All posts by wheatypetesworld

The Sounds of Silence – from our home in Stupava, Slovakia

I republished this post because my friends Martin Bellamy and Alison Bellamy reminded me of this. It still means a lot to me: that walnut tree with the rope swing chair; the woodshed full of wood we inherited at the end of the garden; those shrubs that all went pop with a big sound, all exactly on the same day that they decided to explode each year; the constant rotation of flowers that the clever previous owners had planted to give all-year-round surprises and pleasure; that fridge and rope swing seat on the terrace with the big table we salvaged when the kitchen was renovated with low hanging lights over it; those big beams, similarly salvaged for seats around the fire pit under the walnut tree and the evenings we spent there with friends; that garage full of ancient communist days’ memorabilia – wood burners, old tools and cigar boxes etc… ; an old window saved from a previous renovation that was now shelving embedded in the terrace wall; the little Japanese garden Tash made; the old well in the garden; that nutty rabbit that used to free range around the whole caboodle; a fabulous 50th surprise birthday party enjoying all of the above and people flying to get there; even that time the neighbours’ child, Branco, climbed over our wall and set fire to one of our daughter’s dolls for reasons unknown; those birds that nested on the terrace outside the door and listening to the sounds of silence of an evening on the terrace…  Here is the original post:

I am sitting on the terrace of my house: Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, planted the day this house was finished, seventy years ago, and it’s attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoey call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. And tonight my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around me. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life here, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations, goat bleating and the glorious static ridden Zimbo pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Carnival in Trinidad? And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys. I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

Here are some of the visuals to back the sounds:

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Bratislava is for life, not just for Christmas Markets

 

Do you want to go deeper than these Christmas markets?
It was a bank holiday this week in Slovakia to commemorate the uprising in 1945 against the Nazi occupation. But this is just one of many festivals going on at this time of the year. When people think of Bratislava they are likely to envisage Christmas markets and snow, or perhaps stag do’s. Maybe even the castle or the UFO bridge. Quite right too, these all happen here. But what a shame to not get a little deeper into the place. You can do Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava Christmas markets in three or even two days starting from here, warm yourself with the delicious punches and buy things that people don’t really want, but interesting artifacts nevertheless, plus have a fantastic time yourself in the process. Believe me, from Nurnburg to Budapest Christmas markets you will have a fantastic time. I know, I have done them. And they all seem much of a muchness to me. There are only so many times you can buy the ceramic, wooden or sweet trinkets before they become boring. You will still enjoy the markets though. But if you want to get under the skin of a place, for example Slovakia, then come when the local festivals are due. Now. In September/October.

Devinska Nova Ves is a large village, or small town, about 16 km north of Bratislava. Its wide main street is lined with old houses, there is an enormous Volkswagen factory and a few tower blocks, but it’s nothing special really. But in 2012 it came to the attention of the world’s press, even Reuters. It was all about a bridge.

Devinska Nova Ves (or DNV as I will call it from now) is on the Morava River. The border between Slovakia and Austria. The Morava flows down to join the Danube and in Cold War times this was a heavily militarized zone. Barbed wire fences and constant patrols by border guards. Many people died trying to run to freedom through the wire here. If they had tried swimming they would have had to deal with some serious currents on both the Danube and Morava rivers. In 2012 a bridge was completed over the river at DNV to join what was formerly an impenetrable frontier. The Bratislava Regional Assembly set up a Facebook vote to name this historically significant link between the old communist block and Western Europe. The Regional Governor, Pavol Freso, affirmed that they would probably go with the people’s wishes. That is until the “Chuck Norris Bridge” polled more than 25 times as many votes as the Regional Assembly’s proposal. Or indeed any other suggestions. Now Reuters started to take an interest. Chuck Norris was always a source of jokes concerning kitchy fun or macho invincibility in Slovakia (Chuck Norris can delete the recycling bin… Giraffes were created when Chuck Norris hit a horse under the chin…), but hardly a feasible choice for naming a bridge (No-one walks over Chuck Norris later was mentioned by the Assembly). But you can walk or cycle over this historic bridge today at any time of the year. The floodplains beneath you will be a Site of Special Scientific Interest, teeming with rare flora and fauna. The river will remind you of the historic border you are crossing from Slovakia to Schlosshoff Castle in Austria, where you may even catch a festival of gardening if you are lucky.

About two kilometers South of DNV lies the village of Devin, where the Morava joins the Danube. Today it is festival day in Devin. There are so many festivals at this time of year. Broadly harvest type celebrations, but it could be a dance festival in the small concrete amphitheatre-let in between the tower blocks in Dubravka on the Northern outskirts of Bratislava, where teenagers perform traditional folk dances in traditional costume; or a ceramics festival in Pezinok (small town North East of Bratislava); the Cabbage Festival in Stupava (a bit further out than DNV with local craft and food stalls, traditional dancers, folk groups, or even samba orchestras); or today’s Medieval festival in Devin. If you sit on a bus out of Bratislava today you may well sit next to a knight, complete with chain mail, sword and helmet on his mobile phone. Then you will get to the site itself.

Devin Castle, first mentioned in 864 in written records, lying atop a cliff on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube. In the thirteenth century it was the frontier post of the Hungarian Empire.

It featured on a coin and a note of the former Czechoslovak currency (koruna) in Cold War times as an important national symbol. Now it lies in ruins (thank Napoleon for that). We drive to the Festival from our home in Stupava and the highway is blocked off for the road runners, the first signs of the event. My daughter Mollie (4 “AND A HALF” years old) instructs me to tell the policeman to let us through, but I think better of it. We will just wait. At the castle we pay our eight Euro entrance fee, and then walk up past “medieval” tents with costumed people sitting around cooking over open fires in iron pots, with metal beakers to drink from and wooden bowls from which to eat. It has the feel of an authentic camp.

All the men have long hair and a young man is undressing to his boxer shorts to put on his chain mail vest, leather thigh protectors, boots, helmet and heavy knee length jacket.

 

 

 

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We walk up the hill to the ruins, where Mollie is delighted to shout “bottom” down the 55 metre well on the cliff top and enjoy its echo. From up here you can see the Danube curving round where the Morava joins it, and look down on Devin. Or across to the mountain between here and Dubravka.

Steep terraced vines sweep down to the village from the Dacha’s (summer homes, often small wooden villas here) on the mountain top. One huge, elegant residence dominates all of these. I later found out that this belongs to the Russian mafia. We walk back down the hill through the encampments and Mollie gets her face painted on the way. There is a stage below and the announcements suddenly include some English: “The last man standing.” Some sort of contest is about to begin. Here they are. Now they don their full helmets and five men on each side face each other for a “fight”. So… it is not just an excuse for a medieval barbeque, a bit of dressing up outside a tent, and full bosomed women enjoying the attention in their Medieval costumes. A choreographed re-enactment! How wrong I was. Apart from beers (1 euro a pint), picnics, and waffles grilled over open fires on wooden rolling pin type affairs, there are actually men fighting over there. But not choreographed. Not in the least. This is some sort of competition. Lines of five men walk towards each other.

