About This Blog

Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

September 29th: Panajachel

On September 29th 1975 I was in Panajachel in Guatemala.

Panajachel was really a hang-out town. It had no great attraction of its own, a mestizo town a good walk from Lake Atitlan, which was a world apart for rich kids from Guatemala City. Panajachel was convenient, a place where it was easy to stay for a while for cool North Americans, with a Pie Shop, a vegetarian restaurant and good places for breakfast, but within easy reach of the Indian towns and villages where staying overnight was more intrusive and less comfortable.  Panajachel had places you could rent by the week and I stayed in one such in a thatched room in a courtyard full of chickens and turkeys.
Santiago Atitlan Recently Picture by Bitxi

This was the day I finally got to Santiago Atitlan, after several attempts. There was a good boat ride across the lake with the volcanoes clear, via Santa Caterina and Palopo to San Lucas where I had breakfast under the perfect volcano shape of Mt Toliman. Santiago was very attractive with a market in full swing where I shopped for fruit, mamay, pitache and anona included. The weaving being worn was splendid and the tourists were keen to buy it. There were a lot of thatched houses in the town, wide streets with even cobbles. I looked in the church, where the statues in vivid colours had pieces of clothing on them.  These were mainly veils though Christ wore a rebozo.

A few days before I had been to Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango in 1975.  Picture Wikimedia Commons
and enjoyed the market there, again for the sights, as everyone was wearing their best clothes, like the woman at whose stall I had beans and tortillas. Copal, Mayan incense, was being burned outside the larger white church in the centre, and there were plenty of tourists around. I did the journey in the common way in this area, part hitchhiking and part on the buses, taking whatever came along. The journey over the hills was very beautiful, clear air and some of the maize fields were draped with garlands.

My favourite excursion was to the town of Solola quite near to Panajachel where the market had fewer foreigners and a band played in the square.

Everything for Panajachel, as for much of Guatemala was about to change, because on 4th February 1976, barely four months after my visit, Guatemala was hit by an huge earthquake.  26000 people died and the geology of the lake was disturbed. This was then followed by repeated conflict between the military and indigenos. It seemed from a distance that Mayan culture would never survive, but of course it has survived worse events in its history.

Ten years after my visit, Ronald Wright, in Time Among The Maya, described Panajachel as full of concrete hotels and hippies in muddled versions of the native costume. I suspect by then the scene had moved to the beach. Wright also went to Chichicastenango, which he reminds us was where the Popul Voh was found, and found traces of chicken sacrifice after mass and visited a private house where Christian/Maya rites were performed.

View Solola in a larger map

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

September 28th: Dogubayazit in Eastern Turkey

On September 28th 1972, I was in Dogubayzit in eastern Turkey.

After the drive north from Lake Van, we reached the main route to Iran at Dogubayzit. As always we wanted to camp out in the country rather than to stay in the town, but this time, so near a sensitive frontier, we were not going to get away with it. We stopped first at a Jandarma, a police station, 10 kilometres before town, and after an hour we were told that we couldn't stay because it was a military area. So we drove past the town and up into the hills where we had a good view of Mount Ararat. First some shepherds told us it was forbidden to camp, and then the police arrived and told us to go to a hotel as the area was dangerous because of Kurds. So we camped outside the hotel where there were other car campers.

In the morning we drove up to gaze at the wild and romantic Ishak Pasha Palace, high on its promontory. I can't remember if the public could access the building itself, but the view was enough. We didn't linger and went back down the mountain and over the border into Iran.

Ishak Pasha Palace in 2003, picture by moondroog, CC

Monday, 27 September 2010

September 27th: Lake Toba

On September 27th 1981 I was at Lake Toba in Indonesia, walking to the village of Tomok.

Lake Toba is in a huge volcanic caldera on the island of Sumatra. I stayed where most visitors then stayed on the peninsular of Tuk Tuk on the island of Samosir. The local people are Batak, Christians, many of whom live in characteristic boat-shaped houses and build white tombs in the open areas between their villages.

Part of the attraction of Tuk Tuk is that you can stay in some of the Batak houses which are quite spacious within but don't have much in the way of views. I stayed in one for a couple of days but then moved to a more normal travellers' place where the food was better (fruit salads including mango, papaya and avocados), where you could swim in the lake easily and which was an easy stroll to the little town of Ambarita, which had some finer restored houses preserved as a monument and a good place to read and drink coffee.

More, though, I wanted to walk out. The ridge behind Ambarita, which dominates one side of all the views here, had a trail which I walked up several times. Finally I walked over the top with a friend though thick jungle and out into more open areas where there was a little guest house to spend the night. Then we walked down through fields and pine-trees and past villages of Batak houses to an area of eroded badlands and eventually into the middle of the large town of Pangururan. This side of Samosir was more developed and less touristic, though still with fine houses. We came back on the road using buses and lifts.

Finally I walked over to Tomok which gets more day-trippers. Here is what I wrote in my notebook:
Afternoon, mainly clouded sun. On a bank overlooking rice-terraces which form a great irregular amphitheatre in front of me. I've walked a little way up from Tomok, past the tombs and the tourist shops. The rice fields must form a hundred tiers, shallow, no stone here, some newly dug, some quite wet, some at the bottom already green with rice. At the very bottom is the brown water of a pond. A bittern stretches its neck nearby. A buffalo tethered to a post wades nosily through the mud browsing, its young one, short-horned and hairy, is near me, free. Some chickens run about in between. Mynahs fly noisily around. There are trees scattered about and there are banks too steep to fit into the terracing. Opposite me, at the foot of the mountain, are spread three or four farms, Batak houses and tin roofs shining through the sheltering trees. Sounds of cocks crowing and hammering. Little square white tombs with pointed tops. Behind here the mountains look steep and menacing, steeper than at Ambarita. Open grey crags and then pine trees come two-thirds of the way down. 

