18 September 2014

Notes from an English train

At Paddington I buy a one-way rail ticket for Great Malvern for a sum that would have allowed me to stay in in an air-conditioned room in Pahar Ganj for more than three days, and board after a not-excessive wait. At a stop further along the line a young guy takes a seat next to me. His lower right leg glows with a luminous-red cast and he manoeuvres his crutches awkardly as he sits. I ask if he's done his achilles in. He shakes his head and looks slightly sheepish.
 'Wrecked my ankle at a party,' he says, admitting the injury's self-inflicted. 'Guess I'll be a bit more careful how much I drink in future.'
Inevitably, he asks if I've been travelling and the conversation turns to India.
  'I'd love to go there,' he says, and sounds as if he means it.
I encourage him, suggesting he try to make it a long trip -- months rather than weeks. We chat all the way to the next stop, where he leaves the train. We wish each other good luck, and I'm sorry to see him go.

England -- so many names that could only be found here without sounding out of place. At Kingham station, for example, a sign says 'Change here for buses to Chipping Norton', and at Moreton-in-Marsh another sign lists Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water, and, incongruously, Broadway.

The English countryside slides past, almost stereotypical in its elegance -- rolling hills with copses, hedgerows, neat fields -- and I wonder why I don't feel more elated at seeing these things I'm so familiar with from my boyhood, when many of the books I read and TV programmes I watched about wildlife and nature were focused on Britain; when most of the spectacular books and programmes about New Zealand wildlife and nature, or even the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world, had yet to be produced. Even while still a boy I could identify most of the British animals and birds, and their charm and that of the landscape they inhabit still delights me.

But, as I look out this window, something seems to be missing. The feeling's inchoate, intangible; I can't put my finger on it. I think perhaps the landscape's too neat, too ordered, but when I pay attention to that I see I'm wrong -- some of what I'm seeing does seem wilder and less kempt than I'd expected. I like this; I like the knowledge that even in what must be one of the world's tidier landscapes, pockets of wildness thrive.

Perhaps I've simply become too used to the energy of India. The urge to compare, which so often interferes with appreciation of where you are, proves irresistible. Where are all the people?

A roe deer (or is a muntjac?) feeds in a field; further on I see another. A group of rabbits occupies a corner of a rough paddock. They look greyer and leaner than the rabbits of New Zealand. Those books about British wildlife weren't just abstract knowledge for me; many of the most common birds of the New Zealand countryside are descendants of those brought there by homesick British migrants. Around my own house in the Pohangina valley the most common birds include yellowhammers, chaffinches, house sparrows of course, blackbirds, and song thrushes, and from time to time I see many more, like goldfinches, redpolls, and greenfinches. Perhaps the familiarity of much of what I'm seeing from this smooth, fast train makes me feel as if my journey has already begun to end?

But the magpies and crows remind me of India, and even though they're not quite the same, they still look like old friends. What suddenly shocks me, though, is seeing a small herd of cattle and realising these are BEEF cattle. Am I really that accustomed to India? Maybe I now know some parts of India better than I know the England of my boyhood perceptions? I've certainly spent far longer there than here.

A hare sits, grey and upright and alone among crows in a stubble field. Hares have been part of my life forever; I can even remember as a very small boy asking my uncle how to tell a hare from a rabbit. Not many memories pre-date that one. The sight of a hare always thrills me; it does so now, too.

Finally, Great Malvern. My aunt sits, waiting at the station. Neither of us can believe I'm here.

Ten days at Great Malvern. I can't write about those days, other than to say two months of sometimes hard travelling caught up with me and I couldn't have been in a better place, nor better looked after. The timing was uncanny.

Shortly after five in the morning we sit on the hard bench at the end of the platform and don't talk about goodbyes. The inadequacy of partings: how do you say what can't be said? The train finally pulls into the station and I begin to leave England.

