About This Blog

Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Kerala 1982

I'd been staying at the Ex-servicemen's Institute in Colombo and took a flight to Trivandrum.  I'd spent the morning buying a new bag and trying to spend my excess Sri Lankan money.  At Trivandrum airport  I gathered together a group of three other travellers to share a taxi into town and a room in a hotel.  I realised that Trivandrum must have been a princely state as the taxi passed through great arches and strange architecture.  After supper I walked in the streets, colourful and lively, a demonstration with red flags, piles of rubbish beside the road and plaster Ganeshes, street sleepers and spiced tea; the fruit sellers had piles of red apples and halfway decent oranges, and there were all sorts of fried and griddled goodies being sold in the streets.  I woke in the morning to the noise of crows cawing and traffic hooting; outside was a yellow brick wall, palm trees and a trucking agency and I set out to explore.

Trivandrum, My picture
Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Trivandrum, My Picture
After selling the bottle of whisky and box of cigarettes I'd brought duty-free from Sri Lanka, I walked through the Chalai Bazaar and found the main Vishnu temple which I couldn't enter but at least I could take a peep at the columns inside and the carvings on the gopuram.  I found the buildings around sympathetic and interesting, especially a pilgrim resting-place with a wooden roof-support and a fine clock; around were black-shirted hairy youths in groups, carrying special malas and medallions, and opposite was a large tank for bathing.  On the far side of the road was a Shiva shrine under a peepul with yellow-stained cobras, some crude figurines and a large Ganesh.  I went back in the evening  as worshippers went to darshan; men had to wear only a dhoti and were being turned away if they wore shirts or trousers.  A lone orange-dressed sadhu seemed out of place.  Down below a stage had been set up and a group was singing, with tabla and harmonium accompaniment; there was a long series of interconnected songs, no doubt devotional, and the main singer had a good voice and a fine style which made it pleasant to listen for an hour and gave me the opportunity to watch the people about.

I made the mistake of going on to Kovalam the next day: maybe I didn't find the best spot, for the beaches were crowded and not particularly clean and the hotels were dirty and full of red-eyed coughing Europeans in freak clothes, so I quickly fled in a taxi back to Trivandrum and on by bus through a built up and modern countryside to Quilon, where I stayed the night.  Quilon too seemed modern and newly built, but there were some older areas tucked away, in the bazaar and down by the waterway.  The bazaar seemed fine at night, as I walked around after supper, rope shops, metal shops, vegetable shops, some buildings with good roofs and carved dormer windows.  I only noticed one temple, more mosques and churches, though there were flower and garland sellers around. 

Kerala Backwater, My picture
Kerala Backwater, My picture
I took the backwater canal ferry from Quilon to Alleppey, which was comfortable enough and rarely even full although there were maybe 30 Westerners aboard.  The countryside was uniformly green, first coconut palms and later rice-paddies as we approached the Kottayam area which I remembered from driving in the area in 1973; there was even one ferry crossing near an uncompleted bridge, but it didn't look like the place where we crossed the canal system back then.  Most interesting were the canal craft, some lovely big boats with curled up black ends and arched palms over the top, which made me think of Wilfred Thesiger's pictures of the Marsh Arabs; sometimes they had patchwork sails or they were punted along the waterways; there were smaller canoes and later on private craft and some dredging was going on.  I liked the landing-stages and the people getting on and off; the Keralan women were often wearing lunghis and a scarf to take the place of the end of a sari, while the girls wore long skirts; there were many wayside churches and temples.  Early on I had glimpses of the open sea and there were huge fishing nets erected on poles; later we passed through a narrow section which was a real canal in a populated area.  Late in the afternoon we pulled up in a pleasant rural spot and got out for a cup of tea in a cafe. 

I stayed in a cheap Indian-style hotel near the ferry jetty.  I had a room with a fan in a distant courtyard where they were making little toy carts with painted wood.  The owner or manager was an unsmiling white-haired man, who sat square-faced behind his money counter in the street-side room; there was a shower and a washroom but the only toilet seemed to be another open grassy courtyard.  In the evening I looked round the bazaar, finding it not as picturesque as Quilon in respect of old buildings, but there was a good Kerala style temple with wooden roof arches and the characteristic gables.  There was a large temple with a gopuram on the other side of town, and a Ganesh temple with a resident sadhu under a tree in the middle of town.  It felt a more Hindu town than Quilon.  There was also plenty of political activity; speeches were being made before a large crowd and relayed over loudspeakers; the police were keeping a watchful eye but there was no trouble.

