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About This Blog

Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Monday, 28 March 2011

March 28th: Iguassu Falls

On March 28th 1976 I was at the Iguassu Falls in northern Argentina.

I decided to stay at the Iguassu Falls to see out the time after the recent army coup in peace and quiet.  To a large extent life seemed to be carrying on as normal, though I had not heard whether the frontiers had reopened.  I had visited the ruined mission at San Ignacio Mini and the only problem had been a hands up search on the way back to Posadas. 

Iguassu was quiet and idyllic with just a few tourists at the main falls on the Argentine side and some activity around the luxury hotel on the Brazilian side.  There was a cheap hostel, Hosteria Don Hippo, a ramshackle affair run by a large Pole with an Indian wife and an extensive family.  He did some food, but you could get beer and sandwiches at the midrange Argentine Hotel.  I took turns with others to get wine and picnic provisions from Puerto Iguassu.

On this day I walked down to the bottom part of the falls under San Martin where you could actually swim.  There was a little island for utter peace amongst the great roar of the falls.  On the trails there was wildlife, a snake with blue spots on the path, a party of 30 so coatis with long snouts and barred tails held out straight, a yellow-crested woodpecker and a lizard with a yellow collar.  The sun was pleasantly hot in the middle of the day, although the nights were cooler and sleeping was easy.

After a few days I met a friend who had crossed over from Brazil so I knew the border was open.  But still I lingered on enjoying this grand spectacle and simple living, an oasis in all the political trouble in the country.

The Iguassu Falls, 2005:  Picture by Sakke Wiik, CC
At The Iguassu Falls, 2005:  Picture by Sakke Wiik, CC


Thursday, 24 March 2011

March 24th: Kampala

On March 24th 1980 I was in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, travelling with Audrey my American friend.  It was nearly a year after the overthrow of Idi Amin, but Tanzanian soldiers were still in the country, making people uneasy, and the government seemed weak.  Things were scarcely getting back to normal.

We were trying to stay in a downtown hotel, but finding everything a hassle.  In the evening we went for a meal at the colonial Speke Hotel.  Afterwards we were walking back to our own hotel as the time was approaching the ten o'clock curfew deadline and the air was pleasantly fresh and cool.  There was already gunfire in the streets around and we were stopped by a friendly policeman who was anxious that we might not get where we were going on time.  The gunfire kept up most of the night, interspersed with louder noises whizzing across the sky above and exploding when landing.

Although banks and larger offices were largely operating, the main street was lined with boarded up or empty shops, right along to the area where a few Asians were still trying to do business.  We had to leave our room during the day because it had been reserved for government officials who never materialised; and so we took a tour with a friendly taxi driver out through the hills and suburbs to the Kasubi tombs of the Kabakas, the traditional rulers of Buganda, and to the Catholic Cathedral on another hill which had murals of the first missionaries and the embalmed body of the first African archbishop.  It was good to get some historical perspective on the country amid the depressing current situation. 

We had made a fleeting visit to the city ten days earlier to transact some business when we first arrived in the country.  We stayed that time in a small Asian hotel a mile or two from the centre.  This is what I recorded in my journal:
We took the bus journey to Kampala from Kabale, which was long and slow; we were on the bus at 11 but didn't leave until 2.30 or so and it stopped frequently in the densely populated country of Kigezi.  After that the country became more hilly savannah, Ankole cattle land.  Mbarara was battle-worn, the barracks and police area destroyed, the centre of the town empty and looted, only the bus station functioning.  Our neighbour on the bus was going to visit his daughter, aged 20, previously at Makarere University, now in hospital, blinded by gas in the war.  In the early morning Kampala was empty and calm, yet busier than anywhere else I had seen so far in Africa.  Bomb and looting damage, some piles of rubble, yet banks and hotels functioning, and some men involved in construction.  Night-time seems to be the problem, but we heard nothing except a storm after curfew yesterday.  We went at night to see the Israeli film of Raid on Entebbe and the audience hooted with laughter at the appearance of the actor playing Idi Amin (now that he had gone).
Mbarara had been notorious during the Amin years for the killings that were carried out in the police barracks and headquarters.  I had been particularly interested to see what the state of the city would be, and found the sight numbing rather than shocking.

I remember that the bus took a back road as we approached Kampala in the evening.  We parked up for the night in a quiet place, sheltered, with houses near but not right outside the bus.  We were asked to stay quietly on the bus and then we drove into Kampala in the morning once curfew was over, all this handled very calmly in a matter-of-fact way. 

Kasubi Tomb in Kampala:  Picture by Eve Gray, CC
Patrimonium Mundi: Panorama of Kasubi Tomb.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

March 23rd: On A Train To Posadas In Northern Argentina

On March 23rd 1976 I was on a train to Posadas in Northern Argentina.

