As a teenager I was a voracious reader, my father substituting the stories of Ian Fleming, when he felt I had outgrown Enid Blytons’ Famous Five. Later, I would discover the wonderful, muscular prose of Jack London, from his teenage years as an Oyster pirate on the Oakland waterfront, to wild adventures in the Klondyke gold rush and beyond. This love of adventure brought me to Joseph Conrads’ Heart of Darkness and later to Somerset Maughams’ colonial adventures in the Far East. Raised on a diet of Victorian exploration, it is perhaps unsurprising that I would develop a taste for the exotic.
My travels have been in two distinct phases, the early travels, going round the world as a young backpacker in the mid to late 1980,s and later, what I have called my ‘Ryanair Years’, when I took advantage of Mr O’Learys’, cheap flights to new destinations across Europe.
In my younger years I might spend several months or longer in a country, while, in recent years my trips abroad have generally been between four days and a week. Its is much easier to research and organise travel than it was before the internet, when thin, blue aerogrammes marked ‘par avion’ were the closest you could come to a mobile phone.
Having travelled in many countries, I realise how lucky we are in Edinburgh, with the riches of the forth estuary on our doorstep, and the Pentland hills at our back. The many wooded hills and rivers which adorn the town, are host to Roe deer, Woodpeckers and Kingfishers, and it is possible to see a hundred species of bird in a day without leaving the boundary of the city. In recent years, the appalling environmental damage wrought by the chemical DDT in the 1970’s has reversed, and buzzards are now common in a way they never were when I was a child. Another cause for celebration is the reforestation of Scotland. Deer numbers have been thinned in the highlands and there are now seedling Scots Pines growing in profusion on what has been heather clad hillside for the last few hundred years.
As a five year old, my parents would take me walking in the woods, pointing out the common birds, Blue tits, Robins and the like. They indulged my growing passion and I still have the charts and logs of my birding activities in the fields behind our house when I was twelve and thirteen. Lovers Lane, and the surrounding fields, where Short eared Owls came down from the Pentland Hills to spend the winter, provided rich pickings for the nascent birder. The Gogar burn was home to Water Voles, while Reed buntings and Goldfinches lived among the tall grasses in the fields. Coveys of Grey Partridge would startle the walker, exploding out from under your feet in a flurry of wing beats. On the immaculate lawn of Gogar house, Spotted Flycatchers sat on the croquet hoops, taking short, circular flights to catch insects on the wing.
Today, nothing remains of these childish haunts, the last colony of Lapwings having long deserted their lonely roundabout, as traffic has increased over the years to service what is now the Gyle shopping centre and South Gyle Industrial Estate.
In later years, I studied Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. Here, I learned of Rachel Carson and her book ‘Silent Spring’, a warning of how the environment was being degraded. Our lecturer told us how, in the sixties, he would look on in sorrow as each autumn hordes of thrushes would strip the gardens’ trees and bushes of their harvest. Nowadays the berries sit uneaten on the trees, as the Redwings and Fieldfares no longer come in such numbers.
Unsurprisingly then, I have enjoyed nature and birding where ever I have been, from the famous Indian bird reserve of Bharatpur, to the cloud forests of Guatemala, and I will recount the notable species as I go, if only for my own amusement. I hope the reader will indulge my hobby and gain a greater appreciation of the joys of birding, even, perhaps taking up the binoculars and field guide for themselves.
Another passion is music, from my first guitar, strumming along to Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, to learning saxophone while listening to Stan Getz and Sun Ra. Like nature, and food, music is found everywhere and I have played guitar from the deserts of Israel to the beaches in Mexico. Flamenco, Gamelan, Merengue and Kletzmer, I have heard them all, from soulful Yiddish clarinet to the infectious dance music of Latin America and the foot stomping, hand clapping Flamenco of Seville. In India I came across early versions of the bagpipe, and discovered quarter tones, western music only recognising semi tones.
As I write this account of my travels, memories have flooded back, people and places I had long forgotten becoming fresh once more. The Internet has allowed me to research details of places visited and maps of the region have allowed me to trace my progress, uncovering forgotten towns and places of interest. I have not lingered on descriptions of well known places such as the Pyramids, as the reader can search the Internet for more information, and better pictures, than I can provide. I have also refrained from writing much about my friends and travelling companions as I have no wish to intrude on their privacy. These then, are my observations, as I have travelled from Bombay to Banjul, Bandits to Buddhists, Bee eaters to Bulbuls.
My first long trip abroad was to stay with friends in Calas Covas, a series of Neolithic caves near the expat resort of Cala en Porter, on the Spanish island of Menorca. We sat at the back of the plane and, as it took off, played The Flight of the Valkyries on our cassette recorder. Ten seconds later, a flight attendant rushed along the aisle and put an end to our musical homage to the film Apocalypse Now. Arriving in Menorca, having consumed several bottles of Cava purchased in the Duty free, we wandered out of the airport and fell asleep in a nearby field. Awakening next morning surrounded by prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp) we discovered the veracity of Baloo the bears’ advice that it was preferable to use the claw rather than the paw when picking prickly pears. It is not the large spines which are problematic but the invisible glass like hairs which snap off, hiding in clothing and causing endless skin irritation.
Undeterred we set off from Cala en Porter, walking along the cliff top until we reached the bay where, long ago, people had carved a series of caves from the soft limestone. Complete with doorways, windows and raised areas for sleeping, our cave was high on the cliff. A small, flat “patio” outside the doorway, gave way to a steep hillside, tumbling down to the beach which lay at the head of the cove. At night I lay in bed listening to the waves in the bay, and sometimes watching a bat flying round the cave, flying round and round until he found his way out again, all this by candle light and and the flickering embers of the fire.
Our friends had been living here for the best part of a year, making a little money cleaning nets for fisherman. A perk of this job was that the fisherman would give us moray eels which we boiled up into an oily stew, their tough skin almost defying the, rather blunt, knives we were using. Our diet was supplemented with snail, which I have never eaten since, and wild fruits which we called nesperos, though I later discovered they were Japanese Loquats (Eriobotria japonica), a bit like apricots. At low tide, an underground spring provided fresh water, and on one occasion, a small octopus , which was quickly added to the pot. Snails need to be starved for a few days after capture to clear the digestive tract before consumption, some mornings they would have to be picked off the walls and ceiling of the cave, having escaped during the night. This was less unsettling than the octopus which attempted to escape from the pot when the water was added. The caves’ long term occupant had perfected his cooking technique to the point that he baked bread in the fire using two metal wash basins as an oven. In time he would brick up one of the deep set ‘windows’, building an oven, with a flue to the outside. If we needed bread, we would hitch hike along to the little village of San Clemente, where, if you were lucky, the baker would have found the energy to actually do some baking. If not, he would advise you to return “mañana”.
There were four or five occupied caves, one, known as the ‘hotel’, could house eight people, while another held a Dutch couple and their two kids. The couple owned a beat up Volkswagen van and would give everyone a lift into Mahon if they were going that way. The van door was held on with a human bone from one of the caves. I was told that during the Civil War, the resistance had lived in these caves and placed their dead in one of the less accessible ones. I visited there once but there were only a few fragments to show what had been. The gentle, relaxed Spanish hippies living in the caves taught me my first Spanish words and I began to appreciate the warmth of Spanish culture. Typically, I pursued the birds with my usual zeal, spending hours wandering the scrub above the cliffs, seeing my first Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes. It was here that we picked wild asparagus, the young shoots hidden amongst the tough, spiny, gorse like foliage. These would be added to Tortilla Espangol, flavoured with the wild rosemary growing on the cliff. One evening, as we ate, we were treated to a spectacular lightening storm, ball lightening skittering across the sea as the waves pounded the shore beneath us.
It was spring and pleasantly cool on the cliffs, swimming was in order and the Roman quarry cut into the cliff side not only allowed the Romans to transport rock by sea but functioned as an outdoor swimming pool for us. It was here I discovered that you can’t boil rice in sea water and perhaps more usefully, that urine is a treatment for jellyfish stings. If unlucky enough to get stung, the weals looked like a whip mark across the body, happily this never happened to me, possibly because I didn’t actually enter the water much. Mahon is home to the largest harbour in the med and birthplace of mayonnaise, but for me it was home to the little cafes which still served free tapas with the crisp beer and expresso coffee we drank during languid afternoons in the town square. Sol y sombre (sun and shade) was a mixture of sweet muscatel wine which was pretty much sherry, and cheek shrivelling red, the sugar giving you a hangover only the young will endure . We stuffed ourselves on cheap, homemade garlic potato salad, so strong that the smell of garlic was pungent on the skin for hours afterwards. It was maybe just as well the cave was well ventilated, the blanket for a door being a loose fit.
Although we never felt insecure in the caves, one night we were rudely wakened by the torches of the Guardia Civil (paramilitary police). The two girls my friend and I stayed with, had been down to the disco one evening, coming to the attention of the local police, who, assuming the girls were on their own, had come for a visit the following night, truncheons at the ready, as it were. Truncheons were packed away on the discovery that the girls were not alone and after some grumbling they disappeared back into the night. I think they may have felt we shouldn’t really have been living in Spain’s prehistoric heritage. At one time Majorca had been home to a thriving troglodyte hippie community, although the advent of the package tour quickly put paid to that. A similar community had dwelt on the far side of Menorca, providing tour boats with a tourist attraction of naked hippies in caves, until one day they apparently rose up, as it were, and started throwing rocks at the boat, upon which the whole affair came to an end. I guess our backwater was one of the last and I have heard that the area is now a pay to get in tourist attraction and nobody lives in the caves anymore.
In the early eighties it seemed that you were either rolling in it, or, rolling in “it”, I fell into the later category. Having five Highers and no discernable skills, the opportunity to live rent free on a kibbutz in Israel seemed a good bet. I would simply ride out the Thatcherite wave abroad and return when it was all over. How was I to know that Thatcherism would signal a permanent shift in British culture. Returning a year later to London I would see groups of people living in cardboard boxes under bridges. Affordable housing was taking off.
Some of my friends had reservations about visiting Israel due to the situation in Palestine, of which I knew little. In my defence, this was before the Palestinians were walled in. I now realise that I never encountered the reality of Palestine during my stay, but I did experience the Israeli view of life and for many years had a ‘sunny’ view, which I shared with the majority of the volunteers on the kibbutz. Although I now deplore the apartheid which an increasingly militaristic Israeli state is inflicting on the rightful citizens of this region, I hope the reader will indulge my youthful ignorance.
After picking up our visas in
my friend and i took a bus to London
and an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. The
security at the El Al desk in Heathrow was as tight as you see nowadays, though
in those days it was unique. Arriving in
Tel Aviv, the plane door opened and a fierce, oven like heat rushed into the
cabin. It was June and the heat was
visibly wobbling the tarmac.
Kibbutz Sde Boker was in the Negev desert, and as the bus rounded the crest of another barren hillside, the unremitting rock strewn landscape was punctuated by a rectangle of green in the valley below. The kibbutz was a paradise right up to the fence line, beyond which was a trackless desert populated by snakes and scorpions.