In the morning I took the ferry to Kottayam across a broad open lake, much less interesting than the previous day's journey.  Kottayam was large and Christian and I walked up the hill to the bus station.  The bus I took to Kumily broke down and I had to change again when the replacement broke down as well - I ended up standing in a very crowded affair.  We passed through bustling towns, climbing up through rubber plantations, some cardamom and finally tea plantations.  The churches we passed were huge, often with shrines and statues opposite, often in little places away from the road.  Finally we reached open downland near Peermade.  I had intended to try to pass straight on to Tamil Nadu, but I failed to get off in Kumily and went to the end of the road at Thekkady and the Periyar Lake Wildlife Sanctuary where I'd camped in 1973.  In the end I had to spend three nights in Kumily as there was a big national strike and the buses weren't running.  Kumily was a growing town, popular with the blank-eyed Westerners because of the local grass and had a couple of hotels catering to their need for European oriented food and music.  Good food was available and the town was lively in the evenings with a torchlight parade, perhaps related to the strike.  One evening I ate paratha and sambar in the Rolex Hotel and was surprised that some very poor people were eating there as well, wood-cutters.  I'd seen others around the trails in the Park and wondered if they were tribal.

I spent most of my time in the Park, finding friends, and together going on walks, boat rides and a guided tour on foot.  The guided tour was probably the best, as we managed to see wild pig and elephant as well as the more familiar monkeys; we also weren't hurried and allowed to take our time.

Finally I took a good iddly breakfast and walked through the gate into Tamil Nadu to find a bus going down the hill to Cumbum where I had to change; the bus station there seemed a different world, only Tamil script being used, and little English spoken, but I found a bus with a good seat on into the Tamil heartland.  We travelled into a wide valley, full of towns and temples, I didn't notice a single church; instead of the green tropics of Kerala were ploughed fields stretching to jagged hills; and it seemed much poorer and less developed, with clusters of untouchable villages and some very poor-looking houses in the townships.  Donkeys, cows and goats were the main animals, with cotton fields and coconut plantations alternating with rice-fields.  Finally, dusty, parched and sunburnt from the inside of the bus, I arrived in Madurai and knew I was in a different world.

Kerala Backwater, My picture

Kerala Backwater, My picture

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

August 30th: Mashhad in Iran

On August 30th 1978 I was in Mashhad.  I was travelling with friends across Iran on my way to Afghanistan and India.  It was Ramadan and the political situation was dangerous.

We had arrived in the morning on the night train from Teheran.  Teheran had been tense, with Ramadan and a night curfew. The slums in the suburbs we passed through in the train were impressive.   There was a noticeable roughness in the streets of Teheran, which I had not noticed on previous visits, and there was the familiar huge contrast between rich and poor.  I had heard about a bombing and when I saw an ambulance and fire engines on the street I thought that maybe they were going to another bomb.  I saw an interview on the English language TV channel saying that there was a new government, all tried hands, loyalists.  Something was clearly going to happen.

In the evening in Mashhad we visited the area around the shrine of Imam Reza, with a friendly hustler from the hotel.  I was struck by the changes from my previous visit in 1972.  All the streets around the shrine had been knocked down to create a circle of grass around the shrine and to allow for many new buildings, including a museum, which we were able to visit, and some extensions to the shrine had been added; 500 kilos of gold courtesy of the Shah were being added to the golden dome.  Many Afghans were working on the building and sleeping outside, cooking food as we walked past after sunset.  They stopped and waved and smiled at us, recognising fellow foreigners.  The hustler took us, inevitably, to the carpet shop of his patron, who told us he represented the Islamic opposition.  "When water stagnates in one place for 37 years," he said, "the stink is terrible."

In the morning we visited the shrine again.  My friends went in to see the museum, but I stayed outside with their little daughter who was not allowed in; I was surrounded by women and children from all quarters; there were many Arabs in town.  There was talk of demonstrations and so we went back to the hotel.  In my hotel room in the afternoon I wrote in my journal:
Keeping inside at midday, eating in our room, keeping away from the demonstrations, one of which we were told was going to pass by the hotel.  Trucks full of soldiers and bayonets and machine guns, brimming with bullets, tension on the street.  People massing at one point.   The bazaar was closed all day, many shops didn't open - it is Thursday, the museum was open from 8 to 9.30 instead of 10.30, but who knows what's really happening.
In the evening we went into town, and as we walked in the centre, with all the soldiers out on the streets and the tension in the air, we felt the seriousness of the situation.  There was talk of the afternoon demonstrations from people as we passed; they had cordoned off some of the main streets and the ends of the bazaar, thrown plenty of soldiers and guns onto the streets and kept them either at the ready or moving about, a big presence.  As we approached the narrow street of the carpet seller, we were told that in that street someone had stoned a policeman and been killed.  There were police and soldiers all over, and gangs of youths hassling more than usual.  Closer up, the atmosphere was even heavier with an ambulance further off and the street was cordoned off.  There was what appeared to be a body lying in the street. So we left and went for an evening meal downtown on a square which was nearly deserted except for the army.  The restaurant was partially open and the table was right between two trucks each with a machine gun on top.  We watched the police come and go and the few cars they let through and the servicemen with the guns while we had the usual chelo kebab.  Everything downtown was shut as we walked back, they had even moved away most of the street hawkers.  