I had been staying with friends of friends in Buenos Aires.  They got a phone call the evening before which convinced them that the long expected coup against the government of Isabelita Peron was definitely coming this time.   They suggested I get on a train the next morning and get as far away from Buenos Aires as I could.  Meanwhile they went away to do what they could for themselves.

In the morning I got an early bus to the train station and had no difficulty buying a ticket to Posadas in the far north of the country; it was where I was planning on going anyway.  I had breakfast, put my backpack in the van and found a decent seat - the train was quite empty.  When we got to the Parana River the train was loaded onto a ferry and we spent five hours steaming upriver; I sat on deck but there was little to see.  The train continued on into the evening in the Entre Rios district, and there were plenty of birds to look at in the swampy pools beside the track.  I took dinner in the restaurant, dull food but there were people to talk to.  When I got back to my carriage they played martial music on the radio and people said that the coup had come.

We spent all night at the station in Concordia.  There was another train on the opposite platform, going the other way.  We were not allowed off the train and the doors were kept locked.  Military men in long black leather boots walked up and down crunching their heels into the gravel on the platform.  We moved off after it got light, and people in the carriage, an Argentine family and a Brazilian circus-worker, said the frontiers were closed.  All day we made long slow progress through the increasingly swampy country.  I read most of the time.  After it got dark, near the town of Santo Tome, we stopped again and the lights were turned out.  Soldiers got on and went through the carriage shining torches in the faces of the passengers.  I quickly took my Finnish hunting knife from my shoulder bag and hid it under the seat.  I was singled out and taken off the train into the open and my rucksack was found in the van.  I was pretty frightened as was everyone else on the train I think.  I was taken in front of a machine gun and bright lights as soldiers went through my stuff.  When they found my paracetamol, they shouted "drogas, drogas" and called the capitan.  He was a real SS type, with greying hair and dark glasses.  He shouted at me and went through my stuff again.  There was another person who had been searched before me and I saw him being loaded onto a truck.  However they couldn't find anything on me and eventually let me get back on the train.   

The train moved off and later there was another search but not so intimidating.  I caught the eye of the family at the other end of the carriage when they finally turned on the lights and we started a little laugh with relief.  They told me that they had not expected to see me again when I was taken off the train.  We got to Posadas at 1.30 in the morning, over twelve hours late, and I remembered to retrieve my knife.  I walked into town and was able to find a hotel, not too cheap and full of cockroaches - I was back in the tropics.

I don't know who the group was that searched me.  I know that various paramilitary groups crawled out of the woodwork during the first day or two after the coup, but these people might just as easily have been the military, and the capitan just a particularly nasty example.  They were suspicious of foreigners, perhaps going back to the Chilean coup four and a half years before.  Most travellers had been searched and some had been briefly detained in the weeks before the coup, so my treatment was perhaps normal.  Of course we know now that more than 10,000 people were killed in the Dirty War that followed, perhaps many more.  Any threat against people like me was insignificant.  My friends meanwhile in Buenos Aires were OK, although I was concerned for them and it was a few months before they surfaced.


View Posadas in a larger map

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

March 22nd: Chobe in Northern Uganda

On March 22nd 1980 I was in Chobe in northern Uganda.  This was a lodge in what is now called the Murchison Falls National Park.  I was with my American friend Audrey. 

The wildlife parks in Uganda were struggling after the Idi Amin years.  Animals had been poached or shot by soldiers throughout that period, and the Tanzanian army had been no better since their arrival.  There was no fuel for trips and there were almost no tourists.  A handful of cheap tourists like me were at Chobe, but there was not a lot to see in the way of wildlife although the Nile was very beautiful at that spot. 

The Nile in Murchison Falls Park, 2010:  Picture by Daryona, CC
However I enjoyed this day.  The roar of the river was constant as it passed by the lodge and the many islands, but I could always hear the grunting and splashing of hippos in the water.  The earth was red and the trees mainly small and thorny with many sausage-trees (Kigelia, a characteristic tree in much of Africa.)  With two others I went out in the morning for a walk, under the leadership of a guide with a rifle.  This was the only way to get out in the park unless you actually had fuel to put in the tank of one of the park vehicles.  Walking was a good way to do things and was atmospheric even if the guide did not know which antelope was which.   We saw crocodiles by the river which I had not seen before in Uganda.  Best was a huge herd of elephants, maybe one hundred in total, spread out along the ridge amongst trees perhaps seventy yards away.  There were led by a huge male and were not especially pleased with our presence.  I kept close to a tree but held my ground and was able to watch them for a long time while the guard kept his rifle at the ready.  I knew enough to know that such a large herd of elephants was a bad sign rather than a good one, as elephants only gather in such numbers when they are under threat.  This was probably all the elephants within a wide area.

