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Pakistan – The Hunza valley

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Orchards, cherry trees in blossom, flowers and green green  grass,  mark the start of the Hunza valley- a small paradise surrounded by some of the most challenging mountains for Alpinists, not so much for their height ,but for their acute angles and dangerous conditions. Trekkers walk the narrow paths and ski fanatics take helicopters up to the glaciers and take their chances. Again faces have changed as well as costumes. This is the territory of the Ishmaelite, clear skinned, shorter and more Mediterranean in looks. The women wear round colourfully embroidered hats and look you straight in the eye. It is in this idyllic setting that disaster struck two years ago, in the form of the “Hunza Lake” a lake now 16 km wide created by one enormous land slide during the devastating rains that then led to wide scale  flooding of more southern areas of Pakistan. The valley is very narrow here and intervention in any way is risky for towns below. The mass of water is now so big it is unlikely it will ever be drained away totally. Villages ,trees and roads sit in silence below 50m of crystal blue water whilst the inhabitants could only look on, salvaging only the bare  essentials  and their lives.

Bashir our Hunza friend is at the entrance of Aliabad to greet us, but we are impatient to see the lake and rush ahead promising a meeting and chai in the evening. There are rumours that there will be a big blast in three days leaving little time for making any lake crossing arrangements…..we could have stopped and drunk a tea in retrospect, we discover that there are in fact blasts every day and rumours of a big blast have been circulating for months.  The first view of the lake is stunning, but the descent down is very steep and sandy. Chaos reigns as hundreds of Chinese tyres are unloaded by hand from the brightly coloured boats and loaded into Toyotas and tractors. The dust is incredibly fine and covers us all in a fine coat within a few minutes. Lusira and Giulio slip forward and cover themselves resembling little ghosts by the time we reach the truck again. The problem is immediately obvious, although the boats crossing the river look stable, one would need two leashed together to take the load of our trucks and more importantly,  how to load them on? The road is steep and narrow and there is only a small space for manoeuvre at the bottom, fine for a car but not so for a truck…..but we aren’t yet worried. We know there is a military pontoon that takes the big Pakistani trucks across the lake, we will try and arrange our crossing with them. But this is the start of an oriental saga……we soon discover that yes there is a pontoon, but that it needs two engines to push it and one has a broken injection pump . Four days of long negotiations with various ‘’influential ‘ people, comes to no avail. We have the usual…yes, o.k. no problem, maybe, perhaps no, not possible but I can extend your visa…. before we decide to pluck up courage and face the fact that we will have to load our trucks on to the wooden boats. Half of the group have now left the scenic campsite and are on the other side of the lake, we must be at the Chinese boarder in time to meet up again.

Bashir helps us with long negotiations and we descend from 700 to 200 dollars for each truck crossing. I volunteer for our truck to go first, I can no longer stand the suspense and want to get it over with. The decent down is painless, luckily all the cars usually parked on the narrow road are absent, today is rest day for many. Space is made behind the truck with a little digging and stones are used to prepare a sort of ramp. After one hour we are ready to load….but our boat is still at the other side of the lake!! Luca waits impatiently as the light dwindles. When the boats finally come it’s a rush against darkness. Much shouting and creaking and in one hour we are on, but it is now dark….after all our efforts, no photo, and a dash up to the top of the hill, Giulio has been crying for half an hour looking for his mummy.

I sleep with Giulio and Lusira in the unimog with Tanja, Theo and Nils whilst the men  make the two hour journey across the lake in the dark. Unknown to me the truck is also unloaded the same night, with the help of the local people who work untiringly shifting stones for two hours, a kind of ramp was made, making unloading painless and safe.

The night is wrestles and by the time I fall asleep it’s time to wake up. Wolfgang drives down the slope…his truck worries us most , it is long without power steering…but today we have light and time after four solid hours of preparation ‘Morpheus ‘ is ready to board. To load cheers with dignity she drives up the ramp and  on to  the planks. I will take the children across now, leaving luca to help Harald with our last load. The crossing is fun and yet eerie, the scenery is stark and majestic and we’re in good spirits – but the thought of drowned villages below adds an uneasy feeling to our ‘boat trip’. . I discover from the boat men that the wooden boats are only 18 months old. They were built on the opposite shore with local pine and  fir trees by craftsmen coming from southern Pakistan. Bashir explains that many people from his village no longer visit Hunza…the crossing and the  memory is too painful. The loud blasts remind us again  that this is no ordinary lake.