Then all hell breaks loose. While two knights fight, one man is smashing the hilt of his sword down on the head of another who has his back to him, being engaged in one to one combat with one of his opponents. I work out that the aim is to get another man to the ground, when he has to retire from the competition. Huge cheers erupt from the crowd as the victors leave the battle.

But worse is to come. Next time it is an axe, not the sharp side, but the blunt side, repeatedly hammering down on one member of the next team. He has a metal helmet on, but I am sure that will be sore in the morning. These guys are serious! The fallen knight removes his helmet, blood streaming down the back of his head, and is led to the first aid (medieval) tent. What is going on here? If you want to play knights, then, hey, each to their own. But this?! It did at least give quite a vivid impression of Medieval warfare around here. Perhaps a little too vivid though. After the fight, white vans, some emblazoned with medieval crests, drive up the hill to collect what is left of their teams. We retire to the coffee tent, a Czech café styling itself on an Arabic Shisha lounge where a member of the medical team is crashed out next to the hubbly bubbly while away to our left a belly dancer takes to the stage. This is all getting a bit too diverse, shall we say… “It’s like a theatre” is my wife’s comment. It’s certainly not like any festival we have been to in England before, that’s for sure. “You wouldn’t get into a festival for eight euro’s in England”, is my reply. “That’s bottom too much money!” is Mollie’s comment. Now there is an archery contest and some poor bugger is kneeling, holding a six foot pole with a cabbage on the top of it for the archers to shoot at while running. Health and safety executive field day! They would flip their corporate lid if they had seen the “Two euro’s to chuck three axes at the target” stall which crossed the path. “ Just wait there for a moment,” you say to yourself. Enough already, too much. We leave the festival and walk down to the river. Here you can throw a stone over the Morava into Austria. Which is why so many tried their luck here. If it wasn’t running through the militarized zone and the barbed wire then trying to swim to freedom, it was (possibly homemade) hang gliders from the hilltops. Down by the confluence of rivers there is a serious ceremony taking place. Flags and sombre faces down by the monument to the unsuccessful attempts to leave the Iron Curtain. Over four hundred people died between 1945 and 1989 attempting this.
Nearly one a month for 44 years from one small village on the Austrian border. Each name listed on the sculpture and explained in four languages. Judging by their ages, the seated assembly down here could well have been the brothers or sisters, or even the parents of these poor, desperate unfortunates who died for what all Slovaks have today. So there you have it. Five km road racers, sites of SSI, foul mouthed four year olds (she’s so like her mother), uprisings against the Nazi occupation, Russian mafia, Medieval knights, belly dancers, would be escapees of communism, shisha lounges, waffles, Chuck Norris and beer tents. What a festival! Or you could do the Christmas market. And as a post script, the Bratislava Regional Assembly, led by Pavol Freso, in their infinite wisdom and in memory of the people who died trying to leave the communist block for democracy, actually rejected the 12,599 votes for the “Chuck Norris Bridge” in favour of the “Freedom Cycling Bridge” (457 votes), which is now it’s official name. However, thanks to Reuters, it is even today easily findable in Google under its more democratic name.

PS: If my daughter were able to understand any of this, I am absolutely sure that she would say, “But that’s bottom democracy!”

PPS: What a senseless waste of lives. These human beings were only trying to make their lives better. They died for their optimism. Full respect to these people.

Road-tripping through Europe

 

 

 

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I have driven the Brussels ring road three times in my life. Each time it has been packed with far too many cars, driving far too fast and close, whilst negotiating nutty junctions. And each time I have seen an accident. Thanks to Brussels, Belgium has one of the highest death rates per capita in traffic in the European Union. This is mainly due to the fact that many Belgians speed at drastic levels. Take my word for it: the Brussels Ring is a nightmare concerning traffic and averages at least one accident per day. My hatred has developed into an obsessive fear, bordering on a phobia. Despite trying to persuade Marilyn, the Satnav, to send us south of the ring road via Waterloo, I make the mistake of listening to her at one point and ended up on the dreaded road anyway. I definitely need to be more assertive when it comes to Marilyn.

The previous night’s stop before traveling to Liechtenstein had been in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. We plan to fill up on petrol there where it is cheap, and cigarettes are only a third more expensive than in Slovakia, so we stop at the first service station. The queues could have signified an oil crisis, but in fact merely show that everyone else has had the same idea. There are two boys directing the vehicles into lines for the twelve pumps and a bit of a party atmosphere. People are hanging around chatting outside their cars or motor homes while they wait. But it is efficient. Fill up, drive to the booth (a bit like the ones on toll bridges) where the cashier pushes open a metal drawer to collect the money, pass over the card reader or give change. Up goes the barrier and off you go. Or you would have done had the motorway not been such a stop start affair.  I was looking forward to Luxembourg, simply because I have never met anyone from there.  I don’t even know what they call themselves.  Luxembourgish?  Maybe Luxemburgers.  Nevertheless they were an elusive race, even in their own country.  At the service station there were German and Belgian cars, French and Dutch, but no Luxembourgolian.  I bought a baguette and coffee but don’t ask the girl who served me where she is from.  If I started a “Where are you from?” conversation with a random young female, even if in an honest quest to meet my first Luxembourgino, Tash would… well let’s just say “I choose life”.  Another way to get yourself in trouble at a Luxembourgillon service station would be to take advantage of the free massage service offered to travellers by a very nice young lady.  I sort of like Luxembourg but still cannot say for sure if I have met a Luxembourgian.  Finally we head off the motorway into a rolling, rural setting which reminded me of Devon. I had thought of Luxembourg as a city. Wrong. The goal of finding out more about the little countries beginning with ‘L’ is achieved, however I did manage to lose my car key in Luxembourg. Tash had assured me that it must be somewhere in the camper, so I had used her key. Mine never turned up though. Finally, in desperation I later emailed the friendly Dutch couple who ran the campsite. They immediately replied that they had found the key in the shower and were kind enough to send it to Slovakia, refusing any payment for their efforts.  The whole sorry affair with the key was just another chapter in the lost car keys in Europe saga. Once, in the Ardeche, Tash had pulled me in to a river to swim. The Vauxhall’s keys were in the pocket of my swimming shorts. The keys are, to this day, at the bottom of a river in the Ardeche. All this led to an encounter with Eric le Garagiste. But not before I had had to purchase a pair of Incredible Hulk swimming goggles to search the muddy water, much to Tash’s amusement. Eric le Garagiste, his side kick used to tell us, was always out buying bread, or eggs, or doing whatever it was that he did all day. But rarely did he ever take on the role of Garagiste. We did catch up with him once, only to have a conversation about how he did not want to break the window to get in, and how if it had been a French car he would have been in by now. The conversation ended with him pronouncing solemnly, “La prochaine fois, Monsieur, achetez Francais!” All this took days and it was not until the evening of the day before our ferry back from Calais that he was in. OK, the car started with a screwdriver, which Eric le Garagiste/obsessive grocery buyer kindly donated, and now it was an all nighter back to the port. This did at least have the advantage of a drive through the very centre of Paris in the small hours when the streets were completely empty.