The kibbutz system is a peculiarly Israeli system of communal living, borne of both the need to colonise a land devoid of infrastructure, and the singular history of the inhabitants. Groups of people literally build their own village, borrowing money from the government, then paying it back. Each kibbutz has its own form of government and culture, some were communist to the extent that children were raised in a communal manner, some run along lines of religious orthodoxy, others, more relaxed, both economically and spiritually. This particular kibbutz, Sde Boker, was a small community of three hundred people with a pioneering, socialist spirit and was famously the home of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister. On reflection, the use of young international volunteers was a means of avoiding employing Palestinian labour, though for some reason that had not occurred to any of us twenty something volunteers. What I experienced on the kibbutz was a socialist society in miniature, with communal ownership, self regulation and minimal state involvement. The volunteers were housed two or three to a unit, one roomed buildings each with there own bathroom, but no kitchen. Everyone ate in a large dining area much like that in any college, except that no money ever changed hands. Similarly, there was a laundry to which you took your laundry, picking it up fresh in a day or so. Even cars were communally owned and could be borrowed when needed, meaning that most had ruined gear boxes.
The twenty or so volunteers came from across Europe, with a smattering of South Africans and Australians. Some Kibbutzes would not accept German speaking volunteers as they did not wish to hear German spoken, and so, they were over represented at Sde Boker. In similar vein, I felt that some Germans had their own reasons for working on Kibbutzes. A joke I made about the Pope blessing the SS didn’t go down to well. Be that as it may, the young Germans were polite, friendly, well educated and capable people, some of whom I would travel with in later years.
There were many British people in kibbutzes and the common language on Sde Boker was English, the Germans having a better grasp of the grammar than the native speakers. The English volunteers were at first a bit reticent towards us rough voiced Scots with our short vowel sounds and glottal stops but we soon banded together once they had become accustomed to our accents. The uncommon good looks of my travelling companion were no doubt an icebreaker also.
Kibbutzniks work a nine hour day six days a week, resting on Shabat, which is from Friday sunset till Saturday sunset, and there was a variety of jobs on offer. Working in the fields was guaranteed to help with your tan, or turn a Scot into a prune, so I volunteered for dishwashing duties, which didn’t involve getting up so early. The field workers were up by five thirty as there was a long break during the heat of the day. My duties involved operating a large industrial dishwasher with a conveyor belt and scalding hot water. Diners would load the trays with their dishes and we would keep the dishwasher running and clean the machine at the end of the shift. Happily there were hoses which we, on the second floor kitchen, could aim at passers by through the windows. Another activity I seem to remember involved cutting blocks of frozen meat on an unguarded band saw. Health and safety would have had a fit.
The desert was a birdwatchers paradise, from the bizarre Hoopoes which strutted on the lawns, to the Egyptian Vultures lined up along the roof of the chicken house waiting for one of the chickens to ‘escape’ into the desert. They usually got about ten feet. The large, hot, smelly sheds which housed several thousand chickens each, were not the most popular workplaces, and chickens not the most beguiling creatures. The cage reared birds were quite brainless. They would peck at any wound, including their own, to the point of actually eating themselves. I doubt this is normal behaviour. Each morning we would search through the chickens, removing the dead or dying.
A certain, well endowed German girl was frequently assigned to work in the chicken houses and the reason became clear when I did a few shifts myself. Hygiene required that workers shower and change clothing before entering the houses and the facilities were unisex. I doubt she ever realised that her nickname amongst the male chicken house workers was ‘boing boing’.
The kibbutz was unusual in that it had bought, and was in the process of paying for, a Sellotape factory purchased from Italy. I worked the night shift, taking the massive rolls off the glueing machine with a forklift, placing them on a cutting machine and operating the machine, the blades of which had been set up by the day shift worker. The blades were set according to the size of sellotape required and my work was supervised by a friendly chap on the neighbouring machine. One night I found a praying mantis sitting on the machine, trying to blend in to a pile of flat packed boxes. This was preferable to finding a scorpion, the sting from one could put a healthy man in hospital for a week, and occasionally did.
There were orchards of Pistachio trees, which the volunteers would race tractors through, until one day a tractor came racing out of the orchard and knocked a car clean off the road. When the picking season came, the Kibbutz hired a man with a tree shaking machine which looked like something out of a Mad Max film. He drove what looked like a beach buggy with an arm and pincer at the front. He would grasp the trunk of the tree and shake it so the pistachios would fall onto the mats we had placed below. The trick was not to kill the tree, so this was a specialised job. We boiled some of the nuts in kettles filled with salted water, then dried them on the roof of our house.
Work aside, recreation was the main concern of the volunteers, mostly getting off with each other, though alcohol was another consideration. Bottles of locally produced Vodka and an aniseed based spirit known as Arak, cost about two pound a bottle and was often mixed with sugar and lemons. A novel recipe was to cut a small round hole in the top of a watermelon, upending a bottle of vodka into the hole, then allowing the vodka to soak into the watermelon before eating. There were frequent barbecues and sing songs round the campfire, me playing guitar and singing Neil Young songs. There were frequent barbecues as escaped chickens could not be reintroduced to the houses due to the risk of infection, instead becoming guests of honour at the barbecues. Two of the girls were nurses and didn’t mind despatching the chickens. An underground bomb shelter was used as the volunteers’ bar and the sound of partying didn’t penetrate the thick walls. I remember a fight between several drunken people being broken up by an Israeli suddenly appearing with a gun and threatening to put a bullet in the leg of the next person to throw a punch.
Through my love of nature, I became friendly with a kibbutznik named Hafgad who knew everything about the desert and the Bedoin people who lived there. He took me to see the rare Sooty Falcon and Griffon Vultures as well as the Ibex antelopes and Guinea pig like Hyraxes which lived on the desert cliffs. There were leopards and porcupines, which we never saw, though you could pick up the quills they dropped during the night. Sometimes in the desert, you could see small walls a few inches high. These channelled water from the infrequent rainfall into large caverns which held water for years after wards. These channels, which can still be found all over the desert, were created by the Naboteans, and the water from these chambers is still used to irrigate the desert. The Naboteans also built the city of
Petra in Jordan
which is not so far, but it was not possible to go there with an Israeli stamp
on your passport.
At the end of each month, the volunteers would be taken on a sightseeing trip, on one memorable occasion to the Greek orthodox Monastery of St George of Koziba deep in Wadi Kelt, a steep ravine in the desert. It was here that the prophet Elijah had allegedly stayed in a cave and been fed by ravens. The Monastery was founded by hermits, who imitated Elijah by living in caves. Hermits have subsequently sought the isolation of this remote region for centuries since. To my surprise there were cells, high up on the cliff, where hermits still spend the rest of their lives contemplating god. After years of cramped living, their limbs would atrophy to the point where they became unable to ever leave, provisions being lowered in a basket to the hermits by monks. I remember being impressed with the depth of their commitment and strength of will though years later when I retold this story to my partner Karen I was surprised at her reaction. She felt that to cut yourself off from humanity denied the opportunities presented by the gift of life and could be seen as a waste. On another trip we were taken to Masada the hilltop fortification where Jewish zealots had resisted Rome for two years before a massive ramp built by the besieging Romans allowed them to scale the fortifications, where, they discovered, the defenders had all committed suicide. From the summit of Masada there were clear views across the Jordan to the hills beyond. A black crow like bird known as Tristrams’ Grackle is found on the clifftops surrounding
where it is quite common, though nowadays found nowhere else. Masada is near the Dead Sea and the oily
water was so thick with salt that you couldn’t let the water get in your
eyes. It is impossible to really swim,
as you can only bob like a cork, floating on your back as if sitting in a
rubber ring. The beach had fresh water showers, as you had to wash the salt off
before it preserved you like a ham.
Myself and another volunteer decided to go on a short tour of the north, visiting Kyriat Shimona near the Lebanese border, where we could stay with a friends’ family. The family had to speak several languages at the dinner table as the three generations did not share a common language. While the grandparents spoke French and Arabic, English and Hebrew were also needed so that everyone could communicate. Norwegian peacekeepers we met there, on leave from patrolling the border, told me that the locals tended to attack only the French peacekeepers, apparently a grudge from colonial days. From here it was up to the ancient town of Safet with its famous artists colony in the old town. Many of these artists were older people, some bearing tattoos from the concentration camps. These echoes of the past are found throughout Israel and one cannot but sympathise with what befell the Jewish people. However, while researching Safet on the internet, I came across a Palestinian website listing all the houses which had been taken from their rightful owners after the war and in the following years. I tend to agree with those who feel that Palestine is the root cause of all the problems in this area.
To save money, I camped in the Pine forest which surrounds Safet. The discarded pine needles made for a comfortable bed which turned out to be full of biting insects, one night was enough so the next day we headed off to Akko. Akko is one of those maze-like old towns which would draw invaders into its narrow winding streets where they could be picked off by the rooftop defenders, a tactic famously shown in the film “The Battle of Algiers”.
At the end of each month, we got an extra day off and would take the bus to Jerusalem. The Old City is a crowded multi ethnic mish mash of commerce and faith, from the church of the Holy Sepulchre with its various tombs of Jesus depending on your religion, to the Via Dolorosa and the various quarters, Christian, Armenian, Jewish etc.
Ultra Orthodox Jews live in an area of
Jerusalem known as the Mea Shearim where
visitors are not really welcome and the faithful will avert their gaze from the
Gentiles or Goyim as they are known in Hebrew.
Orthodox Jews will not speak Hebrew outside of the Synagogue, as they
regard it as the language of god, instead speaking the mixture of Russian,
German and Hebrew they call Yiddish.
Moneychangers would give you better rates than the bank and if they spoke
Yiddish you could guarantee they would not cheat you as there religion forbade
it. Every seven years, the orthodox are
forbidden from eating anything grown in Israel as the torah states the land
should lie fallow. As the modern state
of Israel does not conform to the borders laid down in the Torah, the orthodox
would buy their provisions from the south of the country, which they did not
regard as part of Israel.
Visitors to Israel are all confronted with the past, nowhere more so than at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum. Being a tender soul, I elected to skip that experience, instead visiting the museum of the Diaspora, a much more celebratory experience. The list of famous Jewish people is indeed impressive, Karl Marx, Einstein and of course Jesus, to name a few.
I met a girl from Berlin with whom I would later travel to India after hearing stories from seasoned travellers and resolving to become a ‘traveller’ myself. In those days that meant adopting the Lonely Planet travel guides as a sort of religion, following the prescribed routes like pilgrims. As it happened, my girlfriend went back to Berlin and so, to get some money, my friend and I decided to move to a Moshav in the Arava valley. A Moshav is a sort of semi privatised kibbutz where farmers own their own fields, with each contributing a portion of their time to communal endeavours which pay for the infrastructure.
Moshav Tsofar is south of the Dead Sea, on the road to Eilat and Sinai. The summer was over by late October, though the heat was still fierce and the work on Moshavs’ was mostly in the fields, growing melons, aubergines and tomatoes.
Myself and two others Scots were assigned to a farmer named Peke and worked in his fields for about a hundred dollars a month. The Arava is the valley which Borders Jordan and the fields ran right up to the double fence line which separated the two countries. Between the fences was a strip of sand about eight feet wide which was combed by the army every day so that anyone crossing would disturb the sand. There was a Massey Ferguson tractor and trailer which we used to pick the crops when the time came. Peke asked me if I could drive and when I said no, he pointed at the tractor saying “there’s the tractor, there’s the desert, learn to drive”, and he threw me the keys. Soon I was trundling along the road that led to the fields, admittedly there wasn’t much to crash into, although I did manage to jack knife the trailer into Pekes’ back garden on one occasion.
Peke was busy making the desert bloom the Israeli way. First we cleared all the stones from a piece of ground before Peke ploughed, then steam injected cyanide into the tilled soil, sterilising it, then allowing the poison gas to evaporate away. Next, irrigation hoses were layed in rows and the tractor would lay a skin of plastic over the ground. After cutting holes in the plastic where we would plant the seed, we placed metal hoops in the ground and the tractor would lay a row of plastic over the top creating a cloche. The hoses were attached to large barrels filled with water and bags of fertiliser, effectively outdoor hydroponics.