At Worcester Shrub Hill a young guy boards my carraige. He wears a suit, the jacket open, and the anxious look of someone going to a job interview. The inspector takes his job seriously: another young guy, casually dressed, gets a ticking-off for not having bought a ticket before boarding, and another passenger gets questioned about whether that's his bag in the overhead rack on the opposite side of the aisle.

When the dawn lightens enough so the tinted windows no longer reflect my disconcertingly tired and drawn face, I begin to scribble notes more frequently. Someone once said writing's easy, you just jot down ideas as they occur to you; he then added that it's the occurring that's the hard part. Maybe so, but movement and the sense of journeying help, and trains are one of the best forms of travel for facilitating that occurring of ideas. Besides, not all writing has to be about ideas; simple description has many virtues, and this morning I have plenty to scribble about in the little cahier.

The silhouette of a long-tailed bird sitting on a power line -- instantly I think 'drongo' even though I know it's ridiculous (it's a magpie). Perhaps even now, part of me still hasn't left India. I think it never will.

A fox sits on its haunches and watches the train pass; later, another trots through earthworks on the embankment with such an air of self-assurance that I admire (and probably envy) it just for that (as well, of course, for the sheer beauty of the animal and the elegance of its lope). Had it known of my admiration, the fox would have laughed, of course.

Deer in misty paddocks; lone trees in precisely the right place in empty fields -- the geometry of a thoughtful history of cultivation. The bone-white and grey moon, upside down and just beginning to wane; high, tiny vapour trails following the bright speck of planes I long to be on. I think of the two senses of 'flight' -- one literal, as in the flight of birds; the other figurative, as in flight from something or somewhere -- and wonder which best applies to me.

Wood pigeons -- surely they must be more intelligent than they look?

As the train fills, everyone I see seems to enter their own world -- newspapers; laptops and tablets; phones; kindles; i-pods, earbuds and headphones. Some, plugged in, have their eyes closed. No one writes anything by hand. A disconcertingly large number of people wear suits, and anything not a suit looks freshly purchased for a large sum. I probably look like a hobo. Perhaps this is partly why I feel more crowded here than crammed among the millions in Delhi, although even there on the Metro many people manage to stay tidier than me. Whatever the reason, I think perhaps I am the odd one out -- no, I AM the odd one out. Yet, in Delhi I stand out almost everywhere except among the tourist spots, to which I seldom go. I don't understand why I feel this way; I just feel I don't belong here, despite its attractions, and I wonder whether I'd ever grow accustomed to this environment. When I've thought of how I might achieve that state of feeling at home wherever I am, I've never thought it might be this hard here in the land from which my ancestors left (although admittedly this is neither Scotland nor Ireland).

The sound of one keyboard tapping. No koan here, but perhaps enlightenment might arise from contemplating the sound. What is he writing? A report? A presentation to a corporate meeting? The horror! The horror! I have left that world and cannot return, even if I wished to, which I do not. Whatever lies in store for me will be elsewhere.

Again, though, I question my perceptions -- always a useful thing to do. Not everyone has disappeared into their own world; I can hear the murmur of a quiet conversation further back in the carriage, and a few people, like  the anxious young guy, seem slightly uncomfortable, as if they too find being here uncomfortable and haven't fully accepted they want to be part of this world. Others seem more resigned than accepting -- 'hanging on in quiet desperation'. What can they do, though?

At Paddington a helpful ticket-checker gives me clear, precise instructions about where to catch the Underground to Liverpool Street, and thanks to his help I'm on way in just a couple of minutes, standing with the strap-hangers, most of whom look tired or dour or both. Liverpool Street arrives; I make my way to the train and find I'm in time to catch an earlier one. Another journey; more gazing out the window, watching England slip away. On a bank of a slow river, a man sits with his fishing road set up and his basket and a little table beside him, and I'm struck by the apparent wonderful pointlessness of his inactivity. Fishing's been described as many things -- 'the art of prolonged anticipation'; 'a jerk on one end of a line, waiting for a jerk on the other', and so on -- but one way of thinking about certain types of fishing is that they share much in common with meditation. This man certainly appears meditative, but even if his thoughts have wandered all over the place, I have no doubt he'll return home refreshed, even if fishless.