Our two boatmen head off to collect the last truck, as we run up the hill  to greet ours, happy the ordeal is over. ..But still more surprises, the weather has changed , it is now too windy for Harald to download, they will have to wait for more calm in a bay further up. Luca walks the 200m that separate us, it is again almost night fall but we can’t wait here. Current work on the lake has partially blocked the outlet over the past few days the  level has risen, rapidly covering the road that leads to the next village and up north. At first the task is daunting, some say the level is already one and a half metres high, others say it’s impossible. Then two young high spirited men shout from across the other side, they enter the freezing water with their clothes on to show us the direction of the road and the level of the water. It only reaches their thighs and they are pleased  with the   quick rupees they earn in the few minutes it takes us to cross. Just as I persuade Nils to sleep in Giulios’ bed, I hear the sound of a happy Pakistani horn and  recognise the short melody, it’s the unimog. We are all relieved, Nils returns happily to his own bed and Bashir sleeps, exhausted in our front cabin.

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Pakistan – Along the Karakorum Highway

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The road itself is not so different from any other roads driven so far, but it begins to weave its spell on you as you enter the north western territories. Here everyone is eager to tell you how unsafe it is, but somehow I feel very safe. The faces are those of honest people, a tall race with clear skin and piercing eyes. We are given a police escort in relay across each small regional boarder; they are friendly young and speak proudly of their own family. The Pashto dialect is totally different to anything heard so far adding to the sense of having crossed an invisible boarder. As we advance the high mountains close in and the Indus River crashes impressively through the valleys. This feat of engineering took 12 years to complete…but in the forty years since its completion the upkeep has never really been possible. The rock face, so steep and fragile continues each year to destroy parts of the road, blocking the passage and discouraging a true route of communication between China and Pakistan. The colourful trucks that so contrast with the grey slate mountains, are more often than not for local transport, supplying Gilgit and surrounding areas.

There is a decisively Afghani feel to the small towns we pass through. Smoky chai shops, wooden ladders leaning on shop fronts leading up to the second floors, typical woollen Pashto caps and not a woman in sight! Chapattis and local mutton spice up the air, and I feel a little in a time capsule. But we cannot stop, the police have planned our night stop further down the valley, and I’m left only with these fleeting impressions, unable to immerse myself fully in this particular reality.

Only three times did we manage to slip through the police net, diving on small tracks into narrow side valleys lined with mulberry trees. A large group of men sit in an orderly circle around Luca posing the few simple questions they are able to pronounce in English, they are aware of their international reputation and are eager to dispel the myth…”So how does it feel to be amongst the bloodthirsty terrorists of Al-Qaida?” jokes an elderly school teacher.

White mulberries are collected with nets and eaten by the hand full, and delegates of women come to meet Tanja and me, and invite us shyly into their domestic space. There is a family living just beside where we are camping, I’m surprised to see how integrated the dwelling is with the surrounding nature. A small stream has been diverted to pass through the property, beds with simple rope mattresses are lined up outside beneath the trees and a smooth stone with a perfect dimple inside acts as a double bed. There is an inflated goat’s skin hanging from the tree to make butter and a small one room hut, presumably for when it rains. All is screened of with simple colourful cloths and woven mats. By evening the word has inevitably spread, and we are assigned two police guards who sleep on string beds in the warm evening outside beside our trucks!

Next we attempt a high pass to test the smaller members of the group in high altitude. It’s cold and we see our first snow from close up. A few villagers light a huge fire and we admire the perfect stone walls and cultivated terraces that characterise the area (some with special pink poppies!)…but at around midnight our truck ceiling is lit up with a red and blue light. Apparently the police got word of our passage and have been searching for us since three hours, with a puncture on the high pass and only spotting us by chance shining lights on the new cheerful reflective fish that now decorate our trucks.

They want to shift us, but Luca is adamant…we have a problem with our gears and can’t move until we have repaired it in the morning. One policeman says he will sleep in the front of the truck to guard us. Luca gives him our spare sleeping bag and the matter is settled.

The next morning our guard casually passes me his Chinese rifle through the window so he can collect some fire wood. He assures me there is a secure and I place it dubiously on our bed, holding it like an exotic animal that might sting. I want it out before the kids wake….they are getting all to used to seeing fire arms and of course Giulio is attracted to them like a magnet.

Once out of the North western frontier territory, we are again free to circulate alone. There is the meeting point of three of the most inponent mountain ranges in the world: The Himalaya, the Hindu Kush and the Pamir mountains. Directly in front of us is the ‘killer mountain’ Rakaposhi proving us with a good opportunity to set camp and relax for a few days. For the first time in days our phones are active and we speak to the other members of our ‘crossing China’ group who are one day behind us, we arrange to meet up and celebrate the first of May with homemade tagliatelli and breathtaking views.