I had my first view of Bee-eaters working in the fields as they flew low above the crops like psychedelic swallows. In the distance Sandgrouse could be seen searching the desert sand for seeds and sometimes a Bedouin camel caravan would wend its way along the edge of the fields. Deserts are cold at night as there is nothing to keep in the heat, and we wore jumpers in the morning until it warmed up. By ten o’clock it was tee shirt weather, though the Israelis were sill wearing thick jackets and I would tan like a Walnut while working in the fields. One afternoon there was a shout from a neighbouring field and in the distance a small plane could be seen lining up for a low pass, it was the crop duster. We ran out of the field, and the following day the ground was littered with dead birds, Wagtails, Pipits and even Partridges. The farmers grew large Galia melons and our three man team would pick several tonnes a day as they ripened. In the fading light at the end of the day, you could see the lights from the other tractors slowly making there way across the desert towards the packing houses on the outskirts of the Moshav. We ate as many melons as we could, though it has to be said that melons are quite limited when it comes to recipes. The other plentiful food was the date. The Moshav owned a date orchard on a communal basis, everyone taking turns to tend the crop. The date palm protects its fruits with vicious, downward pointing spikes six or so inches long which could go right through the unwary hand and despiking the palms was one of the tasks. Dates are another crop with a limited repertoire, although we boiled them to make a paste which could be spread on bread, sometimes adding desiccated coconut for a change. A Peregrine would sometimes circle the orchard, flying low in the evening light looking for sparrows.
My first New Year abroad was spent in the now empty packaging shed, the fruit we had picked was long gone. Rows of fridges were filled with beer and the sixty or so volunteers partied the night away. During the night, three English lads broke into the office and stole some money and several passports. One of their number had also ransacked our accommodation and I lost several months wages. They were later picked up in a court room in Tel Aviv where they were watching one of their pals getting deported. They admitted selling the passports and got beat up for their troubles before being kicked out of the country. At one point British volunteers had been banned because of problems with violence and petty crime, but because so many volunteers were British they were soon readmitted.
Most volunteers would take a trip to Egypt at some point during their stay in Israel and I was no exception. There were many girls volunteering in Israel and they would not travel to Egypt without a male companion. I ended up going there with three girls, none of whom I was going out with and one of whom I didn’t even get on with. To be fair, they did open a few doors.
We took a bus from Jerusalem to Cairo, driving down the highway to Eilat, then down through the Sinai desert. Sinai was where the Jews famously got lost and is still a vast, empty trackless area known only to the local Bedhoin people. The Israelis built a road down its east coast, following their occupation, and it was this road which took us to the chaos that is Cairo. Looking down from our hotel room window, the mix of cars, buses, bicycles, donkeys, carts and camels filling the street outside, was the first of many wonderous sights that awaited us. Learning the numbers from one to ten (wahad to ashra)’ allowed us to visit the markets with some idea of the prices and how to haggle. Next morning, we hired a guide to take us round the sights, first stop being the pyramids, and big triangles they certainly are. The Pyramids sit just on the edge of town rather than in the desert as I had imagined, which was somewhat disconcerting, rather as if Stonehenge was on a roundabout in
Birmingham. The highlight for me, rather than the quick
horseback ride round the pyramid, was the Son et Lumiere (sound and light show)
played in the evening and narrated by Richard Burton, with the Pyramids as a
backdrop to the light show. Apart from
the Sphinx, which looks just like it does on telly, the most interesting piece
of archaeology in the area is an underground complex next to the old step
pyramid in nearby Saqqara. A series of
underground passageways with rooms leading off, contain the sarcophagi of
twenty or so sacred bulls. These coffins
were carved from a single piece of stone, weighing up to 70 tons each. Apparently, when these catacombs were first
discovered, the footprints of the last priests could still be seen in the
dust. Egypt is full of incredible
artefacts, it’s easy to forget how remarkable they are, because of their sheer
quantity. There are loads of tombs,
Temples and pyramids throughout the country, most, happily along the banks of
the Nile, and, more importantly, the railway. You can travel down the Nile by
boat, but its not cheap, and you don’t see the country the way you would if you
travelled overland. A trip to the
Egyptian museum is a must when in Cairo, the gold of Tutankhamun is
breathtaking, as is the sophistication of the ancient civilisation which
produced it. To see board games, items
of furniture and even batteries was a real education, and all pretty stylish
While we didn’t get a chance to see the famous Mosque,
wasn’t finished with us yet. During our stay, we were invited to several
weddings, which I for one thoroughly enjoyed.
It is considered good fortune to have travellers from a distant land at
your wedding and it would seem that having a trio of young European women is
considered particularly fortunate. I was
separated from the girls, as was the custom, and taken to a tent where the
tables groaned under the weight of the food.
After a few enjoyable hours I met up with the girls to find them
somewhat underwhelmed by their experience of the all male wedding
festivities. Apparently they had
suffered a fair degree of unwanted attention at the hands of our hosts
(literally). The Egyptian view of
European women seemed to be largely based on Hollywood movies, the female lead
invariably ending up in bed with…..whoever else was around. Given that their own women were ‘forbidden’,
some men were understandably keen to establish ‘relations’ with Europe. Also, my own, somewhat slight, frame was not one
which the locals felt sufficient to satisfy numerous wives, so on several
occasions I was given the opportunity to relieve myself of the burden of too
many wives. I couldn’t help thinking
that any culture which banned women, deserved all of the ensuing frustration.
Once we had our fill of the obligatory culture, we boarded the train and headed south. I’m told that nowadays armed guards accompany tourists but in the eighties it was much more relaxed and militant Islamism did not affect us in the slightest. Our first stop was Luxor, home to the Valley of the Kings and Karnak. The various tombs of
kings are richly adorned with hieroglyphics though the treasures are long
gone. Once you’ve seen one room with
Heiroglyphic wallpaper, you’ve seen them all, nice enough though. Karnak is a much more awe inspiring
sight. The hundred and thirty odd,
massive pillars, ten metres tall by three metres wide, and the surrounding structures,
make the Temple of Karnak one of the wonders of the world. My researches on the internet reveal that
the site is also the largest ancient religious structure in the world
The railway ends at Aswan, the last major town in Egypt before the Sudanese border which lies on the far side of lake Nasser. As well as the jumping off point for a trip to Abu Simbel, it is also the location of Elephant Island. Eric Von Daniken famously wrote that the island was the shape of an Elephant when viewed from space. When viewed on a map, it is roughly triangular, unlike most elephants. It is actually the site of an old ivory trading market, and today home to Nuba people. The Nuba straddle southern Egypt and Northern Sudan and are African rather than North African people.
We became friendly with a local named Mohammed who lived in a village on the far side of the Nile and made his living sailing tourists up and down the river on one of the many boats, known as Fellucahs. I was later to discover his friendliness was partly down to the fact that he managed to bed one of the girls. One afternoon, he invited me and a Swiss lad we had met the day before, to his home. The three of us took a boat across the river where Mohammed said we would need a taxi to reach the village, a few miles into the desert. The Desert starts about a hundred yards from the Nile on each side and we drove a good few miles along dirt tracks which looked much the same as the rest of the scenery. Arriving in the village, we realised that we were way off the tourist route, no roads, no infrastructure, just mud brick walls. Arriving at Mohammeds we were led into a room; the women in his family bringing food, which they left just outside the door. As we ate, more and more people arrived, all men, and joined us, chatting away as they ate. As darkness fell, our host and the taxi driver began an animated conversation before suddenly leaving without explanation. People began to leave and as the last two men were leaving, they signalled for us to follow and, somewhat reluctantly, we followed them into the empty black night. Apparently a man had died in hospital in Aswan and our taxi had gone to pick up his widow. On the way back, the taxi had become stuck in the sand. Our hosts were indicating that we should follow them out into the desert to help dig out the taxi. My Swiss friend and I weighed up our options, only to discover we didn’t have any. With some trepidation we walked the length of the villages’, only street, (not to mention only streetlight) and into the night. Happily, within a hundred yards we came across a taxi stuck in the sand, with the black clad widow sitting in the back. We jumped into the taxi and sped off into the night, the radio blasting out happy, Arabic pop. As we passed through a brightly lit village, the driver suddenly pulled up to a house and our fellow passengers, minus the widow, got out and began to party. It was a wedding. Before long we were back heading towards Aswan, arriving at the river, where our new friends wished us well and headed off to where ever they were going. Mohammed invited us on a trip up river to the camel market at Daraw, near Kom Ombo, a days’ travel up river. This involved two nights on board his fellucah, where he reaped the benefits of his labours and bedded the youngest of my travelling companions. I got a free trip up the Nile, passing the Temples at Philae and Edfu, so I suppose everyone was happy.
The Camel market was a noisy, dusty affair, where tribes people from throughout the region came to barter and exchange gossip. Mohammed pointed out some Beja tribesman, desert nomads who came to trade with the local Nubians and Egyptians. They wax their hair into ringlets and practice the Sufi form of Islam, although their religious practices go back as far as the Pharoahs. Mohammed told us that until recently the Beja had been guarding ancient Roman silver mines out in the desert. The Beja and their camels still carry spices throughout the Sahara, in regions where even the Egyptian Army are loathe to go. The heat and sand reek havoc on man and machine alike.
Before heading back towards Israel, we hired a taxi to take us south to Abu Simbel, another of the massive temples built by Ramases the second. Throughout Egypt, the three pharaohs known as Ramases the first, second and finally Ramases the Great, built memorials to their own megalomania, and are no doubt revered to this day by the Egyptian Tourist Board. It’s a four hour taxi ride through the desert, some two hundred miles, a flat featureless landscape, rippled like the beach.
Two brothers drove the long, straight road from Aswan to Abu Simbel, the monotony had led them to play a somewhat foolhardy game of ‘tag’, constantly overtaking and braking in front of each other. Once in front, the driver would throw water from his bottle onto the windscreen of his brothers’ car. After our driver had run out of water, we stopped, and he drained some water from the windscreen washer bottle so he could throw it at his brother. As we looked around, the landscape was flat in every direction and the curve of the earth could be seen. I had the impression we were standing on top of a ball, a sensation I have never experienced since. A camels’ head and neck were sticking out of the sand, perfectly preserved in the desiccating atmosphere
During the construction of the Aswan Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser, the Temple of Abu Simbel was moved, to avoid the flooding. The Temple had been aligned so that twice a year, the morning sun shines on the four statues at the very back of the Temple and this has been retained on its new site. The Temple reminded me of some huge film set, for the simple reason that it was so unbelievable, the massive seated statues dwarf the entrance, all cut straight into the living rock. It certainly doesn’t look like it has ever been moved. If you want to see an impressive ancient temple, then this is straight out of Indiana Jones, even more than Petra (which does actually feature in an Indiana Jones movie). All in all, well worth the four hundred mile round trip.
Aswan is the most laid back of the Egyptian tourist destinations and we spent a week there, before taking the train back to Cairo followed by a bus to Dahab, in Sinai.
Aside from being a great place to get lost, Sinai offers the chance to experience the coral lined waters of the Red Sea. After renting one of the thatched huts along the beach from the young Bedhoin men who roamed the sanddunes on their mopeds, we spent a few days snorkelling amongst the tropical fish and coral reefs. The continental shelf sloped away from the warm, shallow waters after some fifty feet and I remember a large looming shadow, out in the deep waters, making me swim rather swiftly towards the shore.
