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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Saturday, 30 October 2010

October 30th: San Agustin in Colombia

On October 30th 1975 I was in San Agustin in southern Colombia.

I went with a guide and a few others to the site of Alto de los Idolos, which was on the other side of the Magdalena River. We met our horses at 9.30 in the morning and took the wide trail through the forest. We went down a particularly steep incline to the river, across a covered bridge and up to the highlands on the other side. There were waterfalls all around and for the first time in South America I noticed the large flocks of butterflies that hung around pools of water. Alto de los Idolos was a lovely site, not much visited in those days, with sculpture, tombs and crocodile statues. As so often, the archaeology was an excuse to get legitimately out into the country in a more remote place. My horse gave me a bumping ride and a couple of nasty sores, but I changed with the guide and my riding got better on the way back. We looked in on El Tablon where there was a statue with arms raised in funerary style. I have not often gone anywhere on horseback, but enjoyed this trip through the steep forests. The next day I spent most of the time lying on my stomach.

San Agustin was a good place to spend a few days in a little market town. I stayed at the Hotel Idolos, which let cheap rooms to foreigners, but also served food and was crowded all day on market day with men from the country tethering their horses outside and eating and drinking inside. One evening the foreigners all sat inside drinking beer and listening to a well-travelled American tell tales of the bizarre side to South American life, while local horsemen, drunk on aguardiente, were firing off their pistols outside. Rural Colombia was a good place to learn about the way things worked south of the Panama Canal.

The various archaeological sites were prettily laid in tropical gardens and had plenty of interest with their statues of humans and animals, carved rocks and various animal forms. However the museum showed the relative lack of sophistication of the culture.  This is all now a World Heritage Site

Carved rocks: picture by Diana Herrera, CC

Figurative Statues: picture by Diana Herrera, CC

View Tierradentro in a larger map

Sunday, 24 October 2010

October 24th: Kabul

On October 24th 1972 I was in Kabul.

Just to get to Kabul was something of a relief. We drove into the city with, as I recall, only two gears working, fourth low ratio to get started and fourth high ratio to drive along. I didn't want to stop anywhere because moving off was difficult. The gearbox had started to play up coming down off the spectacular Salang Pass with its tunnel and colonnaded sections passing under the snow-covered Hindu Kush at 3400 metres, the highest point on our journey.

There was a Land-Rover garage in Kabul and we found it easily. They opened up the gear-box the next day and discovered that a pin which had been replaced before we left in London had sheared after the pressures of the Northern Route. It was going to cost about £60 to fix and take three days plus the weekend. This completely broke our budget, which had already suffered from the flotation of the pound and rising oil prices. On top of this we had to stay in the Ariana Hotel for several nights, at £1 per night for the room, instead of camping outside at much less. To celebrate this misfortune we ate out with friends at the Intercontinental Hotel, where we had camel steak, red Afghan wine (produced by an Italian family) and good desserts for a total cost of about £1.50 for the two of us. These were huge prices in Afghanistan at that time.

The stay in Kabul could have become miserable, but it was still a picturesque place if you didn't look too closely at the Kabul River running through the middle. We visited the museum which was great with all the Gandhara art, and also the zoo which was interesting if not fun. We went shopping in Chicken Street and the Silver Bazaar. It was also a social time as the Ariana was the place where many overlanders parked up and swapped stories. We enjoyed meals at the Khyber Restaurant and the Marco Polo, both of which I think still exist. In fact most of these landmarks have been in the public eye over the years, the Intercontinental being the journalists' centre during the civil war, the zoo became famous for the lion called Marjan which survived the ravages of the Civil War and the neglect of the Taliban, and the museum was ransacked by the Taliban. The Ariana may be the same building that became the headquarters of the CIA, but I'm not so sure.

Video from Kabul in 1972 by Erich Siegel on YouTube.

A street picture of Kabul in 1972 here.

Kabul River in 1972: picture by Ard Hesselink, CC
Kabul shop in 1972: picture by Ard Hesselink, CC

Saturday, 23 October 2010

October 23rd: Georgetown, Malaysia

On October 23rd 1981 I was in Georgetown on the island of Penang in northern Malaysia. I had business to complete before taking a bus to Singapore and then a plane to Jakarta. I spent that afternoon taking  photographs.