Then in the evening I went out again down to the creek by the Nile, enjoying being quiet and being on my own with just the birds around.  I sat near the weed-covered areas where the jacanas and the moorhens live, and then there was a splendid sunset going down behind an acacia tree as I sat and watched it get darker and darker until the bats came out.  Being out in the wild was more important than seeing the more spectacular animals.

We had stayed a week or so earlier at Mweya in Queen Elizabeth National Park in the west of the country by Lake Edward.  It was a beautiful place but the road in was littered with the dead bodies of hippos killed by soldiers.  I could see the ridge of the Ruwenzori mountains to the west but not the snow peaks.  Again there had been no fuel for vehicles but we were able to go out on a launch on the lake which was good for the water birds.  One evening I left my meal in the hotel to go back to my room in the hostel to get something and had to cross a courtyard to get back.  I heard an animal make an almighty roar as I started to cross, but I did not hesitate for long as I was hungry.  The staff told me that they had been troubled by a lion at night recently.

Brian Schwartz saw no elephants at Chobe and was there at a similar time to me, perhaps a week or two later, as recounted in his book Travels Through The Third World.  He writes of meeting Iain Douglas-Hamilton who was doing an aerial survey of elephants in Uganda - Audrey and I also met him at Mweya.


View Fort Portal in a larger map

Monday, 21 March 2011

March 21st: Juba

On March 29th 1981 I was in Juba in Southern Sudan, with Mary.  I was trying to get the documentation which would allow me to return to Khartoum, get my exit visa and my money converted, and from there travel back to the UK.

The days were hot and close in Juba: mornings in the Ministry fighting the bureaucracy, a siesta after lunch and the Greek Club in the evening, food and socialising with other teachers.  The time passed quickly but frustratingly for me, and agonisingly slowly for Mary, who was finding being a vegetarian difficult in Sudan.  I was trying to eat as much as possible and taking iron pills to try to get my weight up.  Most of the other teachers from the South now seemed depressed by their experiences, but we made cheerful conversation as we had done previously.  I met one of my students working in a shop in the Malakia, the market area.  After graduating from school it was the only job he could envisage, working for an Arab trader; if this did not work out he planned to go back to his village in Equatoria and cultivate, as he put it.

At first we stayed in a depressing rat-ridden guest-room at the University, where we saw no sign of students or staff.  Two aid workers took us to Sunday lunch at SIL, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, because they did cauliflower cheese and real mashed potatoes and Mary could not resist.  Eventually they offered us a clean, modern room in their compound at a good price and we capitulated.   The missionaries were blue-eyed and calm.   At lunchtime we would listen to their tales of language translation around the world; they looked on Southern Sudan as a hardship posting like everyone else, and described it as second only to New Guinea in terms of under-development.   After lunch on that first Sunday we walked out to the hill behind the non-functioning petrol station.  We climbed to the top among baboons and the trees, and admired the view away from Juba from the summit.  The hill seemed volcanic and was the only place to get exercise - I was still looking for weight after the poor diet of Rumbek.

Otherwise we saw a Sergio Leone film in a small open-air stadium; some enterprising Britons living in Nairobi were importing the films and trying to make a little business of it.  I also visited Issa again at the Wildlife Hostel and heard tales of exploits from her macho shooting Latins, "My father was a professional hunter."

Finally the papers were all provided correctly and we got a flight to Khartoum.  Going through customs I followed an Arab trader, who was asked to open his battered, overfull suitcase.  The case held nothing except banknotes, and he had difficulty stuffing them all back in like a crook in an Ealing comedy.

Edward Hoagland in his book African Calliope gives a description of the Greek Club, hunters and other Juba characters he met there in 1977.

Juba, 2007, Picture by Katy Fentress, CC

Friday, 18 March 2011

March 18th: Kagadi in North-west Uganda

On March 18th 1980 I was in Kagadi in north-western Uganda.  Together with my American friend Audrey, I was trying to get from the Ruwenzori area around Fort Portal to the Nile area in the north and east of the country.  There was no public transport in the area.

Fort Portal:  My picture
Out walking in the last evening in Fort Portal we were invited home by an old gentleman cycling home.  He told us interesting things about life in the later Amin days, such as "we could not sleep in our houses" and  "one night they came to the door with their guns."  He had been in the third class at Makerere University in 1931 and was now 72.  He had been a teacher and had worked as a chief after the war, but now lived on the milk of his herd of 50 cattle.  Walking back, I was impressed by the agricultural richness and variety of that area of Uganda, every house with its avocado tree.