Shrine of Imam Reza, 2006:  Picture by Eliza Tasbihi, CC

Sunday, 28 August 2011

August 28th: San Cristobal de las Casas

On August 28th 1975 I was in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas in southern Mexico.

Chamula Procession, 2008:  Picture by Wolfgang Sauber,  CC
On this day I took a truck to the Tzoltzil Mayan town of Chamula, a few miles from San Cristobal.  The town was spread around an open sloping area of grass.  I sat for a while in the outskirts eating a papaya, pleasing the kids, smiling at the women, greeting the men; one man offered me some of his moonshine, others were playing music for the fiesta, of which this was the first day.  Almost everyone in town that day was Indian.  A crowd of people was standing outside the church, playing music, eating, drinking and sitting, occasionally going in, some people in very ceremonial costumes.  I looked in at the central square market, and walked up the hill where women were weaving.  Then I returned to the covered market, ate frijoles and cabbage soup before leaving.  It was a good walk back to town, sheltering twice from rain.  There were parties of women returning from town to Chamula, celebrating with high ululations.

The market in San Cristobal was a place of endless fascination.   One area of interest was the fruit, much of which I had not seen before, and it took many visits to try everything.  The market here was also one of the first markets I came across in Latin America which had prepared food to eat.  I tried tamales here for the first time and would come to depend on them as I travelled in Central America.  I found tamales and fried beans much more to my taste than the heavier dishes of more mainstream Mexican restaurants.

The market was always full of Mayan Indians from the nearby towns and villages.  I tried to record what they wore and were doing in my notebook:
Mayan Street Vendors, 2008:  Picture by Wolfgang Sauber, CC
In a stall in the market:  mainly an Indian scene, with people from different villages wearing different costumes.  The women most commonly with a black thick woven skirt, loosely wrapped around their hips and a white blouse with fairly simple decoration, a rebozo for carrying goods or babies, a black strip of woven material folded on their head, often with tassels, and a string bag for produce strung from their forehead.  A common variety is a white or gold/yellow/brown pinstripe in the skirt, and a rough brown blouse.  Some women near me are selling home-made bags and a little woollen doll of vaguely religious persuasion; they have bright coloured cummerbunds and ribboned plaits in their long black hair and a baby hangs on to the plaits as it sways around in the rebozo.  A little girl, in black serape with cummerbund, walks quite independently around beneath the tables, glancing at me.  The men with white trousers, often with white serape of fluffy wool and sombrero; sometimes without the trousers, just shirt and serape;  flat wide hats with dangling ribbons often darker in colour; black serapes, sometimes fluffy with long sleeves, pink cotton serapes with pom-poms and tassels, colourful decoration.  Double gourds highly polished.  Leather bags.  A woman with a huge dried fish.  A herbal medicine stand with a dead parrot or toucan.  Girls wearing a kind of shawl or cape covering shoulders and arms, thin pink white stripes, clasped by coloured strips, over the white, colourful blouses and plain black or blue skirts.  Women wearing light blue blouse with reddish decoration.
There was plenty to do in town.  The churches were interesting.  I noted at the church of San Martin "the Mayans worshipping, sitting in front of the candles, kneeling, and chanting and bowing, a man coming and chanting, standing, with his arms folded across his chest; the woman who looked after the place."  The churches very often had pine branches strewn around the open area in front of the altar and the images of the saints were often given a very Mayan look and Mayan clothes.  I visited the house of Na Bolom, where there was a museum and an institute studying the Indian customs and protecting the Lacandon Indians who survived with a distinctive culture in the jungle areas near the border with Belize.  There were even some young Lacandons to be seen there.  I went to a lecture on the weaving of Mayan huipiles (blouses) there, but I found the scene rather patronising.