After many days wondering about the rocks hanging precariously above our heads, our fears are verified. A huge boulder and landslide fallen during the night, blocks the road to Gilgit. We will have to go back and find an alternative route on the other side of the river. We take our chance over a narrow suspended bridge, holding our breath as we cross, the wood creaking and moaning at our passage. A strong coffee is needed when we reach the other side to calm our frayed nerves…we promise each other this is the last such bridge we will cross!

Further down the road as we near Gilgit, we pass six burnt out buses, reminding us of the troubles in this area just a few weeks ago, later learning to our horror that twelve people were executed on this spot in the Sunni Shiite rivalries… …ideas about safety are always relative, depending on who and where you are in which moment.

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Pakistan, perhaps one of the hardest blog entries for me to write. A crescendo of emotions and events, the dangers and difficulties increasing with the beauty of the landscape; delight, wonder, disbelief and despair, rediscovering a country that is somewhere inside me…… but the story must start at the beginning to do justice to each phase… For this I have divided it into four separate entries that will come on line once a week…….so after two months of silence, here is part one!! (If you subscribe to the blog you will automatically be notified of new posts)

Pakistan – a break with the family

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We enter in great style, our wheels only a few metres into Pakistani territory when we hear “Mr.Luca?” from the window. A boarder guard approaches us with a questioning face. The tendrils of family connections have already sensed our arrival and prepared the way to Arazi, the natal village of my father. If we want we will be officially escorted from Lahore with a police car. Needles to say we decline the offer. It’s not our style and I have a secret longing to find the way ‘home’ by myself. It’s an image I’ve kept jealously and so close to my goal I will not let it be snatched away at the last moment.

The Waga border between India and Pakistan is perhaps one of the strangest boarders in the world, so much so that film crews come from all over (unknown to me) to record the event. After carefully avoiding photographs as always in sensitive territory and comfortably parking our truck for the night near customs   , we are invited to go and watch the closing ceremony of the boarder. Along with hundreds of other Pakistanis who have come purposely to see the spectacle, we sit in the concrete arena constructed especially for the occasion. The atmosphere is that of a cricket match, with an extra tang of nationalism mixed in, with flags, special male cheer leaders with baseball caps and plenty of applause. After our long travels to get here I let myself go and get into the full spirit, cheering and laughing with everyone else. Lusira and Giulio are given two Pakistani flags and learn to chant “Pakistan Zindaban!”  (long live Pakistan) The guards are truly magnificent, over two metres tall and dressed in full military pomp. They march towards India with a ‘Monty python’ type walk impressive stamping, stomping , inflating of chests and other virile actions that are so exaggerated as to be hilarious and beautiful at the same time. I feel the presence of my father at my side, laughing heartily and nudging me secretly – we have made it!

Of course in ten years many things can change and have changed. My memory of the house gets confused. The two huge Banyan trees that were my reference point are no longer together and two new houses obscure my vision from the road. My family see the truck hurtling past without stopping, but after twenty minutes along small country roads a car appears and blocks our passage…it’s my cousin Zimran, now a young man but still recognisable.

Our arrival is met with relief and emotion…the last time I was here was to bury my father, and I never imagined so many years would have passed before my return.

The month spent here has been both relaxing and hectic, with one funeral (my elder uncle) and two birthdays (mine and Lusiras’) The first two weeks was spent living out actions prepared many times along the way. Lusira and Giulio played with the goats, dogs and chicken much as I had at their very same age. They learnt to make chapattis and were fattened up every morning on sweet milk and parathas. They henna their hair and decorate their hands, revelling in the warm attention of Abida , Shahid and Zimran. On weekends they get to know their little cousins, who also know how to sing “ringaringaroses..”

 Lusira true to our promise, went into the nearby town on her birthday and very bravely got her ears pierced (large man with fat not so clean hands and rough manners, turning her head unceremoniously from side to side and brandishing his tools like a pistol …needless to say I chickened out of my nose piercing) Outside with Lusira proudly wearing her new GOLD earrings, we stop with Abida in the market….up on a pedestal at her eye level is a large chunky man holding a sharp knife between his filthy toes. He cuts the meat expertly pulling it over the knife towards him, swinging agilely left and right to serve his disciples down below. Money is passed to a toothless transvestite on his right…I gape in amazement at this vision and try to picture Luca’s mothers face, I chuckle….just shopping for meat.

For my part attacked my huge mound of laundry, fought a hard battle against the Nepali lice, checking unwilling heads with fervour every morning   and buying all possible poison on the market. I perfected my knitting and often found myself wandering around like a ghost in a landscape belonging to the past, crossing doors that no longer exist opening on to verandas with echoing laughter from past times. It is both strange and good to be here. Shadi is the same as ever and we joke and reminisce about the past. He successfully bribes the children with daily chocolate and soon becomes their favourite ‘uncle’

Luca relaxed for a full week (still drinking his morning coffee in the truck) and then alternated his attention between visa applications and the servicing of the truck. We reconditioned all four springs and even organised a little Pakistani painting, unable to resist the temptation, not realising how much of our time it would have taken up……and how little time we would have to enjoy the final result.

