Thursday 26 February 2015

The Soul of the Journey

Writing about travelling is easy. You go to places, describe how they look, sound, smell, feel, taste. You interlace those descriptions with the opinions you form and compare them with other places you’ve been to or nest them with the things you’ve read, heard or seen. Choosing what to write about is easy too, because the days, places and experiences break into pieces like biscuits. 

But every now and then, when you’ve talked about all the bits of biscuit you’ve broken off and eaten, you look down and there’s just a plate full of crumbs. And the crumbs are much harder to write about than the biscuits.

What is happening when you’re not surfing, climbing a mountain, going to the zoo or shitting yourself to death? Because really the bits in between are the essence of what it means to be on the road. As some genius once said:
Travelling is not so much about the dots as the joining of them...the big things; the memories, the places, the photographs; they're important. But the subtle things, harder to write about or recall, are the soul of the journey. 
I’m writing this on the Chennai Mail train, heading up to Kochi from Varkala, and I should have taken it sooner. Life has been pretty good these last few (nine) days and I’ve overindulged in the ease of my surroundings and company. I can’t be exactly sure why I am here, but have a fairly strong sense that it’s as much about what’s going on inside me as outside. So I’ve been doing fuck all of any real note except surfing in the morning, yoga at night and loafing around chewing the fat with the people who come and go every few days and the ones that stick around. I’ve been working on the soul.

I’ve suffered with back pain at various times in my life, and have seen countless osteopaths, chiropractors and physios over the years. Everyone single one of them told me to do yoga, but I didn’t. Because, I said, I wasn’t flexible enough to do yoga. Which, as one Indian guy remarked the other day, is a bit like saying you’re too dirty to have a bath.

I only started yoga last summer so can’t bring myself to talk about my yoga practice just yet - for now I still just do yoga. And I’ve been doing a lot of it over the last week, guided by an extremely good (and patient) teacher, Hayley, who bent my misdirected limbs back in the right direction and made the necessary modifications, piling up mats and bolsters so that poses could accommodate my fucked, inflexible body. 

A few days ago we had a yin session, where you hold the poses for five minutes, remaining completely still. It's far more effective than waterboarding if you’re ever pushed for time extracting sensitive information from me, but actually taking the stretches beyond the barrier, the release is incredible. Sitting there, hips splayed as wide as they’ll go, spine straight, eyes closed, I could hear my inner voice repeating its silent mantra over and over:
Pain is just weakness leaving the body
OK so Chuck Norris is no yogi, but he was bang on the money with that one. And is if to prove a point, I went and had an Esalen massage later that afternoon. Having winced, groaned, dribbled and laughed nervously through my fair share of massages over the years - Sports, Swedish, Thai, Seitai, Ghee - they all pale into a puddle of drool on the floor compared to this one.

Franco, the brilliantly titled Head of Massage at Soul & Surf (he’s the only guy giving massages), is a genius. The testimonies were glowing, many of them alluding to the strong emotional impact of the technique and being pretty open-minded about such things these days, I went in ready to be amazed.

When I walked out of there an hour or so later, I was in a trance. Every nerve in my body was on fire, pulsing with the electric currents that keep us feeling everything, but which we never feel. At various moments of extreme pain as he worked knots or manipulated my joints, I felt long held negative memories, thoughts and resentments bursting like squeezed spots and carrying themselves out of me with the breath and the pain. The cumulative effect is not just the intense work on the muscles, but on the source of all that tension and the latent resistance that we don’t even realise we’re mounting.

Lying there at the end, completely corpse like, I wanted to cry, but found myself laughing instead, more out of sheer disbelief than anything else. It was hard to walk when I finally got up, floating outside, looking completely bewildered and experiencing such basic sensations, seemingly for the first time that I didn’t really know what to do. In the uncertainty I did the only thing I could, which was to hug the guy, and say thank you. Later, someone told me he had remarked, “That, was a massage.” 

And he was right.


India, I’m on my way.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

The Dissolving Sun

Wherever you go in the world, people are drawn to the sunset. They climb, walk, scramble, and jostle for position, huddle to watch it together or seek out the space to enjoy it alone. But they always head towards it, walking west, as the world beneath them turns slowly away.