At the head of the Red Sea lie both the Israeli resort of Eilat, and the Jordanian resort of Aqaba, the two being separated by a wire fence. The border is just to the south, in Taba. At the border checkpoint, we were interviewed by several Israeli soldiers. As they were searching through our luggage, one of the younger soldiers pulled a tampon from a girls’ bag and asked her what it was. The soldiers presumably more experienced colleague whispered into his ear and he, somewhat shamefacedly, told us to be on our way.
It was February, and twenty odd degrees when I flew out from sunny Tel Aviv. It was still February when I landed in frosty Munich, and remained so for the rest of the month. I was on my way to stay with the girl I had met in Israel, together we planned to go to India. I had two notable experiences during the several hours I waited for the train to Berlin. The first was to get conned by a reasonably attractive women in a bar. I had wandered into a bar, near the train station, to hide from the cold. Buying a drink, at her request, she ordered a glass of champagne, for which I was charged twenty quid. After refusing her request for a refill, I discovered she worked behind the bar.
The other notable experience was as I waited in the train station. I got talking with a youngish German, keen to enlighten me on the truth about the races, in particular the Jews. He told me how Jews had subverted classical music with Pop music, Capitalism with Communism, killed Christ, and generally undermined Arian culture. He was a pianist, and spoke good English and French. I was later told he would have been arrested had I told the police of his activities.
I spent two months living in the centre of what was then West Berlin, a relic from the war, surrounded by communist East Germany. Sometimes the underground trains would pass through one of the long abandoned stations which once connected the west to what was now East Berlin. Looking like a film set, the station was exactly as it had been when the city was divided, except for the thick layer of dust. The other oddity about Berlin was the Wall and I passed through Check point Charlie on my one day visit to East Berlin. It was compulsory to change twenty five marks into East German marks when entering from West Berlin, though there was nothing to buy on the other side. East Berlin was a bullet ridden reminder of the war, there were buildings standing which should have been long gone, and meagre shops where everything was wrapped in grease proof paper. It was as if the East was stuck in a post war austerity while the West had moved on.
Back in the West, we were sitting in a café on the trendy Kurfustendamstrasse, when an arty looking middle aged man in drag, entered the café with a flourish and regaled us with what could have been Bertol Brecht songs, this was the Berlin of radical theatre and politics. At the time, Berlin was a particularly youthful, rebellious city as residents were pardoned military service, and so, young people from all over Germany came to live there. Militant squatters and anarchists occupied old buildings, demonstrating against capitalism. A small demonstration of less than a hundred people, banners waving, was arrested, to a man, by the Police, one sunny afternoon. The entire demo packed into vans, a few minutes after the Police had arrived, German efficiency in action.
My stay in Berlin taught me that German is a language with very long words and that you can fry Camembert, but was otherwise uneventful, I tried to learn the language by watching television and failed, but at least it kept me out of the cold.
I managed to lose my passport a few days before we were due to leave for Britain, having to apply for a three day pass to get me to Harwich from the Hook of Holland. Arriving on the ferry at Harwich, the lack of a passport led to myself and two Brazilians being kept behind at customs until the connecting train had departed.
We spent the summer with my parents in
Edinburgh, with me working
for with the council to save money for our next trip, India.
A few days before we left for Mumbai, which was then called Bombay, my girl friend told me that she was only staying with me because she wanted to go to India. Not the most auspicious of starts, but off we went none the less.
The cleaners in Bombay Airport wore overalls emblazoned with the words ‘No Tipping’ across their backs. Once on the bus to Connaught Place we stared at the lines of cardboard, waist high shacks which lined both sides of the road for mile after mile along nearly the whole route. We were in India!
The Lonely Planet guide advised Europeans to stay in the area around the famous Gateway of India and it was here we saw the peculiar poverty of India for the first time. Polio and Leprosy had twisted limbs into the most grotesque shapes, lepers on skateboards would whizz along the road beside you, their fingerless limbs stretched upwards in the hope of receiving alms. A young man, legs bent by Polio, was obliged to walk on all fours, the tin can round his neck, a grotesque parody of a cow bell. A limbless man like a sausage with a head, lay in the gutter, his neck craned upwards, until at the end of the day, he was loaded onto the back of a cart with other unfortunates and taken away for the evening. As the sun set, the street vendors would pack up their stalls and smoke Heroin, before settling down for the night on the unforgiving paving slabs. Later, I would hear of people arriving in India only to take the next plane home, which was understandable. However, it is surprising how quickly one adjusts and it would not be long before we became used to such sights. Happily, once you are away from the main tourist areas, the sight of such distressed people is less common.
Having found accommodation, food was the next priority. In India, everything is hot, the weather, the food, even the fruit salad. A local coffee house offered omelettes for breakfast, what could go wrong? What I took to be green beans generously applied to my omelette, was, in fact, the scourge of the hungry westerner, the Chilli. Thank God (or, when in India, Gods) for yoghurt. Food would continue to be problematic throughout my travels in India, that and finding drinking water on my limited budget. Generally, I would eat in the little eateries lining the main streets, a varied menu being provided by one man and an open fire. Generally this would be a Thali, or plate meal, in which the various parts of the meal would be added to a single plate, or banana leaf cut into a square. The basic ingredients for a plate meal are rice, dahl, chapati and yoghurt, with maybe a bit of vegetable thrown in somewhere. This was eaten with the hand, using the chapatti to soak up the dahl. At the end of the meal you are left with a wet leaf, which biodegrades nicely, and there’s no washing up.
The standard way to travel to Goa was the now defunct Bombay to Panjim ferry. Theoretically one slept on deck arriving refreshed in the morning. In practice, an inebriated local spent the night, alternating between singing and vomiting, sometimes managing both at once. In the morning he appeared fresher than any of those who had constituted his audience and the memory of his nocturnal gargling brings shivers to this day.
Western travellers to India often acclimatise by spending a few weeks in Goa, Portuguese cookery and Christianity having taken the edge off India’s exotic culture, and we would spend a month relaxing with the other young westerners. Anjuna beach was a hippy paradise, cheap accommodation and beach side bars nestling under the coconut Palms. The warm sea off the coast of Goa invites swimming in much the way that the Forth estuary doesn’t. The long shallows and rolling, eight foot surf made for great fun and I discovered the art of body surfing. A miniature version of surfing, this involved using your body as a surf board, coasting along a top a small wave. The trick was to get as far up the beach as you could without scratching your belly on the sand. There was a weekly market, where frazzled, bearded hippies would try to sell their last remaining underwear and local people sold the sort of ethnic handicrafts you often see in Britain.
This was before Ecstasy created the rave scene and there were no all night orgies on the beach. West coast Americans brought LSD and the bars reeked of hashish, which could be bought along with your banana porridge and mango lassi. Another culinary advantage of the Goan coast is the availability of fresh fish, huge tuna steaks and various whole fish cooked in the Goan style.
Every one was friendly and we soon found travel companions for when we became bored with lounging around on the beach. As it happened, this took about a month, after which we began to think about heading off into India proper. Paying heed to the old adage about safety in numbers, half a dozen of us headed off by train to Hampi, and the ruins of the great city of Vijayanagar, some hundred and fifty miles due east on the Deccan plains.
The modern town of Hampi is built around the ancient Shiva Temple of Virupaksha, the origins of which go back to 600AD. The ruined city of Vijayanaga, which surrounds the area, was the capital of a south Indian empire from roughly 1200AD to 1600AD, when it was destroyed by the Islamic sultanate of northern India. We stayed on the flat roof of the local post office and dined at the restaurant of the postmasters’ sister, a deaf mute. She communicated via her own unique sign language and could talk to the young western tourists no matter what their native tongue. As we sat on our rooftop, looking at the massive brick built towers that marked the entrance to the temple, strange, unworldly music came from speakers in the tops of the tower and long limbed Langur monkeys would bound across the roof looking for food. This was the real
India, where painted elephants and processions
of supplicants and holy men came to and from the Temple and the concerns of the outside world
seemed far away. The flat plains are in place piled high with massive boulders,
the remnants of ancient glacial action and these were used to create seven
concentric walls, which fortified the ancient capital. Legend has it that when Lord Hanuman, the
monkey god was passing the area, on his way to creating Sri Lanka, he
dropped the boulders in the heaps you see today. In the thirteenth century, when western
explorers visited, over a million men defended these walls and the treasures
which lay within. The landscape is quite
surreal, with massive, rounded boulders sitting on top of the flat ground.
The Vijayanaga empire ruled over the southern part of
sometimes known as Peninsular India. The
Islamic Mogul Empire which invaded India in the mid 1500’s was unable to
conquer South India and the region is notably different from the predominantly
Hindi speaking north. The various states
tend to have their own distinct languages, Tamil, Teluga, Malayalam and
Kannada, being the major languages of the south collectively known as the
Dravidian languages. There are also many
different scripts, Malayalam to me, looks like rows of baby elephants. Suffice to say that they all have some
connection to the ancient Sanskrit language, a script which goes back to 1500
BCE (before the Christian era).
Currently, there are twenty-nine languages having more than a million
speakers living in India, with several hundred others spoken by a hundred
thousand or so. Although Hindi is the
official language, English is widely adopted as a second language, as the
Dravidian cultures feared being swamped by the northern culture. The bonus here is that for British
travellers, English is more common than you might think.
The Western Ghats are a chain of mountains which run down the spine the spine of India and we would cross them on our way to the coast. It took several hours to climb the eight thousand feet to the old British hill station of Ootacamund, or Ooty, as it is known. The steep, winding road with its hair pin bends and frequent land slides, offers spectacular views of the surrounding forest, which, according to the brochures are stuffed with elephants and tigers, neither of which were waiting for a lift. The British had lived here, administrating the Empire in the cool mountain air, safe from the oppressive heat of the plains below. Ooty was all cricket and cucumber sandwiches served by immaculate waiters, not so much Ooty as Snooty.
According to our copy of Lonely Planet, a backwater trip from Alleppy to Quilon, in the Southern state of Kerala, was next on the itinerary, so off we went.At first, our small boat sailed through the narrow canals rather like a taxi, stopping at the occasional dwelling to pick up or drop off. However, as our six hour journey progressed, the waters opened up to a wide milky river and we passed other flat bottom sail boats carrying rice up and down, a scene unchanged for centuries.
From Quilon we headed to the coastal town of
famous for its Chinese inspired fishing nets strung out along the shoreline. We
headed for Trivundrum, the capital of Kerala, which nestles in a valley
surrounded by hills. As we sat on the
bus, our rucksacks, being on the roof, were being soaked by the torrential rain
which had been falling for hours.
Arriving at the bus station in the centre of town, we headed off into waist
deep water, the town had flooded. Wading
through the water, in the dark, it appeared that metal railings and gates were
carrying a weak electric charge, a bit like a static shock. We found a hostel half way up the nearest
hill and awoke to find the waters had gone, leaving the town covered in mud, so
we caught the next bus for the coastal resort of Kovalam, resting on the beach
and enjoying delicious meals in the fish restaurants.
We headed back up north via Bangalore, visiting the famous Russel Market. The market is held in a square, surrounded by two story buildings where sharp eyed Black Kites line the ledges, swooping down to scavenge the rich pickings. It is not unknown for them to snatch a treat from the hand of the unsuspecting passer by and, not surprisingly they are regarded as something of a pest. I thought they were brilliant, I could look out of my hotel window and watch them wheeling about on their long, thin wings and forked tails.