The train arrives at the dreadful, giant warehouse that's Stansted airport, where my last impressions of England are about as far removed from the gentle, beautiful countryside around Great Malvern as Delhi is. In the previous post I pointed out how people and places are inextricable, but I know now that if I return to England, the only draw will be a few close friends. Perhaps in the attempt to feel at home wherever I am, I have learned only that I have not yet succeeded, and the affinity I once felt for this place has begun to fade. Aspects like my friends, the birds and other animals, and the distinctive beauty of the English countryside still delight me, but maybe the result of my striving has been to drift further away from a home I once thought I might have had.

1. '...the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world...' Not including seals. I never want to see another documentary about the breeding habits of any kind of seal. Ever.
2. 'The bone-white and grey moon, upside down...' Look closely if you visit the hemisphere opposite the one in which you usually live.
3. 'The horror! The horror!' Kurtz's last words in Heart of Darkness.
4. '...hanging on in quiet desperation..' ...is the English way, according to Pink Floyd.
5. '...a jerk on one end...' The main title of the late Robert Hughes' wonderful book. Recommended reading.

1. Quintessential English garden at Great Malvern. Home to many birds and other animals, including badgers.
2. Dragonfly in the same garden. At Slimbridge the day after I arrived, I watched a hobby hunting dragonflies.
3. Wood pigeon at Slimbridge.
4. English robin at Great Malvern. Not a great photograph, but they weren't cooperative. Still, I trust this captures something of the character of these little birds.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor

01 September 2014

He who has never left -- Leh

'So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.'
-- T.S. Eliot; Four Quartets: Little Gidding

A friend in New Zealand  and another in the US say they're looking forward to reading a post about Leh. Maybe others are, too -- but what do I say? How do I convey what it means to me? When something's important to us, we want to do justice to it and we try harder to find the right words, but too often that striving defeats itself; the words falter, the flow dries up, we fall back on silence and the shrug of resignation -- we don't know how to express the significance, we say, and open our hands in the gesture of helplessness.

There -- my excuses have been made. All I can do is try, knowing (to quote Eliot again) that ' every attempt /
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure'. I have to try, too. If you'd prefer I remained silent, don't read on.

At the start of a new month I sit in the little icecream shop in Leh with a small bowl of apricot icecream decorated with shards of waffle cone. Minimalist decor: clean, bright, pine tables, each with a coloured tin tea pot and a Tintin book; simple heavy stools with blue denim seats; the small range of icecream neatly displayed behind glass. All the ingredients have been carefully chosen from local produce, and the obvious attention to cleanliness and presentation encourages me (my trust proves warranted, too). A friend introduced me to this place yesterday after we'd had tea at the nearby restaurant; I'd had Kashmiri tea with ground almond and saffron and today did exactly the same -- Kashmiri tea followed by apricot icecream. I'm so imaginative. I'm also able to recognise a good thing.

The Old Town, in contrast, represents almost everything this new, modern, icecream shop doesn't. Those small, low doors with their patina of great age and countless stories; the massive trunks of trees around which the town seem to have been built, the bark worn down and polished by the brush of generation after generation of hands; the stone walls that, in some cases against all apparent reason, have survived without collapsing; the way some buildings cross low over these narrow alleys to form tunnels where I have not just to stoop but to bend well over -- those tunnels with their quirky hand-written signs telling people not to urine in here O.K.