Some of my pictures:
Batak Tombs
Inhabited houses near Ambarita

Stone chairs in Ambarita
Village near Tomok

Sunday, 26 September 2010

September 26th: Peshawar

On September 26th 1978, I was in Peshawar.

I stayed in Peshawar after a great ride from Kabul in a fast bus, sliding through the bends of the Kabul Gorge and wandering the earthy streets of Jalalabad; then I was afforded the view from the top of the Khyber Pass of the line of green in the plain approaching the desert and the hills. Where else to stay, after the Amir Kabir in Teheran and the Green Hotel in Kabul?

The Rainbow Guest House was a world on its own, full of all sorts, freaks and non-freaks, many who had flown direct to Pakistan or India and had not come overland. The better rooms were downstairs, 8 rupees a bed. Upstairs the rooms were 6 rupees and that was where the junkies stayed and those who always chose the cheapest route.  The rooms themselves were OK, quite spacious and airy, a little like the wards in a hospital with 3 or 4 beds, but it could never be an ordinary hotel. For outside was a railway line and a truck repair yard with the brightly painted trucks and constant hammering, and at your feet, inescapably a morass of mud. In many ways this was one of the most characteristic places on the hippie trail.

Beyond was a bright busy city, full of lights and high buildings, incomparably rich after the closed down, almost besieged, gloom of Kabul in the last days before the Russian invasion. I liked the Qissa Khwani, the Bazaar of the Story-tellers and the backstreet souks around it. I found good food, vegetables and dhal, guavas and bananas, garland sellers and wandering holy men, and in the background in the side streets, the mud-built houses of a more traditional Pathan life.

Modern Pakistani Trucks.  Picture by Amir Taj, CC

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

September 21st: Recep Koyu in South-East Turkey

On September 21st 1972 I was in the village of Recep Koyu, driving to Nemrut Dagi, an ancient site on the top of a mountain in the south-east of Turkey.

When we left Malatya we wanted to find a more direct road to Nemrut Dagi than we could easily find on our maps. We asked a few people but got conflicting information. We decided to give it a try as we had previously driven in parts of Turkey where the maps didn't conform to reality. We were quickly in glorious country on gravel roads passing through Yesilyurt and Celikhan, well tended fields, people wearing fine traditional clothes, increasingly mountainous. The road became narrower and more earth than gravel. We went through a beautiful ford and hoped we were going on a through road in the right direction. As evening drew in we got stuck behind a dolmus taxi which kept sputtering to a halt. We helped it once and eventually had to tow it off the track so we could get by. Finally we found a spot where we could pull off the road and sleep with enough space for other vehicles to pass, although I don't think any did.  This was beside a torrent which fell down the hillside into a gorge somewhere below us in the darkness.

We were up at 5am to watch the sunrise and soon a party of men came down the hillside to talk to us. They were extremely hospitable, offering us water first of all, as so often in Turkey. The older man, the headman of the village, was interested in the water we had in a jerrycan, tasted it and told us which spring we had collected it as we had driven along the road past Celikhan. The water in his village, Recep, was the best in Turkey he assured us. He then invited us up the hill to his house. The steep paths were built of stone, the house of stone and wood, light and airy. His wife was delighted to entertain us and to talk to the women in our party, a strong good-humoured woman, wearing a similar costume and headdress to ones we had seen the day before. They served us ayran, fine bread and butter. As we talked on about the directions in our simple Turkish and their simple German - one of the sons had been to work in Germany as so often in rural Turkey - the plan arose for our host with one of his sons to accompany us first to the next village and eventually to Nemrut which was in his patch but which he had never seen.

Slowly we wound down the valleys as we made our way towards Adiyaman, with frequent stops early on as the headman was greeted by friends and checked on directions. We turned away from Adiyaman towards Kahta and eventually crossed a river on a bridge built by the Romans but still in use. By Kahta we were in a more populated area and the roads were becoming more developed. They went to a hotel for the night while we camped nearby.

Nemrut Dagi was already on the tourist trail by 1972 with a more or less motorable road up and dolmuses available. The site is at the top of a mountain at 2100 meters, where Antiochus, a first century BC king of Commagene, built himself a sanctuary. Antiochus had kept his kingdom fairly independent of the Romans and I had some memory of the history. The top of the mountain has been levelled and huge heads and a tumulus placed there. It is a spectacular place to visit, especially soon after sunrise, and a suitable end to two days of driving through a remote and unspoiled mountain area.

The Roman Bridge
Stone heads at Nemrut
Pictures by Mariurupe, Creative Commons, 2 of a great number worth looking at

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Monday, 20 September 2010

September 20th: Band-i-Amir

On September 20th 1978, I was at Band-i-Amir, a series of lakes in central Afghanistan.

Bamiyan and Band-i-Amir were places I particularly wanted to visit in 1978 as I had failed to get there in 1972 when my Land-Rover broke its gear-box on the Salang Pass.  Bamiyan is a high, well-populated valley with good farming.  Band-i-Amir is an open wide valley, even higher at 3000 meters, almost unpopulated, almost uncultivated and startlingly beautiful.  It was also a tourist place though only a few were visiting in those days.  There were one or two guest-houses by the road, where I slept on the floor in the Afghan way.  With a couple of others I had a long walk around the six lakes, which each have a noticeably different colour, and we stopped in a hidden spot in the middle of the day for complete isolation.