Next day we tried to get going to Hoima, but only found a pickup going to Kagadi.  The journey was pretty up through tea estates to Kyenjojo, and when I looked back the Ruwenzori ridge was clear with a good amount of snow on top.  After we left the Kampala road the way became rougher with passages of uncut jungle and very sparse population mainly growing matoke (bananas).  While we were trying to find an onward lift, Audrey made several friends who spoke quite good English and everyone was delighted that we were there.  We waited in a small "hotel" (which means cafe or restaurant in these parts) and I wrote in my notebook:
A little town in semi highlands.  Lovely empty country, the backbone of Africa, not so crowded, with fine views over green hills and the red road winding through jungle and matoke and little townships even smaller than this. 
A strip of little houses with thick walls often of concrete between wood supports, wooden doors and windows, shutters painted mostly blue, tin roofs with long shallow eaves.  A radio across the wide road plays "Red River Rock."  A hot dusty wind blows through the trees and across the tin roofs.

When we came to town we sat in the shade of a tree in the town centre and were surrounded by half the school as they waited for the afternoon class to be called.  Even now the kids stare at us through the door and windows.  A friendly young man working for the Ministry of Health at the hospital, the main feature of this town, told us about the local tribe, the Banyoro, and persuaded the people in this place to make a pot of tea even without sugar and milk (it turns out to be a coffee/tea mixture) which will make our stay here a little more pleasant while we wait for the lift out.

The restaurant has a couple of Formica covered tables of different sizes and five chairs, a counter which is empty with a chair behind on which the boy of the place sits, a set of shelves with two and a half bottles of Tree-Top and a menu which says:
Matooke Nenkoko 35/-
Matooke Nanyama 30/-
Enyama Yonka 20/-
Enkoke Yonka 25/-
Chai 5/-
Amahuli (2) 20/-
Also in here there's a contraption like a baby's high chair with a water can (empty) and a cooking fat tin for water, maybe for washing.  There is  a licence for the establishment; it cost 300 shillings, and it is suspended between here and the door on a string along with a couple of light blue curtains to shade off the eating area.
Eventually we decided to stay for 40/- in a simple room at the only lodge.  We went out for a walk to the forest station, which was partly cleared and partly planted with eucalyptus.  We saw a group of four hunters with spears and nets who said they were looking for "dibrat", perhaps dik-dik.  The local people seemed very poorly clothed, growing little other than bananas and coffee but even then some spoke English, including women only wearing skirts.  Coming back we sat by some eucalyptus and watched a beautiful sunset, and on the road up the hill to the little town a group of mongoose ran across the road, ten in all from large to very small.  We had meat and matoke with hot orange for supper, followed by an evening of conversation with the local Bata shoe man and another trader, both young, both a little depressed at the slow recovery after the troubles, saying that putting up with British Sahibs would be better than some of the Africans they got. 

Country near Kagadi:  My picture
We got our truck lift in the morning, a long hard slog for the 56 miles to Hoima, 4 or 5 hours, but sitting in the cramped cab of an old Bedford, using three gears and not much in the way of brakes.  The country was more of the same as the day before, but not so high in altitude, and the truck made it difficult to enjoy the view.  In Hoima the truck people found us an onward pickup going to Marindi, again in the cab, through more developed country.  Marindi was smaller than I expected, just 3 or 4 blocks, a market, a restaurant or two where we found much needed tea and chapattis, an administrative district with rugby pitch and hospital.  Very few people spoke English here and the did not try to help us.  We bought mangoes and a pineapple at the market and sat in the welcome shade to eat them.  We went to the transport area and found a pickup to Kigumba through dry red earth country, more open than before, with thatched villages and men with holes in their ears.  Kigumba was a transport centre, where we found the Good Night Lodge in the back of a very African and dirty compound, but quite atmospheric.  I had a beer, a tub and jerry can bath, a chicken and chapatti supper, then orange and waragi and retired to bed. 

It took longer than expected to get a ride to Karuma.  In the end it was a Tata truck at 11am, about 60 passengers in the back and 45 Tanzanian soldiers, one or two rather rowdy, not enjoyable really and you couldn't see much of the dry bush country, but the road was fast over little hills.  The falls on the river were impressive, and there we got off the truck to try to find "means" into the park.  "Means" means transport.  



View Fort Portal in a larger map

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

March 15th: Rumbek

On March 15th 1981 I was in Rumbek.  Teaching had ground to a stop and I was getting ready to leave.  The season of tribal fighting had passed, but other concerns were more pressing.