From Varkala there is no west, just the vast, endless sea. So calm and flat that you can’t imagine not being able to walk across it, and sense the curvature of the Earth gently sloping away in your peripheral vision. The light is pure and crisp and the horizon cuts across the day like a fold in a sheet of paper.

Throughout the day and night, the Earth turns imperceptibly; untethered, floating, and only at dusk and dawn, when the sun seems moored to the horizon, can we marvel at its slow, deliberate rise and fall. But the sun doesn’t set here so much as it dissolves, and though each day promises differently, in the evening dust and haze rise up from the water to claim it before it gets a chance to set.

The other night I swam out to get a little closer, descending the steep steps to the little beach, where the wind was whipping the waves into a choppy mess. The surface of the water was glossy and smooth despite the ripples and peaks, the sea looking at times oily black, and others pure, virginal white. As the sun edged further away yet nearer, it became more and more orange, cleaner around the edges, glowing so perfectly that I felt I could reach out and clutch it when I wasn’t being sucked under the shifting surface of the tide or having my shorts tugged down by the backwash.

I was sure that the crisp orange disc would reward my twilight swim with a true sunset, and the more so the longer the whole process took. But sure enough, the last inch of sky denied me. The orange turned dusty pink, and the sun’s lowest edge fizzled into the hazy darkness that had risen from the sea, like an effervescent, and we watched it slowly dissolve into the distance until no trace remained. 

Ducking under the waves into the darkness of the water, I reemerged and the last light of the sun, still warm on the retinas of my salty eyes, shone once more. It was as though it had been winched up for a final encore, but of course it had gone and when I blinked again I was just bobbing around on the jet black waves. I laid on my back, floating and when I opened my eyes a toe nail clipping of moon was glowing in the dark blue sky and the light from the fizzled out sun lived on into the night.

Monday 23 February 2015

Soul and Surf

Last Monday morning, I stepped from a train, into a tuk-tuk, and was delivered to the door of a place called Soul & Surf on the top of South Cliff, Varkala. I was still hosting the Giardia parasite that had been laying waste to my insides since the week before, and desperately needed a reboot. And a reboot is what I got.

Despite growing up within quarter of a mile of the sea, and loving it, I’ve never enjoyed being in it. I’ve never been a good swimmer, never been comfortable in the ocean, never liked having my head underwater, my ears, nose and throat full of brine. Never liked the fact that you can’t see what is around you – seaweed, creatures, effluent. Never liked being at the mercy of the waves’ powerful, primeval force.

I’ve been in the sea before, with a surfboard strapped to my ankle, but that’s not surfing. “Surf lessons” on a stag do – fifteen idiots lined up on a beach in Wales or Hossegor, wetsuits still damp from the last guy's sweat and urine, tight yellow rash vests riding up around our chests, we looked more like a Star Trek Convention’s float at Gay Pride than a bunch of surfers. And an hour with a Hawaiian giant on Huntington Beach, thrashing about like a drowning dog, doesn’t count either. So this week I started from scratch.

Started from scratch, got scratched. Scratched by rocks, sand and surfboards. Slapped, smacked, twisted, flipped, tumbled and churned by the waves over and over and over again. Eaten so much surf I’ve barely needed to eat anything else. Wipeout followed wipeout, followed wipeout.

This morning, in my fifth lesson, I caught my first proper wave. I picked it, paddled into it, sensed the rush of it beneath me, felt the nose easing down, popped up at just the right time, sank lower onto my knees, did that thing with the arms, and even managed to grab the rail and start to turn. It felt like I was up there for minutes, not seconds, but in those moments I felt the pure, unadulterated exhilaration of the surf, and the last four mornings of pain and frustration all slotted into place.

Unfortunately for me, the guy with the camera didn’t manage to capture this moment. But he was there for my next wave, using the lens to harvest the precise nanosecond in which I nosedived, preserving it thus for all eternity:

The experience of learning to surf might not fit in most backpackers’ itineraries of a trip round India, but travelling isn’t just about the places you visit. There is never a bad time to turn your hand to something new and especially not if you’re a perfectionist like me - riddled with self doubt and unwilling to attempt things I feel certain I will be shit at, or that confront deep held fears and contravene my natural instincts.