We found a different way up out of the lakes, past a spring in a defile and past a deserted village, made of slates which had fallen off the stacks; there were ovens and hearths and even chairs in the slate, maybe used by nomads, the ash and the droppings looked recent. Looking out from the top, I thought of the majesty of the mountains in this near desert, the remoteness and (until the tourists came) the isolation, the sheer cliffs coloured red and white and the blues and greens of the water, the few trees turning autumnal, the little fields ploughed occasionally in the steppe.

According to my journal, I found Band-i-Amir a little depressing, as I could see little function other than as a tourist spot. Yet in my memory it is a highlight: the remote location, the clear air, the wide views, the colours of the water, the changing colours on the hills around, the little mills where the exit of one of the lakes was naturally dammed, the traces of nomads or others who had passed by, the almost tame bluethroat which played around our feet while we rested.  I don't think we saw any other people during the several hours of the walk.

Rory Stewart, in "The Places In Between", describes walking on the deeply frozen lakes in 2002, during his walk from Herat to Kabul. He stayed in a former guest-house whose owner had had no guests for 12 years, maybe the guest-house I stayed in.

Band-i-Amir in 1975.  Picture By Gregory Melle CC

Friday, 17 September 2010

September 17th: Tikal

On September 17th 1975, I was at Tikal, the Mayan site in northern Guatemala.

I took a minibus from the overnight stop in Flores, picturesquely set on a lake, through clearings and open hills at first, and then through the thick jungle of the Peten.  Tikal was an obvious tourist spot and rightly so and the trick was to get away by myself while still getting to see the main sights.  I wrote in my notebook while I was there:

This is the first time of walking in the real jungle, where the vegetation is green and dense. It reminds me only of Mudumalai (in Southern India) in general aspect, but the vegetation I've only seen closely in the tropical house at Kew, and with more distance on the run from Bachajon to Agua Azul. Sitting now by myself at the Temple of the Inscriptions - everything more atmospheric without outsiders. Stood at the top among the bees looking over the jungle, saw a toucan with a huge yellow bill, then Phil called and we looked at some tombs on a side path. Now there's just the midday silence and a little breeze, some big clouds around and only insects to see. Earliest was best as we saw the first little temples, the very decayed Complejo P and the stupendous Temple IV, where you could see for miles, the highest Pre-Columbian structure. Good animals, spider monkeys in the trees, the screams of the howler monkeys, a black squirrel, a little thing like a tapir (coatimundi), and a cat or giant weasel on the road before. Some grey black "trogon" birds with red pouchy throats and wide tails, a fine eagle, a pair of dark woodpeckers with red head and yellow stripes on back.

On the way back there was a strange incident.  I had to change minibuses at a crossroads and was waiting with my friend Phil and a number of foreigners for our connecting bus.  An American girl screamed that she had been bitten by a snake and was lying in shock and agony on the ground by the road.  Phil was a doctor and put his lips to the wound, calmed her down and dressed her leg.  She travelled back in the bus still in considerable distress.  Later Phil told me that although he had sucked the wound and there was a small incision, he could see no sign that she had been bitten by a snake.  He was from Texas and knew about snakebite and he was 100% sure.

View from from Temple IV, Picture by Jorge CC

Thursday, 16 September 2010

September 16th: Bamiyan

On September 16th 1978 I was in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.

In the afternoon I took a walk back down the valley, past the bazaar, to the ancient mud brick citadel of Shar-i-Golgola, which was destroyed by Genghis Khan. As usual I went for the view and a sitting place more than for the history. I found the educated locals willing to talk as I walked and the fields were busy with Hazara harvesting. This is from my notebook, written at the top:
Sitting in the ruins of the citadel of eroded mud bricks, far above the valley.  Feeling short of breath at the altitude which I suppose to be well over the 2500 metres of the town. Below lies the valley and its trees and fields, stretching beyond the buzkashi ground and back beyond the Red City, to the left a sort of plateau, little irrigated between two subsidiary valleys leading SE and SW. To the north bare sandstone hills rising eroded behind the two Buddhas and their plateau. To the south similar hills in waves like frozen sand-dunes, but behind darker, more forbidding mountains topped with real peaks and little patches of snow and glaciers.
The fields are neat and well tended, a lot of harvesting going on, donkeys or oxen yoked and pulling a grindstone round a circular threshing floor. Other fields are decked out with a serpentine pattern and I cannot see from here what it is or why. Some others have cows and donkeys and goats grazing. Most fields are carefully mud-walled in small fairly irregular shapes - I can't make out much of the irrigation from here, just the odd stream but irrigation is widespread. Little lanes between the fields joining houses in strong compounds, the larger ones like fortresses with little turrets at the corners; inside are barns and animal areas, piles of fodder and sticks, probably dung, things drying. The one I mainly see has what I take to be rooms more on one side with clothes drying on the roof and a two-storied structure in the middle on the far side, one little gate on this side. To the south there is a big building like a palace, with high walls and I can imagine fine rooms on the higher levels; there are two large garden areas, full of different sorts of trees. Most trees around are of the familiar poplar type, big stretches of them in the valley near the river, shading paths, acting as wind breaks. Another smaller house behind the citadel is washed white, has no protecting walls, has a grass roof, or just grass drying on the roof. Little or no sign of vegetables being grown.
Ravens occasionally flying around this hill - I saw a large flock near the Buddhas' plateau earlier. Magpies inevitably in the fields, a neophron, little else. Sounds of the animals, particularly donkeys, drift up, or of people shouting at each other or at their animals, trucks occasionally along the principal road. The sun is sinking, as the mountains take on an evening light. The breeze comes into my face WSW, from the sun. 
I stayed at the Caravan Hotel, one of a few that had been developed in a bend of the river opposite the Buddhas. That evening I woke at 11.30 and outside the wooden hut which served as my room, everything was dark. There was a very obvious partial eclipse, like a brown cloud covering most of the moon, leaving the Buddhas quite dark, as if someone had turned off the floodlights when I'd got used to seeing them lit up by the nearly full moon. I remembered that the Grateful Dead had been planning to play at the Pyramids at an eclipse in the autumn.

