06 June 2007

On the beach

The immigration official at Kotoka airport in Ghana leaned back in his chair, smiling. A disconcerting smile.
"So, you are a freelance journalist?"
"No, no, not a journalist. I write and I photograph."
He let me into Ghana.

Now I'm in England and in about a fortnight I'll be back in the Pohangina Valley. But I see this blog is still back in India and I have a lot of catching up to do — the remaining time in India; Nepal; Ghana; South Africa; Malawi. Perhaps, instead of making excuses, I'll carry on from where I left off...

Unlike most of Rajasthan, Gujarat has water. Every time we passed shallow lakes and ponds, reservoirs and jheels, I looked for birds. I usually saw them, and felt encouraged. It has water of a different kind, too — the desert mirage. I looked out the window at a desolate plain; it dissolved into a shimmering lake and, on the horizon, small trees which appeared to dance and float.

A family of nilgai in the early evening, their coats warm in the soft light. Above them, the moon, not quite perfectly full, grew brighter as the sky darkened. The bus drove on towards Kandla and Gandhidam and the encroaching night; the sun turned deep yellow, then saffron, then orange as it sank into the dense haze.

But this revealed a more disturbing aspect of Gujarat. We had entered a more built-up, industrial area. Foundries and factories disgorged huge plumes of dense black smoke into the air; as we drove through a small town in the twilight, the end of the street disappeared into what looked like a cloud of dust; in the last light it glowed as if the air itself burned — but this was not just dust, not just smoke. People on the bus began coughing and I could smell and taste the dying air.

The sun, by now a huge, red, shimmering ball, just touched the horizon beyond an electrical substation. Pylons, masts, a net of cables and insulators; silhouettes like a diagram of a world gone wrong; a vision of some terrible science fiction future. Fire burning from a chimney, pouring black smoke, fire raging in the mouth of a furnace.

After dark I peer out the window. The bus has been driving forever. The brilliant, almost-round moon shines yellow in a black sky and one star glitters; it stays with us for a long time, but remains alone. Where are all the other stars? What has killed them — too much light, or too much darkness?


In Bhuj I visited the Aina Mahal, the Palace of Mirrors — a name from the pages of Gormenghast — and bought a small booklet about Kutch, mostly because it had a map of Bhuj and the region. Actually, both maps were more like diagrams, the information topologically rather than topographically accurate, and possibly accurate only in a relative sense. Compared to the forts and palaces at places like Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner, the Aina Mahal apparently had little to offer — much like the palace at Bharatpur. Evidence of the earthquake showed everywhere, inside and out, so that the small area open for viewing had the character of a wounded survivor, no longer magnificent and Babblerpowerful but now humbled. I think this might in part have been why I liked it.

I photographed a few details — probably not what usually gets photographed — bought three postcards and wandered around the outside, studying the aftermath of the 'quake. Ruined walls, rooms open to the sun and wind, abandoned by humans, colonised by pigeons and palm squirrels, time and crows. Piles of rubble. Wooden scaffolding; struts bracing walls. A gorgeous butterfly bobbled around the rubbish and rubble and nettles, sunlight glowing in its wings, a metaphor for the fragility and resilience of life. When the next earthquake hits Bhuj, or the one after that, who will inherit the city? What will be left to inherit?


A small boy cycles alongside me in the dimly lit road, calling out something incomprehensible, perhaps an attempt to communicate. A tall, lean Muslim man steps onto the road and says something to the boy, who cycles off. The man greets me.
"He is my son," he says. "He wanted to practise his English."
"My name is Pete," I reply, holding out my hand.
He shakes it as we walk and nods at his disappearing son.
"He is second year."
"Second year?"
The man roars with laughter, throwing back his head.
"No! Sekondar!" he says, or a name sounding similar.

We laugh about it and when he says goodbye he shakes my hand and touches my shoulder with his other hand, the gesture of goodwill. A great smile. A new friend.