When I had come back to Penang from Sumatra, I didn't make my previous mistake of staying outside town at Batu Ferrenghi where I'd got bored quickly. The place to be was in Georgetown and as central in Georgetown as possible. I liked being in Georgetown for a few days. I liked the food, the Indian restaurants, the Chinese places that did Hainan chicken so well, especially the street market in the evening where you could choose little bits and pieces from any number of traders and have them cooked or finished in front of you, sample something and come back for more if you liked it. There was plenty of good food in South-East Asia: gado-gado or Padang chicken in Indonesia, an amazing back street Chinese place in Medan which had three or four very traditional different cooking corners within one establishment, Singapore even, though I didn't enjoy eating there as much as I did in Georgetown.

I also enjoyed wandering around the town. There were plenty of old buildings, deep terraced houses with shops at the front in the central area, maybe from the nineteenth century. There were also lovely terraces further out near the suburbs which had elegant arcades for shade. They very much reminded me of Edwardian terraces in suburban England with their tiles and plasterwork, but here the context was quite different. With all the different cultures around, Tamil, Malay, Chinese, I had not expected to get such a whiff of Britain.

These pictures are all mine.

Patrimonia Mundi:  The panoramas of Georgetown are good on the vernacular architecture, for example Crossroads.

Friday, 22 October 2010

October 22nd: Bus from Medellin to Bogota

On October 22nd 1975 I was on a bus from Medellin to Bogota in Colombia.

This was not my first night bus but it was the first where the enormous scale of South America became clearer. I'd arrived in Medellin from Cartagena coming over mountains from the Caribbean into the deep bowl in which Medellin sits. But this was nothing compared to the ride to Bogota.

It helped that I chose to go the direct route via Rionegro, rather than on the more circuitous main road. The bus left after dark about 7pm and seemed to go straight up the mountain. After several hours of constant gears and serpentines I could still see the lights of Medellin almost below, as if from an aeroplane. Once we were on the other side of the ridge there were great mountain views in the moonlight. I nodded off in the end after Rionegro where the asphalt finished and the gravel began. At dawn the bus pulled to a stop where a huge tree had fallen across the road. No problem, a man with an impassive face, who had been sitting in the middle of the back row with a machete, set about chopping. After an hour or two of work the tree was cut and could be pulled off the road by a pickup with a winch. At La Dorada we joined the Magdalena valley, stopped for a tinto, the universal excellent black coffee of Colombia. Then we drove through fine scenery in the valley to Honda; there were gentle hills to the east, more eroded on the west, and lush grass for cattle in between with rich-looking haciendas and streams. At Honda we crossed the Magdalena over rapids in the narrow part of the valley and made the final ascents and descents and ascents to the more arid area around Bogota. The total journey time was seventeen and a half hours.

Medellin had been a curious place; it was part market town with primitive butchers and streets of bars with dubious looking women available, I've never seen so many bars; but it was also part a city with modern tendencies. I visited an art gallery, with its Picasso lithographs like any provincial gallery across the globe, and went to a concert-hall to watch a forty-piece orchestra play the Pastoral.