I met two couples who were travelling overland in VWs, the first I encountered on this journey who were travelling as I had done in 1972. Their stories of stone-throwing in Turkey reminded me of my journey, though we never really encountered any. No-one had tried to cheat them at Afghan petrol stations however. There were lots of stories among the travellers of hassles ahead in India - making people simplify their plans, and nothing I could say from my experiences could convince them otherwise. There were also stories of a woman shot swimming in Band-i-Amir last year and another in Bamiyan. These matched the stories of the person killed in a gypsy caravan during my earlier journey.

The day before there had been a buzkashi game up the valley. I described it in my notebook during the event:
People are beginning to assemble around the arena. Apple-sellers, the "royal" tent where we were invited to sit, the tent for women and children, the goat now lying thoroughly dead in a little heaped up circle, flags away on the far corners, truck bringing some spectators - we hitched a ride on an Afghantours chartered wazi (jeep), beginning to see a few more horses with big strong shoulders. In front of me the bare cliffs of the Hindu-Kush, flecked green and red among the ochre, green trees along the river valley or in gardens, already turning golden.
They have to carry the goat past the flag - this achievement is reported to Caesar's proconsul in the tent - then take the goat to the centre spot; the successful rider takes a bow and some baksheesh from the punters. Mostly it's a great melee with riders reaching down and grabbing or pulling, whipping the other guy's horse, until someone makes a run for the flag and there's a cheer, but the crowd are mainly passive. A couple of umpires shout the flag-passes and the goals up to the proconsul's tent.
Everything centres round the proconsul. We waited for him to arrive while we watched a passing caravan of camels through camera lenses. He stood up and said "hello" in English, and there was a lot of laughter when he cracked a joke. In the middle of his tent are serious looking civilians, egregious generals and a little hunch-back with glasses.
Another time I walked around the Buddhas, sat at the top, looking at the paintings which reminded me of Ajanta in India, and made me think of the journey of Xuanzang and the temple of the Thousand Buddhas, which I'd been reading about before I left England. I could look down at the bazaar and my hotel. The Buddhas felt more like guardians of the valley, curiosities rather than works of religious or artistic value, lacking their red and other colours and with their faces hacked away, their power coming from their being there more than anything else.  Some of the paintings in the cave still had some force.  You could walk for miles behind on the hard sandstone surface, getting closer and closer to the coloured mountains behind. The Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visited Bamiyan in 630 and described tens of monasteries and several thousand monks, though Peter Levi, who visited with Bruce Chatwin in 1970, points out in "The Light Garden of the Angel King" that this was probably a decline from a century earlier.

On the way back from Band-i-Amir I overnighted in a more Afghan-style hotel, sleeping on carpets on the floor. The foreigners requested and got music and dancing with a mainly Afghan audience who clearly enjoyed it. The journey over the Shibar pass back to Charikar, on the main road to Kabul, was on top of a truck, often the best way to travel in more remote areas. I noted that "we stopped for a pilau in a very unspoilt place, the best Afghan bazaar I'd seen on this trip."

Patrimonio Mundi:  Panoramas of Bamiyan, looking a bit different these days.

Valley from the Buddha Niche 1975
One of the Buddhas 1975

Pictures by Gregory Melle Creative Commons

Links:  Wikipedia - Bamiyan, Wikipedia - The BuddhasA visitor in 1977,

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

September 15th: Rumbek

On September 15th 1980, I was in Rumbek.  It was a Monday and the first day of the first full week of teaching at the school.

I was having a siesta on my bed in the afternoon after classes had finished.  The teaching day started early and finished at 1.30 when the temperatures were at their hottest - I think this was standard practice in the South.  As I dozed I started to feel itchy as if things walking over me. What I discovered were huge caterpillars, perhaps the larvae of some sort of beetle, a couple of inches long and furry black. They had been in the leather twists which formed the base of my rather fine bed and were now emerging and eating the leather.  I had to kill them by spraying with some noxious stuff, then remove the dead bodies, and at some point find a new mattress from the souk.

After the long wait in Khartoum and the journey from Wau, it was a relief to get teaching at last, a week after arriving, on the Thursday. In the meantime I'd been struggling with working out the timetable for the English Department - no-one else was going to do it. We taught both grammar and literature and I was not sure exactly who all the teachers would be.
The English Department on a Quiet Day (My Picture)

One of the main difficulties before the start was finding keys for the English Department office and the library.  There were rumoured to be text-books around and I put the word out that I was looking for the keys.  One day a drunk man on a bicycle wobbled up to me in the school and waved a key in front of my face, and then rode away again still holding the key high in the air.  This turned out to be a teacher who had recently been transferred; he had spent much of last year in jail and as well as being a kleptomaniac was also an alcoholic, and his absence was probably a blessing. The day before teaching started, the key to the library turned up and I went in to a large and airy room which stank of bats.  Sure enough there were loads of text-books but they had been stacked in piles in sets.  Each pile had been eaten in beautiful geometric patterns which left each copy useless as a big chunk of each page was missing.  There were few sets that went anywhere near the 30 or so students we expected in each class.  For one class I had to choose Kidnapped and I knew straightaway that this was likely to present problems for people who had never seen the sea.  In the event they had little concept of the sea - Dinka friends often talked of walking their cattle across the sea to Europe.  The library had a number of general books in English, including the edition of Peter Matthiessen's The Tree Where Man Was Born with photographs by Eliot Porter.  I worked my way through many of these books.