Sleep is another kind of refuge. It's also another kind of exploration, a wandering among dreams. I wake from vivid dreams, unable to place myself in India — I know I'm lying in the dim light in Bhuj but cannot feel it. The sensation reminds me of the dislocation I'd felt after my first long internet session at Naini Tal; most recently, I'd felt the same strange sense of being elsewhere when I closed my books on Africa last night and remembered I wasn't in Malawi or South Africa, camped in a tent and wondering about honey badgers and secretary birds, but in an echoing hotel room in Gujarat, listening to dogs barking and people singing in temples. I can't decide whether the essence of a refuge is that it allows you to be elsewhere — ideally, somewhere of your choosing — or it frees you to be exactly where you are. Perhaps the two aren't so different.


At Mandvi I checked into the Shital, which might better be termed ... well, you can guess... But it was only 75 rupees; almost nothing, which is what the room was. Really little more than a partitioned-off area with a metal cot, metal folding chair, small coffee table, ceiling fan and silverfish. I strung up my mosquito net and went looking for somewhere better to transfer to in the morning.


The cabins on the beach were closed. They looked derelict. They reminded me of old New Zealand baches; refugees from the '50s or '60s. Shuttered windows stared like blank, opaque eyes in pale walls; the bench seats had been stacked roughly, as if the place had been abandoned rather than closed for winter. An enormous, black PVC water tank lay collapsed and crumpled on the weedy sand near the padlocked office; concrete fence poles leaned at irregular angles, supporting a few strands of loosely strung barbed wire. Broken glass shone bright in the evening sun, near tangled piles of discarded fishing net and the occasional turd of indeterminate origin. A pack of dogs slept, spaced and curled, on the sand and a few people wandered the beach in the distance. By India's standards, the place was deserted, inhabited only by birds and the wind and ghosts from the past. I wanted to stay there, in Boatbuilderone of those empty cabins, alone. I wanted to live and grow old on an empty beach, in a simple cabin with walls of books, watching the sea and the clouds, feeding birds, walking into the distance, drinking tea and wondering.

But not on this beach. I looked out into the Gulf of Kutch, and felt it impossible not to wonder why on earth I came here when New Zealand has beaches superficially similar and profoundly more meaningful for me. Then I looked in the other direction, out towards the Arabian Sea. The Arabian Sea. I said the words in my head, imagined other lands out there, places I've never been. South America. Antarctica. Africa. I stood on the beach at Mandvi, looking out across the Arabian Sea, towards Africa, and then I knew why I was here.


Walking along the waste land next to the beach in the late evening, I could hear people chanting and singing in temples. Many people. Yet the beach, with its birds and small waves and light reflected from shallow lagoons, with its sand ripples and the remarkable pattern of pellets of sand radiating from the burrows of some small invertebrate, attracted only a handful of people — a couple sitting at the high tide mark, looking out to sea; a boy wheeling a bicycle along the sand; two boys walking quickly and laughing, as if trying to outpace a smaller, stouter boy lagging behind. A man wading shin deep to examine a beached boat. Western cultures — which do exist, despite Gandhi's quip that they "would be a good idea" — are often criticised for being materialistic, for their apparent lack of spirituality, or for the shallowness and insincerity of their predominantly Christian practice — M.-the-Hare-Krishna explained to me how people in Christian churches look at their watches and think, "Oh, I need to be doing something else" — but a beach like this in Europe, say, or the UK, would be appreciated, probably to the point of being ruined. The thought occurred to me that here, perhaps, a great many people are too busy worshiping their gods to appreciate what their gods created.

Similarly, when I studied ecology at University it seemed fashionable to condemn the "Judeo-Christian ethic", with its belief that humans were given dominion over the other aspects of creation, as responsible for much of the world's environmental degradation. There might be some truth to the argument, and I don't know what similar ethics are enshrined in India's non-Christian religions, but India appears to me as the most environmentally degraded country in which I've travelled. Surely this cannot be attributed mainly to the country's 23 million Christians — less than 2% of the population.

I'm not saying western "culture" is better or worse than that of India. I simply wonder why some people seem so caught up in religious beliefs that they apparently fail to appreciate the world in which they live, and conversely, why others seem so unable to understand the world as something more profound and beautiful than just a mere playground — something to be "experienced", bought, or owned.