On our way up north we also stopped at a Jain Temple for the night, staying in the compound attached to the temple, normally reserved for pilgrims. I had ghardia or dysentery, or both. Exploding from both ends, I was bed ridden and the mosquito bites on my feet, which I had scratched, were infected and painful. As the others went to the temple to watch the festivities, I lay in the dark and vowed never to drink water again. The Jains’ were good enough to let me stay for a couple of days, until I felt able to move on. I admired their militant non-violence, the monks even wearing a strip of cloth across their mouths, lest they accidentally swallow an insect. They only eat fruits and seeds, thereby killing no living creature in order to eat.
Reaching Delhi, we stayed the thriving market area of Janpath, the narrow crowded streets made for quite an intimate feel. In the evenings, European heroin addicts living cheaply in the district would sit in the cafes reading and beg a few rupees out of passing travellers. As cheap as India was, these long time residents could live even cheaper, and heroin was cheap. As fellow travellers would concentrate in the local eateries, we soon hooked up with an Israeli couple and decided to tour Rajastan together.
Rajastan is a desert state, becoming drier as you travel westwards, until it peters out into the Thar Desert. Each off the desert cities has its’ own splendours, money from the opium trade funding the palaces of the wealthy in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, in the way that slavery did in Britain. Rather as in Southern Egypt, the desert presented an obstacle to trade and long camel trains used to carry goods to and from Pakistan. Again, as in Egypt, the camel still reigns supreme. This was also the land where the fierce desert tribes resisted the Mogul invasion from the west. Time after time Rajput warriors would ride out from their fortified towns wearing the orange robes of martyrdom, to face the enemy and die to a man. I wondered if this was where Scots get the word ‘radge’, meaning uncontrolable or unmanageable . I would discover that slang Edinburgh words such as ‘choree’ meaning ‘to steal’ were, in fact Hindi. I don’t know whether this comes from the Romany language, or possibly the British Army. In similar vein, the Hindi word ‘bas’ meaning ‘enough’, as it does in Arabic also, is echoed across Europe in words such as ‘basta’ (Italian), and ‘bastante’, Spanish. Not suprising really, given the ancient nature of Indian society. I had wanted to ride on the roof of the trains while in
India but this had never happened
on the trains I had been on. My wish
came true in spectacular fashion although the roof belonged to a bus rather
than a train. We rattled through the desert
until, as the sun was fading, the golden city of Jaisalmer rose out of the flat
sand. The round turrets which are
interspersed along the city walls make it look like a giant sandcastle from a
distance. We arranged to be driven out
to Couri, where we would stay with tribal villagers and take a short camel trek
into the desert. That night we watched
rats climbing about in the thatch roof of our mud brick dwelling.
We spent two days and one night out in the desert, where I had hoped to see Houbara Bustards, but had to settle for Sandgrouse. It was here that my girlfriend announced that she had spent the night with our tousled headed Israeli companion. I issued the ultimatum that I was leaving for Agra, and the Taj Mahal. As she didn’t appear to be coming with me, I said I would be at the famous bird sanctuary of Bharatpur for a week, after that and she could follow me there, or not as it turned out.
In a way I suppose I predated Princess Dianas’ solo trip to the homage to love that is the Taj Mahal, though I don’t remember sitting on the seat, or being photographed by the worlds press. Everyone knows the famous symmetry of the Taj Mahal, but it is only close up that the visitor realises it is in fact encrusted with semi precious stones, being truly more a work of art, than a building.
Bharatpur was fabulous, truly the twitchers Taj Mahal. In its hey day, it was the local Maharajas’ hunting reserve, a large black monolith, reminiscent of a war memorial, recounted the various famous figures who had visited in order to slaughter the ducks and geese which abounded on the wetlands. Over weekends of blood lust, up to seventy guns would bag literally thousands of birds, sometimes tens of thousands. I’m sure they thought it was a good idea at the time. Like many of these exclusive reserves, it has been preserved as a wilderness and today, is host to a wonderful array of birds and animals. I would spend every day patrolling the paths, notable sightings being a Crested Serpent Eagle sitting in a tree and an antelope known as a Nilgai which burst out of the undergrowth right next to me, and then back into it again. A gang of vultures fought over a carcass by the side of the road and I doubted a stick would have been enough to drive them off. In those days Vultures were plentiful in India but it turns out a worming medicine given to livestock is poisonous to Vultures and today their numbers have plummeted.
The dazzling array of birds was enough to temper my dismay at falling out with my now indisputably ex- girlfriend, but as the week drew to a close I realised that she was not coming, so I headed back to Delhi. Given the size of India and the vast population, the chances of bumping into her again must have been infinitesimal, so you can imagine my surprise when I found her standing in front of me some days later, in Delhi. I was delighted to discover that the Israeli bloke had dumped her and to cap it all, she was in tears because her visa had run out some time before without her realising. So we were back travelling together and our first stop was the German Embassy. We knocked on the door until a suit appeared at the glass panel and made the universal gesture for ‘go away’, before disappearing back into the building. Luckily, girlfriends’ Dad was treasurer of the Berlin Lions Club and, after a phone call, we were furnished with a letter to give to the authorities and a new visa was issued.
It was time to head east, Calcutta was too far away, and I didn’t want to fall into its famous hole, so we settled for Varanasi, Shivas’ city on the Ganges. I’ve always had a penchant for Shiva, the coolest of the Hindi gods, not least because of his proclivity for ganga, so a trip to his city seemed worthwhile. To be cremated at the banks of the Ganges and have your ashes mixed with is water is the quickest way to break the cycle of reincarnation and it’s big business. The shrouded bodies of the dead are burnt on the pyres of the burning ghats, before joining the sail boats and bathers in the milky water. Apparently, it’s healthy to drink the Ganges water, though I suspect that depends on how you define ‘healthy’. It’s a cultural city, where classical Indian music is taught and scholars debate the finer points of the Vedas. It was Holi, or Divali, or some such festival, of which there are many, and massive, brightly coloured floats, known as Juggernauts, were paraded through the streets at night. On one of the floats was a generator providing electricity to the neon tube lights which women were balancing vertically on their heads as they walked, illuminating the brass bands and brightly decorated statues.
There was time for one more trip before our flight back to the UK and we headed north to Himachal Pradesh, travelling up the Kulu valley to Manali, gateway to the Himalayas, the gateway being blocked with snow during the winter. We passed through Chandrigargh on the way, a new town built by Corbusier along geometric lines and quite unlike the India we had come to know. Manali is high up in the hills, surrounded by Pine trees and quite Alpine in aspect. There are many Tibetans living here and on one occasion we were smuggled into a back room for what turned out to be a meal of illicit goat meat, apparently they were meant to be vegetarian in public. Walking in the woods outside of town, the foothills of the
Himalayas were like
a white wall in the distance, I had no desire to head further north as it was
fairly warm where we were.
After four months of intermittent diahorrea, heat stroke and endless train journeys, I had lost far too much weight and was quite happy to head back home to
Scotland. A last train ride to Bombay, and we were on
our way home. Arriving in Heathrow we
put our aged, bulging rucksacks onto a trolley and together had just enough
strength to push it along the endless corridors. As we passed through customs, a guard stopped
us and asked us where we had come from and how long we had been away. When we replied four months in India, I think
he could tell by our emaciated frames and the struggle we were having with our
bags that we were not millionaire drug lords and he kindly waved us through.
While in Israel, my travelling companion had met, and would later marry, an Australian girl. As we were both under twenty five, we qualified for an Australian work visa and I headed off to join them in Melbourne, his girlfriend’s home town. My one way ticket from London as far as Delhi was with Aeroflot, the old Russian airline, stopping off to refuel in Moscow and Tashkent. The Russian version of Coca Cola was brown but otherwise bore little resemblance to that liquid symbol of free market sugariness. The Russian version of airline food was similarly unorthodox, as was the condensation which dripped from the ceiling of the plane. Happily we changed to Garuda, the Indonesian airline named after a mythical flying beast in Hindu culture. With a dragon painted on the fuselage and delicate women serving delicate food, Garuda took me to South East Asia.
We stopped in Singapore and I had three days to buy a walkman with extension speakers and look at the skyscrapers (yawn). As I sat alone in the vast hotel dining room, a young woman came in, sat down with a coffee and annoyed the hell out of me by repetitively tapping her spoon against the side of the cup as if she was ringing a bell. After ten or so minutes she rose and left, after a further ten years or so, it occurred to me that she might have been a prostitute.
We landed at Denpasser in Bali, the rich smell of Frangipani trees filled the air and I headed for the beach at Kuta. Although it’s a long way from Edinburgh, Bali is in Australias’ back yard and Kuta is a favourite resort. A little like Goa, it’s a good place to get acclimatise, and I needed too. The oppressive heat and high humidity sapped the life from me, it was all I could do to eat a banana smoothie before feeling uncomfortably full. The tropical resort is Australias Span, and seems to me to have been a pointless place to bomb, but then, you can travel in a country without becoming aware of the politics.
The Balinese are a delicate, gentle people, languorous young men growing their finger nails long to signify that they did not work with their hands, being of some noble lineage which meant that women did all the work. I was surprised to discover that Bali is a favourite destination of western women looking for sun, sea and sex with one of these doe-eyed toy boys. Fortunately this turned out to be culturally sensitive as it meant that they didn’t have to work with their hands.
Bali is a smallish island of steeply terraced rice fields and thick Jungle. Unlike the Moslem Javanese, the Balinese are Hindu and the island is littered with Temples as they are deeply religious and there are constant processions. First thing in the morning, people leave offerings of food on the ground for the gods. Unfortunately, the offerings are promptly eaten by dogs, who the Balinese therefore believe are cursed. The government had put up posters encouraging people not to fall into trances or become possessed during religious ceremonies, as this was apparently a fairly regular occurrence.
At night the strange but gentle sound of Balinese Gamelan orchestras drifted through the darkness. Gamelan is a form of music played on a series of large gongs, one person per gong, and is classical in style, each region having its own variety, orchestras often accompany the shadow puppet theatres which are the Balinese form of television.
I fell in with a couple of Australian brothers and we decided to travel to Java together. Grant lives in Tasmania, a large, Jimmy Hendrix loving man who, at the time wore wooden beads tied into the ringlets on his beard and a riot of reddish hair. In contrast, Indonesians are rather lacking in body hair, except for their mythical demons, and where ever we went, women would point at Grant and laugh amongst themselves, though some of the children gave him a more apprehensive look.
It’s no distance on the ferry between Bali and Java and we were soon heading for Baluran National Park in the north east of Java. A colonial style hunting lodge provided accommodation, a walkway ran along the upper floor of the wooden building and you could look out over the canopy of the scrubby forest around us. Malaysian Peacocks are quite different from their Indian cousins and in the evening, a dozen or so would roost in a neighbouring tree, their long tails hanging down like oversize fruit. A mother boar brought her three little piglets into the compound just before dusk, to root around, looking for scraps.