I have a wall map at home with pins in the places we have visited. Tash smugly points out that I should have one of Europe, but with pins showing the places where I have lost car keys after the Luxembourg incident. “I never lost any keys before I met you,” I tell her sulkily.

The return journeys from the UK to Slovakia have taken us  through France, Belgium Holland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Germany, and Austria. Some days we drove four countries in 12 hours.  We collect fridge magnets for our van, “Peaches”, at the places we stay. Last time we had not got one from Belgium and had decided to stop in Bouillon for a night and hopefully to find a magnet. Belgium, a country of countless friteries and no toilet paper on campsites.  In fact, the Belgian appetite for frites is so keen that you can actually buy potatoes from twenty-four-hour vending machines, so you need never need run out of the raw materials for chips (see See the article here).

 

 

Bouillon is a pretty riverside town in the south of the country, has a castle above it and styles itself with a medieval theme. It was there that we found the perfect fridge magnet – a cone of chips backed by the Belgian flag.

The perfect answer to a long, hot day travelling: HAVE A WATER FIGHT!

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The brown tourist roadside signs in Belgium showing the delights of the regions often have photographs on them. But why would I want to look at a photo when I can see exactly the same scene through the windscreen simply by looking away from the sign? Then there are the usual berserk slip roads into the fast lane or doubling as entry and exit roads. Whoever is responsible for these roads must have had chip fat on the brain, if you ask me. Or just be insane. Having said that though, the people in Belgium we found to be friendly and helpful. The campsite and friterie owners had lent us an electric hook up cable for free and were interested to chat about our travels.

We crossed the Maginot Line near the fortress of Hakenburg. This line of concrete bunkers, tank obstacles, artillery or machine gun posts, and other defences, was constructed in the thirties by France along its borders with Germany.   Although it successfully dissuaded a direct attack, it was a monumental failure, as the Germans indeed invaded Belgium, defeated the French army, flanked the Maginot Line through the Ardennes forest and via the Low countries, completely sweeping by the line, and subsequently conquered France within days. The Maginot Line was impervious to most forms of attack, and had state-of-the-art living conditions for garrisoned troops, including air conditioning, comfortable eating areas and underground railways.   It is a stark reminder that all these open borders, with little more than a blue EEC “Welcome to wherever” sign and a few deserted buildings (Liechtenstein/Switzerland and the UK being the only exceptions), that we cross so freely, were actually hard won, long-fought-over dividing lines in the past. You cannot help but appreciate the freedom and relative peace of today when this strikes you.

Do you ever fantasize about “The Sound of Music”?  Bear with me, it’s about a road.  Are you impressed by Cheddar Gorge, or are pine clad mountains your thing, or do  you actually dream of running naked, hand in hand with Julie Andrews (or Christopher Plummer) through upland flower meadows, with her(or him) intoning softly, “Oh Pete… why did I ever even bother with that surly, sour-faced loser Von Trap when there are men like you in this world…  come with me into the forest!”?  Obviously, it goes without saying, I am not one of those people; only the worst kind of sick, perverted, menopausal mind, with no regard for the feelings of his wife and who was clearly smack bang in the middle of his sad midlife crisis would ever even dare to fantasize in such a way.  But if any of this ticks even a small box, then the E31 between Freiburg and Geisingen will be the road for you to take through Southern Germany.

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This is close to the source of the Danube, but still some six hours from the majestic, wide, fast flowing river we know and love so well from our home in Bratislava. Marilyn guides us south around Bodensee before sending us via Munich to the A8, giving us great views of the Austrian Tyrol off to our right.

Why we like Austrian service stations.

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Germany is a country to explore more and offers some breathtaking scenery. And then into Austria and back to Slovakia, before heading down to Italy. In Austria we have learned to love the service stations! In the UK these can be a bit like a cattle market with their teeming fast food joints, but at least you may get a Marks and Spencer’s, or even a Waitrose if you are lucky. And in Italy they are like a cattle market conducted in a Reliant Robin. But the Austrian version is more like a stately home with rare breeds roaming free in the landscaped grounds. The food is fabulous, served by smart waiting staff in a rarefied atmosphere of wood panelling, china lanterns are hanging on chains over each table, old ceramics line shelves between double curtained windows looking out onto the lovely lake. And for once I am glad to have listened to Marilyn. All is forgiven. We are friends again.

 

Getting to Know Liechtenstein

What a country!

Some places seem to attract people who give rise to serendipity. I hoped that Liechtenstein would be one of those. At the campsite just outside Vaduz, there is a wide mix of nationalities and storytellers all: a Scottish family, a South African of Liechtensteiner parentage and the wild-haired, handle-bar moustachioed character standing in front of me now, peering through bottle thick lenses while I sit over my morning coffee outside the camper van. The sun is rising over the mountains on the other side of the valley and he cuts a striking figure silhouetted against this backdrop. Somewhere on the wrong side of sixty, the man has a suitcase on wheels, more suited to plane travel than hiking. He and the lady he describes as his “girlfriend” travel light. Just the flight-bag and small backpacks. I ask where he is from but he just shrugs.
“I am a citizen of the world; I have lived so many places. Now I live in London. I was born in Belarus. I served in the Russian Army for a while. Do you know the only country in Europe to still have the death penalty? Belarus!”

He has tales to tell of the Red Army, describing how soldiers were made to run, with bare torso, but heavy backpacks, in temperatures down to minus twenty. Many contracted pneumonia. In Moscow, he complains, there are no Russians. Everyone has an accent; Tartars, Georgians, Armenians and scores of others, from deepest Asia to the shores of the Baltic. He learns that we have come from Slovakia, smiles wryly and confides, “When Hitler invaded Poland from the north, they came from the south. And then when the Russians came they welcomed them!”

His girlfriend arrives back from her shower and they tramp off towards the mountains, heading for Italy.

Liechtenstein is a member of a federation of small countries. They even have their own Olympics. You must have a population of fewer than one million to be a member. We had driven through Vaduz on the way to the campsite, but I had just thought that it was another of those quaint little towns with a castle on a hill. The mountains are on a grand scale, but the rest of the “little and large” country, like the capital city, compensate by way of a clean, Lilliputian charm. Like the Tyrol, the chalet style houses seem overly large, but the border post was tiny. They waved us through but were giving the occupants of the Polish car ahead of us a bit of a hard time at the border.

We spent a great day just driving up a mountain to where the road finished.

Liechtenstein has the claim to fame of being a world leader: the number one exporter of… dentures! Judging by the apparent affluence, people do probably live long and healthy lives. The rarely exported wines here are, apparently, excellent. At eighteen euro’s for the cheapest, people probably can’t afford to shorten their lives by over-indulging anyway. That, along with the clear alpine air no doubt conspires to give people every chance of enjoying their excellent dentures, in turn creating a booming industry for the younger generation. It is a beautiful landscape and was indeed the begetter of encounters. What a country!