Two weeks before our departure there is news of trouble in Gilgit……fighting, curfews and high jacks of rivalling religious groups in this hitherto calm area. We are again in the hands of destiny and events we have no control over, but ten days later to our relief we hear that the unrest is over, we can head north.

To leave wasn’t easy and goodbyes were emotional. We took a last visit to my fathers’ grave and the children said their goodbyes.  Gulio whispers “why can’t we open the stone and see him?” Lusira solemnly tells him she is sorry he died too soon and she would have liked to meet him, but she sends him kisses and flowers…

In Islamabad we meet up with our travelling friends and after a little last minute preparation head off towards the famed Karakorum Highway.

Nepal

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After such a  long comment on India Too, it’s time for a rescaling….partly because (argh!!) the whole first part of my Nepal photos mysteriously disappeared from my hard drive, leaving me disconcerted and apathetic, but most of all because this last month in Nepal has been so uncharacteristic. Fifteen months into our travels and I somehow feel the need to slow down to a semi-sedentary existence, forget about preparing the present for my futures’ past (isn’t that what taking photos is partly about..) and live the moment to its full. The meeting up with another nomadic family, on the road since three years, has enhanced this state of mind. We met Wolfgang, Diana and little Gaia in Pokara  parked comfortably in their beautiful old Mercedes truck ‘Morpheus’ in a campsite just outside the main town (actually since a month!) They too feel in no hurry to strike out towards new horizons, no longer able to sustain the adrenalin and excitement that characterises the beginning of a trip. Closer than ever to our return, and yet furthest in terms of time, space and spirit, it’s time to sit back and just ‘be’.

So I have enjoyed my time here, playing with the children, reading, exchanging thoughts and stories, learning to knit (yes!), and soaking in the special light that characterises this part of the world. Nearby in a little temple the Shiva Ratri is celebrated with colour, sweet scents and ritual, much to Lusiras’ delight. At night there are natural fireworks with exploding sugar cane and bonfires (much to Giulios ‘delight) After more than ten days in our domestic bubble, we lazily make our way to Kathmandu, exploring small towns on the way, with intricately carved temples, through narrow roads with inevitably low electric cables .After a week in the capital, Morpheus is directed south to Varanasi in India, whilst we move west. Our paths split and it is with a tinge of sadness that we say our goodbyes, but with the feeling that we will meet again….maybe in Greece on the way back.

‘Holi’ is celebrated, again, with our little Nepali friends in Pokara. No one is above these colourful attacks   by both old and young. Bernard and Luca return from town, caught by a sweet little girl in the last hundred metres sprint before the camp gate. Lusira and Giulio are fully into the spirit of festivities and get truly offended if they aren’t covered in dye. They collect colours and… the local lice , present on most of the school kids in the area. Well it was bound to happen sooner or later, a little gift to carry to Pakistan with us! Yes, I too have been infested, and am in the long and intricate process of de-licing all and everything. The picturesque circle of head -picking seen everywhere along the sides of the roads, is now part of our routine (a little less picturesque!)

The high mountains that eluded us in the first month – (Nepal can really only be explored by foot) finally come into sight in the company of our travelling companions in their unimog, and with Bernard and Sharifa, our two good friends from France. Together crammed into our small but welcoming itinerant guest house, we finally pull anchor and  make our way  through river beds and precariously narrow, bumpy  overhanging mountain roads, to reached the small village of Kakbeni. We are just a few kilometres from the boarder of Mustang where the Annapurna Mountains dominate the horizons. The snow falls in the afternoon while the goats return for the night, herded through little alleys. Tibetan tea is served …and I feel again far from home, regenerated and ready to move.

We leave Nepal from the small boarder post where we entered, together with laden donkeys, monkeys and local traffic, across an impossibly thin bridge to India. We pass by for a last time in Bardia to say goodbye to our friends from the kingfisher guest house, where we rode elephants and spent three relaxing days (no photos, remember) on our arrival. Now we face three long days drive, transiting to Pakistan, the only visa conceded by the Indian Authorities…just nine months overdue, a family is anxiously waiting for our arrival!