Without really noticing the transition, I’m no longer afraid of the water. I'm not afraid of the washing machine, of the puffer fish that I know is out there (we saw one) or by the human turds that must be bobbing around too (we didn't). I’m not afraid of looking stupid (just as well) or of trying, over and over again, and still failing. It’s been as much a pleasure to be flipped about by the surf like some old child's toy as it has been to float gently on the board waiting for a wave.

Sitting out there waiting, it's a strange, lonely place. You kind of know what you're looking for, but not with any certainty. You go for this one, you miss the next. You wait, pick, paddle, fail. You catch one, but it slips through your tired fingers. Every now and then, you're rewarded with a ride. The only thing you can be truly sure of as you bob around, float, grunt, moan, castigate yourself, curse the waves or lack of them, is that they will never, ever stop. Missed one? You might have to wait, but there'll be another. There always is.

That's the surf taken care of then. The soul might take a bit more work....

Tuesday 17 February 2015

The Human Zoo

I've lived in London for ten years and never once felt like visiting the zoo there. But Trivandrum is not London, and there's nothing else to do. That isn’t a criticism – I like it here, I like the pace of life and the way it seems more spacious and, dare I say it, European, than Bangalore or Mumbai. But there is only so much street pounding one can endure and the zoo at least promises leafy shade in the afternoon sun.

It's Sunday, and it is packed with people. Generations of families are ambling through the contoured pathways in a sort of hypnotic passeggiata, stopping occasionally to search for well-hidden monkeys or gathering to provoke disinterested parrots into conversation. I don’t really feel a part of this ritual, rather it becomes another attraction of the zoo, and I find myself watching the people watching the animals, as well as watching them myself.

In his remarkable work of fiction/memoir/history/travelogue, Austerlitz, W G Sebald’s narrator has some time to pass waiting for a train at Antwerp Station. There, he ducks into the zoo and is enthralled by the denizens of its Nocturama, whose eyes remind him of those of great philosophers.

I'm not sure what he'd have made of this place, since the most striking thing about the animals here is how fucking bored they look. Not just bored actually, but sad and morose. The countenance of those whose faces I get close enough to see brings to mind Wolf Suschitzky's extraordinary 1958 portrait of Guy the Gorilla at London Zoo.

© Wolf Suschitzky 1958

Some that I view from a distance, like this statuesque zebra, standing alone in a vast enclosure, even manage to stand depressively. Others take a long time to emerge from their background, like those magic eye images that you had to stare at for minutes before a Tyrannosaurus Rex or whatever hit the back of your retina. A solitary rhinoceros, hornless, his very rhinocerosness taken from him, chewed over a pile of grass as the sun dried the mud on his thick, primitive skin to blend him into his surroundings.

Some of the younger animals are agitated by their predicament. A leopard paced back and forth over the same stretch of ground for as long as I stood there, and I noticed how he turned upon exactly the same spot of ground at the end of each short patrol. His movement was so metronomic and deliberate, I thought of Steve McQueen bouncing his baseball off the wall in the Great Escape, and wondered how long it would be before he succumbed to insanity, or sprouted Papillon wings and fluttered off over the fence.

Thinking of all those animals, I couldn't help but wonder what on earth they made of us. This herd of different shaped and sized creatures of the same species, squawking at one another and to them, addressing them in an alien tongue and pointing eyes and arms and cameras in their direction. Then I realised that I travel around and do exactly the same thing.

I don't want to be a voyeur and the photographs I take when I travel are rarely of people. In Peru I met an Argentinean photographer who shot the most incredible portraits. He took them using a 200mm lens, never with the consent of his subjects, and heavily processed the images to accentuate the contours of their shy, Andean skin. He was a kind, gentle man, but I couldn’t imagine stealing people’s faces in this way.

I left in a sombre mood, wondering if India wasn't just my temporary zoo and I was sauntering about, marvelling at its inhabitants, gabbling at them in an incomprehensible tongue, imposing my own thoughts and ideas upon them and never stopping to wonder what affect or impact I might be having upon them

In the zoo the creatures are taken from their natural habitat and exhibited for our delectation and curiosity. Out in the real world, you have to guard against taking people and their actions out of their own natural habitat too. Measuring them by your own standards, with vagaries no less absurd, is just like putting them in cages to wonder and gawp at, I thought, as I walked away from the stench of animal dung, stopping only to have a kickabout with these guys for ten minutes:

Sunday 15 February 2015

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

India stirs up all kinds of emotions, amongst other things, and I’ve ridden the full gamut of them in the last 24 hours.