The Rio Magdalena:  picture by Anviatella, CC

Honda:  picture by Anviatella, CC

View Medellin in a larger map

Thursday, 21 October 2010

October 21st: Dharamsala

On October 21st 1978 I was in Dharamsala.  This was the day I made an effort to get up to Triund, but I left a little late and the afternoon clouds were covering thicker than usual. This is extracted from my notebook:
From the temple onwards it's been fairly open with just clumps of smallish trees looking rather like rhododendrons budding now. It's getting autumn up here, some trees have turned brown and some ferns but other flowers are out. In some of the damper areas out of the sun there was that thick rich wet high tropical smell I always like. I can hear two flocks of sheep and goats, one to my left near a watercourse coming down from the ridge, then a little to the right the flock I passed earlier beside the stone built huts. Down below I can just see a little of the terraced lower slopes and the Kangra valley still a bit sunny. The minivets have been the commonest birds, even up here which may be 2500 metres. A little sparrow-hawk. A grey brown snake on the path and two lizards.
Halfway down, at the point where I can look down over the valley. Bhagsunath and McLeod Ganj itself in partial shade, the two little temples or shrines on the pass on the trail, one the boy told me was to Durga and it's festooned with tridents. I'm looking down immediately on 5 or 6 little stone huts with slate roofs. Tibetans live in a couple of them, monks I think from the red and orange colours of the clothes, flowers outside by the doors. One is chopping wood, and I hear the sound a full second after the action even at this distance. A couple of huts have little terraces beside them, one a shepherd's I think. Below the Pahar farms, sweeping terraces, corn reddening on the roofs and verandas. The noise of the river and the cows and lambs.
I spent a few weeks in Dharamsala, enjoying the fresh air and the walks among the forests and orchids, where langurs played in the trees. In town I also enjoyed the colour of the Tibetans and the freaks (more freaks here than anywhere except Goa). For a while I stayed at the Kailash Hotel in the middle of the bazaar at McCleod Ganj, and later at the Green Hotel which had recently opened and was quieter. It had a roof where you could sit and enjoy the sun - the only drawback was that a young Westernised Tibetan played Otis Redding's Wonderful World endlessly on a little turntable. The Green Hotel is still going. From my window at the Kailash I recorded this:
8am morning now, sun already getting warm and the mountains completely clear. A few kites and vultures circling around, and the crows, and the sparrows in the bazaar. The radio is on in one of the tea-houses opposite, probably the one with the Panama advertisement, Hindi pop music and a blurry noise of background talking. There are three vegetable stands straight across, as well as three tea-stands and sweet-shops, all Indian traders. The vegetable shop I see the most clearly and maybe the best, has tomatoes, peas, capsicums, chillies, potatoes, ginger, garlic, cauliflower, spinach, coriander, two types of brinjals, white roots and those knobbly pear-shaped called chayote in Mexico, plus oranges, 2 types of banana and several types of apple, plus various grains, dhals, spices, dates, and things I don't recognise; inside is a wooden compartment with plain doors. Very colourful and nice to watch people doing their shopping. Tea-stall with its various sweetmeats under glass to keep the flies away, salty eats and buns and biscuits on top with the scales for weighing, and cigarettes and bidis piled up in boxes or for single selling against the wall. Next door to the left the little temple or shrine with the big colourful wheel which rings a bell as it goes round, and beside the two rows of prayer-wheels of which I can only see the first two.
The Westerners came for the Tibetans for the most part, some doing courses at the Tibetan Library or other institutions. Most liked to share the air with the Dalai Lama and other senior monks who could be seen around the little town. It's a comfortable easy place to stay and full of exoticism. The freaks often seemed to like to get away India proper, preferring the highlands or the beaches, where they could find something other than standard Indian food. One day the word was out that the Dalai Lama was going on a journey and the whole place, Tibetans, Indians, Westerners, came out to line the exit road and wave as the car hurtled past. On one day a lot of new Tibetans arrived in town, country people I guessed from their wild clothes and hair, the women with their heavy necklaces and boots and heavy black overdresses; they slept at the temple and seemed dazed by all that they saw around them. I liked the non-Tibetan aspects as well, the Indian Kotwali Bazaar, the main town at the bottom of the hill, where there was a little library and a restaurant selling good dhal and chapattis and, less usually, good kheer. I liked the old British church towards Forsyte Ganj, with its graveyard under the conifers.

Dharamsala was still an Indian town in Indian countryside, with farms outside and an active slate quarry. There was a famous Shiva temple at Bhagsunath beyond McLeod Ganj which led to a constant trickle of Sadhus passing through. I had sat outside the temple the day before and recorded this:
Sat around the tank watching what was going on, the ladies beating their laundry with a wooden baton, and using soap powder for the most part; mostly Indians but one Tibetan couple with a child, the man took his fair share looking after the baby. Then into the temple for the first time where a boy of 8 or so, Pahari from 2 km away he says, maybe the Triund side valley, showed me round.  He has 4 sisters only, no brothers, and still comes to the Shiva temple every day, a real devotee - will he become a sadhu some day? - he explained some of the details to me and also gave me up to the minute information about the Test Match - cricket and Shiva. The lingam to the right of the little shrine, around it marigolds, the snake Bhagswag, and pictures of Parvati and some others, a trident, nice tiles some featuring peacocks, carvings of Kali and, I think, Hanuman at the entrance, pictures of other deities around the courtyard wall. Nice sitting beside the flowers, a private garden behind, the tank beneath to the right, and a farm just beyond the temple's outer walls where they were leading up a pony with sacks of grain. 
Outside Dharamsala:  picture by Eli Ben Ya'acov, CC

Waterfall at Bhagsunath;  picture by Sobhan Mohanty, CC

By Triund:  picture by Sanyam Sharma, CC

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

October 20th: Shibergan

On 20th October 1972 I was in Shibergan in northern Afghanistan.

