Saturday, February 18, 2006

Going home - A return to the regular universe

The results are in. The best coffee was in Vienna, the cheapest beer in Slovakia. Hungary's 'Bull's Blood' red wine beats all comers, and in hindsight it was a mistake to buy wine from a Mongolian supermarket with horses tethered out the front. There is probably no better place in the world to drink tea than the corridor of a Trans-Siberian train, taking your time as you stare out at the Russian taiga, although the cafe underneath Cesky Krumlov's fairy tale castle comes close. And if there were two rules I've learned on this trip, it's that you shouldn't touch the dhal in Kolkata, and that you should wear a raincoat on Russian trains (lest your roommate takes a midnight whiz).

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about a seven month trip is that, for most of it, you think that it will never end. It stretches before you, a vast empty space of possibility, and you are so filled with excitement and anxiety about the days - no, hours - ahead that you never give a thought to the fact that it might end one day. And then, of course, it does. My feelings are mixed at the end of this trip - a wonder at what I've seen, a sadness that it has passed.

Seven months on, the possibilities have been replaced with memories which seem to fade more and more each day. Thankfully, the mundane is what you forget first. It seems unimportant to me now that our train into Lucknow was several hours late, that we unexpectedly had to spend the night in a mawkish hotel, and that our only meal of the day was a room service cheese sandwich which seemed to be missing its two main ingredients. And I'm not upset that I have forgotten the details of the uncountable hours of waiting that travel involves - staring at ceilings in airport lounges, swatting at mosquitoes on Indian train platforms. Even the bad experiences - battles with Russian bureaucrats, near-hypothermia on Sichuan buses - have lost their bite and reshaped themselves as pub stories ready for delivery when I get home.

So in the end what is left is a powerful sense of the joy and thrill of travel. It is, in a way, a parallel universe. At home life is grounded in a mostly welcome routine, and everyday life, from the breakfast on your table to the bed you sleep in, follows a largely expected path. But overseas it's different. There are three bedrooms a week, and whereas it was toast and eggs on Monday it's idli and sambar on Friday. You experience freedoms that you forget you don't have at home, like wandering out into the day without a care for where you end up, or snubbing your nose at obligation (the must-see museum/restaurant/market) to spend the afternoon with a good book. And then there is the way in which this parallel universe of travel seems to yield a more generous serving of the bizarre, from running into friends from home in cities of 12 million people, to bumping into the English cricket team at the poolside of India's most luxurious hotel.

There are people I have met on this trip who have been in this parallel universe for three, four, five years. But for me, it's time to return to earth. As thrilling as it is, it's a ride that has to end. I'll probably spend the rest of my days trying to recapture the feeling of standing in the middle of the Gobi desert, emptiness in all directions, but that's not a reason to go and live there. I miss muesli for breakfast, I miss getting excited and angry about Australian things, and I miss the people who make it home. So I'm going to pick up my bag of fading memories and take that Qantas plane out of Bangkok, back to the regular universe.

Photos of Kerala, Goa, Mumbai and Bangkok

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ché Guevara on moving on

What do we leave behind when we cross each frontier? Each moment seems split in two; melancholy for what was left behind and the excitement of entering a new land.

Ernesto 'Ché' Guevara

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Go South young man - How to travel in India without really trying

On my second day in Varkala in the southwestern state of Kerala, I narrowly escaped being hit by a falling coconut. There was a strange thrill in the near miss, for it was a hazard I hadn't encountered elsewhere in India. Runaway rickshaws, wily touts, poisonous dal - I had survived them all, but I had not thought to look out for falling fruit. As I was to learn in the coming days, Kerala is different. Not only are there coconut trees, there is sand, and sea, and you can go whole days without having an argument with anyone. At some point during the flight from Mumbai we seemed to have entered a parallel India that wasn't like India at all.