The school was primarily a boarding school and had been built in the British period after the end of the Second World War.  It was a boys secondary school and the "boys" ranged in age from 12 to mid-thirties, some of them married with wives and children back at home; there were also one or two girls though not in any of my classes. The school had four groups in each of the three years, which with thirty in each class would have made a total of 360 in all.  But some of my classes had 120 names and more on the register and there were many others on the school's list who did not seem to get on the register. At the beginning teachers had to spend a lot of time compiling lists of genuine students, and attempts were even made to move truck-loads of unqualified students out. But political issues were at stake, and most returned even if they spoke no English and never attended classes.

There were four of us British teachers in the end, as well as two young American missionaries who largely kept themselves to themselves.  There was a Zairean Zande who taught French, an optional subject with only a handful of students.  At one time there was an Arabic teacher, I think Egyptian, who arrived in the middle of the year and only stayed a few weeks, wracked with paranoid anxiety; everyone believed he carried a pistol with him in class, and finally he produced it, threatened the students and left in a hurry never to return.  There were also a number of Sudanese teachers, all Southerners, maybe ten or so, it varied as teachers were transferred in and out: only graduates could teach in secondary school and it was very difficult for any Southerner to become a graduate; most of the teachers had graduated in East Africa as refugees, others just claimed to be graduates and their qualifications were never checked.  Several of these teachers spent a lot of the time drinking and either missed their classes or were incomprehensible.  Others, of course, tried hard.

Education for most of the students was a deeply mystifying process.  I remember one student, a good student in his twenties, who used to sit in the quad outside class times staring at a book; "I am looking for enlightenment;" he told me, "that is why you come here, to bring us out of the darkness."  Furthermore, there were no opportunities for people afterwards; one bright student, who like many had been to primary school in Kenya or Uganda as a refugee, was planning to go to University in Nigeria as the Sudanese Universities including the one in Juba were believed to accept only students from schools in the north.

There were plenty of cultural problems with the teaching. I decided early on, influenced by the session of Ken Cripwell from the Institute of Education at Farnham Castle, to do a lesson on comparatives; unfortunately I chose to base it on the idea "a lorry is bigger than a car" and so on. This produced blank looks and it took me some time to work out why. Firstly, Southern Sudanese only used one word for a vehicle: "arabiyya" and so they were not used to distinguishing types of vehicle. But they were not used to the idea of a car at all; in fact during all those months in Rumbek I only saw two vehicles I would call a car, one was a black Mercedes parked deep in the State Governor's compound and never used, one of a number said to have been given to each Governor during some international do; the other was an old Renault Dauphine driven through by an aid agency worker in the height of the dry season when the roads were passable by such a small vehicle; otherwise the students only saw the 4x4s driven by NGOs and so on and the trucks used by the Arab traders.

The school had a quadrangle layout and the single story buildings were of reasonable if decayed standard. There were some desks in each classroom, mostly the property of students who took the precaution to padlock them in.  Others, particularly in the first year, sat on the floor.  There were deeply rutted blackboards and I had bought some pieces of chalk from England, but they were not of much use. 

The Teachers House in Rumbek (My Picture)

I shared a house with Andy and Nikki, a house which had been built in similar style to the school.  Andy had been there the year before and had three useful things to improve our standard of living: a shortwave radio which allowed us to listen to the World Service as well as the local news in English from Radio Juba, a pressure cooker which made cooking easier and wire netting which allowed us to use the open veranda as a living room and sit out in the evening.  There was very rarely any electricity, but the radio could be powered by the weak batteries you could buy in the souk; whenever the electricity did come on for an hour or two in the evening perhaps once a week, we made good use of it with our cassette players.  The house had a shower, though the water had to be put in the tank by hand from the well.  The toilet was a bucket which was emptied every morning - the night soil system; we had a panic once when the bucket got stolen until we could obtain a new one (made from an old oilcan) in the souk.

Andy and Nikki in the Teachers House

Cooking was by charcoal on a stove called a kanun, also made from a tin can, and this was efficient.  We were given meat, beans and bread everyday as a ration from school.  The pressure cooker made the cooking of the meat and beans practical.  We ate the brown beans (ful) with onions and tomatoes, when available, during the breakfast break - mid morning.  The bread was round and flat; it got more and more filled with weevils as the dry season progressed, except when the school got a consignment of American Aid wheat, which made the bread much better for a few days.  In the evening we ate stewed meat, with spices if possible, and bread.  Some vegetables, mainly tomatoes and okra, were available in the souk while the wet season lasted, perhaps into November.  There was also some fruit, almost unbearably sharp oranges and some grapefruit, occasionally guavas, and again these declined as the dry season progressed.  It was not a healthy diet.  When I went to Juba in January the most popular thing I brought back for the others in the house was potatoes.  Later in the year we tried to cook some of the green mangoes which grew in profusion on the huge trees all around us.  We drank Arab style tea, black and sweet, but we had to get sugar on the black market and it came solid in a huge sack.  There was a coffee stall in the souk, but you couldn't get roasted beans.  I tried a few times to roast coffee beans and grind them in a mortar, but it was never satisfactory.

We had Mathiang who came into the house for a while everyday to act as a sort of servant.  He was a doberow (I don't know the spelling), a prisoner on day release.  The doberow received a small fixed salary from us and did things around the house like clean the kanun and fill the shower tank.  All the prisoners were let out on a daily basis, whatever their crimes.  Mathiang was a Dinka from Tonj, not a local Agar, and I think his issue was that he did not have the cattle to pay for a marital dispute.  For many Dinka to have killed a man, traditionally a Nuer, in a tribal dispute was a source of pride, and this was a common reason to be in prison; however such a prisoner would have been too proud to be a doberow.