Arriving in Shibergan felt like an achievement: we had finished the hard bit and crossed the desert. We found a reasonable hotel to camp outside of and the first running water since Herat. The road outside was paved and there was good pilau at the restaurant near the hotel. After the meal we ordered melon as usual. Beside the restaurant there was a huge pile of melons and other customers had been making their way through them. Serving the melons was quite a procedure: the waiter picked out one he thought was good, he carved it into pieces in a trice, holding it with one hand and cutting it in quick strokes with a carving knife which was more like a sword; if he did not think it was perfect, he threw it away for passing goats and carried on until he found the perfect melon for his guests. These were the best melons I have ever eaten.

It had taken us six days to get from Herat, through what felt like open, untouched country, passing little towns and bazaars. The road was not easy anywhere, but it was exciting to drive it. The most difficult bits were before Bala Murghab and the last bit into Shibergan. From Qala-i-Nao to Bala Murghab the road was earth rather than gravel and deeply eroded and rutted. We stopped for lunch in the gorge of a tributary of the Murghab and then continued along the Murghab itself, finally crossing a broken ancient bridge and finding a humble hotel and a poor meal in the town. The next day we passed two fine caravans of camels going across the plain in the same direction as us, the riders and the camels both dressed in rich colours. In this area people would stop us to ask for medical help; usually they had been to a clinic and were carrying packets of medication and the help they wanted was to know what to do with it. We tried to give instructions in the few words of Farsi we had between us. There was very little other traffic on this route, though several times we saw overturned trucks, whose drivers sat anxiously beside them and whose passengers were fleeing or had fled.

After Maimana, we knew we had to get to the little town of Dalautabad and then cross the desert of Dasht-i-Leili with the help of a guide. That night I recorded: 
Found Dalautabad, and got ourselves a guide there who showed us his previous testimonials - not bad, he got a 2CV and VW bus through - but he charged us 500 afghanis. Hans got stuck in mud soon after and we towed him out. Driving fairly easy through the layer of sand - not too many turnings - lots of squirrels and gerbils which burrowed in the sand as we drove over it, lizards and a scorpion - also lots of larks and wheatears. Had lunch on top of hill with good view - whirlwinds or dust devils. Several bits where our guide took us straight through the bush. Road gets much more difficult just before the first gas drillings. Then very thick sand.
When I got back to England I bought a copy of Marco Polo, Penguin, translated by Robert Latham; I dated it 3rd September 1973, so it was very soon after I returned. Marco Polo wrote at the end of the thirteenth century of crossing a desert for six days and arriving in Shibergan and finding there the best melons in the world. Shibergan is an ancient place.

The place names for this area have varied transliterations in English. I've followed the names I wrote down at the time, following for the most part Nancy Hatch Dupree's Guidebook, published in 1971, which we had bought at the Tourist Office in Herat.

I've not found any photographs to illustrate this section, but there are excellent photographs of northern Afghanistan by Luke Powell, taken in 1975, here.  Noor Khan also took interesting pictures along this road in 1978, at a much wetter time of year.

View Maimana in a larger map

Saturday, 16 October 2010

October 16th: Qala-i-Nao

On October 16th I was in Qala-i-Nao in north-western Afghanistan.

Qala-i-Nao was quite a lively place, when we arrived the night before, with most of the centre strung along the main road. There was a hotel where we were able to camp outside and a restaurant where we sat on a carpeted bench and had good stew and soup for pennies. We met a teacher who spoke decent English and had tea and cake followed by melon with him.

In the morning two boys from the teacher's school took us south-east of the town to the spring they called Khardasi. The road was earth and very dusty, but the valley was fertile, and there were many Uzbek or Turkmen yurts in the little villages along the way. The spring was something of a beauty spot, if that makes sense in such a remote part of the world.  For us it was interesting enough to be even further off the beaten track: the Northern Route was scarcely mainstream, but we would have believed it dangerous to take detours like this off the road on our own.  Hans had a fishing rod I don't think he had used since leaving Alkmaar and so we had fresh fish to go with the bread and melons we had brought. Meanwhile flocks of fat-tailed sheep and goats were brought to drink water at the spring and its little stone and earth dam and reservoir.