Hampi was magical, but getting sick taints a place, and I needed to leave. My insides still unstable, I double dropped some Loperamide and shuffled towards the taxi.

I say taxi, though it was no such thing. I sat briefly on the back seat, or what was left of it, then opted for the front, before we bounced and bucked our way along snaking dirt roads, the driver’s soundtrack of throat clearing, spitting and nose blowing almost drowning out the noise of my weeping. As he repeatedly wiped his orifices with grubby hands, I could almost see the germs fluorescing, like in those bleach adverts. Kills 99.9% of all known bacteria.

The drive itself was bewitching, through endless villages buzzing with evening activity. Cows, kids, dogs, men, women, cars, bikes, trucks, all vying for our attention, and every vehicle blinding every other one with lights blazing on dazzling full beams. This is rural India, and it is poor, but the richness of the place and its people wafts in through the open window with the dust and the smell of the night.

On the platform at Hospet Junction, waiting for the train to Bangalore, children played and urinated, men spat and dogs sauntered back and forth proprietarily. This is their domain, and we visit only briefly. I spent those moments in silent despair. Perhaps sensing my vulnerability, a dog curled up next to my bags, and I thought of the theme tune from the Littlest Hobo.

The train rolled towards us in slow motion. Every inch it crept along took minutes; minutes I could no longer spare. I had prayed for a cabin to myself, but shared one with three other men. This is India - you don't get what you had hoped for, but something infinitely better instead.

My conversation with Athar Ali, Rail Commissioner for the State of Karnataka, felt lifted from the musty pages of some fiction or other. A large, proud, man in white Muslim dress, it was quite some time before he spoke. In slow, precise English, accent as heavy as his build, he told me of his travels around India, recommending places to visit, of his trips to the Middle East, to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and asked many questions of London and England, most of which related to the infrastructure. Having enquired of my education, we discussed the influence of British rule on modern India and he lamented its passing. 

When it came to bedtime, I deferred to his rank in the civil service, not to mention his substantial frame, and took the more awkward top bunk. He repaid this kindness by snoring all night long, whilst I woke every forty minutes or so, just grateful for the merciful calm that still prevailed in my digestive system.

Until 5:30am. When the shit really hit the tracks.

The details don’t warrant sharing, but I sensed a transformation from casual diarrhea into something more sinister. The last hundred yards as we pulled into Bangalore City Station took an eternity. I was weak, tired, and ready to find a quiet corner somewhere to just curl up in and shit myself to death. This being India, I doubt that anyone would have noticed.

Instead, I found a hotel and after a painfully long registration process was in a small, clean room. Alone at last, with only a strange holographic picture of rabbits on the wall for company. I could relax.

But no.

Whatever had started up on the train continued, badly, and I alternated between lying meekly on the bed in the foetal position and cradling head in hands on the toilet, grateful that I had brought my own bog paper, since there was none, nor hose (far more useful) neither. Good day’s.

I must have slept, and woke realising I needed medical attention. Outside the door, was Bangalore. What did it have in store for me? The first thing to hit was the heat. Then the noise. Then the pollution. Jab-cross-hook. I probably should have been overwhelmed but I just felt at its mercy, with no inclination to put up a fight. I'd given up.

Having crossed the road without looking, I rubbed my aching belly with a modest, “My stomach is very bad.” “Lose moisture?” replied the pharmacist, and I wondered if there could possibly be a more diplomatic way of describing my condition, or one unburdened by greater understatement. “See Doctor. Get prescription,” he added with a jig of the head in that wonderfully Indian way, and gave me directions: “Go left. Doctor Something I don’t understand.” “Doctor Who?” I unwittingly replied, before he repeated it, and I thought I heard the word “Ram.” 

And I had, because on the next left down a narrow, dusty alleyway, I duly found Dr Rama Krishna, and within thirty seconds of crossing his threshold, he had examined me, written out a lengthy prescription and told me exactly what I needed to do. And they say the NHS is the best healthcare system in the world. As an afterthought, he asked me for 200 rupees (£2), and I wasn’t about to haggle.