In the dim morning light a dishevelled man leans and blows his nose onto the street, flicking the snot off his fingers. He inspects them, rolls thumb and fingers together as if forming a ball, then wipes his hand on the tail of his filthy coat. He shuffles off, slowly, hardly lifting his feet, down towards the misty end of the lane.


Outside my window at the Seaview Hotel the partly built hull of a wooden ship looms in the mist, the tops of the ribs projecting skywards like old standing stones or peg teeth in the lower jaw of some mythical monster — some kind of troll, perhaps, or one of those sea monsters ancient cartographers drew on maps when they had no idea what was there. What would they have made of modern Mandvi? Could they even have imagined the trucks and jeeps and motorbikes with their ear-piercing screams, the rows of small, dingy engineering workshops with enormous metal-working lathes peeling off ribbons of steel; would they have been puzzled by the power lines, the tangles of cables and insulators apparently serving no purpose? Some things they would recognise — the wooden ships, of course; the blacksmiths hammering at small forges; the bustle, the noise, the grime, the rubbish — even if many of its components would mystify them. But I suspect so much would be unimaginable that they would simply write on their maps, "Here be monsters."

And what are our monsters now? Not those we discover, I think, but those we have created. On the wall of the school A.L. and I visited yesterday, a newspaper cutting had been pasted onto a larger rectangle of cardboard with a fuzzy photocopy of a black and white photograph of Indira Gandhi. I saw the word "Pokharan" and the date "1974" written in a child's hand on the card. Pokharan in 1974 was the site where India, in attempted secrecy, first tested its nuclear weapons; the newspaper cutting was the same article I'd read at Mt Abu about India's keenness to start selling BrahMos cruise missiles. Here be monsters, and you too can buy them from us.


I decide on a late breakfast at the "Omlet Centre". I'm waved beyond the kitchen to a small cave in the back of the shop, illuminated by a neon tube and an energy saver bulb. Four ancient fans wait in their wire cages, frowning down, blackened with oil and grime. Bench seats and tables made of square-section metal tubing and formica, the tables brindle — the colour of the dog sleeping in the lane — the seats faux-marble. Everything's sticky. A Pepsi cooler, topped by a layer of solidified dust, stands in the far corner. What lies were told to get it here?

The Omlet man walks into the cave and stands over me. He glares down.
"Without chilli," he says, checking his assumption rather than making a statement.
"Without chilli. No chilli."
"Onion," he assumes, and walks off.

The omelette, with with a well-judged amount of onion and just a smidgeon too much salt — borderline, not unpleasant — comes with a stack of very lightly fried bread. No greasiness, more warmed than fried.I give him the 15 rupees and succeed in conveying the idea that I enjoyed the breakfast. A hint of a smile.


A woman runs after her small child. Both look as if they live on the street — that blackened, dusty look, the hair thick and dishevelled, clothes faded and lacking the vibrancy of house-dwellers' clothes. She catches him and he falls to the ground, then tries to run away again. She follows, beating him several times with a stick, then snatches him up and quickly carries him, struggling, across the street.


Waitangi Day. This time last year, in 2006, I stood just below the summit of Mt Rolleston with Jono, after we'd climbed the Otira face. I remember the tremendous sense of elation and joy, the feeling I was where I belonged. I suppose I felt at home to a degree that seems inconceivable here in India. Nevertheless, there's a hint of it here in the Omlet Centre in Mandvi, now I've returned and the men recognise me. The ferocious one came over soon after I'd sat down and leaned close to me, held his hand up, fingers and thumb side by side, and said, "Just 5 minutes. Okay?"
"Okay," I said.
I think his apparent ferocity might arise from the concentration needed to form words in English. It's accentuated by his appearance — bearded, intense, seemingly always with a frown. The difference when that hint of a smile appeared yesterday was remarkable. He wears the crocheted Muslim cap and long gown.