India Too

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It feels strange writing about Christmas one month later, many things happen in a month and anyway Christmas on a beach in the steaming sun, never fully felt like Christmas even when it was Christmas! After our prolonged stay at Goa we trailed slowly (very) south, first to a beach that had been indicated to us by other travellers- ‘Agonda’ – here apparently overland travellers meet every year to celebrate Christmas and exchange news. The air is warm and the sea pleasantly cool, whilst the coconuts hanging above our trucks windscreen gives the place an exotic feel.  We make the rounds of the other travellers and soon meet others like us, heading for Pakistan with the idea of travelling along the Karakorum highway. We organise to meet up in spring time and maybe travel a stretch together….. But after a few days when the novelty of the aggregation of so many travellers has worn off, our ‘black sheep tendencies’ get the better of us. Just because we all have trucks this doesn’t mean we share a common vision. A campsite of overlanders sounds fun, and is fun for a few days, until our personalities have time to transpire, and a village mentality starts to find space.

Again I contemplate the strange exotic animals that we are. A group of Indians far from home, all together for Holy or Dihwali would surely find an easy and spontaneous way of being together – we aren’t used to communal thinking and shared spaces, and are able to complicate even the simplest things!

A few days before Christmas along with one other truck we head a little more south in search of a quieter beach with a more local feel to it. We are lucky and to our surprise, only 13 km south find exactly what we are looking for, an almost deserted  beach near a small fishing village where you can eat a simple’ tali’. We chose our tree and set camp up beside it a few metres from the beach front. Christmas has that tranquil, and yet special feel to it that is possible only whilst travelling. Simple gestures and a few trimmings to distinguish it from other days. We are three families all with children of varying ages, none of us with particular religious tendencies, but eager to exchange rituals and good food. We colour stars and cut out shiny sweet papers into strange shapes. Fish fittingly became a main part of our decorations, and somehow even the Easter bunny gets represented. Our German friends tell their children (Neels 8, and Moritz 12, Theo 1) to look out of the window at the view…this is their Christmas present. They seemed satisfied and enjoy participating in the opening of Lusira and Giulios’ presents. Whilst the younger ones play on the beach, Neels helps Luca in preparing the freshly made tagliatelli, and Moritz (perhaps feeling more adult for not receiving tangible gifts) throws himself wholeheartedly into collecting and chopping dry branches for a Christmas fire.

A pang of consciousness gets hold of me at some point and I felt the need to inform them at least that this is also the day people celebrate the birth of Christ ( they are at the moment totally absorbed with Father Christmas and his magic!) …. Lusira looks at me amazed “What he’s born EVERY year?!!  “  My lesson in spirituality ends there. Apart from our travelling friends with the Unimog, we share the day with an Israeli family we met on the beach the day before, conversation is easy and we exchange our experiences, ideas, taste in literature…and of course politics. Once again I can confirm my little conspiracy theory, where the media takes the many faces of reality and  squeezes it  into a single chosen truth….so many untold stories, but then that’s the beauty of travel!

Gokarna , a sacred town in the state of Karnataka. We arrive late in the afternoon and struggle through the narrow streets with dangerously low electricity cables, resigned in a very Indian way to totally blocking roads not only to cars but also to pedestrians…..we follow a stranger into the jungly undergrowth and hope that we will find a place to rest our weary wheels. We are lucky…a race across the salty sand on the beach front praying not to get stuck, and we are able to park in a quiet spot in sight of a small fishing harbour. The morning is hazy and damp, we see small figures on the horizon pushing thin wooden boats  into the frothy sea. The morning is spent in the midst of the tangy smell of fish and the relaxed company of the fishing families. Everyone, old and young are involved in the pulling and sorting of nets. I can’t help noticing the miserable catches, but everyone seems unperturbed and I am lead happily to the bigger catches of tuna fish…..perhaps fishing will after all still be part of a few of these childrens’ future, their fathers are proud to point them out “good family!”  I can only agree.

After the intimate, atmosphere of the sacred Gokarna, we head for the no less sacred Hampi, capital of Indian civilization in the twelfth century and important trade route, Hampi is full of ruins covering literally tens of kilometres. Temples rise out of a lunar landscape with  huge boulders surrounded by green rice fields. We again struggle to find a place to park and camp; this time at night, and in a less’ Indian way’ we struggle through tiny villages to a place Davide had visited four years back right on the river front…just as we’re losing hope, we follow a local boy up an improbable lane and manage to park on smooth rocks a few metres from the river front.  Opposite us is an empty rest house cum  restaurant with candles lit and a cow for milk in the front courtyard,……I notice Luca looking intently at a thin man who has just entered the sitting area, he then springs up and embraces him, exclaiming “Roger!!” Precisely sixteen years ago whilst driving an Enfield back to Europe, Luca had been a guest in Rogers bus, crossing into Pakistan with the motorbike in pieces on the roof, to avoid custom problems. There’s a lot to catch up on, and we spend the next few days in his enjoyable company. The morning reveals an unexpected view, what in the dark looked like cement pillars strewn all around us, are in fact ancient carved stones that were once part of an ancient bridge. We have parked on the edge of the sacred river and pilgrims bathe with vigour and ceremony in colourful groups. Lusira watches a sahdu in amazement decorating his foreheads with bright yellow sandalwood paste and make patterns on their arms with white bars of ash. After washing their clothes..(Yes again) they too have a soak in the river and to their joy a Baba looking on, offers to bless them with perfumed sandalwood stripes. This becomes a daily ritual as we discover that Baba- Gi is in fact Roger’s spiritual leader. Like many Babas he’s come south to Hampi to avoid the cold months in Rajasthan where he has his Ashram.