I heard in the morning that they were dismantling the Dinka souk, which we called Dinka Alley.  This was an atmospheric area to one side of the double row of proper shops run by Arabs, centred on the store owned by John Mikis, the Greek trader.  The plan was supposed to be to move the Dinka souk to a new area on the other side of town and build modern shops in this area.  There had been a funky little circle of ad hoc stalls which did tea and coffee or African doughnuts.  Behind there was  a line of stalls which sold cheap household goods, and the ornaments and swimming shorts from China that the men liked to wear, but with African traders.  Behind there was an area where Dinka blacksmiths sold huge ornamental pipes and others sold tobacco, the one crop some Dinka grew.  Old men would sit here and smoke and pass the time of day; young men would come into town, check their decoration and hang out; then they would make occasional forays to the tailor shops where the unmarried girls would be trying out the little yellow skirts they wore, knowing the young men would be around.  In the afternoon I saw the desolation of the souk for myself: it reminded me of the worst stories of urban development in Africa and India, where the squatters are physically moved out to make way for development.  All the town behind the Arab souk was being destroyed, all the tea-shops and restaurants, all the small shops over a wide area, leaving nothing but the shells of the houses.  The Arab traders all had happy faces, but the poorer people, the locals seemed confused, not knowing what was going to happen.   It seemed like the end of an era, and I couldn't imagine Rumbek having the same atmosphere again.  I knew it was time to leave.

This was against the background of the news that the official map of Sudan had been rewritten.  A new map had been published by the Nimeiri government which had changed the arrangement of provinces, but it had also moved the straight line between the North and the South some distance towards the north in the area around Bentiu where the oil exploration was taking place.  This had made people uneasy and very pessimistic for the future, rightly as it turned out.  In some ways this was the act which started the ball rolling for the resumption of civil war.  It did not come as a complete surprise, as there had been political action in Juba, including a demonstration, back in December.

As the dry season set in, the school well dried up, and the students had to search for water among the other drying wells of the town.  The wind began to move the dust and brought a new peril, meningitis,
which had left 80 dead in Rumbek alone it was said in the past week.  There was also anthrax around, as well as the usual problems of TB (the skin sort) and cerebral malaria, which killed the little boy of our neighbour.  People would come round to the house seeking advice and medication as they did not trust the hospital.  A UN doctor arrived to diagnose the meningitis and supply some drugs.  I saw a student being rushed to the hospital with cerebral malaria, but they got him there on time and he was saved.

The house had been full of people coming and going.   Our Dinka friend Mayen had been in town awaiting a court hearing and was not allowed to leave town.  He spent the nights with a number of other young warriors, laid out like spoons on our veranda.  Feeding this lot used up our rations quickly and tried our patience considerably.

Teaching seemed to have finished: all that was left was the final exams for the third year and it was made clear that the foreign teachers were not going to get in the way of good results by invigilating and not giving the students the right answers.  Mary from the BBC crew had returned to visit me and we planned to travel back to England together.  The headmaster had been away for some time, but I eventually got the deputy to sign my release form.  In the end I was pleased to get away: the frustrations and hardships had outweighed the benefits of living in such a remote place.  I was wondering about returning, as I wanted to teach more, but in a school that worked, or at least worked better.  Andy did return for a third year at Rumbek.  He told me later that the year had started pretty much on time, but that more and more closures led to the whole year petering out with very little teaching taking place.  

Mary and I left to Juba with an aid worker in a Land-Rover.  We stopped off to look at some "oxplough showgrounds", where there were attempts to persuade the Dinka to use their precious cattle for menial agriculture work.  We looked at one field which had a minimal shelter built in the middle and a tether for oxen, but no animals.  Mary asked how long the project had been going, thinking it would be weeks or months:  the answer was that they had been there for several years.

Monday, 14 March 2011

March 14th: Driving in Southern Nepal

On March 14th 1973, or thereabouts, I was driving in Southern Nepal.

After leaving the rain channeled Cherrapunji which overlooks the plains of Bangladesh, we had followed the Brahmaputra west from Assam.  Now we wanted to get into Nepal and so on to Kathmandu.  We had heard about a new road from the east of Nepal running along the Terai and we believed this would shorten a very long drive across Bihar in North India.  We thought the crossing would be south of Siliguri near Naxalbari, the home of the Naxalites who were still believed to be operating in this area.  The roads were empty through thin forest.  Eventually there was a turning to the right and a river with a border.  We explained to the friendly border official how to stamp our carnet and he showed us the register: we were the first foreigners to cross here since a group of Peace Corps some nine months previously.  The track was a ford across the river, definitely four wheel drive, a couple of feet deep, the banks deeply rutted.  Over in Nepal we came to the remote town of Bhadrapur, dirty, undeveloped, poor, broken streets and not on our maps.  We wandered along a winding road through open fields and villages, always afraid that we were going too far to the south.  Finally we came to a stretch of new road, and a forest rest house for camping.