Emboldened by this experience, I went for a wander to sort my phone out. The process for getting a prepaid SIM card in India is similar to that for buying weapons grade plutonium in the west, and only a few shops issue them to foreigners. I ask for directions, which means being given wildly conflicting instructions of the “Go left,” “Right, right,” variety, always accompanied by copious head wobbling. It’s possible they’re not actually conflicting, and will all eventually lead to the same place, but I ask as many people as I can and assimilate their responses into a sort of statistically reliable chance of finding what the fuck it is I’m looking for.

Having found the place, so begins a series of pointless yet demanding administrative obstacles that would have had Franz Kafka ripping his eyeballs out in despair. I am sent around the houses getting photocopies of this and that, passport photographs, and then have to traipse miles back to my hotel for their card so I can pretend I’m living there, Partridge style. Having finally procured all this and returned to fill out the onerous form, they hand me a giant SIM card. Changing this to a nano SIM that will fit my phone means repeating the entire registration process. Tomorrow. And I’m flying to Kerala tonight.

I felt every bit as bad as I looked

Sensing my growing pain and despondency, the guys in the shop go to extraordinary lengths to expedite things, and manage to compress the two processes into one. That’s not it of course – there are telephone calls and service requests to be logged over the coming hours until I eventually get online the next morning. Athar Ali had told me that the British were great administrators and their legacy was missed after independence, but I argued that we over administrate. They’re definitely not wanting in that department.

A cab takes me from downtown Bangalore to the airport. It’s dusk again, and I feel like I’m travelling inside an exhaust pipe. The combustion engines keep on combusting, thousands of tiny controlled explosions all within yards of one another. Old buses belch out dense syrupy fumes, while tuk-tuks and scooters cough and splutter like taxi drivers. The airport feels like paradise, and I fill my lungs with its conditioned air.

I hold onto my insides for the short flight and before long I’m in another taxi, winding through the quaint streets of Trivandrum. It’s fresher and cleaner here and I instinctively like the place. Maybe I’m just glad to be so close to my destination, but more likely Kerala already feels like a welcome return to the bliss of Goa, feels like home. It’s not over yet of course – the taxi driver has no idea where he’s taking me, and cruises past hotels all over town in the hope that he stumbles upon mine, and it’s shortly before midnight when he finally does.

I've had enough of India. Enough of the endless film of increasingly visible filth that covers everything I encounter; of the piles of garbage that line its streets and the stench of it rotting; of the relentless spitting and throat clearing; of the vague, incomprehensible directions and baffling head shakes; of the endless administrative merry-go-round, forms to be filled in and stamps to be stamped; of the pervasive, lung wringing, toxic pollution and, most of all, enough of the parasite it has smuggled inside me that has liquefied my guts.

But at every low point in the last 24 hours, the warmth, kindness and humanity of Indian people has seen me through. And somehow, against all probability and despite the shitlist of things you have to put up with, everything seems to turn out just about all right in the end. 

So tomorrow survives; a prospect that excites me still.

**head wobbles**

Saturday 14 February 2015

Good day's, bad day's

The blow, when it came, was a big one, and they clubbed together to let me have it. The only surprise is that it took sixteen days to land.

good day's? bad day's more like
Although I felt nauseous alongside the obvious inconvenience of having chronic diarrhea, it wasn’t until 10pm when, sipping on another dioralyte, my mouth twinged with the sickly sweet taste of whatever that stuff is that warns you you’re about to vomit, and I was astounded to see the food I had consumed nine hours earlier erupting into the bowl in a series of powerful, violent convulsions. I felt better afterwards of course, but then things couldn’t get much worse.

It’s been well over twenty-four hours now, of feeling listless and drained of energy. Only the electrolyte sachets are keeping me topped up, and I’ve consumed so many of them that even normal water now tastes of their peculiar flavour: vaguely blackcurrant, strongly hospital.

Being sideswiped by gastric issues is an absolute given on a trip to India. In retrospect, it hasn't been that bad (if it has actually finished). I’ve definitely had worse. Or maybe not, and maybe it’s actually about where and when the inevitable happens. Locked in a dingy hotel room in a small town in Peru, I thought I was dying of typhoid. Laid up in a cool, spacious hut overlooking endless rice fields, with a swinging seat on the porch, it just feels like an occupational hazard.

