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.
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!
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.
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!!
Djibouti- a helter-skelter of highs and lows, decision and indecision, a mixture of excitement and boredom ….waiting for another continent.
We entered Djibouti with high expectations of relaxing on white deserted beaches and swimming with whale sharks around the coral reefs, but although this is probably possible…it was not to be.
We arrived here on a hot sticky afternoon, hobbling through the little but congested border crossing with …yet another flat tire. We stopped for the night 100m further on in a black stony amphitheatre surrounded by hot hills. One of our rims was leaking and we patiently set about repairing it, sweating profusely but with the promise of a cool night (desert….hot day/ cold night …wrong) the night was just as hot humid and sticky as the day, so much so that after half an hour of trying to convince the kids it was cooling down, we all climbed onto the roof of the truck clad in nothing but the darkness surrounding us. A column of trucks heading to Ethiopia from the port of Djibouti was already half a kilometer long and growing, but the stars were bright and the air vaguely cooler. Lusira s’ sensitive little tentacles were exhilarated by this unexpected adventure and she was soon rewarded by the sight of two shooting stars. Giulio on the other hand continued sweating and unable to sleep could be heard playing Lego, alone, in the darkness deep into the night.
The road for Djibouti town is a long winding streak of asphalt amongst arid black boulders with destroyed trucks strewn left and right of the road as drivers’ attention span wanes. When reaching Djibouti, after so much nothingness the town is at first disorientating. I t has a distinctly French feel to it, but with the slow pace of Africa. After a two hour search for an inexpensive but nice nonexistent hotel with a swimming pool, we headed for the Sheraton, where we had been told many months and kilometers ago by fellow travelers in Jordan that one could stay. One of the few places where overlanders are allowed to park and permitted to sleep in their own vehicles. We presented ourselves in a very unpresentable way, sweat soaking through our clothes and stress sparking from our eyes, the kids were covered in dust and ice- cream, looking like true little street urchins and completing the picture.
We were kindly shown to the parking lot on the sea front where we threw our unpresentable selves into the back of the truck. The heat was making us all neurotic and in five minutes we were all screaming for one reason or another, I showered everyone down in an attempt to cool our tempers….. but realized that it would be impossible to stay for any length of time in these conditions…..we really needed a guardian angel or a good plan. Just one hour after this thought as if by magic a clean shaven Indian looking man appeared looking curiously at our truck…..Yes our guardian angel had come in the guise of Pradeep and his wife Kumudu, a Sri Lankan family full of Sri Lankan hospitality, working as project manager at the Sheraton and living in one of the bungalows reserved for the expat employees. After a short introduction, he invited us to his house (lovely and cool air conditioning!!) and his wife pampered us with drinks and the delicious tangy taste of her eastern cooking. The children as relieved as us, without hesitation started exploring the toys chest and getting to know their new little friend David….we would survive.
Our second streak of luck came the next morning whist passing by the entrance of the Sheraton. After another impossibly hot night, by chance we bumped into Yanik, the general manager of the Sheraton, a friendly, open Swiss man, who on seeing the children (and probably our harassed faces) invited us to use the pool to cool off. By the end of the day we had come to an arrangement with him to rent at an extremely reasonable price , one of the empty bungalows next to Pradeeps’……we will survive Djibouti!!.
Lusira and Giulio after 10 months in the truck were overjoyed with the prospect of playing ‘house’ in the little cheerful bungalow assigned to us. They ran around like neurotic house wives, making their beds, sweeping floors and even trying their hand at a little washing up. Their two little Sri lankan friends, Avindu and David, have made the prolonged stay here truly memorable. Lusira has learnt to ride a ‘proper’ bike in the improvised playground with her new friends and having constant access to the swimming pool has also meant that she has finally learnt to swim……but how have the grown children faired during this period?