Walking in the forest I saw the massive Southern Pied Hornbill and the Coucal, a sort of cross between a pheasant and a crow. Coming across a pig trail, I ducked under the foliage and began to follow the path, which led like a tunnel through the forest. Suddenly twenty or so metres down the trail there stood a male boar, much bigger than the female we saw at the lodge, and sporting tusks. I quickly backed down the trail without turning round and thankfully the boar watched my retreat without moving.
|medieval bathing tank, Bali.|
The following night was a full moon and we headed down to a seaside inlet just before dark. As the light failed, the trees took on a triffid like appearance and the wonderful equatorial sunset filled half the sky. A buzzard sized fruit bat crossed the sky above us, flying along the coast towards its evening feeding grounds, looking for all the world like the last dinosaur. A second bat appeared, then a third. Hundreds of fruit bats, with their slow deliberate flight, were heading out to feed on some distant fruit trees. On subsequent nights I would see local people flying kites into their path, hoping to bring down on of these cute, furry children of the night. Roasted bat on a stick anyone? Not for me thanks! Later that night, we swam in the warm, oily sea, our movements causing the eerie glow of phosphorescent algae to sparkle in the sea, just like the stars in the sky above. After spending a few days in the forest, we had one last stop before heading back to Bali and the last leg of my flight to Australia.
Although it lies on the equator, the conical peak of Mount Bromo is capped with snow. The Volcano sits at an altitude of eight thousand feet and consists of an active caldera, inside a much larger dormant one. Visitors stay overnight in an alpine lodge near the snow capped summit, where mulled wine is served and it’s all strangely ‘après ski’. We woke before dawn, climbing the outer caldera to catch the sun rise. Once at the top, it’s about a kilometre across the Sea of Sand, before you ascend the inner caldera. Plumes of smoke seep from fissures in the sulphur splashed rock, and the smell of rotten eggs permeates the air. This was my first volcano and the highest altitude I had been at, preferring to do my climbing by bus if possible.
Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, a six level “pyramid” built to form a Mandala when seen from above. The dark rock from which it is built reminded me of some Scottish castle though more graceful in its lines. Each level is carved with freizes but it is the view from the top which make a visit worthwhile. A collection of Buddhas’, some sitting inside bell-like stupas, gaze out across the jungle with a stone like calm and the sight is quite arresting. I had encountered the Balinese form of Hinduism, the Javanese form of Islam, and now caught the faint aroma of Buddhism during my trip to Indonesia. I was discovering the richness of human culture in Indonesia, but my feet would now take me back towards the spiritual values of my own culture. It was time to head off to
make some money.
Arriving in Melbourne, my friends had rented a bungalow complete with white picket fence, in the suburb of Caulfield. The nearby suburb of Moorabin is an Industrial area and after buying a bicycle I soon found a job building industrial fan housings. I was able to save money and as there wasn’t much to do in the evenings, I took another job packing bread. In the cool of the late evenings as I cycled home, Ring tailed Possums teetered on the telephone lines balancing with their tails. The suburbs of Melbourne have been drawn with a ruler, block after block of bungalows in a grid, with a grocers, an off license and a laundry every few blocks. For some reason, the planners don’t seem to have considered the need for any natural land to be retained within the city boundaries, but then this is the New World. Designed with the car in mind, there is no point in walking anywhere, the straight roads run into the distance and then on indefinitely beyond the horizon. There was no local pub, nor indeed a local anything else and my workmates tended to live many miles from me, making socialising difficult. Australians think nothing of driving for hours to get anywhere but for me this was a definite drawback.
The ‘local’ nature reserve for Melbourne is Philip Island, a two hour ride, and home to Australias second biggest tourist attraction, a colony of fairy penguins. A few metres back from the beach, there is a wooden amphitheatre where the public sit and as the sun goes down the penguins pop out the sea and waddle under the stands to get to their burrows. It is an undeniably cute experience and I wasn’t that surprised to hear that penguins have occasionally been smuggled under coats and taken home by, lets face it, idiots. It must have been a great disappointment when the aforementioned idiots discovered that penguins can’t tap dance. My sense of experiencing nature was somewhat tarnished by the seating, commentary and ticket price, but I suppose it counts as a tick.
There are other places to visit in the Melbourne area, such as the spectacular cliffs along the great Ocean Road, or Wilsons’ promontory, but the one that I remember most was a trip to Hanging Rock. The setting for a fictional picnic, hanging Rock is like a mountain, but not a mountain. It is in fact a formation of solidified lava which leaked from a vent in the ground. Rather than flowing, the lava was semi solid and so, piled up into a formation some hundred metres tall, composed of a soft alkaline rock known as Soda trachylite. The action of rainwater as split the formation into towers and rivulets to create a strange, swiss cheese landscape. With access to underground tunnels it, you can see how people might get lost after wandering into a tunnel. At the time I had no idea how this landscape had been formed and it is genuinely spooky.
|Great Ocean Road.|
There are other places to visit in the Melbourne area, such as the spectacular cliffs along the great Ocean Road, or Wilsons’ promontory, but the one that I remember most was a trip to Hanging Rock. The setting for a fictional picnic, hanging Rock is like a mountain, but not a mountain. It is in fact a formation of solidified lava which leaked from a vent in the ground. Rather than flowing, the lava was semi solid and so, piled up into a formation some hundred metres tall, composed of a soft alkaline rock known as Soda trachylite. The action of rainwater as split the formation into towers and rivulets to create a strange, swiss cheese landscape. With access to underground tunnels it, you can see how people might get lost after wandering into a tunnel. At the time I had no idea how this landscape had been formed and it is genuinely spooky.
After a few months of fan building, there was a down turn in orders and as I was only passing through the owners decided I was the best choice to being laid off, and so, one Friday, I got the afternoon off to go round the Industrial estate and look for another job. A few hours later I was employed sorting and packing rubber hoses for the car Industry. It was here, on the production line that I met a few people who would invite me to their homes and I found a social group for the remainder of my time in Australia. In the quiet moments we practiced juggling the hoses, although three has remained my limit till today. Although there are rich and poor Australians, there is little in the way of a class system and this came across in the politics. Every now and then, the government would announce some unpopular decision, usually tax related, and there would be a one day general strike in protest followed by a retraction of the offending proposal. The whole procedure seemed to be conducted without the fractious duality of British politics. With low unemployment and a thriving economy Australia was, and probably remains, ‘the lucky country’, and to my mind this had consequences, rather as the British social security system has consequences. By and large, the easy life has produced a satisfied frame of mind in Australians with little need for political thinking or an interest in world affairs. A political animal such as myself, found this a little dull, I feel that the new world lacks the cultural depth of the old, all that history makes a difference. The upside of this is, of course, that the environment was relatively pristine until recently and this is evident when one ventures out of town.
Through work, I met a young Aussie who was planning to drive from Melbourne, to as far north as he could in one of those Big Australian cars, a V8 charger. His potential travelling partner had called off with a broken leg and he asked me if I wanted to come along, I jumped at the chance.
Heading north, at first it’s all wide flat fields and hours of long straight roads, but eventually you reach Queensland and tropical Australia. Camping in any one of the various national parks, brown possums would join us at the campfire, looking for scraps. They seemed completely tame and you could hand feed them, even though they were wild, nocturnal creatures. They are a delight, all big, round eyes and nimble fingers. In the mornings I would poke my head out of the tent and see the small Eastern Grey Kangaroos grazing on the short grass of the camp site and the noisy, crow like Currawongs examining the trash bins. Parrots have got to be the Australian specialities, from the gaudy, budgie sized Rosellas to the massive, buzzard like, Palm Cockatoos. The pink Cockatoo, known as a Galah, descends in large flocks at waterholes, replacing the Gull inland, and where the land is forested, a multitude of parrots screech through the canopy.
Just to the south of the Queensland capital, Brisbane, is the Gold Coast and the hedonist’s Mecca known as Surfers paradise, where blond, tousled haired surf gods fend off buxom Barbie dolls with their surf boards, makes you sick. Resisting the opportunity to humiliate ourselves on the beach, we settled for standing on a bridge trying to drop ice cubes down the cleavages of the barbies’ passing underneath. Needless to say, a day or so was enough and we continued north to Townsville. A small quaint town, this was my idea of a holiday destination, the youth hostel served tropical banana porridge for breakfast, you could walk round town, and it was mildly tropical. My friend expressed a desire to visit the local Casino, an alien environment to me, so, one evening we headed off with a hundred dollars and a positive mental attitude. Well, he did, I wasn’t going to throw my money away. Happily the drink was free, so, as I got drunk, we both received a lesson in the perils of gambling, he won three hundred dollars. Being a bright guy, my companion didn’t feel the need to return to the Casino so he and his money were able to head off towards our final destination, the Daintree National Park, tropical rainforest. I had vaguely hoped to see a Cassowary, but as they don’t stand about at the side of the road, this didn’t happen. We weren’t kitted out for jungle exploration and I didn’t fancy getting lost and dying so we had to satisfy ourselves with looking over the canopy from the car park. A track led down to a river where I saw a platypus or rather a platypuse’s back, and, as I sat motionless by the bank, an Azure Kingfisher landed right beside me. I managed to get a great photo, at close range, and it was only later I discovered I hadn’t put the spool in the camera properly and consequently didn’t have any photos at all. Heading back to Melbourne after our two week trek, the last leg was an eighteen hour drive from Brisbane, I didn’t know how to drive then so it was all down to him.
Although I stayed in Australia for a year, most of it was spent working and I seem to remember being bored quite a lot. Looking back over letters I sent to my parents at the time, boredom was a bit of a feature. Before leaving, there was one last bit of travelling to be done.
|Great Lake, Tasmania.|
During my stay, I had hooked up with the Tasmanian friend I had met in Bali, to see Neil Young at a stadium and he had invited me over to his home town of Penguin, yes Penguin, the town where the litter bins look like, you guessed, Penguins. A six seater plane took us across the Tasman Sea, where my friend Grant was waiting at the Airport. With my rucksack and guitar, I had not expected him to pick me up in a motorbike and he tore along the shoreline road with its twists and turns, while I tried not to fall off, I could barely walk when we arrived. Tasmania has that small island feel that a European can appreciate, nothing is too far away. Hitch hiking round the island, one of the first things I noticed was the ongoing clash between loggers and “greenies”. A trucker who picked me up, took me to see forest regrowth , showing how quickly the trees return after logging, although I’m sure there was nothing like the diversity of original forest. During my hitch hike, I came across the overland trail, a pass through the centre of the island, running north to south. Not having a primus, I loaded up with cans of creamed rice and headed off for five days, trekking through fantastic scenery of still lakes and rocky hills, staying in the open bothies along the way. Walking the trails, I reflected that my time in
Australia was coming to and end, another
fortnight and I would be off, to spend Christmas in New Zealand as I slowly headed back
to the Northern Hemisphere.
My first impression Of Aukland was how the assortment of buildings along the waterfront seemed to bear no relation to each other, each one seemingly built in isolation. New World architecture and planning, lacks the evolutionary diversity that the passage of history has given the Old World, it was something I was conscious of when I visited one of these modern cities. In the smaller communities, the relaxed pace of life and rural aspect were reminiscent of the British countryside, or rather a British countryside in which it rarely, if ever, snowed.
I headed off to the famous holiday area of the Coromandel Peninsula where I had heard there was work to be had on organic farms. Arriving at a kiwi fruit winery, I discovered they already had enough workers but, flourishing a litre bottle of Johnny Walker whisky, I was allowed to stay the weekend, where the light kiwi fruit wine flowed like water, or whisky. Kiwi fruit, grows on a vine and the fruits hung overhead, being arranged like overgrown grape vines. The Coromandel is a lovely area, green rolling hills and rural living. As it was Christmas, the Pohotacawa trees (Meterosiderus) were in flower, their red flowers and season of flowering give them the name New Zealand Christmas trees. I had three weeks and realised that I would be better stinking to the north Island as there was plenty to see. Rotorua is famously home to some spectacular geothermal activity, geysers, boiling mud pools and hot water lakes. Maori people use some of the pools to cook and have lived here for centuries. The village of Whakarewerewera is the main centre for geothermal living and the first time I had come across the distinctive wood carving of the people.