This was incomparable richness after the difficulties people were having on the Herat side of the of the Sutzak Pass the day before, where there was a full scale famine in progress. Groups of children came up to the car with swollen bellies with their hands out for food, most of them coming from black tents of nomads camping by the streams from the pass. We knew about the famine as we had met an Afghan general in Herat who was trying to alleviate the problem along with some young American Peace Corps volunteers. Unfortunately the bread shops had been closed in Herat that morning, and we had nothing more than old bread to give which quickly ran out. The top of the pass is very beautiful and richly forested and the land at the foot seemed richer.

Robert Byron recounts in "The Road to Oxiana" how he crossed the pass (he calls it Sauzak) three times, all with different means of transport, all with spectacular difficulty, in 1933 and 1934.  The road was newly built but carried trucks.  In November 1933 he got stuck in Qala-i-Nao with dysentery and the onset of winter; he returned to Herat and came back in the spring.

At The Spring.  Photo by H van Riel, in my possession

Noor Khan took interesting pictures along this road in 1978, in a much wetter season.

View Maimana in a larger map

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

October 12th: Nias, Sumatra

On 12th October 1981 I was on Nias, an island off Sumatra, taking a long walk through the hill villages in the south.

An Italian in Bukittingi had said in passing that I should go and see Nias, that I'd find it interesting. I didn't know what to expect or how easy it would be to get there. I spent time stocking up on fruit and one or two other things in the market in Sibolga which in the event there was little need for. The overnight boat to Gunung Sitola was quite bearable, sharing company with NZ surfer Craig and I even slept a little. It rained twice during the night and I got a bit flooded the second time but nothing too serious. It turned out to be a Muslim holiday in Gunung Sitola, the main town of the island, the whole Muslim population out in the square for an imam's lecture, and no boats leaving for anywhere. I stayed in a modern hotel on a boulevard overlooking a beach - very Mediterranean. In the afternoon we went with English Andy for a walk to the village of Shiwahili, a group of 5 adat (traditional) houses, built picturesquely up a stone staircase on top of a hill. At first our reception was a little chilly from women and children, but a man came eventually and showed us his spacious and solidly built house with some nice carving and other features, some very old wood. This was probably the finest traditional house I saw in Asia, or anywhere, an oval shape and upstairs a huge semi-circular room, open across a huge balcony, airy and spacious.

The next day I took a boat to Teluk Dalam in the south of the island, with a reputation for its surfing and for its adat villages. The coast always looked green and attractive, especially just before the bay of Teluk Dalam with caves and strange plants and bare rocks instead of the usual coconuts, and behind some barer green hills. Teluk Dalam was a lively evening town where we found a basic but perfectly adequate Chinese losmen and some food. The morning was market day with pigs and chillies, sweet potatoes, little fruit - it was better in the shops. I had a pork and vegetable breakfast at the Chinese place and then coffee and a kind of pancake and felt well fed. I travelled on to the little Muslim village of Lagundri, near the surfing point. Lagundri was livelier than I might have imagined, with food and music blaring, I suppose for the festival. The losmen had good fresh fruit and some other food was available in the village. I could hear the breakers on the beach, which had soft brown sand in a deep horseshoe, with big breakers, but not as big as at the point where the surfers stayed.

Stone Staircase to Village: My picture
I went with Andy for a tour of the hill villages, on a cloudy sweaty day with thunder around. We took a bus to Hilosmaetano and looked around the adat part of the town, including the stone for ceremonial jumping, then set out along a jungle path, which was covered with stone, as far as Babogasali, finding a shop for tea at the top of a hill. We sat for a while at the church end of Babogasali and then walked past the school, along a little ridge and across a small stream and a bigger river to Hilinawalo, which was the most picturesque of the villages, with a big chief's house and fewer modern additions. Then we climbed up a steep hill for a brief look at Orohando, past a church dated I think 1918, and quickly to Siwalawa which was more spread out with less adat centre. Finally there was a longer walk up hill and down dale to Bawomataluo which was larger, a town rather than a village, nearly in a cross shape with some impressive houses. People were very reserved at first, running away, I felt tourist hostility, but we found somewhere good for tea and cakes and were shown inside one of the typical houses, quite small, by a guy who wanted to sell us things and arranged a bike-ride home. Bawamataluo of course is close to Teluk Dalam and connected by road, and so gets a lot of tourists, but it is picturesque and has fine views from the hill toward the sea and nice stone steps leading up the hill, as is very characteristic in all the villages here.