To visit one of the main temples and the famous ‘Hampi Bazaar’ we have to cross the river in a cocoa’ boat, shallow round boats made from bamboo and  tar. It’s a captivating way to reach the ruins, silent and slow. The temple and bazaar are hives of activity, with clouds of dust raised by stray cows and vigorous street sweepers. Monkeys sense their place of supremacy and pose nonchalantly in front of  strange and fantastic sculptures, the  intense  colours of  the sacred powders, mix with the just as intense colours of the dwellings, houses built inside the ancient ruins encompassing the ancient rocks. As I film the scene ,I get obsessed by images of bulldozers coming here with their court injunction endorsed by UNESCO to ‘restore’ the ruins to their former glory … it seems impossible. The place is so vibrant, full of energy and life, a seductive mixture of the ancient and the present. In its prime it too would have been full of animals, spices and human activity….why do we think that monuments are more authentic when stripped of any representation of the present?! I marvel even more when I speak to our cocoa boat rower….he too lives in Hampi bazaar –“ where will you go?” I ask , he smiles “ I don’t know, they have given us land but no houses” I would be in a frenzy of worry and yet they are a week  away from eviction proudly sweeping their yards and washing the steps of their houses. I think of the crisis in Europe and try to drink up some of this tranquillity , to bring out and remember in moments of doubt….

Going north to Rajasthan we can’t resist to visit the rock hewn temples of Ellora. They were carved in a similar way to the Churches in Lallibella in Ethiopia, from a single piece of rock, and constitute perhaps some of the largest Monoliths in the world. The most impressive and active are the Hindu temples. Enthusiastic, amongst crowds of Indian pilgrims and school children, Giulio and Lusira  jump up and down the steps, smile at the life sized carved elephants and touch the Shiva lingam with their right hand…..but it’s the Buddhist temples with their quiet and serene air , simple structures but intricate carvings that inspire them most. Mimicking the children from a Jain temple visited the day before, Guilin copies Lusira in an intricate ritual with perfectly studied gestures, praying below the benevolent statue of Buddha.

In the evening their imaginations still sparked, Guilin scribbles a ‘laughing Buddha’ Lusira following suite for the first time attempts a drawing of a cross legged figure with long ears and a smile. She tells me he is magic and moves according to where you sit….and not only. I’m informed that he has heard of our visa problems and has many stamps….Buddha will prolong our Pakistani visa!!

I have now  realised at this late hour a few days before leaving India for Nepal and desperately trying to finish this chapter of the blog , that my ramblings have got the better of me, and if I continue to  present day, most of you will have  in the mean time, wandered off to do something more ‘useful.

So…….short and concise. Pushkar, relaxed, yes touristy but also very beautiful, a place that slowly works its magic on you making it hard to leave. Smokers’ haven, and place of Giulio’s third  birthday, celebrated in style eating cake from Indian newspapers. In the guest house a little removed from the main Ghats, we meet many young  couples preparing their collection of clothes to sell on various European beaches next summer, others are buying precious stones, whilst also attending traditional dance classes or yoga.  The atmosphere is open and friendly with fires at night to keep out the chill. We get to know Federico and Cini an italo-brazilian couple who have a way with kids. Federico becomes Lusira and Giulios’ favourite playmate, teaching them kite flying, juggling and yoga lessons on the roof top. I hope our paths will cross again…

We head for Jodhpur  ‘the blue city’ passing on small unmarked roads. Our enthusiasm at being on small roads again is so great that we lose sight of our what’s ‘sensible’ and end up in such small dusty paths that we can no longer turn around. A load thud on the roof brings us back to our senses as we smash two metal boxes on our roof into the low branch of an acacia tree. Slowing  down we head for a more  reasonable road for cars rather than tractors, but it will soon be night. As we  park near a well an old man with a goat insists we follow him to his house, Lusira and Guilin trustingly walk beside him  and soon I’m sitting near a small fire being offered chapatti and fresh milk. There is no electricity and the voices are hushed by the night…I’m happy, it all reminds me so much of my childhood memories of Pakistan, the smell of the dough, the wood and dry dung, the soft abundant  laps to sit on and food pressed affectionately into your mouth. The house is built around a courtyard encompassing little huts for the animals. The goats are milked and a bed is set up for the elder boy to keep an eye on the animals. The morning brings spicy chai, photos and jumping games for the children. Communication is always easier in the open.