Well after more than a month of staying put, and after the novelty of having a little more space (and privacy!!) had worn off, our travelling feet have quickly become exasperated!! The shipping of our truck has really characterised the whole stay here. It has been a series of negotiations, mad rushes (for nothing) hope, frustration ,despair, and again hope….we missed THREE ships each at the last minute for strange and wonderful reasons, but have finally loaded our truck (and our friends truck ‘Wobble’) on to a ship bound for Mumbai…no photos of our truck loading, Luca was too busy driving and coordinating operations, but in compensation a beautiful drawing by Lusira of our trucks on the Indian Ocean with whale sharks in the water and flamingoes in the sky .
At one of the peaks of our negativism I was also unlucky enough to get dengue fever and had to spend a long painful ten days in bed, and doing blood tests….but then as if by magic the fog cleared along with the fever and aches and pains and all looked bright and sharp again…..the ship has arrived, I have my appetite back, the kids are serene, and to celebrate the occasion we had a lovely evening in the Sheraton guests of Yanik. An evening of flowing wine, good company and very excited children (who after lashings of chocolate mousse were even invited up on stage to dance with the Columbian band playing live that evening…..”.c’era una bella lady” said Giulio, who is now asking me every evening if he can go dancing)
It is always a strange mixed feeling to leave ones truck and nomadism in the middle of a trip, but now that I can feel things moving again I know I will look back with fond memories at the time spent here, for the people we met and got to know better, and who hopefully we will see again one day.
Thank you to those who helped and welcomed us in this strange small country that is Djibouti.
…. Well to title this post as ‘Kenya’ is a little misleading, but easier to insert into the blog. A ‘Tour of Lake Turkana’ would be more accurate; as we only saw a very small part of northern Kenya which I gather is also quite different to the rest of the ‘developed’ Kenya. In all we only drove on about 20 km of tarmac road, otherwise on some of the worst kept pistes in Africa, potholes, mud and corrugation, in part compensated by the extremely colourful and bizarre tribes and strange landscapes. ..but I’m going ahead of myself. This strange itinerary that we undertook was inspired by a series of impulses. A chance conversation with a fellow traveller talking of an Italian travelling around Ethiopia in his truck, a phone call and discovery of common friends. Although they have never met, Luca and Walter talk enthusiastically about a remote piste running along the west side of the Omo river, down past Jimma, Bonga and Maji, travelling through Omo National park reaching the ‘beautiful long necked women of Lake Turkana’ on the Kenyan boarder near Lodowar…As a young boy Luca was inspired by a book written by Nino Cirani recounting a tour of Africa from Tunisi to South Africa and back up to Cairo that he and his companion Vittorio Parigi undertook in the mid 60’s in a land rover… the most vivid images firing Luca’s young mind were the photos of precisely this piste, where the two intrepid travellers slid through thick mud, thin invisible pistes in high grass at impossible angles and met strange wild tribes with exotic body tattoos and lip plates.
It’s soon Lucas birthday and this seems a fitting present, another little piece in the strange jigsaw of dreams to be fulfilled. We hope we will also be able to show the children some of the wild Africa with elephants, lions and crocodiles…. it will probably be a long time before we return to this part of Africa in the truck….
This little ’holiday’ was also to be a break from filming and taking photographs. We knew that the strange tribes populating this remote area are not keen on being filmed…and despite the huge temptation we didn’t want to spoil the experience. We have come away without a single photo of tribes people…but with many beautiful and strange images imprinted in our minds!
After a long stay at ‘Wims Holland House’ in Addis organising the trip and relaxing in the easy company of the staff, we set off behind Walters’ compact Unimog .The start of our route took us along a surprisingly (and somewhat disappointingly) well-surfaced ‘Chinese’ road with the usual muddy road works in between. We climb up through mountains into high forests and through huge tea plantations and picturesque villages. As we proceed the huts along the roadside start to be painted, people are shedding their t-shirts preferring colourfully draped cloths and now carry spears instead of sticks. Children bathe naked in the rain (I shiver for them at almost 3000m) and there is somehow a tribal feeling to everything. Faces too have changed….blood-shot eyes, blue- black complexions and hard proud stares, funny wormy hairstyles and robust muscular bodies. The women now show their breasts, their hair at times decorated with red mud and their skin covered with tribal scars, they carry their infants in leather pouches on their backs.