The next day out walking I found a stone staircase to another village, not much visited. On the way back I admired the view of the bay from a church and some crimson sunbirds. The journey back was delayed because of storms, then I went on the little boat Restu Bersama back to Sibolga. Once out on truly open sea it became unpleasantly rough, throwing us about with water rushing across the deck, luckily not a real storm as boats do go down in these seas. Three or four very big waves left the hull to come down with a mighty thwack, and the only comfortable position in the cramped cabin was to lie down. I took a bus back to Medan called Makmur with the motto "We never turn down a passenger", predictably cramped at first, but thinning out later.

There's a map of Nias here.

Children in Nias Village.  My Picture
Adat House on Nias:  My Picture

Nias village.  My Picture
Nias Jumping Stone.  My Picture

View Nias in a larger map

Monday, 11 October 2010

October 11th: Honduras - Border to Nicaragua

On October 11th 1975, I was at the border from Honduras to Nicaragua.

In Guatemala City I decided the time had come to get to South America, so I went the easy way. The idea was to get to San Jose in Costa Rica seeing the minimum, but at least something, on the way down, and then get a plane to Colombia from there. The bus was the Tica Bus, which provided a comfortable, modern way of travelling between the capital cities of Central America. So I spent three nights in San Salvador, sharing a room with a Japanese guy I hardly saw who seemed to be whoring his way round Latin America; and then I spent a night in Tegucicalpa, a night in Managua and a couple of nights in San Jose. I had no expectations of learning much about the countries I was passing through. At the border between Honduras and Nicaragua I wrote the observations below on the Honduran side.
Driving along the highway here, there's little population, little cultivation. Low green hills in every direction, the highway finds mainly a flat path. Cultivation where there's a valley, fields of maize, some cotton, a few fruit trees. Tracts of water at one place. But mainly it's cattle, cows wandering on the roads, sometimes with people looking after them, Brahma bulls with huge humps. A couple of towns, San Lorenzo, little more than two or three earth streets, a motel, a couple of comedors and a gas station. Choluteca a little more, a silver-domed church and a river. Elsewhere hardly any dwellings. Most houses are of wood or cane, with brush or occasionally red tiles for roofs, or else simple adobe around sticks, only occasionally is the adobe plastered. Birds by the roadside, more than I've seen in a long time, vultures wheeling high, black hawks searching low, egrets by the cattle in fields, a falcon settling on a tree.

The frontier-post is primitive. A big wooden building with a corrugated roof, a wide veranda where people sit waiting or doing business and small boys hang out. Around are wooden shacks with red tiles, little comedors or drink stands, other customs or nameless buildings. A man  is fumigating all incoming vehicles, a Range-Rover, a private car with 2 nuns, The Tica Bus; there are also a couple of ox-carts, 2 animals for each, dribbling, huge mud-covered wheels, solid round the axles, bound with metal.
Then on the Nicaraguan side I gave assistance to three elderly Japanese people whose visas had expired; one of them was an 80 year old painter of horses in water-colours who was on a year long friendship tour - the woman in their party spoke English to me and I spoke for them in my halting Spanish to the officials. Everything seemed to be sorted out when I had to get on my bus.

View Honduras border in a larger map

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

October 6th: Babolsar in Iran

On October 6th 1972 I was in Babolsar on the Caspian Sea in Iran.

It was good to get away from Teheran, which had seemed too busy, too full of traffic, the hardest place to drive, the high air becoming polluted and hanging over the city. And we'd only seen the better side of it, the centre and the northern suburbs: I'd pass through the grim southern suburbs by railway six years later. We drove into high clear air over the Haraz Pass under Mount Damavand and down the long descent on the other side.

The Caspian was different, humid and forested after weeks of driving through the bare high plateaux. The people were open and friendly. The towns were still built largely of mud bricks, with new parts in the centre decorated with rich tiles. At Babol we asked about camping and were directed to the emerging resort of Babolsar. We camped on the beach by a restaurant which served us sturgeon and beer. Swimming was fine and the water not too salty. The difficulty was getting between our Land-Rover and the water, for the beach seemed to double as a highway, with cars being driven at great speed by the holiday-makers from the capital driving in their usual style. You had to run and hope you got to the water.

In the morning we drove on along the plain and had pomegranates for lunch. Then it was slowly back up into the mountains and on to Gonbad-e-Quabus for the night camping outside a petrol station.