He brings the omelette and stack of warmed bread.
"Sorry," he says, apologising for the delay.
I don't mind. I feel comfortable here, enjoying the chance to sit and write away from the public gaze.
"Tea, coffee, water, Pepsi, Sprite...," he says. I gather he's asking me what I'd like.
Tea please."
"With sugar. No sugar."
The statements are the closest I've heard him come to asking a question.
"With sugar."
Tea with sugar arrives quickly and tastes like real tea, not the powerfully strong, heavily spiced brew I've had everywhere in Gujarat. Inspired by A.L.'s efforts yesterday, I jot down two words of Kutchi and practise them mentally. I go to the front of the shop and pay the bill.
"Khaso," I say. Good. He carries on peeling red onions, but there might be a trace of a smile.
"Abhar," I say — Thanks. "Thanks. Good omelette."
He grins a little.
"AH baar," he says, correcting my pronunciation. Then, "Shukriya."
I know that one — the Hindi version. He rattles off a string of words in various dialects and languages, utterly confusing me. I laugh.

"AH baar," I say, and leave him peeling his onions vigorously and smiling just perceptibly.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The Aravalli Range, near Mount Abu, close to the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
2. A mugger at Trevor's Tank, the reservoir in the wildlife sanctuary near Mount Abu. "Mugger" is the local name for one of India's two species of crocodile.
3. Babbler at Kileswar, Barda Hills, Gujarat.
4. Early morning near the Gangaram hotel in Bhuj, Gujarat. (The photo has been desaturated because I like the look).
5. Boat builder at Mandvi, Gujarat. He was working on a small fishing boat which would take about 6 months to complete, according to his boss.
6. Morning fog at Mandvi.
7. Going back in time... in the fruit and veg market in Bikaner's old town.
8. Station Road in Bikaner.
9. Early morning in Mandvi, near the "Omlet Centre". The brindle dog was further down the lane.
10. Squirrel at Great Malvern, England. Evidence I'm in England (or more strictly, not in India nor Africa).

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor


emma said...

Pete, so good to hear from you again!

burning silo said...

Again, thanks for bringing us along on your journey through words and photos. Your comments on environmental degradation are haunting and in line with what I've read and seen in documentaries. A Canadian documentary on ship breakers in India was very disturbing and highlighted the international complicity behind so much of the damage to the environment and to the health of people who are employed in such industries. Very sad. Anyhow, good to hear from you. Looking forward to more of your accounts at a later date.

Clare said...

Wonderful to read your voice again pete. Ah-baar

herhimnbryn said...

Hallo again. Such words, thoughts and sights. Thankyou.

Peregrina said...

Lovely to hear from you again. About three days ago I was thinking that you must be getting near the end of your travels and wondering where and how you were. Seeing your message pop into my Inbox gave me a sense of delighted anticipation.

Lovely images, and I, too, like the effect of the one where you removed the saturation. When I first looked at it, not realising that was what you had done, it seemed to match the feeling I was experiencing as I read.

By means of your observations (two meanings there), combined with your camera's eye, you've been giving us a verbal and visual view of the places you've visited and the people you've met which is very different from that found in much travel writing. I've enjoyed it and am eagerly awaiting the book!

Best wishes to you for these last days of your Journey. I'm sure the Pohangina Valley will welcome you!


Anonymous said...

Hey there Pete - KSG here :-) I received your message about leaving for Africa but for some reason was unable to reply - I hope you felt my heartfelt good wishes and thoughts all the way...! SO difficult to imagine that you will be back on Aotearoa soil in such a short time - it seems that you have been away forever, and yet for a couple of days....that trick of time again that getting older seems to play on me.

AH baar! for your wonderful writing and photography, as always. I feel as though I am standing there with you as it is all happening, perhaps another trick of time and place initiated by a writer of talent and compassion - either way it is a good feeling and as always a privilege. Please know how much I - and certainly all - appreciate your efforts to post your travel logs and wonderings and to keep us in your own picture frame. Enjoy England and friends, and safe journey back to the Aotearoa. She awaits you with her tui calls and pukeko struts! *smile*
Take good care as always
from KSG

Avus said...

Nice to hear from you again, Pete. Funnily enough I was only wondering yesterday how you were faring. Soon to be back in NZ now and from your notes just before you left it I guess a new adventure to look forward to?

zhoen said...

Your posts are letters from a long lost friend, miraculously returned.

Love your critters.

robin andrea said...

You have been on this journey a long time, pete. Some of what you have seen here seems like a prelude to the end of the world. The beauty overshadowed by the degradation.