The area is suddenly scarcely populated and no one comes to our camp in the evening. I somehow expect to see a hyena or wildcat…the sounds are African with strange birds, crickets and other unknown noises.
When we finally reach Maji, it is a particularly insignificant little village that serves good hot spicy tea. We lunch on bread and goat soup, and then set of on a tiny track that is the start of the adventure we had imagined before leaving. Our pace is slow and hesitant, it is evident that we won’t meet any other vehicles along the way, and will have to clear the road of fallen trees and land slides. The rocky surface gives way to black mud, high trees and grass even taller than our truck. The path is so narrow that there is no room to get out of the truck…when I finally manage I feel somehow bare and exposed, expecting something to poke out of the grass any minute. The men we have occasionally met walking in small groups along the path are all armed with Kalashnikovs and wild faces…. they too would make me jump if they appeared (as they often do) silently and suddenly from the thick foliage emerging from invisible paths!
We are mostly driving on a narrow ridge on the top of a mountain; the land drops dramatically on both sides at times enshrouded in mist that works its magic on our imagination. As suddenly as the forest sucked us in, it expels us into a high plain with cultivated fields. We stop for the night in a clearing, greeted by a delighted group of women smelling of palm wine. They are friendly and suitably amused and hilarious at our presence…. they are also the only people who insist on being photographed. It is refreshing, and although they wear ragged t-shirts and aren’t the tribes typically photographed in this area, their faces are open and their eyes full of light…people who rarely see their own reflection and have no face to present you except their own. To my surprise an old man asks in Italian ‘dove andate?’ …I imagine him asking the same question 40 years earlier to a young Cirani in a very different, but similar world. In the morning we are given two huge sticks of sugarcane, I appreciate the gesture and return the hospitality with a cup of Italian ‘bunna’ (coffee) this too is appreciated.
The next day is perhaps the most memorable and bizarre of the entire trip. As we descend the mountain the scenery again changes dramatically giving way to yellow grass and scattered acacia trees. As we advance small figures shoot in and out of the high grass, some totally nude with white tinted hair, others clad with strange ornaments, dimpled scars all over their bodies and huge wooden earrings as large as coffee cups. The children are too scared to succumb to curiosity and scuttle away, whist the older boys excitedly running along side our truck screaming strange words with their spears raised. I feel my adrenalin flowing and am glad that I know them to be friendly…in this remote context their expressions can be disturbing, until they inevitably break into their wide smile.
I spot a young girl with a huge ceramic lip-plate inserted in her lower lip, and am suitably impressed, its a strange shocking sight but one I have seen in many documentaries and photos…. what I have never seen and what shocked me more was when we stopped on a high ridge to absorb the scene…. to be met by a women without her lip plate!! Her bottom teeth have been removed and her bottom lip sags down to her breasts. She dries it with a cloth and starts stretching it to an incredible length. Then she holds out her hand to greet us. I can’t help smiling as little Giulio obediently holds out his hand…he normally hates greeting people, evidently he thinks it’s a bad idea to refuse!