It took a while to settle in. Along with my luggage, I brought to Kerala a steeliness that I had cultivated during my time in the North. For months I had walked India's streets ready to dispose any number of weapons at a moment's notice: the withering glare, the barking rebuke,the efficient elbow. But all of this seemed a little out of place in the South. As we walked along the clifftop in Varkala, vendors called out to us to enter their shop, but it was half-hearted, as if they were glad to retreat to their stool in the shade. It was very different to the North, where touts would follow you home and marry your sister on the off-chance they could sell you a rug. In the end E and I had no option but to succumb - we shed our steeliness and decided to relax.

There were swims before breakfast, and again in the evening, the small waves gently massaging our tired bodies. In the day we escaped the sun, lying in hammocks under coconut trees and reading. And if we were in the mood we would head out for a cocktail before dinner, most often a pina colada, made with local fresh pineapple. We spent a day on a houseboat, and sat on the front deck as our personal staff punted us through the gorgeous Keralan Backwaters. Giant banana leaves swayed languidly in the breeze, as if telling us to take our time. In the the Western Ghats we forfeited an afternoon of sitting to have an Ayeurvedic massage, and lay back as masseurs rubbed oil over our suddenly slippery bodies. Against my will, I began to fret about what were appropriate thoughts on a massage table - I tried to concentrate on the feeling in my muscles, but soon I was thinking about dinner, and returning home, and I tensed as I thought I'd better come up with some better thoughts, and quickly. It occured to me later that my time in Kerala had left me in such an intense state of relaxation that my mind had begun to rebel against it.

The only cause for consternation came at meal times. Keralan cuisine is different from northern cuisine in two main respects: it is cooked in coconut oil, and it is far more spicy, for the very practical reason that, in the tropical Keralan climate, the chili cools you down. The only problem is, as Kerala's popularity as a tourist destination has grown, the more restaurants have rushed to cater for what they perceive as the blander tastes of Westerners. Kerala is marketed in Europe as a tropical holiday destination for middle-aged travellers who like eggs for breakfast, pasta for dinner, and if they must, "Indian food but not too spicy, please". And so it arrives on your table and you brace for disappointment - it's been made with curry powder, or it's served cold, or it looks like chicken nuggets. We've been telling any restaurant that listens that this is the worst Indian food we have ever tasted - in the world. Each night is a little tug of war with those travellers who bring their cardboard palletes and the restaurants that are afraid of turning them away.

On our houseboat, of course, we had a personal chef, and we told him at every opportunity that we liked our food spicy. And he did not disappoint. He served up a delicious spread of local food: fat Keralan rice, tasty sambar, and colourful dishes of fish and vegetables cooked with liberal doses of green chilies. Halfway through the meal our chef came to check on us. Sweat was dripping from our brows, our noses were running, my mouth was having trouble tasting the food, and we gave him the big thumbs up. And, magically, our bodies seemed to cool, as if the chili had dissipated the heat and humidity that had clung to our skin for days.

The chef had delivered the goods, and we gave him our last beer to say thanks. It was evident that he didn't share it with the crew, for a short time later he was red-faced and ten minutes into a runaway monologue about Kerala, linguistics, capital punishment, Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan. As he drew breath we politely told him that we needed a good night's sleep and had to get to bed - after all, there was no telling how much swimming, and reading, and daydreaming, that the 'morrow would bring.

Photos of Varanasi and the tropical South

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

"Gobi, aloo, matter!" - Memories of a month standing still

Each morning in Lucknow I was woken up not by an alarm clock or a rooster, but by a vegetable wallah. "Gobi, aloo, matter (cauliflower, potato, peas)!" he would call out as he pushed his vegetable trolley down the street. Soon after others would join him: the milk wallah, the cream wallah, the bread wallah - this last one saved his voice and used a bell. Residents were saved a trip to the supermarket, simply wandering out onto the street each time they wanted to stock up on groceries. These cries would continue throughout the day, until they were replaced in the evening by the whistles of security guards. Not equipped with walkie-talkies, guards wandering the area would instead blow whistles to each other. If no whistle was blown in reply then something was wrong, and the guard would go running to find his mate.