The reader may wonder why I have so far failed to comment on the opportunities for birding in the land of the long white cloud, and some may already have surmised the reason. The birds have, in the main, been eaten by rats, the remainder being largely nocturnal, scarce, secretive and live in holes in the ground. Legendary oddities such as the Takahe and Kakapo are confined to the wilder areas of South Island, so I had to content myself with the pretty Fantails and the Whiteye. A sighting of the New Zealand Oystercatcher, which is all black (like the rugby team), made me wonder for the first time whether it was really that different from our own, and whether the two species are separated more by geography than any genetic incompatability. This has niggled at me for years and I recently discovered more information. While in Gambia, I was lucky enough to see the two local species of Paradise Flycatcher, and the hybrid between the two, which is a distinct intermediate. At a lecture I attended, these birds were mentioned as an example of how habitat loss had brought a forest dwelling species into contact with a scrub dweller, and the two were hybridising. The definition of a species does not lie only in genetic incompatibility, but also due to geography or habitat preference. The idea of genetic groups is perhaps more accurate.
To the south of Taupo lies
Park, a volcanic wilderness dominated by ,
itself a conical, ochre hill, set in a blasted landscape studded with Copper
lakes of a shade unique to this environment. mount Taurangi
As there were bothies strung out along a five day tour of the reserve¸ and the walking wasn’t too strenuous, I decided to spend the run up to Christmas walking the route. Not least due to the fact that some homesick Scot had, in the last century, decided to introduce heather, the area looks remarkably like Scotland. I passed a few days of my walk, with an American guy who worked as a survival expert with the Army, a sort of Ray Mears of his day. He told me that he had been cycling round New Zealand and had spent some time cycling in the company of two brothers. A few days after having left them, he heard on the radio that one of them had been killed by a car and he was a little upset. Sometimes, when travelling for a few days in the company of a fellow traveller, you each become the only person whom the other knows, so a certain trust and openness can develop very quickly. The disparate nature of your lives means you will probably never meet again, but for those few days, you can become quite close.
It was Christmas Eve when we reached the road on the far side of the reserve and hitched a life to the nearby
. We were picked up by a hippy couple in a
small, overloaded, Renault type vehicle, squeezed into the back along side what
appeared to be their entire possessions.
On arriving in National Park, my legs seized up and I remained, doubled
over like an old man, at the side of the road. In a field, around which the
dozen or so houses were scattered, a lone Piper played a slow haunting tune,
reminiscent of slain warriors and abandoned townships, a heartbroken lament that
only Bagpipes can play, and I felt at home, this was indeed the Scotland of the
south. I headed towards a hostel in
Taupo where I had enjoyed the hospitality of the owners, a week earlier. It turned out they had managed to split up
while I had been away, and although they were determined not to let their
marital discord spoil Christmas, it definitely put a damper on things. township of National Park
After a couple of days nursing a hangover, I hitched back towards Aukland. This turned out to be one of the few occasions when I have been given a lift from a woman, or in this case three Maori girls, they were boisterous and friendly, showing an interest in where I was from and where I was going. I told them that having spent Christmas in New Zealand it was time to move on and I would be spending New Year in Fiji.
Our hosts’ speared fish from the beach and, at night, went diving for shark, without breathing apparatus. Armed only with a torch, goggles and a spear, they dived into the sea, and the rule was, if the shark is bigger than you, leave it alone. The coral reef was sublime, just a few feet beneath the luxurious, warm water, and the sand was fine and white. Walking along the beach, I came across a Coral Sea snake, wrapped round the roots of a tree’ at the top of the beach. I recognised the bright bands along its body and, knowing they are venomous, stayed well away.
The local villagers were raising money to build a primary school, and we were invited to join the festivities. We were driven to a neighbouring village of traditionally built houses and took our place on the village green. There were five or so communities represented, with a table set out to receive donations. The first community lined up and each person gave some money, the total being added up and written on a black board. As out turn came, we were told to only put in few small coins, as we would repeat this process again. It turned out that this was round one, and each group would line up repeatedly through the course of the afternoon. After a while, it was our groups turn to eat, and we lined up outside the cookhouse. We were each given a plate of food, and as I exited the back of the hut, I saw the cook, hacking bits off the carcass of a goat. Copious amounts of Kava were drunk, and the singing began, punctuated with updates on who was winning the generosity sweepstakes.
In the evenings, our hosts’ would sing songs in the Fijian language, one of the favourites being “Tiny Bubbles”. We drank beer and chatted each other up, as young people will. Where better to have a holiday romance than on a small tropical island, it just seemed the right thing to do!
and the involves a unique experience,
crossing the International Data line.
Travelling east across the line, means arriving the day before you left,
in effect, waking up on Tuesday morning and arriving on the Cook Islands’
Monday lunch time. The main Island of
Rarotonga has a circumference of 26
miles with the centre of the island dominated by thick rainforest on the
steeply sided Volcano. I hired a bike
and cycled round the island in a few hours.
Life is slow here, I heard that on some of the smaller island which make
up the group, people succumbed to a sort of ‘stir crazyness’, as if in a
prison. On the plus side, Papayas, full
and juicy, were abundant and free, the climate was lovely, and the friendly
locals knew how to relax. Cook Island
The epicentre for youth culture at the time, was a bar named the
Banana Court. On a sultry evening, the up beat Polynesian
music would begin, and so would the dancing.
By dancing I mean the mesmerising bum jiggling and graceful fluid hand movements
which told stories from the culture of the people. Every now and then, an older women would take
centre stage and show the youngsters how it was done. Men danced in a manner reminiscent of a bird,
crouched, and hopping. Music and singing
is a cherished part of the culture, the Banana Court bar still exists and puts
on demonstrations for the tourists.
The final stop on my trip across the South Pacific took me to Faa’a Airport (unforgettable name) near to the capital, Papeete on the island of Tahiti, colonial French facades, fading under the tropical sun and spray. The language was French and I saw people carrying fresh loaves of baguette bread, just as you see in France, and it’s not cheap. There was a campsite next to a Club Med resort on the island of Moorea. I wanted to check out the sea birds and I wasn’t disappointed. Blue footed Boobies, noddies, Tropicbirds and, saving the best for last, huge, forked winged Frigate birds, like maritime Kites. Spending only three days here, I had little time to discover the people, though I remember there were tensions between the two cultures and people. It was now two months since I had left Australia, and I had enjoyed visiting the various island communities, however, my next destination was going to be radically different. My final flight across the Pacific landed at Los Angeles’ (LAX) airport.
The reader may wonder what happened to Los Angeles, the truth being, I landed at LAX, and after staying with a friend of my parents for a couple of days, I made straight for Mexico where, I was assured, it was cheaper, which it was. I took the train to San Diego, where the station toilets had no doors, and then across the border to Tijuana. English ceased to be spoken before I got to the border and nobody spoke it after the border. Having some basic Spanish, I got by, taking a long, several day train journey to the elegant University town of Guadalajara. The journey involved trundling slowly through the Cactus forest which dominates the north of Mexico. The Saguaro Cactus is the one you see in movies, massive, trunks with arms, and a most unusual landscape. Arriving at around eleven at night, the town was asleep and I wandered around, getting lost and failing to find anywhere to stay. Eventually I approached some soldiers who were guarding an entranceway, and asked, in my broken Spanish, for directions. One of the soldiers made the hand gesture, which, in Latin America means ‘come here’, but to me looked like ‘lie down on the ground’. I refused and with a rising sense of panic, forgot what little Spanish I had. He cocked his rifle and told me that he was the Army, not the police and you didn’t ask the army for directions. Funnily, I understood that alright. I got the message, apologised, and he helpfully pointed me in the right direction and a hostel for the night.
The stone built European style of the buildings made me feel at home, after spending a year in the New World, this felt like the Old World. It was in Guadalajara that I encountered Mexican Mural Art, and there were several murals by the artist Orozco. This is Social Realist Art, rather in the Soviet style, but with the earthy tones and vibrancy of Latin America. I had heard of Revolutionary leaders such as Sancho Panza and Emile Zapata, and could see the independent spirit of the people. As I child, I collected coins, a Mexican dollar with an eagle catching a snake on one side and the revolutionary leader Jose Maria Morales on the other, was one of my favourites. He has a Bandana on his head. It turns out he suffered from migraines and wore a bandana soaked in water to ease the pain, was one of my favorites. It turns out he suffered from migraines and wore a bandana soaked in water to ease the pain.
The majority of Mexicans are known as Mestizos, or mixtures, referring to the mix of European and Indigenous blood in society, they form the dominant culture, as opposed to the Indigenous people. The name Cristobal Colombo, as Columbus is known, was everywhere. His name in some way symbolises the imposition of European culture on the indigenous people of the region, in the way that Simon Bolivar symbolises their liberation. This clash of cultures is acutely observed in Diego Riveras’ Mural, ‘The history of
Mexico’ in the City’s . In one corner, a Mayan woman has a baby
strapped to her back and the baby stares out at the viewer with piercing blue
eyes. I was quite taken with this art
style, Rivera was married to another artist I came across here, Frida Kahlo,
her honest, pained gaze stares out from her numerous self portraits. National Palace Mexico
City is a thriving metropolis with a massive open
square, known as the Zocalo, at its centre. One evening, as I sat in a bar, one
by one, the Mariachis (musicians) came in, their guitars forming a pile in the
corner, as they lined up along the bar in their uniforms and sombreros, it’s a
musical place, Mexico. The City is built
on the ruins of the Aztec Capital, but their religious site outside of town, Tenochtitlan is still one
of the most impressive of the ancient sites.
The Pyramid of the Sun is the third biggest in the world and I couldn’t help notice the similarity with
Egypt. The discovery of cocaine in the bodies of
Egyptian mummies leads one to suspect that there was contact between the two
worlds in ancient times. The long terraces spoke of Military might and awe
inducing splendour. As I toured round
the various buildings, a flock of several hundred Cedar Waxwings flew into a
scrubby tree in front of me. One of the most famous artefacts from the Mayan
Era, is the calendar, a large stone wheel inscribed with writing which covers
thousands of years of time and famously ends in 2012. It is kept in a museum in Chapultepec Park,
the lungs of the city. Here also is the
Castle where various rulers lived, including Emperor Maximillian. This Austrian nobleman was duped into
becoming emperor, by Napoleon, who was running Mexico at the time. He turned out to be a descent bloke but ended
up being executed by the local Mexican hero, after Napoleon split. Normally not one for big cities, I enjoyed the
bustle of Mexico City, spending a week there without feeling intimidated or
unsafe. From here I took a bus to
Oaxaca, arriving to meet a man at the station who told us that the previous bus
had been hijacked by bandits. According
to him, the bandits had taken the bus into the bush, robbed everyone, and
kidnapped a young girl. He seemed
visibly shaken and I tended to believe him.
Counting myself lucky, I settled into Oaxaca, famous for its Tequila,
and for the ancient site of Monte Alban, not to be confused with Ricardo
Montealban, the actor from Fantasy Island and Star Trek, ‘The Wrath of Khan’.
This is one of the oldest sites, dating from 500 BCE, lasting till around the tenth century, and built on top of an artificially flattened hilltop some thousand feet above the surrounding valley. The Zapotepec Indians who built this site, still live in the area. As you travel further south in Mexico, the proportion of Indigenous people increases, the largest language group being Nahuatl.