Omo National park brings mud, rain, and animal droppings, but no animals. The scenery and smells are of elephant territory, but we have no luck apart from two stray ostriches. We struggle through the deep muddy tracks that spray up to our windscreen. The tracks are so deep that when you have to change direction it takes a good ten minutes of ploughing the ground with your tyres before they are released, a bit like driving on a railway track .The savannah gives way again to low acacia trees and young herders with their goats, as we loose any hope of seeing animals. When we arrive finally at the Kenyan boarder, we are informed that there is no boarder here and that we’ll have to cross the river in a hollowed tree trunk to do the formalities in Omorate on the other side of the Omo River. My eyes are now accustomed to the strange variety of tribes populating the area, but the concentration in this village makes me smile … old men resting on their carved wooden ‘cushions’ with large pieces of wood in their chin (chin?!!), leather in their hair and large earrings and metal bangles and bracelets just about everywhere, two month old babies being carried confidently by snotty three year olds clad in decorated leather skirts and other unusual paraphernalia…’C’est l’Afrique!! Since there is no customs or even any type of rubber stamp, we cross the boarder in no time and lazily chat to the Kenyan authorities (Your welcome into Kenya) We soon arrive on the shores of Lake Turkana, red in colour and full of flamingos but evidently no crocodiles as people bathe without hesitation. Lusira and Giulio go with the men to a colourful boat not far from our camp to try and buy some fish. A group of men in the mean time come to our truck to find out our mission. Strangely out of ten men only one has a complete set of eyes. An old man sits on one of our chairs and unceremoniously orders a cup of coffee…I try to placate him and light a small fire on which to boil the water only to discover that he’s totally drunk and also wants us to give him money to stay here for the night… he is sent away by Luca again without ceremony, but the incident somehow marks the start of a down note in our trip…
The next morning Walter wakes with a white strained face. He’s been sick all night and has a light fever, we proceed along the sandy and bumpy piste only to discover that Giulio too has a temperature, he is strangely listless and sleeps all afternoon. We head for Lodowar to change money and rest in a cosy campsite cum lodge…. I feel uneasy. Although we have given the kids ‘Malarone’ a prophylaxis against malaria for this short dip in to the lowlands, and have been careful to dress them before sunset and spraying them with huge quantities of insect-repellent, (I think Giulio only had three bites in all!) a fever with no other symptoms seemed ominous. The next day I take Giulio to do a blood test surprising myself with my apprehension, but my worries were well founded and the test is positive…we started a treatment with ‘Co-Artem’ immediately. The effect of the medicine is dramatic, by evening Giulio is running around excitedly, but the cure will take three days and we decide to choose an itinerary that takes us closer to ‘civilization’ rather than the planned piste around the lake. We are told the piste going towards Maralal is decent, going east we can also visit some game parks WITH animals.
Our route takes us through different tribal areas…it seems like a competition as to who can look the strangest and do the strangest things to their bodies. Groups of exotically clad people pop out from the fields in large colourful groups and it feels like a day of festivities, but I discover this is how they always dress. In a particularly isolated spot we come across a village with a roadblock at its entrance…. they have strewn acacia branches across the path in preparation for an expected ‘raid’ from a nearby tribe. They originally come from Lake Turkana but have moved further south because of lack of rain, the local tribes see this as an invasion of their territory. They shift the branches to let us pass, leaving me with an uneasy feeling and unanswered questions milling in my mind…there isn’t any village in the range of at least 50 km, will they march all this way with their spears, or will it be a surprise attack with Kalashnikovs like in other areas in the north?? I try to imagine living with a similar insecurity, and again my ‘European’ life seems light years away, I feel again somehow exposed and out of my element, realising that everything and anything can happen in these strange lands…what am I doing in the middle of all this??
In the evening we find ourselves in an enchanted forest with white delicate flowers covering the ground…. but I can’t enjoy the scene, my worst fears have come true and Giulio has a fever again…tomorrow we will take him straight to the hospital in Maralal. A lady with feathers on her head and beads down to her waist is cross when she hears the news and shouts angrily at the malaria spirits…she apologises to me, and I feel moved…I doubt they have any medicine to treat their own sick children or any means of reaching a hospital if they really needed to…
The next day is filled with dread and anxiety, as we approach the town I soon realise that it’s not at all what I was hoping for. The terrible potholes on the road leading to Maralal are ominous and a tangible testimony to my fears. When we arrive we find a lazy backwater village with very little amenities…. just the sort of place I would normally enjoy, but not today. The hospital looks big from the outside, but it takes us 15 minutes to find a doctor, I wait unhappily outside with Giulio on my lap contemplating the old ambulance parked in the courtyard with four flat tyres and long grass and moss growing around it…I keep reminding myself that it’s the people that make a hospital, not the buildings. It’s soon apparent that Giulio will have to be put on a drip of quinine for 24 hours. To my relief the doctor very kindly consents us to treat him in our truck…we can park outside the ward and the doctors will come to check him at regular intervals during the night. A glimpse into the ward makes me even more grateful… there are two patients per bed, head to foot, food being cooked on little stoves on the floor along with the cockroaches and no separate ward for children who are treated along with women old and young with all types of illnesses, from typhoid fever, to who knows what else…. Giulio looks wide eyed as an in-patient with a shaved head, layers of heavy colourful beads and long ears walks out of the ward…’I want the truck’ he says adamantly.