At this point I can confess that we never got to see the blue city, but spent all our time in a family establishment dealing in  antique furniture on the outskirts of the city.  An enormous Aladdin’s’ cave that took us three days to explore.  When we felt it was time to leave, in the busiest part of town approaching the historical centre however, the clutch of our truck no longer responds, forced to a halt, people immediately surround us and with their little English arrange help. We sheepishly ask if we can stay a little longer in the now too familiar yard, and start to take the clutch apart. Of course it’s not the clutch itself that’s broken ( we have a spare one) but a silly unlikely piece and a bearing…which we don’t of course have…but ‘ivrytingispossibleinindia’ and  indeed we manage to rebuild the old bearing and weld the broken piece, with the help of  Sajai and his father. I ask Lusira if she minds having to stay longer, she looks at me quizzically “ oh no, we don’t have to drive and can play all day!” they spend their time pulling the wooden Tata truck we bought them around the dusty yard in their work overalls, and at lunch I find them happily seated with their friends (some of the workers) happily eating chapatti and curd.

We are now on the road to Nepal, sharing most of our time with truck drivers along the road…tomorrow Nepal…maybe.

India

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A long absence, busy living, watching and savoring new tastes and smells. Time here like water, flows easily and I’m finding myself at home, relaxed and in harmony with my surroundings. The last time we were in India was in 1998 and at the time the initial impact of India was strong for me, so it’s with some surprise that I have discovered this unexpected love…Yes India too has changed a lot in the last 15 years  but I feel the change is also inside myself, induced by a year of travel in Africa, where my eyes have become accustomed to poverty, to seeing families sleeping on the street and living, what for us, is an inconceivable life . I am this time able to get past my discomfort and start to appreciate the dignity of this ancient culture, and explore some hidden joys of a system based (still) on different values with its own logic.

The journey here was surprisingly smooth and unstressful. The children were abnormally patient, too busy looking around to feel tired; they stayed up an entire night, only to collapse once in Mumbai. Giulio was justly impressed with the view of the clouds from 10,0000m and logically wanted to open the window to get a proper feel…Luca too mused at the vast desert below ‘the empty quarters’ contemplating our alternative route and planning future trips to Oman..Yemen…

Landing at Hyderabad airport, Luca and I look at each other in awe…are we in India?!! Last time we landed 15 years ago, there was a typically loud, confused, bustley, busy airport with taxi drivers fighting over our luggage and people everywhere….maybe it’s because its 3 in the morning, but the contrast is striking. Quiet cues of people line up in neat rows to show their passports, whilst clear glass panels with the repeated and elegant silhouette of a traditional Indian dancer leads us along immaculate corridors…. soft classical Indian sitar music played at just the right volume mixes with the almost imperceptible voices of people talking…..with the exception of course of our two excitable little Italian kids, with their powerful voices and last grams of energy. The building itself is modern with high arched ceilings and delicate eye- shaped skylights. There are ‘ecological’ water fountains with no cups or glasses to dispose of, steel and glass mix with green lush plants growing up and down walls, fed by discrete tubes….We drink an’ instant chai’ in a plastic cup and contemplate this new Indian reality.

For the first time in my life we are picked up by a driver holding a card with our name on it, courtesy of ‘Mandhana’ our saviors in Mumbai. I’m grateful not to have to look for a hotel, and am curious to see if the city outside reflects the inside of the airport….of course it’s a big Indian city, grubby, overcrowded and dusty, to my tired morning eyes. I’m not a city girl and the lack of greenery and horizons, always makes me a little uneasy, as do the people sleeping on the sidewalk and trudging through the garbage.

….A week later to my surprise I feel very at home here. After Djibouti, I suddenly feel rich again, and everything is easy. In only twelve hours we have passed from having to weigh and watch the content of our shopping cart carefully, to gaily throwing everything and anything in with nonchalance. I have a strange craving for shopping, quite contrary to my usual nature. Here everything is available in small highly specialized sectors, often with beautiful packaging at ridiculous prices. We exorcise a month of skimping buying little insignificant treats and giving way to momentary whims. I am almost happy when Giulio’s sandals break, so that I can get them stitched along the roadside…small luxuries that in Europe make no sense anymore: better to buy a new pair.