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On Satnavs – Slovakia-Austria-Liechenstein-Germany-Luxembourg-Belgium-France-UK Trip

We decided one time to visit the little countries starting with “L” on one of our regular journeys between Slovakia and the UK.  So a satnav would be useful, we thought.  But I prefer maps any day!  I can spend hours reading an atlas of Europe, planning routes and working out where we are near, enjoying the romance of place names and finding the best or most scenic route to take.  You can’t have a relationship like that with a satnav.  So I am firmly on the side of maps, but whenever I ask my wife to navigate she goes into a blind panic and it ends up in cross words! Is there a term, like disgeographia, for this quirk? Sadly I also argue with Satnavs.  Which all goes to show that you can have some sort of relationship with the beast.

We are a family of three; myself, Tash, and our daughter Mollie (who now uses her middle name, Iona), but sometimes we are four. The fourth is Marilyn, our Satnav. She has taken through fifteen European countries with a rather varied level of success, it has to be said.  Occasionally I needed to play assertive father with my equally assertive three-year-old, but with Marilyn I am only just learning. Having worked out that I can fool her by omitting house numbers and giving road numbers as via points (Marilyn, that is, not Iona), I keep her off Swiss motorways, which cost a year’s worth of vignette, even if you’re only there for a day. It probably said all this in the manual, but real men, as the saying goes, don’t read the instructions. Mollie/Iona, who at the time was living in a totally pink world of princesses, fairies and big bad wolves, was totally convinced that Marilyn was a real person. At times family members have disagreements; Marilyn is no different, especially when she tries to send us via Switzerland and its wretched motorway fees. She bangs on about the “highlighted route”, with me shouting, “WE ARE NOT GOING TO SWITZERLAND, MARILYN!” This gives Mollie the chance to indulge in her damn-beloved “Why?” questions.
“Why is Baba cross with Marilyn? Why Marilyn her not answer me, Mama? Why Marilyn want us to go there?”
Eventually Mollie elects to support the black box, shouting at me on her behalf.
“Baba! You made Marilyn sad! Now I’m very cross with you!”
Marilyn, goes silent. For some reason there are no more voice commands until Belgium. I think Mollie may have been right about Marilyn being real. She is actually sulking! I wonder what she is wearing and how old she is? Tash, for her part, and because this musing was unfortunately vocalized, will tell you that this is all just part of a mid-life crisis. But I‘m still with Mollie when it comes to Marilyn. She is real to me.
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Malaysia – In the footsteps of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

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I never knew my Great Uncle Ron. He was killed in Malaya (as it then was) in 1941, serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. But the very mention of his name, by any of my generation or younger of the family to any of the older members of the family would automatically elicit the same response, verbatim: “You would have loved Ron.” He had become a sort of family saint. Ronald Joseph Baxter had suffered from TB in his teenage years and was consequently considered infirm, so was delighted to be accepted for active service at the age of twenty five in order to prove to himself, as well as to other people, that he was fighting fit. He was to die before his 26th birthday. Soon after training he was sent to Singapore. Ron was a staunch Christian and a member of the Oxford Group, or Moral Re-Armament, a band of intellectuals which included in its numbers some quite influential people and called for a moral reappraisal in the pre-war years to avoid the impending conflict. They even had their working members exempted from active service, but when Ernest Bevin became Minister of Labour in 1940, he decided to conscript them. Over 2,500 clergy and ministers signed a petition opposing this, and 174 Members of Parliament put down a motion stating the same. Bevin made clear that he would resign from the Government if he was defeated, and the Government put a three-line whip upon its supporters. As a result, the Oxford Group workers were excluded from the Exemption from Military Service bill.

In his letters from Singapore Ron talks of meeting another member of the group, one Mrs Jessie (“Bobbie”) Geake, a teacher at a girls’ school. She had smiled when he offered to lend her his copy of Daphne du Maurier’s “Come Wind, Come Weather”: stories of ordinary Britons who had found hope and new life through MRA, which my Grandad had sent him, saying “I helped her put it together.” In this book she says, “What they are doing up and down the country in helping men and women solve their problems, and prepare them for whatever lies ahead, will prove to be of national importance in the days to come.” The book sold 650,000 copies in Britain alone. Du Maurier, as you will have gathered, was another member of Moral Re-Armament.

Skip forward to Christmas 2001. For the first time in a number of years, myself and my two brothers with families are at my parents’ house. Talk after dinner turns to family stories and Uncle Ron makes his appearance in the conversation.

“You would have loved Ron,” my father begins, “he was such a kind and gentle man.” He tells us that he still has the telegram informing the family of Ron’s death somewhere and goes up to the attic to look for it. Ron had been killed by a shell in Battalion HQ about twenty miles south of Ipoh, Malaysia. He was buried nearby and after the war was reinterred at Taiping War Cemetery about the same distance north of Ipoh. My father returns, having found the telegram. The date the fatal shell fell was 29th December 1941. Sixty years to this very day, 29th December 2001, exactly sixty years to the day that he fell. I felt a bit shocked at this coincidence. My Dad had not looked at the telegram in a good while; it was in a box of family memorabilia he had not opened since my Grandfather passed away. It was strange that it had happened when all the family, for once, were gathered. It was as if Ron was nodding to us from beyond. Then and there I swore that one day I would go and put some flowers on his grave on behalf of the family. My Dad was touched.

“You would have loved Ron,” was his reaction.

It was another ten years until I had the opportunity to do what I had promised . My father, by this time, was growing visibly frailer each time I saw him, his body riddled with cancer – too frail to travel, but not too frail to instruct me to take lots of pictures. Some friends of ours were living in Jakarta and this was close enough to Taiping to combine a visit with my family pilgrimage. Having each a young child, it was decided that me and Steve would make the trip, which would be quite a hard travel, and his wife, Jennifer made the bookings, flights and hotel. She was good at that sort of thing. But I am not sure whether or not it was to ensure that we appreciated the fact that the girls had, quite literally, been left holding the babies while the boys went off, that influenced a five am flight departure. It meant getting up at two. Personally I like to think that my big-hearted Canadian friend Jennifer simply worked out the plane bus connections for a whole day’s travel. I had told Steve that I would go alone, and was pleased that he wouldn’t hear of it, for he is an excellent travel companion who also had local knowledge. He kept the trip upbeat when we were tired on arrival in Ipoh, proclaiming, “OK, so where are the whores?” And took many of the photos I passed on to my Dad, whilst maintaining an absolute respect of what this was all about.

Jakarta’s streets are quiet this morning. Amazing. It is such a mad mosh pit of frenzied traffic in the daytime. Tens of thousands of scooters, cars crawling along, inching through the streets and dodging pedestrians, cyclists, animals and carts. So 3.00 am is a pleasant time to be out and about. At the airport I fill out my departure card. Steve is stopped and told to fill one in, even though he has got residency, which he duly does in the name of “Mickey Mouse” hailing from the Planet Zog. The surly immigration officer smiles as she takes it, not even bothering to read it. The flight is delayed by four hours but finally we arrive in Kuala Lumpur via Singapore, in time to get a bus from the airport to Ipoh. It takes about four hours and is modern and comfortable. We follow the route that the Argylls took by train north to the state of Perak.