Michael Griffin, who taught at the school the year before me, and was one of the people who gave me the idea to come to Sudan, also borrowed books from this library and used this as a theme for an article after the end of the Civil War.

Monday, 13 September 2010

September 13th: Caye Caulker

On September 13th 1975 I was on Caye Caulker in Belize.

I spent a week in Belize between Mexico and Guatemala. It's the only bit of Afro-Caribbean life I've seen. I liked the wooden houses on stilts built against hurricanes. I liked the friendliness of the people and the easy-going way of life. I was interested in the British legacy - it was still a colony with self-governance: Barclay's Bank had a very British feel and British foodstuffs were in some of the shops. I also enjoyed the trip to the reef, said to be the second longest in the world, and throughout the time in Belize I was pestered to buy pieces of black coral. I don't deal well with the pressure of a snorkelling mask however. I liked the little houses on the cay and lying on my hammock slung between the coconut palms.  This was still hammock territory, though not as strongly as at Chetumal, the last stop in Mexico, where my room had no bed, just hooks on the wall. I think the bus for the final part of the journey was one of those old-fashioned ones with open sides and a tarpaulin that got pulled down when the tropical rains struck.  One other memory was the toilet over the dock in Caye Caulker which went straight into the sea: I don't imagine that's still there.

From my journal, covering the week I spent in Belize, starting at Chetumal:
Bus to Belize not running today because of yesterday's fiesta, so took 10 am bus to Santa Elena at the frontier and walked across. Mexican guy read my yellow fever stamp for smallpox, no real hassle on the Belize side and got ride in pickup to Corozal. There waited under tree for truck. Drank beer and ate bread and avocado. Got bus at 1pm via Orange Walk, several foreigners. Interesting though bumpy and windy and dusty ride. Most houses built on stilts, well cultivated at first but later jungly and swampy. Spanish influence giving way to black as you go south. Found a pension - Mrs Clarke's - in Eve Street. Very good and friendly people.

Left things at Mrs Clarke's and looked for fisherman to take us to the cay, but settled for the Mermaid of Mr Neil. Directed to Tony Vega's place where we could cook. Walking through the coconuts and past the mangroves and seeing the way the cay is built.

Morning to the reef, interesting snorkelling which I found tiring and got sunburned. Stopped once in the deep and once in the shallows and then they went to dive for conch. Barracuda around and all the life of the reef you see in the movies, though not terrifically colourful coral except for the big fans (it is black coral after all). Zebra fish and blue fish with yellow tails and big purple fish in a bow shape and lots of others. Made a conch stew when we got back. In the evening to Fran's Shack out on the shore away from the houses to drink beer and rum and coke and talk to the sort of men who go to bars. Fran had been a teacher and done something in Vietnam and Korea.

Next day eating off the lobster tails that were being thrown away as too small for the American market. Back day after on a lobster boat, slow easy pace in the hot sun, porpoises and sailing boats.

Some links:  Belize City, Barrier Reef, Caye Caulker History (with information about Tony Vega)

House on Caye Caulker by Claire a Taiwan

Sunday, 12 September 2010

September 12th: Fethiye

On September 12th 1972, I was in Fethiye while driving through South-West Turkey.

From Tavas (after Denizli), where the good road ended, to Antalya took three days, much of it on poor roads, about 300 miles in all. This took us through open valleys and pine-covered mountain roads, through small villages with picturesque wooden houses, and small towns where we tried to shop for food, or find a bank or petrol. It was an empty, undeveloped part of the country, and the roads did not conform to the maps we had.

One highlight was arriving at the sea in Fethiye. We stood on the jetty and looked back at the caves on the cliffs which might have contained some of the famous Lycian tombs. This was the only part of the journey where there was any evidence of tourism as it was a harbour for yachts. Unfortunately the town was shut up that day and there was no-one around. There was some asphalt road on the way east out of Fethiye but it was poor and intermittent and had ungraded gravel stretches. It was a relief to get back on to the mountain roads again.  We drove up through the poor town of Kemer over pine-tree passes and through quaint wooden farming villages to reach the town of Korkuteli and down to the sea at Antalya.

We camped off the road each night, undisturbed. I remember one lovely spot in a grassy valley with running water where we cooked lamb cutlets on an open fire and drank wine. Another highlight in my memory of this journey was passing a travelling band as we came down off a pass, three musicians, one playing a pipe of some sort, one a beating a drum, one with some sort of stringed instrument. They danced along playing and had a bear running with them. They paid no attention to us.

I don't imagine much of what we saw remains. We must have passed close to where Dalaman Airport now is, and not too far from Olu Deniz. Here is a modern picture from Fethiye:

Lycian Tombs at Fethiye.  Picture by Andrew382, CC

View Fethiye in a larger map

Thursday, 9 September 2010

September 9th: Ko Samui

On September 9th 1981 I was on Chaweng Beach, Ko Samui.

It's hard to extract memories of a fortnight spent on Chaweng beach from thoughts about change and exploitation. Of course 30 years ago Chaweng was relatively "unspoilt", but it was still a beach resort, and Europeans, like me, came for a holiday on the beach. There were a handful of people staying at our set of bungalows (Long Beach Bungalows) and it was a good stroll to the next set, and maybe a ten minute walk to the central part of Chaweng. Our bit of the beach seemed deserted. There were no hotels on the beach, but the central part was beginning to solidify into development. Many of the owners of properties were planning developments and thinking of how the place might change... roads, hotels, an airport. Many of the tourists were on short breaks from Europe, and there were a few Western men passing through with Thai girlfriends. Of course road veterans looked down upon Ko Samui at this point, but it was fine for me.