View Babolsar in a larger map

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

October 5th: Cattle Camp Near Rumbek

On October 5th 1980 I was at a cattle camp near Rumbek.  A cattle camp is a place where the clan's cattle are herded communally.

This was a full day away from the school with Sarah Errington, a photographer, who had been working on a book on the Dinka for Time Life with John Ryle.  It was difficult to get out of Rumbek, motorised traffic was rare, bicycles were not really strong enough and it was dangerous to head off across the bush on foot where there was nothing to focus my eyes upon, as I had discovered on my efforts. It was supposed to be a trip to Sarah's village, Billing.  But she came to collect us earlier to try to visit the cattle camp first.

Song bull at the cattle camp:  my picture
We drove out across the bush and the country seemed as attractive as anything I had seen in Africa. We arrived at the camp just as the cows were being led out for grazing, and there were just some calves and a few bulls around. We were taken on a tour of the buildings and shook hands with the ash-covered people. The atmosphere was outstanding, the smells of ash and cattle, it felt as though I was a witness on another world, different from anything in my experience.

Sarah had a tukul (hut) back in the village, where we went afterwards and were royally entertained and feasted by the villagers. I made a note of the food afterwards: we ate first chicken (really good - the best), then kissera (a kind of durra pancake) and broth and tomatoes, then hard-boiled eggs, then pumpkin and peanut butter, finally several hours later green beans, like the vegetables before mixed with peanut butter.

A warrior prepares to break into the circle:  my picture

Then we went to the dance at the big tree in Billing. This was very different from the public dances every weekend in Rumbek, which rarely varied from a standard male attracts female cattle format. Here it was mainly songs, dancing of a few people in a circle, with one young man telling a story, very graphically - no need for translation - putting himself graphically in the role of someone desperate to go to Khartoum to make his fortune and falling off the roof of the train from Wau to Khartoum. This was broken up with violent spear-dances when a warrior broke into the circle and challenged everybody.

Although the school and the town were ethnically very mixed, the area around was Dinka Agar territory, and the Dinka were never far away. They came to town a lot, to do a little market trading, a lot of socialising, and go dancing in the square at the weekend. The men came to smoke tobacco and drink tea in a Dinka area in the souk, the young women to buy skirts from the tailors in the souk. Mayen, one of Sarah's main contacts, and his friend Beith used to come regularly to the house, to leave their spears (not allowed in the town centre) and to use a mirror to check their haircuts and ornamentation - most important for parapols (young warriors) on the make.

Dinka covered in ash:  my picture
Puppies get fresh milk:  my picture

Mayen (left) with friend:  my picture
Beith in his finery:  my picture

Monday, 4 October 2010

October 4th: Nebaj in Guatemala

On October 4th 1975 I was in Nebaj, a small town in the Mayan higlands of central Guatemala. 

I stayed at the Pension Tres Hermanas, really run by three sisters, which was comfortably primitive and served the sort of food that made you want to eat there every time. Nebaj felt different from other Mayan towns in Guatemala; it seemed less organised, less colonial, as if the Mayan influence was stronger and the ladino influence was less. It felt more rural and there seemed to be more poor people about. The journey up in the rural bus by a narrow road took you out of the big valleys of central Guatemala and over a ridge into a different world which then undulated northwards towards the jungles of the Peten.

For most foreigners at that time, Nebaj was all about the weaving; some came to study it, others to buy it. I met a friend from San Cristobal, Olivier, with whom I was to spend time the next year in Bolivia. Olivier had been studying weaving with a woman called Juana, a little way outside the town.  She offered us coffee and told us about how she had learned to weave on a back-strap loom as a child. It was not really the weather to walk as a good drizzle kept up, but we did manage to go to some waterfalls and sit by the maize-fields.

The next day was market day and Nebaj was full of Mayans from all three of the villages of the little group of Ixil speakers. As I sat in the bus soon after midday, waiting to leave, I tried to describe the costumes and the scene in my notebook.
The market is in an ending state, people having atole and bread, some having a fuller meal. Mainly on the bus are are Ladinos going back to Quiche, some Indians; truck leaving for Chajul, with men and a few ladies going home, and three gringos, with their collections of what they have bought in Nebaj, going to see if there is more in Chajul.