Getting off in Ipoh, at what we assume is the centre, after fourteen hours travelling we find ourselves beside a quiet dual carriageway. It turns out that we are some miles out of town so we wait for a taxi. And wait. After an hour or so one stops. Unfortunately the driver does not actually know Ipoh very well and spends an hour and a half looking for the hotel, phoning friends for assistance and creasing up his face in confusion when we show him our map. Many phone calls, numerous enquiries of other drivers and pedestrians and scores of circles later we get to the hotel. “No pets and no durians,” proclaims the sign at reception. Ipoh was a tin mining town, and this, along with rubber plantations, once provided great wealth for the place. Not now though. Its centre is resplendent in crumbling grandeur in pastel shades. The only building still clad in its pompous colonial elegance is the Royal Ipoh Club, the name is spelled out in white stones on the flowered bank overlooking a lush green expanse of playing fields where cricket, polo and rugby were once played.  It looks haughtily down in its mock Tudor grace on the ramshackle facades of formerly beautiful buildings and pavements that tilt at every angle, open drains and potholes that could swallow you up to the knee and teenagers playing games of football on the still green grass. The classically Victorian train station hotel is, like so many others, shut down with some of the shutters hanging precariously from one hinge. It is from here that Ron would have disembarked from a train on the Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth line. The functioning station still stands, but like so much of the town’s colonial architecture, is falling slowly into decay.

Ipoh is famous for its street food so finding somewhere to eat and enjoy a well earned beer after sixteen hours travelling, before setting off to Taiping the next day, seems appropriate. The only way to get there from Ipoh is by taxi. It is a drive through steaming, forest clad mountains. But at least today’s driver seems to know his onions. And where to buy fresh flowers. Most shops only sell plastic bouquets because the heat just wilts fresh ones here. Fortuitously the man knows a flower shop with a fridge and I can buy a fresh bunch to which I attach the card I had made. We stop off at the state museum in Taiping, the oldest in Malaysia, and then head out to the cemetery. It is set in the jungle between lush, rolling hills offering many more shades of green than I had ever imagined were feasible in this world.

A perfect lawn and lines of gravestones laid out in neat rows in the sun. A palm lined avenue leading to a memorial, while gardeners dressed in green cotton work shirts and trousers, with straw hats, silently tend the immaculate cemetery which is laid out on both sides of the road.

Ornate gates face each other across the tarmac. Three hundred and twenty nine known casualties from Indian, British and Commonwealth armies rest here along with five hundred unidentified troops. Most of these seem to be “An unknown soldier of the Indian army.” We spend some time wandering the rows and I soon find what I have come to see. I wonder what would have happened to Ron had he survived. The pictures I have seen of Highlanders who went through the Japanese camps make me think that he was actually one of the lucky ones. He did not suffer like the other ones, their legs like matchsticks and with sad, tired, determined eyes. I wonder what happened to Mrs Geake. I later found out that she had been evacuated to South Africa with her two sons and subsequently became the head of the school when she returned after the war. Her husband, I suspect, was not so lucky. The flowers are laid respectfully on the grave and I stand mulling over all of these thoughts. The mission has been done.

But the hard travel is not over. We had booked a return bus, however have forgotten that there is a one hour time difference and after a leisurely breakfast we discover that we have missed the bus and the only way to catch our flight is to get a long distance taxi. The trip had started at two am in the morning, continued with a long flight delay, a bus ride to a taxi that hadn’t the faintest idea of where we wanted to go so basically just drove around until he stumbled across it, a missed bus and ended with two very tired bodies by the time we get back to Jakarta.

My Dad, who passed away last year, could not thank me enough. Why do sons always crave the approval and respect of their fathers? But that’s what this trip did. A good few more you-would-have-loved-Ron’s later and several I-can’t-thank-you-enough’s and I can look back on the trip as one which I will never forget. For all of his family, for those who did, and those who would have loved Ron, the flowers were laid. On behalf of all of us. And through this travel, through reading the letters he sent to his brother, researching the history of his regiment’s campaign in Asia and finding out about the lives of those who were there with him, in following in his footsteps from Singapore to his last resting place in Taiping, even though I never met him, maybe, just maybe I did get to know him… just a little.

With grateful thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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Up through the Vrisic Pass – Slovenia

Petrol heads, bikers, hikers, canoeists and mountain-lovers: DON’T tell anyone about this part of Slovenia!

Every year we travel back from Bratislava to the UK in our lovely camper, Peaches. Here is something for all petrol heads or bikers out there. But still don’t tell anyone else!

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San Baronto, Tuscany, Italy.

Mollie is now firm friends with the Belgians across the way. Three little girls, each one dressed entirely in pink, aged 1 ½ , 2 ¾, and 5 works well. The shipping has been put back a day but we still decide to head off today. We are on the road by 9.30 and soon hit the autostrade towards the eastern coast of Italy. Once again I am in awe of the engineering of all these Appenine tunnels and viaducts so high and remote in the mountains. As we come out of one tunnel it looks as if we have hit the top of the range and are actually amongst clouds. It was thirty one degrees when we left this morning but the temperature drops sharply up here. Soon we are over the mountains on a flat agricultural plain and are about twenty-five kilometres from the Adriatic coast. Only the volcanic peaks of Euganei break the monotony of the flatlands.

The service stations here in Italy, a nation renowned for its cuisine, do not do it justice. Every one is the same. Not quite enough parking spaces or petrol pumps, no grass or other area to sit and a shop/café/bar that is frantic and overcrowded, with long queues at both of the checkouts. We soon leave the autostrade and head off to the mountain range we had been following for a while on our right. These form the border between Italy and the former Yugoslavia, now Slovenia. These mountains are incredible for their sheer drops and steep peaks, pretty villages and azure rivers. The border post is a sad, deserted collection of dilapidated buildings on the zigzag road.

By now it is nearly six o’clock.

We have been on the road for nine hours and when I spot a sign to a campsite at the village of Trnovo Soci, in the Soca valley, we decide to stop over here. The mountains of northeast Slovenia are enough to tempt anyone to want to stay – a rugged, dramatic paradise, largely devoid of the trappings of international tourism. Definitely don’t tell anyone. The campsite is the equivalent of surfer city, Slovenian style. Except that the wetsuit clad people here are not surfers, but white water rafters. We need an adaptor for the electrical hook up, bringing back memories of the fifty Euro deposit we had to pay in Switzerland, but here they lend us one for free. The campsite is a fraction of the price too, in a superb location engulfed in dramatic scenery, and the welcome is warm. Most of the campers are Slovenian although I do spot one Czech, one Italian and one Finnish vehicle.