I am glad you are well, and heading home soon.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks everyone, and I trust subsequent posts will be more regular.

Emma: I'm in L.A. for 4 hours on the 20th. Unfortunately, it's in transit (probably meaning I'll be standing in a queue for 4 hours, waiting to be photographed and fingerprinted AGAIN).

Bev, yes, the ship-breaking yards are disturbing from several perspectives. We hear about the very large, well-known operations, but there are much smaller yards operating also. I saw one in Jamnagar... from a distance. As for the health and safety of workers... I've written about that in my notebooks and it's likely those thoughts will appear in a post. Probably soon.

Cheers Clare. I think I'm as close now (in Bristol) as I'll get to Arctic Bay (at least on this journey). But maybe some day...

HHnB: Thanks! :-)

Peregrina: Glad you liked the desaturation. Sometimes I'm not sure about these sorts of tweaks, but this one had a definite "right" feel to it. I find it very encouraging, too, to hear it matched what you were reading. Cheers!

KSG: Thanks for the support! I'm definitely looking forward to returning to Aotearoa, but have to keep my expectations in check. Homecoming (I use the word deliberately), especially after a journey like this, can throw up some unexpected emotions, and I'm aware that many people can find it difficult. But I certainly have a great deal to look forward to, especially catching up with friends :-)

Avus: Yes. The return will also be a new beginning, but right now I have to focus on enjoying where I am. That's easy; England, at least those places in which i'm travelling, has a special beauty which I'm sure you know very well.

Zhoen: plenty more critters coming up. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to photograph the spitting cobra I almost trod on last week in Malawi.

Robin Andrea: Yes, true. Some of the things I've seen do seem apocalyptic. But human beings have a remarkable resilience, and perhaps we'll make it through the hard times. Just what's left of the world, particularly the other lives with which we share it, is another question. I'd like to be more hopeful, but not sure I could defend that optimism. Meanwhile, all we can do is enjoy what we still have and do what we can to care for it.

Finally, some good news. I'll be moving back to the little place in the Pohangina Valley, so "Pohanginapete" will still remain an appropriate name. More appropriate, I guess than it has been during the last 7 or 8 months.

Take care, everyone.

Anonymous said...

hmmm, sounds like mandvi has turned into a city since i was there 6 years ago. Were the windmills still dotted up the coast?
If the baches were across the river from the main town, in the muslim quarter,then thats where i stayed.
It was so good.
Nice to hear from you again, pete.
best wishes jacq

vegetablej said...

Great to hear you are okay! Better than okay really, wonderful.

Barb said...

Pete, what a wonderful journey!
Makes me itchy about travelling myself ...
Pohangina will have surely received you cordially.
Best wishes and greetings from Germany!

pohanginapete said...

Jacq, yes, the baches were across the river. I think Mandvi's becoming "known" by travellers; I got the impression it's a common objective for anyone getting as far as Bhuj. Where are you now? What are your plans for your blog?

Vegetablej: Thanks! I made it back to the Pohangina Valley, although my luggage didn't... fortunately, the airline's tracked it down and is sending it on, and I had most of the important stuff with me.

Barb, great to hear from you. During this journey I realised the real value of sleeping while travelling — something I remember you seemed quite adept at in the van in Mongolia!

Whoah...!!... it's hailing outside as I type this... guess I really am back in Aotearoa in midwinter.

Dave Pollard said...

Hi Pete:
I'm homesick for you.
-/- dave

vegetablej said...


Have you retired from writing?

Sorry to be a nag but it's been a long time between posts, hasn't it?

What's it like to be "home"?

I miss your writing. :)

Patry Francis said...

How wonderful it is to be able to wander here and walk a mile or two with you, and then to carry what I've discovered back home into my own sleep refuge, my own nightly adventure. Peace to you, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

VJ: Thanks for the encouragement (it's not nagging). As you'll have seen, I put up another post yesterday; and I haven't retired from writing (I never will, although eventually the vehicle might change). I have a few notes for a post about returning, so that might arrive on the blog soon.

Thanks Patry. I'm looking forward to organising the time to be able to catch up on reading your blog, too :-)