More, much more. For example, the ancient tandoor bakeries with their magnificent, mouth-watering smells, where, for 30 generations or more, customers have queued in the early mornings. The tranquility and cool relief of the Old Town despite its proximity to the chaos and heat of the new city -- turn a corner and you step from the 21st century into a world where evidence of anything later than the mediaeval requires careful looking. Or, that strange, fetish-like object hanging from the outside wall of a dusty, whitewashed house -- an assemblage of twigs and cord so old it looks one gust away from crumbling to dust. What makes it so eerie and slightly unnerving is the old, weathered skull lashed to the centre of the fetish -- the grey skull of a dog, I think, judging from the pronounced saggital crest and zygomatic arch. At Rumbak I saw a similar object and asked Stanzin what it represented; he hesitated, then said he thought it might be intended to provide protection against evil. The beliefs that hung these objects on these walls might have preceded any formal religion, and I wonder whether they might have given rise to the chillies-and-lemon charms hanging from many doorways elsewhere in India, but this is pure speculation on my part. Whatever the belief that put this one here in the Old Town, two things seem irrefutable: the need to believe in something beyond the evidence of the senses proves irresistible for most humans, and even for those with no such belief, the sight of a fetish like this can be unsettling. Mystery appeals to most of us.

I walk through the Old Town, losing my way, finding it again, avoiding the meaner-looking dogs, looking down fondly at the-dog-who's-eaten-too-many-biscuits. He slowly opens an eye and looks at me in hope. Disappointed, he closes his eye and resumes his sleep.

Even the new town has a charm that rises above the more difficult characteristics it shares with so many other Indian towns. When I walk along the Main Bazaar I must make a conscious effort not to stop and inspect the countless shawls and scarves in so many colours, patterns, materials, and quality; if I do, I'll never get where I think I want to go. It's not just shawls, either -- here you can find a huge range of jewelry, heavily dominated by turquoise (which I happen to like); shops selling traditional clothing including the distinctive headgear that looks a little like a top hat with up-turned ear flaps, and others selling Goretex and down clothing and all manner of modern hiking and climbing gear for the trekkers and Stok Kangri hopefuls (this obvious awareness of the importance of the mountains as a source of recreation -- and admittedly, money -- strikes a chord with me, despite my reservations about the view that sees mountains as little more than a way of satisfying human needs and desires). Even the souvenir and trinket sellers add colour and life. Sure, during the middle of the day the place is chaotic, but it's chaotic in a more humane way than places like Main Bazaar in Pahar Ganj, Delhi, which so often seems not just frantic but desperate.

I step carefully along the footpath then onto the road, which is undergoing major renovation, to avoid the simplest of all kinds of markets: a line of women in traditional dress sitting on the footpath with vegetables and fruit spread out on blankets in front of them. Someone with a cynical disposition might suggest this is more to capture the tourists than for anyone wanting to buy vegetables -- the cameras click constantly -- but this appears to be not the case because the photographers neither buy the produce nor offer any compensation (most, it seems, don't even ask if they can photograph).

An old man, so leathery and wrinkled he looks as if he's spent all his life shrivelling under the fierce Ladakh sun (and probably has) sits at the end of the row, at the intersection. He seems to be permanently smiling. On his blanket, spread out like the produce of the women, lies a collection of crystals. I have no language with which to ask his story and must pass by each day, still wondering.

Further down the road I step into a shop with an interesting range of books in the window. The range inside is even more diverse -- reprints of the books of Jim Corbett on paper seemingly produced before he even wrote them; a range of New Age and pop psychology books that wouldn't be out of place in an Auckland bookshop; an even more extensive range of high quality coffee table books of excellent photographs from Ladakh; maps; postcards; school textbooks and stationery; and, of most interest to me right now, natural history field guides for Ladakh, including Grimmett et al.'s Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. I'd never intended buying the book because of its weight and bulk but, frustrated by the shortcomings of the app (and annoyed by its outrageous price), I'm sorely tempted. Eventually the advantages of the book win the day. A good bookshop can redeem most towns, but already I know Leh doesn't need redeeming. The longer I spend here, the stronger its hold on me.