Meeting up with a German guy, and a Swedish girl, the three of us headed down to Puerto Angel, a sleepy beach resort on the south coast, some three hundred kilometres south of Acapulco. The hammocks on the beach were as uncomfortable as hammocks everywhere. Who wants to sleep imitating a banana? The three of us shared a room and I started playing guitar in a local bar on the clifftop overlooking the beach. The Mexican owner and his wife were big music fans as well as quite romantic. They had gained the impression that I was going out with my Swedish companion. One evening they offered us a romantic meal for two on a balcony overlooking the beach. We didn’t want to spoil the moment, so played along, pretending to be a couple and everyone was happy. The food was fantastic, fresh fish and local vegetables, it reminded me of the scene in Lady and the tramp where the two dogs are fussed over by a romantic restaurant owner.
Over the years, Indigenous people fleeing persecution in Guatemala, have settled in the Chiapas region, which is also the home of various Indigenous groups, the regional capital being San Cristobal de las Casas. The town has become famous as the centre of the Zapatista uprising in the nineties, during my stay in the eighties, the poverty of the Indigenous compared with the more affluent Mestizo’s was obvious. This being the Reagan era, Ronnie saw these deeply impoverished, Nahuatl speaking people, as a communist vanguard bent on taking over America, as soon as they raised enough money for a bus ticket. Further south, Ollie North was cheerfully undermining democracy by funding the remnants of
Nicaraguas’ ex-dictator Somoza, the
place was a mess politically. Being
high in the hills, San Cristobal de las Casas, has a more temperate climate
than the surrounding area, colonial architecture and quite a sleepy town
relying mainly on tourism, a stop over on the way to Palenque, a jungle clad
ruin close to the border with Guatemala.
Palenque is the archetypal ruined city, massive buttressed trees grow directly from the broken steps of ancient temples and lianas are draped across the forest canopy. At the time, the site was famous for its Magic mushrooms which grow in the forest and could be bought quite openly. Young travellers could commune with the alleged spirits of the forest, while the strange Coatimundi, a relative of the Racoon, scurried about in the undergrowth. I would miss the Temples around Cancun so this was a good substitute. The spectre of Erich Von Daniken rises again in Palenque. The tombs are carved with frescos of the Mayan kings, and Erich reckoned that one in particular shows a seated astronaut in a spaceship, which it doesn’t. The local guide spoken instead of a journey from the underworld, rather than into space, I was quite chuffed at having now seen two of the sites mentioned in his spurious book ‘Chariot of the gullible’.
There are several routes into
Guatemala from Mexico,
the most exciting being from Palenque through
the jungle to Flores and the temples of Tikal. With this in mind, I caught a bus to Frontera
Corozal from where a boat trip would take me across the border. At the time, the boat was pretty much a big
canoe which disappeared into the myriad of small channels cut by hand and
connecting the various water courses.
The border was a wooden structure on stilts, surrounded by water logged
vegetation across which Lilytrotters trotted and the air was full of the sounds
of exotic birds, Orioles, herons and the fabulous Anhinga, or snake bird. The guards were anxious to know if the boat
had brought them any food, which it had and they were largely unconcerned with
us. After several hours we arrived at a
small settlement straight out of Apocalypse Now, verandas built out over the
water and no sign of civilisation. It
was just getting dark when we arrived and a bus was scheduled to arrive at
midnight to take us to Flores, although I couldn’t even see a road. We hired some hammocks and waited. Apparently,
we were in Guatemala.
Amazingly, around midnight, a coach suddenly lurched out of the Jungle and the few passengers boarded. We had the bus to ourselves at first, as we rattled through the darkness, the bus gradually filled up until it was “pass the chicken through the window” time. At one stop however, things were different, armed men ordered everyone off the bus. Bandits ? No, it’s the Army, just looking like bandits. They separated the locals from the foreigners, about five of us, hassled the locals about papers for a bit, and then we were on our way again, along the narrow road with what seemed to be forest on either side. We arrived in Flores in the early morning and my first taste of
. I headed straight for the bus station, my
staging post to the fabulous jungle strewn ruins of Guatemala . Tikal
The distinctive temples of
rise above the canopy like something
out of the movie Avatar. A Mayan city
lost to the forest. In those days you
could stay in hammocks inside the grounds of the temple complex, a clearing in
the forest surrounded by tall trees. For
some reason I decided to spend another night wrestling unsuccessfully with a
hammock and awoke at dawn. A long
haired, middle aged, surfer dude, who on reflection, could have been the Big
Lebowski himself, was reclining in a near by hammock. He reached down, switched his cassette
recorder on, and the strains of Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pop festival began
to drift across the clearing. Swallow tailed
kites circled above us and hummingbirds darted frenetically from flower to
flower. As the sun rose, Ravi drew to a
close and Jimmy Hendrix at Tikal
brought a psychedelic tinge to a surreal experience. I have found that sacred sites often contain
lots of semi tame wildlife and Woodstock
was no exception. Jungle Cats and
Coatimundi, the South American version of racoons, strolled through the
undergrowth while a variety of brilliantly coloured birds flitted through the
canopy. A couple of days birding was
enough and I considered my options
concerning how to get down to the capital, Tikal . My wanderlust must have been
on the wane because rather than take another endless bus through the jungle, I
elected to take a flight from Guatemala City Flores in a six
seater, which was much easier, and must have been pretty cheap.. Alighting in Guatemala
City I headed straight for the local Lonely Planet destination of
As its name suggests, Antigua is the old capital, a faded colonial capital with cobbled streets, old
in the shadow of a
Volcano. It is popular with back packers
as a nice small town where you can stay with a local family, and sign up to
learn Spanish before heading south. I signed
up for a month and was assigned an elderly widow and her daughter to stay with
and a young graduate as a teacher. On my
first day, I was served up a healthy bowl of the refried black bean stew that
forms a backbone of the local diet. Not
something I was used to, I struggled through the bowl as best I could. My host asked me whether I enjoyed the stew,
I replied that I didn’t, to which she said, “We eat this twice a day”. Oops!
Notwithstanding refried beans, the food was good, fresh fruit and veg,
beans, rice and tortilla, and as my host proudly informed me “In this house we
eat meat twice a week”. Spain
|Preparations for Easter, Antigua.|
Easter was approaching and the good people of
are nothing if not devout. Celebrations
last a week and the whole town gets involved.
In the evenings, people create intricate carpets, made from coloured saw
dust, throughout the streets of the town.
Each day during Easter week, religious processions walk over these
‘carpets’, after which they are swept up, and remade for the following day. The highlight of the festivities is when
massive wooden floats depicting Jesus carrying the cross, are carried through
the town. The heavy floats were made
heavier by being filled with rocks and people vied for the honour of carrying
them. The processions featured legions
of Romans, Jews and biblical figures re-enacting the Easter message, led by a
monk swinging a smoking bucket of francinsense.
Apparently, one evening, riders on horseback moved through the
town ringing bells and shouting ‘Jesus Christ is dead’. If they did, it didn’t wake me.
There was another reason that religion left its mark in
Antigua. Frequent earthquakes had damaged churches
over the years and though unusable, they were not pulled down. Instead another
would be built and the ruins left standing.
Nowadays there are many ruined churches in Antigua,
which give the town an ancient feel.
On Saturdays, there was a market in the town square and indigenous people would bring their wares. Clothing made from cloth woven on backstrap looms, vied with jewellery, masks and carvings, all made locally. Indigenous women wear intricately woven outfits known as huipils, the decoration telling the observer which village the wearer comes from, as well as her standing in society. While the men would tend to wear western clothing, you could still see elders wearing the costumes which gave their rank to those who could read the signs. Indigenous people make up half the population of
, each village having its
own costume, and in many cases, their own language. There are fifty odd languages spoken in Guatemala ,
many indigenous people do not speak Spanish and most are illiterate. These are
the people Ronald Reagan thought were a communist vanguard bent on invading
America, but in truth have been brutalised and marginalised like so many of the
regions poor. Guatemala
The indigenous peoples unofficial capital is a town on the shores of
called Panahatchel. The town square is a
riot of colour where women, often with babies tied to their backs, sell flowers
on the steps of the Cathedral. In the middle of the flight of steps which lead
to the cathedral door, there is an eternal flame marking the spot where the
original Mayan temple stood. Lake Atitlan
|Cathedral , Panahatchel.|
This had long since been demolished, to be replaced by the Cathedral. Officially catholic, the indigenous also practice aspects of the old pre Christian religion of their ancestors, offering gifts of cigarettes, coca cola and alcohol to the corn gods. While wandering about town, I was drawn to a house where I heard strange music and a saw a small crowd. In a darkened smoky doorway, old men were dancing in an odd, drunken manner in front of a statue. The Mayan culture is alive and well in
there is a type of forest, usually at altitude, which gets most of its moisture
from clouds, rather than rain. These
Cloud forests are home to a huge number of trees, including many species of
Avocado, and a bird which feeds on their fruit, the Quetzal. This, most beautiful of birds, worshipped by
the Maya and source of the fabulous headdress worn by Montezuma, their leader,
was a must see. So, for four days I
visited a Cloud forest, staying in a small outpost, with just myself, a housekeeper
and her daughter. I watched her and her
eight year old daughter dancing in the yard to a cassette recorder, after a
while I realised they only had one cassette and were repeatedly turning it
over, they seemed happy. I didn’t see
the Quetzal, having to settle instead for my first Red bellied Trogon, a close
Antigua was great for a young traveller,
nice weather, food and lots of other young Europeans around. I heard that the Nicaraguan elections had
been held and the government had lifted a ban on American tourists. This meant that several Americans were taking
the opportunity to go down and I was offered a space in a jeep which was
heading to . This was the first time in Managua Latin
America I had travelled in a car and we soon travelled the length
of the country down to the Honduran border.
The two borders lie a kilometre apart and it was late in the afternoon
when he got through the Guatemalan customs.
On arrival at the Honduran border we were informed that the border was closed
for the night and we were literally stuck between the two. Miraculously, there was a small pension for
those who found themselves in this situation, and so, we spent the night having
a drink and watching the pigs wander about.
Our only stop in
was at the old Mayan ruins of
with their ball courts and elaborately carved stele. My first sighting of those iconic South
American species Barbets and a Motmot were here, although we didn’t have much
time due to the drivers lack of interest in birding. We sped on our way right through the capital,
Tegulcigalpa, which no one felt like stopping in and I can just remember
noticing how many tin roofed shacks there were for a capital city. We reached Copan late that night, the centre of the
town having been destroyed in the war, leaving it donut shaped. The skeletons
of bombed out tenements had been recolonised in an adhoc manner with breeze
block, corrugated sheeting or just blankets, filling in the gaps left by the
war. Amongst the weeds there were burnt
out tanks and the lorries that you see in old war movies. A large and grand building on the edge of the
devastation, which seemed to have escaped the battles, was a thriving
international post office, from where you could phone home. Managua
I fell in with a chef and his son, who were going to work in
that long peninsula in northwest , and we ate two kilos of
bananas on the way. Arriving at the border
we had to spend the night in a reception area, waiting for the border to
open. For some reason the police
patrolling the area had orders that people were not allowed to sleep, but had
to sit upright in the hard plastic seating, designed to be “bumproof”. I managed to squeeze behind some furniture
and get a few hours lying down . Happily,
in the morning I walked back into Mexico through a kind of fortified
motorway service area, and off to LA and home.
I started work with the council the following week, bought my first
house a couple of years later and settled down to years of blissful
mortgagehood. It would be a full decade
before I would leave the America again, but never for the durations which I did during my twenties, next stop,
the forties! UK