Being housebound here isn't so bad. I've sat and watched all the curious little animals that inhabit the area - stripy backed squirrels, beautiful birds, curious lizards, giant flying beetles by day. As sun sets, the bats come out, birds flock and the cicadas and frogs start their mating calls. These rise to an infernal crescendo that lasts until the cockerels start up at the first hint of dawn, but it's a far greater sound than the cistern flushing every five minutes.

I was going to write that getting a stomach bug in India is just the price you pay for being here and experiencing everything the country has to offer. But I'm worried that it will take more than my insides away with it. I've already found myself worrying about what and where to eat, whereas before I was tucking in left, right and centre. Suddenly I seem to be noticing how fucking filthy everything is, that the smell of waste is always lingering somewhere, and I'm beginning to question everything – what I touch, who I shake hands with. Everyone and everything now seems a potential hazard.

So it's probably not a bad time to be moving on and out of Hampi. The overnight train to Bangalore awaits, and at least, unlike the bus, it will have a fucking toilet on it. I'm just praying, really truly praying, that I'm not going to need it....

Thursday 12 February 2015

Hampi: Man vs Nature

It’s easy to read so much about some places that you almost know them by the time you arrive, and the magic of their first impression is diluted or lost altogether.

I steered clear of reading too much about Hampi, or looking at pictures, knowing only what I had gleaned from the Lonely Planet: that the ruins and temples of an ancient city lay among a landscape littered with enormous boulders. I was more interested in the boulders than the temples; these giant stone balls that cover the landscape, but their size and number is overwhelming. And the reality is that they don’t litter the landscape - they are the landscape.

It might look as though these rocks are the result of some seismic catastrophe or volcanic eruption, but the granite terrain of Hampi is actually one of the most ancient and stable surfaces in the world. Three and a half billion years in the making, its unique boulder formations are the result of erosion. At first underground, by water, and then as the plateau uplifted over millions and millions of years, the rock was exposed and polished into its current shapes by the wind and Sun. It's tempting to call them other-worldly but that would be to completely misunderstand them, so inherently of this world are they.

The hills and ridges that line the horizon are an endless string of these stones. They lie clumped together, spread about as though dropped by birds, or balanced impossibly upon one another, as if by some wizard. It is easy to understand why primitive man took to using the notion of God to explain the world. Who else could have arranged them thus?

Where your eye isn’t drawn to these strange formations, their solid, smooth skin glistening pink and rusty in the baking sun, it is taken by the lush, stark greens of the palm trees, banana plantations and paddy fields that fill the gaps between them. It seems inconceivable that a landscape can look at once both so barren and so fertile. The boulders remind me of Southern Utah, where the red dusty terrain was so dry and inhospitable.

In the heart of this landscape are the little towns of Hampi Bazaar, and across the river, Virupapur Gaddi and Anegundi. Hampi is the modern name for Vijayanagara, a vast Hindu city that flourished from around the 14th century until 1565, when it succumbed to invasion by an alliance of Muslim sultanates and was razed to the ground. And that was the end of what was at the time probably the second largest city in the world – sacked, destroyed and emptied.

The little towns themselves are no longer empty. Hampi Bazaar is full of tuk-tuk drivers and guesthouse owners, though the tourists themselves are harder to spot. Over the river in VG, an international community of unwashed, dreadlocked travellers are in permanent residence. I feel pretty conspicuous in my GAP shorts and the plain t-shirt is doing nothing for my credibility. Nor is the fact that I don't take drugs, if the conversations I have overheard are anything to go by. And not just the conversations - the wild coughing fits of my three Israeli neighbours turned out to be the result of them smoking buckets at 8:30 in the morning before they checked out, and the guy sat opposite me as I type this may actually have passed out while smoking a joint (it's 10am), so long has it been since his eyes were open.

Though the towns are busy, the temples are not. Whereas in Angkor, Cambodia, the town has millions of tourists passing through each year and the best spots are crammed with punters, this place is practically deserted. It's a treat to wander among them like this, with only a handful of backpackers and locals for company. The last stop on my tour is the incredible Vittala Temple. If the others seemed empty, this one is definitely full - they're filming a movie and it is packed with cast, crew, extras and curious, friendly locals.