The river as seen from the rickety wooden-slatted rope bridge far above, is an amazing sight, frothing white rapids breaking above the turquoise water as it heads back towards Italy. Tomorrow the Vrsic Pass.

Day 11, Slovenia to Austria

Today I met the Vrsic Pass.

Wow! What a day’s drive! The shortest one of the whole trip in terms of distance covered at about 40km, but a full day’s drive. The Julian Alps are incomparable. We leave Trnovo Soci and follow the Soca River. It somehow manages to convey the impression of crystal clear water whilst at the same time offering the sort of vivid turquoise that only mountain waters or clean tropical oceans seem to possess. One of the advantages of a left hand drive along this valley is that Tash, rather than me, is closest to the somewhat worrying drop. We have programmed Marilyn to send us off to the left just past the village of Soca to drive the pass. But she is confused, repeatedly telling us to turn right under circumstances which would prove highly injurious to ones health, not to say fatal, for reasons which will become clear. The problem is that you can‟t just tell her that that you want to go via such and such a town, she insists on the street and house number. So you make one up that matches a real street.

Consequently if you do not hit the exact address as you pass through a town she keeps trying to send you back there, even if it is off sheer drops or into rock faces. Hence the phrase “Oh shut the f*** up, Marilyn” becomes one that is increasingly deployed. She has done a first class job getting us around Europe, but sometimes you just want to take the scenic route, and still ask her to get you to the campsite.

We are now heading for vertical mountains which fill the windscreen. You have to lean forward to see the sky. The thought occurs: how the hell will we get over that? The answer is in first gear, with the help of fifty hairpin bends and 6547 careful’s from Tash. This is the Vrsic Pass. The most amazing road I have ever driven. I rarely managed second gear on the way up. It is an understandably popular route with bikers, but cyclists?! Maybe it is some sort of rite of passage, but there were plenty of them. The landscape would have provided a near impenetrable natural border between the former Yugoslavia and Austria or Italy but for hundreds of years the path over the Vrsic range was a route for shopping, going to fairs, seeing a doctor or accessing pasture land for the locals. The demand for timber necessitated the widening of the path in about 1909, work later carried out by Russian prisoners of war. Over ten thousand of them toiled up here, protected by avalanche fences. The road is only open an average of seven months each year even today because of this danger. Despite this protection over three hundred of the Russians perished, along with their guards in two devastating avalanches. A restored chapel exists to honour their memory and five or so years ago the Slovenian government renamed this section “The Russian Road”. The views defy description and Peaches‟ brakes are starting to smell by the time we get down the other side. The Lonely Planet guide to Central Europe describes the road as “hair-raising” and “spine-tingling”, something I had purposefully avoided informing Tash of beforehand. On the way down we take a break beside an alpine meadow nestled amongst the peaks.

We are staring up past cattle, which, Tash insists, look dangerous, to Prisank, at 2547 metres the highest in the area.

Near the summit is a hole in the mountainside through which the sky is visible. It gives the impression of a giant Cyclops looking down on us. The jagged edges around the 80 metre high, 40 metre wide window have been given names by the locals; the Bishops Head and The Pagan Girl stare down on beech and spruce forest, rhododendrons, between alder or larch covered slopes. Some of these are dwarf species near the top of the tree line.

After a lunch stop in the ski resort of Kranjska Gora we take a comparatively tame route through the Wurzen Pass and another deserted border post into Austria. Tonight’s camp is at Villach, described as a “stunning lakeside location”, but after the Julian Alps these mountains seem more like gentle hills. All appears overly sanitised and almost unnatural. Too clean, like Switzerland. Neither flamboyant Italy, closed-for-lunch France nor midge-infested Scotland can come anything but second to Slovenia in my mountain list.  And I, for one, am totally enamoured with the gloriously beautiful country of Scotland but Slovenia tops even that!

India

July 2021.

This was my first ever blog on this site. And here is a little update: if you want to know why I love the berserk, spiritual, beautiful and confusing country of India, then check out this link for a perfect example – What Time is it Actually in Mumbai?

There are simply not enough words to describe it. There are quite a lot of words here. But if you want to know what it is like to backpack in India… then read on.

31-07-07 Mumbai (Bombay)

“Would you like to buy a cow?”

This is not your usual hawker. Hashish or handbags, yes. Sandals or saris, yes. But a cow? The man’s dark eyes and mischievous smile radiate beneath the hood of his cagoule in the Mumbai monsoon rain. I tell him it won’t fit in my rucksack, and it will need a separate ticket for the plane.

“But with all these bombs on planes a cow is a safer way to travel,” he assures me. “You can sit on the cow and your wife can lead it along.”

I wonder what he is really selling.

“Actually that was a joke; I just say that to break the ice.” He asks  about our stay in Mumbai, telling us that we should see the “hidden parts”,  Mahalaxmi dhobi ghat (a place where clothes are washed) , where some 5000 men use open air toughs to beat the dirt out of the garments, the slum where  several million people live, and so forth.

I wonder what he is selling. He asks when we are leaving, and  having ascertained that we have a few hours to kill in Mumbai before our train  south, offers his services as a guide to these amazing sights… so he wasn’t  really selling a cow… At the train station a rat runs past my foot.

Mumbai Shopping Mall

People step forward gingerly. The security guards offer words of encouragement. They hesitate, some step back, losing confidence.

Others stride bravely without so much as a glance at the security  guard.

The timid ones look back at their companions, a look of pride and achievement on their beaming faces.

They have made it. They are on the escalator.

Three days of trains from Mumbai to Panaji in Goa, where we stay a night, then to Allepey (Allapuza) in Kerala via Enakulam.

5-08-07 Sona Homestay Guest House, Allepey, Kerala

If you ask Joseph, the proprietor of the guesthouse, a simple question, like how long a backwater trip takes, he will regale you with half an hour’s worth of story telling. Stories of adventurers sailing back and forth between towns under the full moon (“I told my wife they would not be back that night”) or of people marooned up a tree on a snake-infested island (“I told him not to leave on that day”). Each tale is punctuated by the lively seventy three year old’s infectious giggle, at frequent intervals. He is a perfect host, something of a mystic and laughs through his tales of the people who have passed through Sona: pretenders to the French throne; BBC film crews and movie directors.

Sona is an idyll. Confusingly, Joseph’s son is also called Sona. Peace, calm and mosquitoes. To the chorus of night insects, you sleep in a four-poster bed under a mosquito net and wake up to a pot of fresh coffee and delicious banana pancakes on the “sit out”, your own private view of the beautiful garden here. Coconut palms, banana and durian trees tower over the brightly coloured flowers where by night fireflies pursue their erratic flight, by day dazzling birds and in the morning the bats come in from their nocturnal hunting to sleep in the branches. And Joseph always has a tale to tell. A happy, kind and hospitable character (“We like to treat people as guests in our house”) who seems to find everything very funny. Sona is a kilometre and a half from town, a pleasant meander along the canal side. If you want a backwater trip, Joseph knows  the best one. If you want an Ayurvedic massage, Joseph knows where to go. But he is not touting like most others. He is concerned to give his guests the best experience. This romantic setting, and the genuine warmth, love and joyful zest for life that simply exude from this interesting man make this the perfect antidote to the madness of Mumbai. And the answer to my question about how long a backwater trip takes (after the half an hour of enthralling storytelling) I  now know, and it is this: how long is a piece of string?