We drove on the next morning through forest but it wasn't long before the new road came to an end and we had to turn south on small roads through a river and reservoir system that made me convinced more than ever we were heading back into India.  After more twists and turns and several hours we got to another stretch of new road which eventually joined the main road to Kathmandu, the Tribuvan Highway, only finished in 1956, and itself slow and winding through the hills.

As the sun was going down we drove up onto the ridge which forms the first foothills of the Himalayas; the trees were shading red and the dim outline of mountains ahead was tinted pink.  We found a hotel near Daman which gave us some food and allowed us to sleep outside.  Then in the morning the sky was clear.  We walked around a little in the cool air and then found near the road a panorama in stone and metal, showing the outline and names of all the mountains from Dhaulagiri in the West to Everest and Makalu in the East.  We were able to see and distinguish every peak in a perfectly blue sky.

The view from Daman:  Picture by Inhabitat, CC


View Raxaul in a larger map

Thursday, 10 March 2011

March 10th: Bodhgaya

On March 10th 1982 I was in Bodhgaya.  There is always a risk of disappointment in going back to places you have enjoyed but I found Bodhgaya little changed three years after I had been there in 1979

This was the main day of Holi and it was cooler this year, though it did get much hotter later in the month.  There was rain around and the river had more water.  The people had been building Holi fires for some time, but a lot got swept away when it rained. 

On the evening of the 9th I had walked along the river looking for photos of the full moon.  Then I recorded what I saw of the early festivities:
Holi Full Moon:  My picture
Full moon night.  There had been a Tibetan puja at the temple.  Once again the stupa had a wonderful atmosphere in the moonlight.  Tibetans doing prostrations and chanting, while a group of Burmese monks were idling around and laughing and even smoking a pipe - such a difference in attitude.  Finally walking back to the Vihar a procession was crossing the road to the riverside.  Moving in the darkness, with drums and chanting, some waving palm-fronds; it looked like what it was, an ancient pagan ritual, which could equally have come from Africa or prehistoric Europe, very atmospheric.  In the distance towards Gaya there was a torchlight procession and a couple of boys came down from Bodhgaya with torches.  The bonfires got lit with continued beating and singing and a little solo dancing, people with torches stretching out across the sands of the river.  So Holi has started.
At Dungeshvari:  My picture
On the day of Holi, the town felt very closed down so I walked out and to explore the hills you could see across the river.  I walked first to the island and then I just kept walking to the base of the hills, enjoying the bright sunshine; it was lovely to get away from the noise of traffic and music.  I climbed the lowest hill and sat a while watching the distant Mahabodhi stupa, looking so spired, and decided to go on along the mountainside and see if I could find the Mahakala cave temple I had heard about.  The path got better and better, overlooked by birds of prey, as I passed alongside a village.  The temple was in a lovely green niche halfway up the fairly bare hills.  It had mainly the appearance of a Tibetan temple and monastery, but the little Kali temple-cave had a fine sculptured image in the darkness.  There was also a modern shrine done in Tibetan style with skulls all around the doorway and a demonic face for the main image.  When I arrived a party of Thais was there with, I was told, a famous old monk.  As I sat some Indian women came up for Kali darshan.

The walk back was also good, going through two villages and then crossing the wide river, somewhat muddy.  I was accompanied by a merry local man for some of the way who kept on jollily talking to me in Hindi and trying to get my understanding.  I had a much needed chai when I reached the road and then a schoolboy returning from Gaya took me on the crossbar of his bike for the second part of the walk along the road.

The town was almost shut down in the evening and there was no fresh food or tea.  There were a few drunk people and a few people with colour on their clothes and bodies.

I went back to the hill and the shrine, called Dungeshvari, ten days or so later, for a full day's walk over the hill, when the hotter weather had set in.  I recorded this in my notebook:
On The Hill:  My picture
It was easier to get up here than I expected, up to the pass to shelter from the sun at a cave and then up round the other side, it's not really very high.  You can hear all the noise from the Gaya road in the pleasant westerly breeze, and the noise of children and others from the houses which line the path which runs along the edge of the hills.  Many of the houses are built in rectangles with a peak on all four sides, and a small shady courtyard, not much in the way of windows, the bigger ones have tiled roofs, the mud-baked walls a yellowy brown.  The fields on the Gaya road side are pleasantly green in parts with the white lines of paths in between, occasional round wells, tall palm-trees.  Several villages attest to the river's fertility.  On the other side it looks drier, the spaces between villages which coincide with trees are more distant.  The spire of Bodhgaya and behind it the Thai and Japanese temples, beyond is the university. Gaya sits by the river under its temple hills, I can make out a couple of long bridges to cross the river, the far one must be the railway line.  Neophrons circle round below me, swifts and crag martins near my head.