There is a wonderful synergy between the ruined buildings and their surroundings. In Japan, this is called shakkei, meaning borrowed landscape, where temples were designed to harness the contours of nature and incorporate them into their beauty, but it feels like the reverse has happened here. Man did his best but the stones are so huge, so overpowering, that they dwarf even his greatest efforts to outdo them.

I was reminded of how I felt in Nikko in Japan – a lush forest hiding countless temples, the glorious trees cut down to make way for stone monuments to the Gods. And so it is here in Hampi, where the unique landscape was mined to build a city, and the most intricate and remarkable temples were carved from raw and unsubtle rock. It’s strange to be here, marvelling at the things man has laboured over in the glory of god, when all around us true testimony to the wonders of the Earth, its creation and existence, lie abundant and undisturbed.

The other evening I climbed the six hundred steps up to Monkey temple on a hill that overlooks the valley. As always, I found myself walking towards the sunset, and again I thought of elsewhere in the world, of White Sands in New Mexico, where I watched an incredible sunset, tiny grains of gypsum sand running through my fingers. My hands reached down to touch the rock beneath me and I was struck most of all by its warmth, and how solid and intransient it seemed compared to those fragments of dust. So I laid my body out across the granite, in savasana, to feel as much of it in contact with me as possible. When I eventually opened my eyes and looked up, the old Sun was almost out of sight, growing larger, it seemed, as we inched away from it, and I thought that it takes being in a landscape like this, what we might call “other-worldly”, to realise just how completely fucking amazing the one we live on really is.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

It's all about the Journey, not the Destination

A few of us were sat up the other night talking about India. Simon, who has been just about everywhere, proper travelling (the dreadlocks have gone thank God but he still occasionally wears the fisherman pants), was moaning about the logistics of buses and trains. A hitherto oddly silent South African guy (or was he silently odd?) suddenly and irrelevantly chipped in with the old "Yeah, but it's all about the journey, not the destination."


We let him leave before we started ridiculing him, and took turns recounting our worst experiences, of which Simon's "Shitting into a carrier bag lying on the floor of a bus from Delhi" story was the clear winner. Travelling itself, that journey, yes, that's what it's all about - people, places, the experience. Riding unreliable and unsanitary buses and trains at stupid times of the night, over extreme distances, is an infernal pain in the arse endured solely on account of the destination they deliver you to.

Last night I finally got round to leaving Patnem, and took the 9:30pm bus from Cancona to Hampi. You do what you can to make these things bearable, so I went for the most expensive option: an air conditioned flat bed. 

No one seriously expects the bus to arrive on time, and it duly obliges, rocking up at the dusty old stand, after innumerable false dawns, shortly before 11. No big deal there, but what actually arrives looks like the sort of vehicle they used to export live calves in. Either that, or it has been modelled on the racks of cages you get in a pet shop, scaled up to house humans instead of gerbils.

I'm resigned to the discomfort of a sweaty, rocking bed for the sleepless night and make my way aboard, looking for berth 23. There are upper and lower bunks on either side of the gangway, with curtains pulled across by those already asleep. 23 is next to 24. Right next to it. As in, it's a double berth. A crucial piece of information they omitted to share when I booked, and that I would certainly have shelled out another 1,500 rupees to rectify.

The non-English speaking Japanese guy asleep in 24 wishes I had too. He is wearing either pyjamas or a martial arts suit, I can't be sure, and hugging several large bin bags that he has to awkwardly rearrange in order to accommodate me in my two foot wide share of what he thought was his bed. I smile and try to be friendly but he appears quite unsettled by all of this so I offer to take the window side, where I promptly wedge my feet up against the wall, cross my arms across my chest like a corpse, and inexplicably fall asleep.

When I wake up ten minutes later, I'm thinking about how this situation would have made me feel at various times in my life. Uncomfortable, awkward, threatened, resentful and angry, I think. But right now, I couldn't care less. I'm just lying there, smiling to myself, surrendering my fate to the universe, or more specifically, to the Indian system for allocating bus seats, and revelling in the lightness and absence of stress that comes from the abdication of control. And so I start to wonder if I don't secretly, masochistically, enjoy all the inconveniences that attend getting from one place to another

After a couple of hours we stop and I go for a piss (there's no toilet on the bus). Not keen to shit myself, I knock back a couple of Imodium too and climb back aboard. This is the last stop where new people might board and there's still a free bunk, into which I now debunk. When my Japanese friend realises I've moved, an expression of pure, unadulterated delight explodes across his little face.