Three main villages here, few men in traditional clothes:
  • Nebaj. Bright red skirts with gold stripes, foot-loomed now. Red with white stripes and some designs. Huipiles white-based with multi-coloured, usually geometric designs, blue dominates on back, front and sleeves. Sometimes plain with a little design on neck. Headdresses with longitudinal stripes and pom-poms, can be very fine. Shawls with stripes and sometimes silver silhouette. Serviettes like huipiles but sometimes more ornate and blue.
  • Chajul. Red-based huipiles with simple patterns, birds and some geometrics inside and outside the birds. Ties good and bright of similar material.
  • San Juan Cotzal. Blue-based huipiles, similar to those here. Blue foot-loomed....(I think the bus left) 
The seeds for change had already been sown in Nebaj. Nebaj sits on the edge of the Peten and land to the north had been designated for mineral development, given over to people close to the military and politicians, and the Indians forcibly removed. Then in June that year, just three months before my visit, the Guerrilla Army of The Poor had assassinated a despised local landowner. By 1976 local leaders were being killed and soon after the Ixil were being shot in their villages or being herded into the model villages the government used to control the indigenous population.

Ronald Wright stayed in Nebaj in 1985, at the Pension Tres Hermanas, and described in his wonderful book "Time Among The Maya" how weaving was still being taught to the young. He also found a man who was able to recite the old Mayan calendar at a ceremony in a shrine in his compound. This confirms to Wright that the Ixil have survived the latest assault on their culture just as they have been surviving for a thousand years since the heyday of the Maya.

Today tourism thrives in Nebaj and there even seems to be a Pension Tres Hermanas though I suspect not owned by the same three sisters. In 1975 my South American Handbook dealt with the Ixil triangle in one sentence, describing Nebaj as an interesting Indian village.

Friday, 1 October 2010

October 1st: Amritsar

On October 1st 1978 I was in Amritsar.

I enjoyed being back in Amritsar, which I'd visited twice before, in 1972 and 1973.  I revisited the fine streets of the old city, and ate from the street stalls as I had during my first full day in India in 1972.  There were huge brown bulls blocking the streets, beggars lining the bridge where the rickshaw passengers had to get off and walk.  At the Golden Temple I made a note of the music, 2 harmoniums and tabla; a prayer time at midday when everybody stood up; and the weapons brought by the men from the country, long clubs and sticks, one man with a huge double-barrelled shotgun and ammunition slung proudly across his chest.

From my notebook for October 1st:
Sunday evening in the Jallianwala Bagh, scene of General Dyer's massacre, as the signs make quite clear. The Memorial Well where 1290 bodies were recovered, the wall by a shrine with bullet holes still visible and it's a suitable place for reflection on aspects of the British Empire.

But now it's Sunday evening promenade on the only green space within the city walls, mainly middle class, mainly obvious Sikhs, as one would expect. A genuine sadhu in orange robe passing me now, fair skinned with curly hair and a high proud forehead, possessions in a yellow cloth shoulder-bag . A group of 20 or so mainly elderly men sitting on the grass to my right, only 2 or 3 turbaned, listening to mainly one elder speaking, perhaps similar to those conversations of white-clothed men huddled into shops which I passed in the bazaar on the way here. Kids playing on the grass in the centre. Some young couples sitting quietly to the side. Most people wearing their smarter clothes. Opposite 4 or 5 story brick buildings with TV aerials on the top but little sign of activity. One or two paper kites flying in the sky but low. Evening trill of insects in the bushes. Poorer-looking Sikh men wearing a shade of dark royal blue turbans and long shirts over bare knees, some of the shirts blue, some white; they have flowing beards and carry their daggers prominently and sometimes a long stave as well.  
Later in the shaded light of the Golden Temple, near the tree which people queue to touch. Very busy now, with people coming to worship and others to sleep for the night, the arched cloisters around the outside are getting full. A thick line to enter the sanctuary, the chanting and music fills the whole place, and the lights reflect the gold with a golden sheen on the surface of the water. People are friendly and of all sorts; the men in white and blue are much in evidence, they often have spears on the end of their staves. A colourful mass of people in the feeding room, sitting on the ground in neat lines waiting for their chapattis and dhal, colourful turbans and saris, women predominating. I have just sat by the tank, getting a warm sense of relaxation and well-being. Immersion going on at one end and squared off areas, for women I imagine. An elderly couple happily exhorting me to do something in the middle, join in the worship I suppose. 

Patrimonium Mundi:  Panoramas of The Golden Temple.

Golden Temple at night.  Picture by DJ Singh, CC

Jallianwala Bagh.  Picture by Distra, CC