Before I left, I walked with friends to the house of a friend of theirs from the USA.   We stopped to have a fruit juice at the barrio of San Ramon where there was a fiesta in full swing and crowds of people, and girls in white clothes.  Then it was through the fields to the restored farmhouse, with recording studio and 25 acres of farm, cows, vegetables and a beautiful milpa (corn field.)  With our meal of bread, fresh cheese and salad, I had two ears of the sweetest corn I've ever had, which I had just picked.  

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

August 24th: Van in Eastern Turkey

On August 24th 1978 I was in Van in eastern Turkey.

I had arrived with friends the previous day on the overnight train from Kayseri.  In the morning we passed along the narrow Murat valley with bare hills around, and reached Lake Van at Tatvan. We crossed the lake to Van during the middle of the day on a ferry journey which lasted several hours.

Akdamar, 2006:  Picture by Simon Hooks,  CC
This day we went to the island of Akdamar, without too much hassle, but I had the pleasure of finding the information and the transport, and getting together a party, 9 foreigners, 2 Turks and one child.  The ride to the island was good and the church was beautiful with all the reliefs on the outside, Armenian about 920AD, really ancient frescoes unprotected on the walls; the style, the inscriptions and the pictures were unlike anything I had seen before.  The lake water proved to be warm and slippery; we swam and sunbathed and enjoyed being in the country.  The mountains behind were bare and high, the little areas of green carefully kept, the few people friendly. Back in town there was a fine sunset.  We wandered around the backstreets, had a meal outside in a lively area, as men in turbans walked past.

Van Citadel, 2009:  Picture by Simon Taylor, CC
The next day we went to the citadel, a huge rock near the lake, a place full of history. There was a hollowed sanctum in the side of the rock and a huge Urartu inscription outside, from a kingdom dating back to 850BC. With a minaret at the top and the massive walls and crags all round, it was an impressive place.  The large site below was the old city of Van destroyed during the attack on the Armenians in 1915.  The outlines of the streets and houses and the four mosques was a poignant sight.   Beyond was today's agriculture, cows and horses and donkeys.  I sat high up on the rock and stared. 

In the late afternoon we walked out to the railway station to get the night train to Teheran.  I wrote a piece in my notebook:
First border hassle on the way east, getting out of Turkey, sitting around in the waiting-room wondering if the train is ever going to leave; first it was 7, then 10, then 12, so who knows at what hour we're going to get away from here.  There must be about 30 of us altogether, an English guitar player we met at the bank this morning, three English games players (I played declaration whist, bridge, backgammon) the Canadian from Urgup, the German/Swiss couple from the ferry, "nice" English couple going first class, 6 Pakistanis (4 roughish and a nice couple) sitting on the floor playing cards, 4 Germans we've been with somewhere else.  There are some Turks hanging around as well but I don't know who of them is travelling.  Lots of hassling over the changing of money: you've got to have a form saying you've changed so much money for the journey (took a long time in the Central bank this morning) and in addition a change slip for 500TL, which there was no mention of previously.  There is as yet no ill-feeling.  I thought it might be difficult.
And later on the train:
Fairly comfy Iranian train, the old first class couchette gives everyone space to sleep.  We didn't leave the border till 10.30 this morning, but no hassles, everyone polite.  Some beautiful mountain scenery with lovely greener hills and a river at the bottom, flocks of sheep and goats, and long tunnels.  Now we're in the plain or plateau, dull at first until we came to Lake Oroumieh which is vast and has green patches beside with cultivation.
I remember that we stopped at the huge station in Tabriz for a while around lunchtime.  It was completely deserted as was the vast square outside.  Not one person in sight, no officials.  Very strange.

View Van in a larger map

August 24th: Chiang Saen in Northern Thailand

On August 24th 1981 I was in Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, travelling with Mary.

On this day, our last day before heading south, we hired bicycles and made a tour of some of the hill villages in the area.  We rode through largely unspoilt country, paddies, cassava plantations, bananas, lovely Thai villages, a Lao village, an Akha village.   I remember eating soup at a good lunch-stand in the Thai village of Wiang Keo.  The Akha village was a small place, a few long, low bamboo and thatch houses, spread around a little slope.  The people became more friendly once they realised we didn't want to buy opium.  More than anything else the trip was nice for the peace and quiet and the best chance yet to see some fairly unspoilt Thai scenery, the workers in the fields usually happy to smile when greeted, the children always; the clothes blue mainly with large blue hats and tied-up trouser legs. 

Hill Village:  Our picture
We stayed by the Mae Kong a little way away from the town.  The river was very peaceful with Laos straight across the river.  For such a large river it was surprising to see so little traffic: in fact we can hardly have seen more than four or five small boats in our time there.  Further upstream you could catch a glimpse of Burma.  Many of the people around seemed to come originally from different places or countries, like the people in the hill villages we visited.  Our landlady was Burmese, married to a Thai, and smoked a cheroot incessantly.