A month in a place is not a long time, but it's amazing what you can absorb just by standing still. You benefit from the slow-drip of information about everyday life, and the release from travel's crazed daily attempts to go out and find 'India'. The grocery wallahs are just one example of the millions of Indians whose office is on the street and who work incredibly hard to make a living. Cycle rickshaw drivers ply the roads of Lucknow carrying a middle class cargo that sometimes amounts to a family of four, the driver hopping off on the steeper hills to manually pull the bike and its load. There are the streetside vendors, selling anything from chai, jewellery, flowers and clothing, whose jobs are relatively stable but include crushing hours. I lived in an middle class home, and grew accustomed to the amount of 'help' that visited the house daily - the laundry man, the dishwasher, the cleaners, the cook - with the vague task of 'supervision' being the only job left to the home owner.

But at the other end of the spectrum, working life is often measured out in cups of tea and lunch breaks. In an attempt to collect a parcel, I descended into the belly of Lucknow GPO and observed dozens of bureaucrats sitting at dusty, empty desks and doing nothing but reflecting on their rock solid job security. They were visibly perturbed that I had interrupted their collective daydream, and in the end it took two visits, an audience with the Deputy Postmaster and several arguments before anyone lifted a finger to give me my parcel - which, of course, had been sitting all along in a cabinet at the side of the room. The bureaucrats at the railway station have a similar work ethic, with the number of tea breaks increasing exponentially as you progress through the senior levels. Their twin expertises seemed to be in sitting and in doing as little as possible - more than enough to secure their paychecks.

Being in Lucknow also gave me time to reflect on the increasingly troubling problem of what to do about Indian men. E has attracted the stares of Indian men throughout the country, and Lucknow was no different. Some are simply curious, which is not surprising given that Lucknow is off the tourist trail and does not see many Westerners. But others are hostile, and while it is by no means all Indian men who engage in these stares, it is widespread enough to be a source of discomfort to E each time she went out in public. The lingering stares of men in their 20s, 30s and 40s exhibit the slack-jawed sexual immaturity of thirteen-year-olds gathered around a Playboy magazine, but it is of the sort that has grown sour and impatient over the years. The stares also seem to carry in them the perception that women are nothing more than objects and property. It is this sort of attitude that has seen E and many other Western women groped in public places, but women in India suffer far worse on a daily basis. Newspapers are filled with stories of horrific violence. Bandits boarding a train and gang raping a woman in the toilets while four police officers in close proximity did nothing. 'Dowry murders', where husbands pour kerosene on their wives and light a match when their attempts to extort money from her family are refused. Through our contact with a women's legal organisation we met a woman who was attacked by her husband because she went out to find employment. She is now trying to raise money for a third essential operation to ease the suffering caused by the acid burns he inflicted on her.

One of the struggles of travel in India is to absorb the stark inequality and frightening violence without writing off the entire country and everyone in it. In Lucknow I was fortunate to have experiences to help right the balance. I met passionate, feminist women who spend their working lives fighting to improve circumstances for women, and I met gentle, loving husbands who saw their wives as nothing other than equals. I was the beneficiary of touching generosity, as when I was invited to an Indian wedding, or when new friends took me by surprise and helped a homesick boy celebrate a wonderful birthday. I snuck beer into my room and was joined by my landlord's son - but only, he said, after he confessed to his mother that he was going upstairs for some boozing. Thanks to the people I met there, so much of daily life in Lucknow turned out to be a thrill, and the days of wandering city streets battling touts ("Sir-you-are-from-which-country?") seemed a distant memory.

I'm not sure if I'll end up 'missing' Lucknow, but there are memories that have burrowed into my head and are unlikely to leave. Like the familiar faces at the local auto-rickshaw rank who always offered me a fair price, and the more hard-edged drivers in the city who always bargained hard. The local internet cafe, which had a new surprise each time - power failures, faulty keyboards, broken printers - and the clerk who would always shake his head at me and smile, as if trying to work out what a white boy was doing in his shop. And I will think about the relief I felt in arriving back in Lucknow after a short trip to Kolkata, almost as if I were returning 'home'. It's funny how quickly you can fall into the rhythms of a place, how quickly you find local haunts and familiar faces. It all adds up to some sort of connection, and it would be wrong to say that there is no loss in letting that go.

Photos of Lucknow streets, birthday pics, and Kolkata