Joseph’s answer to the time of a Backwater Trip (which I can only summarise here):

“Well, you know we had this man staying here from Switzerland, David his name was. He stayed with us for three months, he would go away for a few days sometimes. He was always saying that he wanted to do a solo backwater trip, and one day he said this was the day. I tried to persuade him not to go. I told him that the first of June was no good and that he would be back, but he said he was strong, like a boar. Anyway, he went. I said to my wife that he would be back by the next evening. And he did come back, the following day. I could see he was in a terrible state and these men came after him carrying the engine and bits of the boat and all David’s things. ‘David,’ I said,’what happened?’

He said to me, ‘I cannot tell you now, now I must just sleep. When I wake up we will tell you the story.’

And he went to his room and slept all that day. I asked these men and they told me what happened. David had gone to an island, but all the local fishermen know that this island is infested with snakes, very poisonous snakes. Many, many snakes. It is where three rivers meet and the snakes, they come down the rivers.

David had gone up a tree and four snakes were coming up there after  him. He spent all night, like this, praying the snakes would not get him.   And him, strong like a boar! The fishermen found him the next morning.   All of his things had drifted off.

‘Don’t worry,’ they said, ‘we know Sona. We will get your things and  take you there.’ This is what they told me while he was asleep.   But, you know, he made friends with the son of an Indian ambassador. He  had been all over the world but he had this disease, when he was a child, and  could not walk… how do you call this… ah yes, thank you… polio. He and David decided to do this trip to another village when the moon was big, and I said to my wife, ‘They will not be back tonight.’ And sure enough, at twelve o’clock, I got this phone call from David. “I will not be back tonight.” And do you know what they had done? They spent all night going just back and forward like this, just watching the moon on the water. When I was young we used to go out in a boat when the moon was big, and just sit there listening to fairy tales. It is very special when the moon is big. It makes this thing on the water. It is a phenomenon. So to answer your question, ‘How long does a backwater trip take?’… the answer is… I don’t know!” (Insert frequent giggles).

8-08-07 Allepey

Joseph worked with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. He laughs as he tells us how stubborn she was. Once she had made up her mind there was no changing it. She wanted some land and insisted that as she was using it for God’s work it should be given for free. Joseph negotiated a deal so that she could get it for one rupee per acre, but still she was adamant that she would not pay for it, even when he explained that only the president could give land away and this could take months or even years, because it had to go through several government committees before going up to be passed by the full parliament. In the end Joseph paid the one rupee per acre and gave her the land to use.

“But,” he maintains, “I could tell she was a saint. When you touched her you could feel this electricity all up your arm, like this,” he says, wistfully patting his shoulder.

Kerala is known as “God’s Own Country”. After yesterday’s backwater  trip I can see why (but please don’t tell any Yorkshiremen this!)

We just happened to be in town today when the colourful parade passed through to mark the opening of the Snake Boat Festival. I had an Ayurvedic treatment, where they drip oil onto your forehead to open your third eye. The two men chatted all they way through, then they spilt some oil into my first (left) eye. OUCH!

A man claiming to be a professor of Hindu mythology and a Brahmin invited us to eat at the temple where there would be Kathakali dancers and a parade of decorated elephants… but it turned out that he was just trying to trick us into buying him a few beers and take twice the price for them. He did not succeed. Tash had him worked out pretty quickly, but it took me until he said, “You must give me four hundred rupees for this beer.” We got up and left,  despite his protests. Tash has inner voices of reason; I am sensitive when it comes to a question of beer!

10-08-07 Varkala

We left the rucksacks at Sona and took small bags, two buses and an auto-rickshaw to Varkala, or Glastonbury-on-the-Malabar-coast, where the Funky Art Café serves a fantastic paneer cheese and cashew nut curry cooked in coconut milk and the waiters sell you hashish. I had a pair of trousers made. Very cool to sit on the cliffs watching the night roll in with the monsoon rains sweeping towards us from the sea, dry on the terrace of the rooftop restaurant.

11-08-07 The Nehru Trophy, Allepey

It is the Snake Boat Races today. Some of these impressive craft have one hundred and forty rowers and travel at quite a speed. “There is even one race where the boats are entirely manned by women” booms the lady who is doing the commentary in English before she is cut off by the even louder male who is doing the same job in Malayalam (the state’s language). He frequently interrupts her quaintly archaic observations throughout the day. It is VERY crowded, an interesting rather than pleasant experience. We went back to Sona, where the races are live on television and Sona the person, not Sona the Guest House, if you see what I mean, took pity on our heavy bags and arranged an auto-rickshaw. The man had to come the back way because the police had closed off the road due to the races. As it turned out the driver offered to take us the full sixty km to Kochi we had planned on getting a bus from town. Door to door service and no sweating under heavy bags amongst bus crowds. This has to be a bargain.

Kochi (Cochin)

The Lonely Planet guide describes some of the service in the restaurants of Kochi as “indifferent”. But the Chariot Sea Front Restaurant (where I had a nice “quali flower” curry) rewrites the book. It is not so much a question of indifference as one of quite simply not being very good at service in restaurants. Things like forgetting some of the order, but rushing around a lot, or trying to take your food or drink off you while you are still eating or drinking, but still rushing around a lot. Covering one nostril with a finger so that you can snot into the street with the other one just before picking up the plates to take to diners is my personal favourite though.

13-08-07 Jaipur

The capital city of Rajasthan; Jaipur… how to describe Jaipur? A mad mosh pit of motorbikes, auto rickshaws, camel carts, more motorbikes, cars, ox carts, cows, goats, pigs, people, even more motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, buses, lorries and many more cows wondering amongst many more motorbikes, each with its volume set to full. Incessant noise. Crossing the road is to step into the carousel whirring at full speed. You could walk on the pavement and brave the filth, the hawkers and the homeless and have your path blocked in front of every shop by their owners, giving clever and persistent lines in hard sell.

The Palace of Winds is an oasis of calm, an island of tranquil beauty, where the maharajah’s wives would peer between the intricate lattice work and through the tiny windows on festival days so that they could see without being seen. The equally sublime City Palace is just as lovely. The clothes of one maharajah, who had an amazing one hundred and eight wives, was two metres tall and one point two metres wide have to be seen to be believed. At least there was plenty of him to go round all those wives, I suppose.