We spent a week sunbathing and swimming and eating in our restaurant before thinking that we might go further. We tried other restaurants and they didn't offer anything better or worse. We doubled up with neighbours for trips to the harbour to get fresh fruit, like mangosteens, lichees and a durian.

Finally we went for a walk to Big Buddha and from there tried to find a coastal route back.  From my journal - 9th September, the only entry for Ko Samui.
Buddha beach was disappointing as they're building a highway, but we found a back way there which involved crossing a hill with Mediterranean views and a bushy-tailed squirrel. We walked north on to the peninsula, sat on a shallow shady beach and decided to try to walk back down the coast. The rocks were lovely, and there was some good swimming in between, particularly the first deserted little cove we found. It was a hot day and we had no water until we found a mine caretaker who gave us hot water and directed us back to Big Buddha.

We had merely walked around a headland and still had the journey back to do.

Chaweng Beach 1980 (My picture)

I think the route of this peaceful walk passes near what is now Ko Samui International Airport.

There are pictures and description by Sanuk from 1981:  here 
View from our bungalow (My picture)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

September 7th: Herat

On September 7th 1978 I was in Herat in Western Afghanistan.

I couldn't help but be struck by the changes in Herat since my visits in 1972 and 1973.  Some parts of the new town were almost unrecognisable with new buildings.  The traffic had changed and you now had to be careful when you stepped into the road.  There were taxis and minibuses and three-wheeled scooters - it was beginning to feel like an Indian city.  There were still the painted trucks, maybe a bit more modern, and donkeys bringing food into the city, but the horse-cabs were dying out.  There were still foreigners arriving, many beginning to freak out gently, wearing Afghan clothes, smiles beginning to break out on their serious faces.  They smoked their hashish in their hotels and tumbled out to eat or go to the tourist shops.

I rarely saw foreigners in the Old City now, around the partially covered bazaars called Char Su, but I was attracted by the antique charm of the area.  I wrote this in a tea-house near there:

Stopped into chaikhana on the broad street with the looms, between the mosque and the metal bazaar, don't seem to have chai-houses in the bazaar streets themselves - I'd have liked to have recorded what I saw there. People mainly friendly, a few over-anxious to sell but they're easily dealt with. Tried on some hats in the hat corner of the covered bazaar. Barber shops with pictures of combs and scissors. Better looking fruit, all the shops making tin boxes, trays, ovens. A lute shop in the octagonal building in the middle of the road, mediaeval English towns had such things. Behind the white facade of newer streets lie earth walls, sometimes with fancy patterns as in Mashad, and earthen streets with central open gutter.

In this chaikhana there is more light and air than often. People eating stews with cut up pieces of bread, you cut up your own bread and the man puts stew on top. 2 men eating now and another just starts. Only I drink tea in a little bowl, sugar in first. Blue and white washed walls, raised sides with simple kilims. Flower pictures and some Farsi writing on the walls. He keeps wood to break up to use with the samovar, also I think there is dung to use as fuel, maybe kindling. Two big samovars by the window as usual, and stovepipes above. Water for washing from a container with two taps, goes into a basin with fretted rim and by a funnel into a receptacle, all hand-made in the bazaar. A mynah in a battered metal cage beside me, and a finch beyond in a separate cage. Owner is friendly, pointed grey beard and little cap on his short hair, wears a nicely cut fawn to beige Afghan suit.

Herat had seemed most exotic in 1972, full of men from the north in colourful costumes, few vehicles in the streets.  We ate meals in raised restaurants where you climbed up to the reclining area on rugs; old men sang and played music on ancient instruments for us; the common local dress for any male over the age of ten was the chapan, a highly coloured quilted jacket with overlong sleeves which hung loose on top of the arms.  We had camped outside the Park Hotel, and one night there was a wedding of well to do people, where there was music and the women danced freely without veils.

I had seen the sights in 1972, helped by the guidebook to Afghanistan by Nancy Hatch Dupree which had been recently been published and was being sold at the Tourist Office.  We were shown round by a schoolboy for an arranged fee of a couple of shillings.  We went round the glorious Friday Mosque, enjoying the coolness of the columned recesses and greens of the gardens.  We saw the workshop and simple kiln where the tiles were being recreated by artists and fired.   One of the artists told us how he was saving patiently for bride-price: he expected he would have enough when he was an old man and then he would take a young girl as his wife.  We saw the tomb of Jami, the Sufi poet, and the huge minarets and mausoleum of Gowher Shad. The boy told us how most of the minarets  had been destroyed by the British, as if it had happened yesterday.  He took us to see a windmill beyond the suburbs, which involved climbing into one of the dome-roofed compounds so characteristic of the area.  In the afternoon we drove outside the city through fields and over a little bridge to the shrine of Gazargah.  I wrote this when I got back to England:

The shrine itself was surrounded by a thick grove of trees casting their shade across the sand. The coloured tiles were peeling off the structure of the main buildings, and this added to the natural atmosphere of the place. I was unprepared for the number of people in the main courtyard, as the outer areas were quiet and inhabited by a donkey and the birds. But inside were collected a large number of beggars squatting or lying among the tombstones which are planted in no order around the courtyard. Many of these pilgrims were blind, or had deformed limbs, or amputations or sores.  A white robed old man greeted us and pointed out the features of the holy place, a tomb of black marble which looked like metal and was carved most intricately it was kept in a room to one side behind a locked door for which he produced a key from the folds of his robes; and an a ancient tree studded with nails, which had been hammered in by the faithful as a prayer.
Gazargah is a centre of Sufi ritual.  Jason Elliot recounts in An Unexpected Light from 1999 how he  stayed overnight and witnessed Sufis and Talibs enraptured there.  The guardian who looked after him was possibly the same man I met in 1972.