After the initial discomfort Giulio settles down with a Mickey Mouse video, a leaving gift from his uncle Massimiliano (thank-you!) This and the reassuring presence of Lusira (who couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about) soon calmed him enough for him to fall fast asleep. After a sleepless night with moments of panic where Giulios’ fever shot up to 40 degrees despite the drip, by morning he seemed much better…he was responding well to the treatment and we would be able to leave the hospital in the afternoon, the nightmare was over!!!
Our time in Kenya was running out, we wouldn’t have time to see any parks or animals, and decided to take the ‘dreaded’ Moyale road back north (dreaded for its terrible corrugations and occasional bandits) It wasn’t what you’d call a good piste, but the terrible roads we had experienced so far in Kenya somehow made it more bearable, and we even saw a few gazelles on the way. I admit it was with a sigh of relief that we entered our ‘beloved Ethiopia’…not because Kenya has less to offer, but the trip had in the end been trying and strenuous, I felt like I was coming home.
The last two weeks have past blissfully (with Giulio fully recovered) in the company of a Dutch couple Paul and Maya met on the Kenyan boarder. They have been travelling for more than two years crossing west and South Africa with a Mercedes van, having sold all their possessions in Holland and taking every day as it comes. Chatting we soon discover that they spent some time with our French friends ‘Chamaco’ a travelling family of five who visited us on their way to Africa last year. We added our handprints to ‘Wobble’ along side those of our friends…. nice to feel part of an itinerant community. To appease Lusiras’ frustration at not seeing any animals we bravely affronted the muddy tracks around Lake…. and were rewarded with crocodiles, hippos, baboons and a curious visit of a lion family in the night. After hearing disturbingly load roar like sounds in the night, I confessed that I had forgotten how similar hippos grunts could be to lions, only to find lion footprints close to the truck in the morning…we weren’t even aware there were any in the park and had been very happy drinking sundowners outside by the fire at night!)
What next you may ask??…Well tomorrow we will be heading east to Djibouti where the various shipping companies will hopefully reveal our destiny. We have had no luck whatsoever with e- mails and numerous telephone calls, and will have to discover prices and sailing schedules at the port…our options are Oman or India, lets see.
Ethiopia….. well I feel a bit stupid saying (again) ‘well what a surprise and revelation’…maybe I’m just surprised too easily, but it has for me, certainly proven to be one of the most curious and unexpected countries we have visited so far. After the barren horizons of Sudan and the unbearable 46 degrees (that now seems light years away) the small and rather typical boarder town of Metema offered a stark contrast. I was immediately struck by the sheer number of people on the road, the wheeling and dealing, the noise the movement, the attraction and overexcited attention aroused by our presence. I wasn’t expecting it, and at first coiled up in my traveller’s shell. Then the next shock, after months of desert the green, green, greenery, cool air, muddy dwellings and ornately dressed women, animals and small children everywhere. It wasn’t going to be easy to find a quiet spot to stop for the night, but we eventually found a quiet field (that is, as quiet as a not so small group of little shepard boys can be, whispering and giggling around the truck.) Waking up was early as the little shepards were impatient for us to get up…to both Lusira and Giulios’ surprise and amusement the truck was surrounded. They played theatre through our little windows to an eager and excited crowd. Giulio tried strange faces, which got him several laughs, and Lusira more boldly put her hand out of the window with a peg for the children to reach only to be withdrawn at the last moment. They had made contact and could safely go out and explore. A scene to be repeated frequently during our stay. The rainy season dreaded by many travellers hasn’t been a problem so far. The small pistes are surprisingly well maintained and only occasionally do you have to wait for overflowing rivers to subside. Our first stop at Lake Tana in a beautiful campsite on the northern shore, gave us the chance to unwind and catch up on normal living matters (washing, reading, drawing, walking…etc) Lusira much to her dismay, got her hair platted by a little over-zealous village girl (lots of hair pulling and unknotting) but then very courageously encouraged by her new little friend, washed in the rather cold lake, and decided that from now on she was going to do her own washing ‘like the Africans’ a promise she has diligently kept.