The rest of the night is uneventful: intermittent sleep on a hard sofa that hasn't been upholstered (or cleaned) in the last hundred years while my head sweats on a "pillow" made of dentist's chair material. Halfway through the night I remember I bought a snickers and, in the ecstasy, devour it in one mouthful. It's daylight when we arrive, a few hours late, naturally, and the bus is greeted by a crowd of rickshaw drivers, baying for rupees. They mob us like rock stars as we alight, waving maps in our faces as if they want us to autograph them.

A friendly looking guy named Pampa takes me down to the river for the first boat of the day from Hampi Bazaar to Virupapur Gadde where I'm staying. Standing on the ghat waiting to climb aboard, I think back over the last twelve hours. A journey is just the price of getting to wherever you're going. Sometimes it rewards you beyond your wildest expectations and sometimes it (literally) rinses the life out of you. You can only hope that when you get there, it was worth it.

It was worth it
Later, out on the scooter, I passed the scene of an accident. A car had left the road and was crumpled against a tree. I don't know if anyone was hurt, or worse, but when I returned after my ride, the car had been covered with a sheet and they were preparing to tow it away. It occurred to me that the actual phrase is something like "Life is about the journey, not the destination," and at that moment it seemed the most obvious and pointless statement of all time. 

Tuesday 10 February 2015

There is no Greater Love than the Love of Crab

The food in Goa has been outstanding. I’ve eaten impossibly fresh fish or seafood every day, and amazing Indian dishes knocked up by the chef at Bougainvillea where I stayed.

For sheer authenticity, the best place has to be Milly’s, a few kilometres out of town down the road to Agonda. A little house, a few tables held together with parcel tape and a veggie patch out the back. Cows lean over the wall from next door, and a dog and a cat sleep on the floor.

Milly prepares one meal a day, a thali. That’s some rice, pickles, dhal, sauce, and something else. I’ve had little fishcakes or spicy fillets of fish fried in semolina. She makes her own Kombucha, and everything has been grown in her little garden. Dining here is exactly the kind of experience that you travel for.

The other side of Patnem, a ride away down among the pine trees that line Turtle Beach, is Surya. It’s all fish and seafood - fantastic oysters, beautiful soup, and crabs from the lagoon behind the beach. You sit in dappled shade under the trees and watch the waves rolling in.

Surya, Turtle Beach
I chose a pretty big crab from the basket, its twin claws tied up with string. I love crab. Love it. I love the animals themselves, and I love eating them.

There is something very noble and dignified about a crab I think; they seem so ancient and primitive. I love how they change colour so dramatically when you cook them, and how that symbolises their passing from one thing into another. If you are going to eat animals, you really need to make this connection with them and understand what it is you are doing. You are asserting your place in the food chain; the natural supremacy of your species that is integral to the evolution of our planet. Kill and eat animals, but know and understand that you are doing it. Know that you have a duty to them during their life, and when you have taken that life, turned an animal into food, you have a duty to make that food taste as pure and delicious as it can.

I’ve cried eating crab before, and if I hadn’t been surrounded by people, I probably would have again. Just the sweetest, juiciest, most wonderful thing in the world to eat. I thank my little red shelled buddy, and pick slowly and deliberately through his body, making sure not a single scrap of him goes to waste.

I came back a few days later and ate another one. Walking along the beach after the meal, tiny baby crabs, their shells soft and translucent, are darting into little holes as you approach, out of reach of your heavy feet and the crows that chase them all day. Round towards the shore of the lagoon the sand became suddenly very soft and our feet sank inches deep with crisp, clean edges to their imprints. A strange pattern covered the surface, miniscule balls lying all around long, random scratches.

It was sort of comforting knowing that they were under our feet all the time, emerging only to scurry about the sand searching for their own little morsels to feed on, and I wondered how many of them would eventually find their way into the wicker baskets, and when, and make some lucky soul very, very happy.