It is hard to imagine that the city I saw and is described by others such as Veronica Doubleday in Three Women Of Herat was about to change. Barely six months later in March 1979 the army mutinied there under Ismail Khan against the new government and their Soviet masters and thousands were killed.  When Nick Danziger visited in 1984, as described in Danziger's Travels, the city and countryside was being bombed and strafed in continuing conflict and reprisal.

Erich Siegel's video of Herat in 1972 on YouTube and here, from Afghanistan Before The Wars.  Luke Powell has great photographs from 1974 here.  Noor Khan has pictures from the 1970s here.

Patrimonia Mundi:  Panoramas of Herat, including Gazargah.  

Herat 1975:  Picture by Gregory Melle, CC

Gazargah:  Picture by Sven Dirks, CC

Friday, 3 September 2010

September 3rd: The Road To Rumbek

On September 3rd 1980 I was on the road to Rumbek.

Finally after six weeks and more of waiting I was going to get to Rumbek.  The final rush in Wau was almost comical, as I hurried to the Lorry Souk with my 50 kilos plus of luggage (a lot of books as I recall), being laughed at by Dinka men who despised any possessions which were not cattle.

The Bahr El Ghazal by the bridge in Wau (My picture)

The El-Nilein Hotel (My Picture)

We had stayed at the El Nilein hotel in Wau and were keen to get out of it.  But of course there had been delays to get our paperwork correct.

Wau in the rainy season was green after the heat of Khartoum, and I'd enjoyed sitting in the Dinka souk drinking tea and walking around the river.

From my journal:
The Kenyan truck deal was probably one of the best ways we could have gone, but even so the hot sun and the hard ride, when I was just recovering from a cold in Wau which had laid me out, seemed too much. As far as Tonj, there had been a friendly Ugandan woman and child with us (they were Acholi), but for the latter part we were much more crowded up on top and therefore less comfortable. Bishops and yellow-fronted whydahs were the main fauna of the journey, no mammals, and the forest areas in particular, like the long waterlogged bit after Tonj, were particularly empty. The Djuer settlements and later the Dinka ones were picturesque, that "Real Africa", the people getting more naked as we got nearer Rumbek.

The journey was completely flat for the whole distance.  Forested areas lay between open marshy areas which were my first view of toich, the characteristic landscape of the area, on the southern end of the Sudd.  The earth road was heavily rutted, with deep puddles after rain; some of the wetter areas of toich had some sort of brickwork, like a causeway, to try to give the track some stability.

We spent the night in a dry open space just outside Tonj, sleeping under the stars.  The drivers cooked up a huge corned beef and vegetable stew for everyone to eat with ugali, the Kenyan maize porridge, and a huge pot of chai.  They were well organised for this and all the supplies were brought from Nairobi.

After the dust and suffocating heat of hot season Khartoum, and the interval in Wau, Rumbek at first seemed like a paradise. Long grass eight feet high covered the ground, the Dinka huts were hidden by the stalks of durra (the local sorghum grain) that grew even higher. Huge mango and wild fig trees were dotted about as if in parkland and full of bright-coloured birds.  We found our way to the teachers' house and were offered rooms.

The artist Richard Wyndham, as recorded in his 1936 book "The Gentle Savage", visited Rumbek in the thirties. He noted the huge size of the local mango trees, like the ones surrounding our house, and thought that, after the rain, the effect of the luscious and green grass, was like that of an English park. He also stayed with a British doctor who had chests of vaccines etc, and maybe Rumbek would have been a healthier place then than in 1980.  He also noted that Rumbek had been founded by Alphonse de Malzac, a notorious slave trader (in 1857): the zeriba the zeriba was described by Junker, p 393ff,, who passed through in the 1870s, as being a pig sty, every building full of slaves, ten times in number more than the free inhabitants. The locals he visited on the way to the town were Agar, as they are now.  I believe the zeriba has been excavated now, but I was unaware of its existence when I was there.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

September 1st: Bachajon

On September 1st 1975, I was in Bachajon in Southern Mexico.

The idea was to go on the direct route from San Cristobal to Palenque and from there on to the Yucatan. The route was established but only recently, and it was not mentioned in my South American Handbook. In addition I had heard that there were landslides on the road and the bus had not been running for several days, so I was not at all sure in advance that the journey was possible. This was probably my first time travelling on what were really local buses in Latin America. But if I could get across I'd have an interesting journey through the Mayan heartland in Mexico. In the event the fortuitous overnight in Bachajon was in a largely Mayan town.

From my journal, written up that night:

Up at 6 to catch the bus that left on time. Colourful journey through high pastures and pine trees to Huixtan and crawling round winding road to Oxchua, beautiful for driving, long clear views. Then a wait in the village, tamales at the square, and the descent into gradually more tropical country, more bananas, monstera deliciosum even.  Women weaving nicely embroidered huipils, men sometimes with colourful patterns stitched in old suit jackets. Very slow picking up passengers all the way, very crowded, even a pig. Ocosingo a Ladino town, hot and dull. Rougher road with a ford and over a pass to Bachajon. One hour late and we missed the connection. Found Berthold at the mission, and his junior doctor Christa, allowed to stay. Discussion of language and customs, then a walk round the village, sitting by the milpa (maize field) with a beautiful view of the valley. Meal of beans and tortillas at restaurant, later coffee and Tzeltal communication.

San Cristobal in a larger map