Step out of the palaces and you are back in the mayhem. Cycle rickshaw  drivers follow you up the road asking where you are going and “no thank you” has to be repeated… and repeated…your way blocked in front of shops, children hassling for money, following, following. Then you are assaulted by the colours of Rajasthan. Jaipur, the Pink City,painted in the traditional colour of hospitality, the whole lot, under the orders of the Maharajah to welcome the future King Edward V111. The idea stuck and now any householder who paints their dwelling in a different colour within the city walls is fined five hundred rupees per day until they conform. The scale of poverty is astounding,

from the cycle rickshaw drivers who sleep on their vehicles to dusty, dusky souls living on traffic islands, next to the palaces, and everywhere else. And the noise of the car horns is incredible. Even in the tiny back streets you are dodging motorbikes.

Thank goodness for Mr Singh’s quiet two star hotel. The Pearl Palace lives up to its name and has been exquisitely furnished, with skill and a good deal of love. “Dear Staff, please treat our guests well, they keep us in business”, proclaims the notice at reception. The first hot shower since arriving in India, a cheap rooftop restaurant, laundry and room service as well as breakfast in bed at no extra cost, smiling, welcoming and hardworking staff. This is our own haven, our own palace. But how to reconcile this with the true insanity going on all around? Mayhem and calm, comfort and destitution. Love it, hate it. I’m really not sure.

15-08-07 A Four and a Half Bus Ride from Jaipur to Pushkar

Bus drivers out of Jaipur drive south with one hand on the wheel. The other hand is on the horn. You have to blast your way out of this city. Pushkar is on a lake up in the mountains. What a place! A pele-mele of sacred hindu temples and hotels, tourist shops and monks, cows, monkeys and motorbikes. But the hawkers are far less in your face than in Jaipur. This is the site of an annual camel fair and pilgrimage. It is a curious mix of spirituality, bhang lassi sellers, the sound of hindu chants or Indian trance music. If you like shopping this place is heaven! It is so good to tone down after the madness of Jaipur.

In the Rainbow café the music competes with the singing from the kitchen. It has floor cushions around low tables overlooking the magnificent lake. Steps, temples and washing ghats tumble down to the water. Pigeons, cows, dogs and monkeys compete for the food put down for them. The whole town is vegetarian and there is a list of rules for visitors. Tash and I got told off for walking with our shoes on where we shouldn’t have. You are not allowed to show signs of affection in public and there is to be no meat, alcohol or drugs (except for the surreptitiously named Baba Special Lassi).  Tash and I share one and had a lovely evening in the brightly-painted Rainbow Café, playing cards and drinking coffee.

In the Rainbow Cafe

The spectacle of the old waiter in the loin cloth dancing to the Cheeky Girls’ “Touch my Bum”, his thin legs strutting rhythmically beneath his baggy lungi, while from the kitchen there comes a raucous, happy, but unconnected singing from the chefs, who seem to have been at the bhang lassi, huge ants everywhere and many other creatures hopping about on the floor cushions, big green lizards catching moths, their bright bodies standing out garishly against the purple, orange and yellow walls.

16-08-07 Pushkar

We got up for the sunrise over the lake. This was amazing, given that we were up in the middle of the night to change rooms once we discovered how many bugs we were sharing our bed with. The new room has a toilet that can only be described as shockingly disgraceful. As we walked to a café for breakfast (which was dismal – weak watery coffee) there was an incident; Tash got butted by a cow that she walked into while ambling along looking around but not where she was going. She maintains that she was charged and gored by a rampaging bull. On closer inspection some of the wondering cows are definitely bulls. In truth the beast hooked its horns under her top and she was unsure if it was one of those with long and very pointed horns and had cut her. Luckily it was only a bruise but she was quite shaken. Then we moved hotels, had a siesta and started the day again with a second breakfast, damn fine coffee and bhang lassi in the Baba Rooftop Restaurant.

The rest of the day we walked around the lake, to the quiet side away from the bustle of the shops ending up in the Sunset Restaurant, appropriately watching the sunset, the freaks and listening to the musicians on the street. The man who danced around to the amazing drummers looked as if he had blown into Pushkar in the sixties, had bhang lassi for breakfast every morning, then somewhere along the way had lost his marbles, given up washing, started going to temples, and decades later is still here.

21-08-07 Udaipur

It has been said that in some way people end up with the faces they deserve.  Cruelty or bitterness can etch their own marks into the skin. Equally kindness can create benevolence, almost intangible, something in the lustre of the eyes. Some faces are lined by age, wisdom or experience, others, like the monk in the Jain temple at Ranakpur, somehow radiate peace, youth and purity, an inner peace which brings its own wisdom. In the Jain temple Tash and I are interviewed for national television about our views on photography in such sites. Ranakpur is a temple with one thousand four hundred and forty four white marble pillars, each one an individual, intricately carved column.

The overall effect is one of tranquillity and beauty. We had shard a taxi with an Australian student and a Swiss mountaineer to do the two hundred kilometre round trip to Ranakpur and the impressive Kumbalgarh Fort.

Our hotel room in Udaipur has three windows overlooking the lake. The Bond film “Octopussy” was shot here and plays in many restaurants every night! Udaipur is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most beautiful cities. The bed is set into an alcove in such a way that one side is a window over the lake and the foot overlooks the dhobi ghat. It is certainly a nice view to wake up to. And in Udaipur I had a very smart, silk Nehru suit made, almost Roger Moore in its elegance… well with a bit of imagination, one can at least feel like Roger Moore… almost.

The Eidelweiss Café serves the best damn fine coffee in town. Sadly it also induces Tash to sing that awful song from “The Sound of Music”… repeatedly. The numerous motorbikes, sometimes carrying whole families, worry me even more since witnessing three people coming off their bikes in ones day. Tash is still wary of cows. I hope we never come across a cow on a motorbike.

8-09 Udaipur to Mumbai

There is a long wait at the bus station for the overdue bus. Thankgoodness for the bhang lassi we had first – it eases the tedium. And a very good thing came out of this wait. I have found a way to stop Tash from singing that dreadful Eidelweiss song, even though we went to the café for breakfast again. Tash is sitting there grimacing at the sound of a good, throaty hack from a rickshaw driver. She detests this. So all I have to do is to sing, “I’m too s(insert hack)exy for my phlegm, too s(insert hack)exy for my phlegm…” This is fantastic! And to cap it all we did actually see a cow on a motorbike. We didn’t really, I made that last bit up. Although this is a long wait I have found the song to end all songs. Maybe I will insert a hack into the word “phlegm” next time for added effect. On the bus I am woken up by the bumping to see Tash in mid-air having been launched there from the bed as we hit yet another pothole. The last night in Mumbai we enjoy a tasty thali and watch the sunset on Juhu Beach, where a man asks if he can take our photograph. Here the tourists have become the sights. It seems like an appropriately bizarre way to end the trip and the sunset is stunning.

The Malodourous Departure From India

The customs lady asks me to open my rucksack at the airport. But once she catches the scent of a month’s worth of clothes that, even though clean, have never quite dried in the humid air, she quickly and with great authority orders me to close the bag. Oh me! How to remember this experience in all it’s vivid liveliness? And do you know what? After this Indian trip I think I actually might know the answer: go and buy a cow.