Lusira is already infatuated with India; its colors, rituals and possibilities. A country where everyone dresses like princesses and has intriguing jewelry, where people make garlands of sweet smelling flowers to adorn colorful gods in the nooks and crannies of ancient trees along the road, where English books telling exotic stories cost less than a bottle of water…..and where she too can finally possess her own ‘princess’ outfit. We buy her a traditional mirrored Rajasthan skirt and top and some metal bangles. She wanders around the apartment in full glory moving her hands delicately like an Indian dancer, proud to show her belly button ‘like the Indians’. She eats rice skillfully with her hands and later, to my joy, I find her and Giulio nude in the bathroom washing all their clothes. The Cinderella story has truly stuck in her head…she tells me “….yes mummy, I must work all day because I’m a princess and then at night I’ll go dancing”. Her movements are already expert and I can’t help wondering if the quarter of Pakistani blood running through her veins has found expression in this corner of the world.

I’m too am going to enjoy myself in this country…It’s of course not only the shopping but a strange feeling of integration , my face somehow fits in and I feel at home .Here I don’t feel judged and self-conscious, no one seems to be measuring me up…Am I friend or foe? No one is surprised when I speak to them out of the blue. If I’m wondering over a menu or trying to decide whether the pink liquid in front of me is for dipping my food in or for drinking, someone politely points me in the right direction….I’m not too rich, I’m not too poor, I’m not too thin I’m not too fat, I’m not too black I’m not too white (of course I probably am..but that’s what it feels like) I enjoy taking my shoes off when I take my kids to the pediatrician, I enjoy being advised by an old gentleman on which is the best hair oil, I enjoy washing my feet and hands regularly and sipping chai with a little mouse hiding under the sink. I especially like the cheap taxis run on methane gas that make visiting an unfamiliar sprawling city with small kids easy, comfortable and even enjoyable. All I need is an address to get back too and I can lose myself until the next empty taxi.

After a hard week of burocracy (one of the things I definitely don’t enjoy here) we finally drive our dusty truck out of customs, the port and into Indian traffic at rush hour. We don’t have far to go, as Mandhana kindly offers us a parking possibility outside their ware house. It is also an opportunity of visiting one of their production lines. Prasad tells us of a traditional but modern clothing company, where a loom works beside the latest in computerized stitching technology, and where the silent hand stitching room for prototypes is kept jealously apart from the busy factory floor. A life size print of my nephew Ben watches over the work floor. He came a few years ago to visit India and did a little modeling for Mandhana. The hint of Asian features in his otherwise more European face fits with the modern…. I gaze up at him and mentally say hello…somehow even our visit here seems to ring with a certain harmony. East, west…west, east. Circles within circles.

After a few days of making our truck fully operational again, we say goodbye to the city and to Mrs.Karleni, Raul and other members of the Mandhana staff that we got to know. We turn on the engine and head south…I’m happy to be back on the road and full of enthusiasm. It is much easier to find quiet spots to spend the night than we imagined, and the first white beach we visit is deserted , with just the local school children visiting during lunch hour to do 100m races and to fuss over Giulio and Lusira…….next stop Goa.

Goa, for a long time destination for ‘hippies’ and ravers, now still one of the most popular seaside vacation destinations in India. We came here because it was close to Mumbai and we had another friendly contact where we could base ourselves, get out of the city and relax a little. The most positive side of our Goan experience is definitely the people we met and friendships clenched. Peter Kabir, opened his house and heart to us and offered us his non- beachy haven away from the hustle and bustle in a little village near Mapusa….The Goan’ scene has changed its face but still attracts a variety of beach bums…and bums is the right word. Somehow the male g’ string is still in fashion here and large, white (and often shrively) bums can be admired alongside local ladies selling coconuts, fresh fruit and jewelery. The delicate classical Indian music in Hyderabad airport seems like a dream, as the tufftufftuff of the base rings load and far along the coast. There has been a huge rise in Russian tourism, and the locals have learnt the essential words to sell their goods.  …O.K. lets be fair…Goa is just not my scene but does seem to satisfy a lot of people’s needs to relax and chill out….The Portuguese style houses buried in the thick tropical vegetation and Mapusa daily market did win me over in the end, as did our little family expeditions ‘Indian’ style on Peters’ moped. There is definitely a special undefinable relaxed quality to life here, but it is one that I feel can be enjoyed more by the sedentary population. After months of travel in Africa there is a distinct European feeling to everything, and I am anxious to head north to Rajasthan.

I’ve taken so long to update the blog this time that I take the opportunity to wish you all a MERRY CHRISTMAS….we came to Goa, the only Christian region of India, to make it easier for Father Christmas to find our anxious children….Its finally cooling down in the night here and Giulio and Lusira are convinced that it’s because it’s going to snow soon….with 2012 around the corner, never say never!!