the oncoming lane and continued right up to the border customs office where he dropped me at the door with my bag, practically kissed me and took off.

It was a simple straightforward matter to walk over the border, get another temporary visa on the Hungarian side, and walk to freedom!

(Postscript: I still needed to get back on the train for the 5 hour journey to Budapest, so I stuck out my thumb and hitched. Very soon I was picked up by a van full of English nuns who very courteously dropped me right at the station. I felt like I was in a scene from The Sound of Music.)

**The only photos I have from this part of the trip were from a rather dodgy Eastern European B+W film I had to buy in Bulgaria as I ran out of Kodak! I ended up only getting a proof sheet made as I thought the film probably wouldnt turn out. So these are scans from the postage-stamp sized images on the proof sheet! (Ansel Adams would turn in his grave)

crossing the Carpathian mountains near Brasov

Romanian church

The Palace of the Parliament (formerly The Peoples House)

Bucharest street scene

Saturday, November 3, 2007

night shakes

6th July 1993
My first visit to Kathmandu. From my travel diary:

"The beginnning of my third day in Kathmandu. It's difficult to know where to begin. The absorbtion and assimilation of sights, smells and sounds is still going on and will probably continue until well after I leave.

Sitting on the verandah of the Dalaghiri Guest House in Thamel, a district of Kathmandu, I am high enough to see over the hills surrounding Kathmandu Valley; heavy dark clouds hang low over my head oppressively like being in a long low - ceilinged room. A trail of clouds loiters even lower in the distance around the hills near the horizon.

The Monkey Temple from my hotel

A sudden break in the clouds and the full force of the suns heat beats the back of my head. The air is still but far from quiet. Kathmandu is rarely quiet. Noise travels easily in the humid air, and in the distance I can hear flute music, the eternal barking of dogs, the toot-toot of rickshaw horns, the sounds of reed brushes flicking dust and dirt from the footpaths plus a variety of building construction sounds which insinuate from every direction.

Scaffolding - from my hotel window

Big dark crows are forever hovering, occasionally swooping low by the verandah. Often they hang seemingly motionless in the air in the way hawks and eagles do. "Caw Caw' they screech. All the while as I write flies settle and rise on and around me - I can almost begin to ignore them."

Back then in 1993 Nepal was quite an eye opener for me. Knowing very little about the place, I decided on the spur of the moment to add a side trip on the way back from Norway where I had been exhibiting my first solo show overseas.

Arriving at the airport I discovered that the previous week Maoist led demonstrations had resulted in the deaths of 20 people. There were more demonstrations occuring on the same day I arrived. My airport bus was escorted by a truck full of heavily armed soldiers which had the effect of drawing absolutely everybody's attention to us!

When we arrived in the city centre the bus pulled into an area which was fenced off and large metal gates swung closed behind us and were quickly padlocked. The unease and rising tension was exacerbated by one of the tourists on the bus hysterically bursting into tears.

Of course the fear of such situations is dramatically out of proportion to the reality, and the demonstrators were clearly not out to claim a few shabby backpackers scalps, so soon after I was wandering around the smelly, open sewered streets of downtown Kathmandu looking for a hotel.

Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Kathmandu street scene

Despite the smells and the squalor, I loved Kathmadhu. It was a lively, colourful squirming organism seemingly out of step with the 20th Century, and was one of the few places I had been up until that point where I felt the city was in fact timelessly unchanged. If I could have transported myself back 300 years it would have changed little - except for the disappearance of the motorised vehicles and electric lights.

Temple doorway

One day I walked to the 'Monkey Temple' (Swayambunath Stupa) named for the many columbus monkeys found there. The temple is a mass of shrines, or 'stupas' of varying sizes and you can read more about it here

Me at Swayambunath - The Monkey Temple

Swayambunath locals

On the way back to my hotel I took a circuitous path through some fields and villages, at one stage stumbling across 5 or 6 life-sized straw figures hanging by their necks from tree limbs, a somewhat chilling sight which I still have no explanation for.

A little later, while shopping for some trinkets in a local store, a cow wandered in. It then shit on the floor, looked around as if to say "...because I CAN" and then wandered out again.

2 days later at about 3am I was thrown out of my bed (literally) by an earthquake - 3 main shocks (just 4.5 on the Richter scale) which caused several buildings in town to collapse resulting in minimal loss of life.

I also rented a bicycle and cycled to Pashupartinath, Nepal's oldest and holiest Hindu pilgrimage site where I was able to witness the burning of the dead. One corpse erupted in a fountain of body fluids amongst the flames much to my astonishment.

Pashupartinath (पशुपतिनाथ मन्दिर)
(You may recognise this from my blog header)

Pashupartinath (पशुपतिनाथ मन्दिर)

Cremation at Pashupartinath

To close, my last evening in Kathmandu from my diary:

"I am sitting on the balcony of my guesthouse. Next door a Nepalese Buddhist or Hindu band has been playing and/or chanting for a couple of hours, across the road in a slum building a newborn baby cries, and in the distance the eternal barking of dogs. Once again it is a beautiful and clear night and I feel extremely happy."