Farther Along.  Above the big patch of trees, in the rocks, where one or two small trees cling to the rocks for life.  Below a man breaks rocks with a small sledge-hammer in the hot sun, and two bulls turn incessantly round a grass threshing floor.  Under the trees is the tiled roof of a big house, and a few smaller houses on the edge of dry-looking fields.  It's more peaceful here, further from the road.  Three little coral-coloured trees on the edge of the hill, and the rocks have a deep purple vein.

Below Dungheshvari:  My picture
Finally.  Coming away, the sun declining behind Bodhgaya.  I'm sitting on the root of some big spreading fig-tree, maybe a banyan, which stands on its own opposite the village at the foot of the hill.  The temple is now hidden by a thick clump of palm and acacia trees, but I can see the entire length of the ridge I walked along and the extra bit to the north which looks so inviting with its light green trees and bushes.  In fact it looks like it might have a couple of artificial walls on the top.  The village felt good, two places where they were threshing, eight or ten bulls bound together and made to trample the grain, like the grape harvest.  Unsophisticated people, plain mud walls and thatched roofs.  The temple not so impressive this time, the boy-monk playing inane tunes on a radio and there was the distant hoot of the Gaya train; better was sitting under the little trees below and eating the last orange, a gentle smell, redstarts and sunbirds and lots of butterflies and a frightened jackal running low like a fox pursued by a child.

I did look in at the Mahakala temple and admired the images, so full of horror, especially the central Mahakala, like a giant mask, half-Kali; and a Yamantaka in the corner bull-head and 34 (at least) arms.  After sitting below the village I made my way quickly back to town, finding a chai and then a tonga when I reached the main road.


The Patrimonium Mundi panoramas of Bodhgaya show that there have been a lot of developments around the Mahabodhi Temple since I was there.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

March 9th: Kibuye in Rwanda

On March 9th 1980 I was in Kibuye by Lake Kivu in Rwanda, travelling with Audrey, my American friend.  We spent this Sunday walking in the area.

We had been staying in Gisenye in the trailer of some Swedish missionaries while we failed to get into Zaire.  We took the boat from Gisenye along Lake Kivu but could not see much of the coast line because of the sun glare - nothing like the volcanoes of Zaire spreading north which we'd seen from the land the day before.  In Kibuye we stayed at the Home St Jean, the mission, in a dormitory on a promontory, and went to town - more like a village - for lunch on meat, beans, cabbage and sweet potatoes, followed by pineapple.  Later I found a trail off the road through a banana patch  past some fish hatcheries and up a pretty hill for a wonderful view of the lake and surrounding mountains and a hello from the lady of the hill. 

This day we walked again and found the old man of the hill opposite the church who led us to the top and eventually brought us back down again, so agile with his stick and wrapped cloth and bare feet with splayed old toes lacking nails.  Later I wrote this in my notebook sitting on the promontory.
The most sunny day yet in Rwanda, there has been a breeze blowing all the day and the clouds have kept away.  This is also the prettiest spot, the Home St Jean or Catholic Mission on a peninsula on the deep inlet of Lake Kivu that they may call Lake Kibuye.  Eucalyptus and juniper trees blow in the wind, below the lake is dull blue-green in colour, almost grey lapping onto and away from the land in contented but usually round contours.  The hills rise generally steep here up to a few hundred feet, so that not all the land is cultivated, cows graze on the pale green grass of the rest, sometimes with biggish white egrets in attendance.  Opposite a couple of goats: I can hear their bleats sometimes in the wind.  A pirogue moves across the water beneath me, two men paddling, their bare black backs glisten in the late afternoon sun.  Occasionally a hawk, or an egret, or a crane, or a crow crosses the water but otherwise the scene is one of stillness and tranquillity; only the ripples on the water, the grass and the trees wavy in front of me, the cattle change position on the banks.  To my right is the hill we walked this morning, shown the way by the old man, the crown of eucalyptus where we sat in the midday sun, steep hills and a few houses, fields of sorghum and beans and coffee, some conifers on the steep slope we walked down.
I remember the peace especially but also the singing from the churches so tuneful and evocative - this was a Sunday.  The people here seemed to live in hills rather than villages, the houses spread out along the slopes.  The bright green of the hills, the blue of the sky and the greyer blue-green of the lake, the colours of birds like red bishops flitting across my vision, the sound of the singing from the churches.