The town of Chiang Saen was also quiet and rural.  It was full of ruins, mainly ruined temples.  Crumbling walls ran around much of the city.  We walked along one of these to another ruined temple, Tat Chom Kitti, going up a hill with a beautiful rural view out over the paddies, the hills and the distant river.   Walking around the town at night I felt I was really in Asia.

In a Hill Village:  Our picture

Roadside Food:  Our picture
Chiang Saen:  Our picture

Monday, 22 August 2011

August 22nd: Alexandroupolis in North-Eastern Greece

On August 22nd 1972 I was in Alexandroupolis in north-western Greece.  After a month lazing around Greece we were now driving to Istanbul.

We had stopped in Kavalla to buy food in the stalls around the harbour and drove on through the increasingly Turkish looking towns and villages of Thrace.  We stopped for a coffee in Alexandroupolis, a modern town on the coast, did some shopping and drove back a few miles to find an empty spot by the sea to pitch our tent.

Everyone in Greece who knew we were heading for Turkey implored us to be careful and take better security.  One thing which bothered them was the fact that the Land-Rover had no lock on the bonnet so you could easily get in and steal things or change the settings and so on and so forth.  So in Alexandroupolis we found a padlock in a general store and the next morning went to a garage to get it fitted.  The garage owner absolutely refused to let us pay anything for this, arguing that it was his duty as a Greek to ensure that we were not robbed by any of those Turks.

We carried on across the border at the Evros river and into the empty barren hills of European Turkey.  After an hour we saw our first camels and drove on to the Londra Campsite in the western suburbs of Istanbul.  We quickly discovered that Turks were every bit as friendly and helpful as Greeks.  They were amazed that we had managed to spend a month in Greece without having all our belongings stolen.

Road in European Turkey, 2008:  Picture by Dimitirs Kilimis,  CC

Sunday, 21 August 2011

August 21st: La Ventosa in Southern Mexico

On August 21st 1975 I was on the beach at La Ventosa near Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. 

I'm not sure why I thought that going to the beach was a good idea: surely the name La Ventosa, the windy place, would have given me a clue. 

I went to the market in Tehuantepec in the morning to buy supplies.  The market was an interesting place, run by the women, not unusual perhaps in Latin America, but here the women were completely dominant.  The women were tall, dark and good-looking, wearing long skirts and bright blouses.   As I walked around the stalls I was aware of being looked over by the women, a strange sensation for a man perhaps, though women the world over are used to it.  The previous evening I had walked up a small hill where I could see the river and the bridge and the walled central area of the quiet little town.  I could see these women striding grandly around, while all their men followed meekly in tow, just ordinary little men, inches shorter than their women; with down-cast Indian faces and drab white clothes, they just sat around and waited for the women to do whatever the women wanted to do, and when they were ready they carried the shopping and followed them back home several paces behind.

The beach was near the town of Salina Cruz with big waves but few palm trees.  There was a little bay in the centre where I swam in a rather dirty central area and a had good lunch at the cheapest restaurant run by a big mama in a hammock.  Then I crossed the river to find a good camping spot for my tent.  It was a windy night but it didn't rain till after midnight.  In the morning the beach had big waves and frigate-birds but the swimming was OK.  I walked back off the beach to a little lake which had pelicans and sandpipers and other water birds.

When I left I wrote this in my notebook:
Waiting for the bus back to Salina Cruz on a windy dusty road under a huge Dos Eques sign.  It's a dirty mean sort of place.  Seven or eight lazy restaurants, mostly thatch-covered around a little bay dotted with beer-cans and coconut husks, with a little swamp where the pi-dogs play.  Beyond is a river which you have to ford knee-deep and then the beach stretches a long way to the left.  Big Pacific waves make the dirty bay the best bathing, but there is always music blaring out loud and lots of Mexicans who come in taxis from town.  I camped two windy nights in the scrub and cactus behind the beach.   The villagers are somewhat more friendly than the tourists, but as I wrote it's a mean, rotten, disorganised sort of place, there must be a well, but they'd never think of showing you there.  Remember that the richer Mexicans who come to places like this have money, mainly for beer, they couldn't be friendly towards the villagers.  It's not that sort of society.
The Indians of Tehuantepec are Zapotec, similar to those of Oaxaca.  Their culture is sometimes seen as a matriarchy:  I don't know if it is technically, but it certainly seemed that way.  Pictures of the women here.

View Tehuantepec in a larger map