Our travels north have been characterised by chance encounters, spontaneous whims and generally letting events guide us. We stubbornly pursued a tiny little piste through the majestic Simian Mountains, only to find it slowly but surely petering out into a donkey trail, but the experience was gratifying and turning back after 3 days was of no consequence. In these ancient landscapes where all is done manually, from ploughing the fields to grinding flour and making butter, there is a tangible feeling of being in another era….as we drive through tiny meticulously tidy villages made of stone and mud, I study the faces that are studying me and wonder if I can possibly imagine what is passing through their mind in that moment, yes we have common desires and emotions (love, hate, passion, boredom etc) but I feel the very fibre of our being is separated not by a different culture but by centuries…. As I try to sleep in my super- technological truck, I can hear the mosquitoes and bugs through the nets on the windows, the hyenas make their strange noise and the rain pounds down drenching all that are returning from their fields…. I have warmth, dry clothes, a soft mattress, no bugs in the night, running water, gas at a touch, not to mention fridge, gps, ipod, computers, satellite phone etc….The old man who sold us a perfectly plucked chicken last night is patiently waiting outside and when we descend after breakfast utters a shocked scream when he sees Lusiras’ little black Fransisca doll, he thought it was a real baby and after had a delighted half hour shocking his friends with the mysterious object. We spend the morning in simple communications and jokes, and finally get to see the inside of one of the walled dwellings, we receive a gourd of fresh milk and in return give a little amulet for a small baby, I feel honoured to be able to get this small glimpse into their so different life.
At Axum we have a very different experience and get to know some university professors coming for student graduations here. They invite us to see their University at Mekele and after not too much thought we again changed our plans…travelling is about people, not just monuments. We spent four happy days parked inside Mekele University. Goitom explained some of Ethiopia’s technological developments and introduced us to his poet, songwriter and journalist friend Ghrmai . A friendship was immediately born as he interviewed us for his radio (VOA!)
We spent the afternoon together exchanging music tastes, philosophy and anecdotal stories. Later we invited him and his striking fiancée Feven to have an Italian coffee in our truck. The invitation was enthusiastically returned the next day and we lunched together at his house where we were also honoured with the traditional coffee ceremony, so typical of this country (amongst other things, grass and popcorn are scattered around the room, and Luca not realising, diligently picked them all up and put them back in the bowl only for them to be merrily scattered around the room again.)
It was with some trepidation that we headed towards Lalibela, perhaps the most visited town in Ethiopia. After so much time away from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist track we weren’t really in the mood. We needn’t have been worried; Lalibela is so unique that its potent atmosphere transpires no matter what. At almost 3000m it has that same festive high mountain town atmosphere similar to say Namche bazaar in Nepal. The low clouds envelop the streets only to reveal spectacular valleys below when a spark of sun fights its way through. The famous rock-hewn churches are stunning and left me wondering for weeks after. The idea that all is carved out of solid rock, from the vision of one man in such a short time (26 years) is inconceivable. The churches themselves are entirely functional and this adds greatly to their appeal. Early in the morning it is possible to witness exorcisms and other rituals foreign to our idea of Christianity. The symbolism of each church and its surroundings makes walking around the whole complex a truly unique experience, for me greater than any sight I have seen so far.
We are now sitting in Addis Ababa doing various burocratic tasks and feeling unusually at home. We will be heading south in a week’s time to the tribal areas around Lake Turkana…Sorry if my ramblings have gone on a little too long this time, but enthusiasm fired me on!