It is impossible to think back on times in Rwanda without thinking of the massacres of 1994.  It is terrifying that this spot which I found so peaceful and the mission where I stayed would be the actual site of death in such a horrific way.  Massacre details here.
Kibuye in 2006:  Picture by John and Mel Kotsopoulos, CC

Massacre Memorial 2005:  Picture by The Advocacy Project, CC


Saturday, 5 March 2011

March 5th: Calafate in Southern Argentina

On March 5th 1976 I was at Calafate in southern Argentina.

The day before I was up at 5am to catch the bus from Rio Gallegos and slept most of the way until Esperanza and the breakfast stop.  There was not much to see but endless sheep-grazing.  For a long way we gradually rose through a wide valley.  In the middle a man in poor clothes carrying a bag got off the bus; there was nothing in any direction I could see, sheep, rabbits, geese, some courser-type birds - I could not imagine where he was going.  Then we went into a snowstorm and a snow-covered road and great excitement from some tourists who had not seen snow before.

At Calafate the next day I took a taxi out to the Perito Moreno Glacier, famous as a glacier which was still expanding.  We drove fast through bleak, dusty Patagonia with no trees until we reached the park boundary.  By the side of Lago Argentino it became pretty, trees green and spread out, some streams crossed by wooden slot planks.  There was a huge piece of blue ice floating on the water.  At the glacier I went down to the water edge, listening to the creaks and rumbles.  One great convulsion led to the calving of a number of icebergs like the one I had seen earlier.  I walked over the edge of the peninsula to the other side and sat a while just admiring and even touched the huge creaking mass of ice.  On the way back in the taxi we passed Punta Bandera and I saw a whole flock of black-necked swans on a pool and one solitary flamingo. 

The following day I walked down to the bay in search of flamingoes and watched a handful for a while.  Then I walked to the far end of the bay in the brisk wind and saw a larger flock of a hundred or more flamingoes and a distant flock of swans.  There were thousands of ducks, plovers and hawks, and a sheep stuck in the mud.

I left by the plane from the gravel airstrip.  We flew past Lake Viedma and then banked sharply round the sheer face of a huge mountain, which I took to be Mount Fitzroy, the most famous of these Patagonian mountains.

Perito Morena Glacier, 2007:  Picture by Matt Riggott, CC


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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

March 1st: Darjeeling

On March 1st 1973, or thereabouts, I was in Darjeeling, in the Himalayan foothills of northern India.

We slept in the Land-Rover outside a hotel in the upper part of the town.  This was just below a ridge which had churches and villas from the period of the Raj.  All the hotels seemed to have Bhutanese men in national dress waiting outside.  You could look down on the bazaar below or walk out to the Red Panda Sanctuary and rhododendron woods.  But the peaks of Kanchenjunga stayed hidden by clouds.  The journey up had been pretty too, the road as steep as any I had driven, criss-crossing the tracks of the well-known little blue train.  Much of the scenery was open green grassland with little villages and people wearing increasingly colourful clothes, and the little train going much slower than us.
 
After Darjeeling we went back up to Ghoom, the highest point on the road and railway at 8000 feet.  The monastery there was the first active Buddhist one I had seen; I remember the lamas wearing yellow costumes.  From here we drove the back road, gently down moorland with prayer flags flying off the few houses and little aqueducts made of bamboo to carry water along the roadside.  The road here was much quieter than the main road up from the south.  The final descent to the tropical heat of the Teesta valley was precipitous, with the road hurtling down through thickly wooded forests so steep that the road crossed itself on occasions; they even had road signs to warn you of these extra sharp bends.  Up the other side Kalimpong was again in open grassland spread along a ridge, with a guesthouse which seemed almost English from the outside.  From there we crossed into Sikkim and stayed in Gangtok.  Sikkim was still a protectorate and you needed a permit from New Delhi to enter and then only for a few days; it only became a state later in the year.

From Gangtok we drove north to see how far we could get.  As we approached the bottom of a steep hill which looked like it had a pass, there was a checkpoint.  The officers told us that this was as far as we could go.  They tried to point out the Chinese checkpoint high up on the Nathu La Pass, and politely I thought I could see it but I'm not so sure.  This border between India and China was one of the most sensitive in the world at this time.  One of the officers asked us to come back to his base which was up another steep mountain road, and led the way in his jeep.  Unfortunately the road was built for the Indian jeep which has a smaller turning circle than a Land-Rover and I was having to make three point turns at every corner.  Eventually we gave up and went back to Gangtok.

Good photo of Darjeeling.

Patrimonium Mundi:  Panorama of Darjeeling

Monastery at Ghoom, 2007:  Picture by Soumyasch, CC


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