In the evening of my first day in Leh, a new friend shows me some of the places she knows so well, eventually guiding me through the Old Town and up past the palace, along the steep, gritty track. At the monastery she asks if I'd like to go inside. I hesitate, then decline. No, I say, I'm uneasy about gawping at places important to other people's beliefs when I can't share those beliefs. She nods; she feels the same, she says. Instead we stand at the edge by the low wall, looking out into the evening, over Leh, across to Spituk, to the Ladakh Range, the 6000+ metre pyramid of Stok Kangri, and Hemis National Park. Somewhere deep in those mountains snow leopards prowl, hunt, live their lives. My chances of seeing one, particularly at this time of year, are almost nil. 'Almost', though -- not impossible, and in the process of looking, who knows what other wonders I might see? Also, in my travels I've been unreasonably lucky with wildlife sightings; now, perhaps, I need the lesson of not seeing the snow leopard, if for no other reason than the reminder that wishing too hard for something guarantees disappointment. This is not a rational argument, but it is a true one.

For now, it's enough to stand here high above Leh as the sun goes down behind that last, long ridge. I want to be nowhere else.

She points out the Sunni mosque from which that heart-breakingly beautiful azan rings out each evening -- the call to prayer that haunts me and comes close to bringing me to tears I don't understand -- and the Shia mosque not too far distant; there, she says, right behind the main bazaar, is the Buddhist centre; and down there near the edge of the Old Town is the tree considered sacred by Sikhs. The Christian presence is strong here too. In a world in which intolerance, particularly by religious factions, seems so prevalent, Leh seems like hope.

In the early morning before the sun begins to burn, while the shade under the trees and against the high stone walls still provides shelter, I stride out down the path to Changspa Road. An old woman makes her way slowly up the path and I greet her.
'Julley,' I say.
'Ju-LEY!' she replies, smiling, enthusiastic, stressing the last syllable so it sounds more heartfelt.
This, I think, is one of the reasons I find it so easy to like Leh. This kind of response has been typical, unlike many other areas of India where the frown and stare seems so common (although usually easily disarmed with a nod and a smile); to be greeted warmly even by many of the women here in Leh is almost startling -- elsewhere in the parts of India I've visited I found this highly unusual; there, the usual reaction is the careful avoidance of eye contact.

I scribble a note in the little cahier: 'More often than not,' I write, 'it's people who hold me in a place rather than the place itself.' Now I'm less certain, not because I doubt the power of great friendships but because people and places are inextricable; each colours the other, and eventually we have only the memories, where people and place cannot be separated. I can't think of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca, for example, without thinking of the people with whom I shared my too-short time there, and I can't think of those friends without thinking of Huaraz -- seeing the huge full moon rise behind some of the most spectacular mountains I've ever seen while Marin and Charlotte and I waited for our meals to arrive and I skimmed Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin -- and that brings back memories of the charming middle-aged Italian woman who, in broken English on the coast of Ghana, likened me to Chatwin purely on the basis that I was always writing (having now read Shakespeare's biography in full, I'm not sure I'm entirely flattered, but I appreciated her intention). All these connections among people and places. This is what enriches a life, and here in Leh the connections, even those seemingly insignificant or momentary, like this old woman's greeting or sharing the laughter of the two women in the icecream shop, keep coming.

The snow mountains to the north-east of Stok Kangri gleam in the evening sun. Men and women come and go, but the mountains remain. The most we can hope for is that maybe, just maybe, the mountains will remember us when we've long turned to the dust that will bury our ruins.

Something looks out of place on the folded macpac merino top sitting neatly on top of the corner cupboard. There, on the fine black material, clings a tiny, pale, patterned gecko about the length of my little finger. I encourage it onto my hand. It feels soft but definite. I nudge it onto the wall but it immediately drops off and hides beneath the merino top. Clearly, this small sophisticated lizard has fine taste in habitats. I'm happy to leave it there and like the idea of its company.

Early one morning I pack the camera, binoculars, and a small bottle of water and step out onto the cool, dusty road. Sleepy dogs and two policemen at the lake eye me as I stride by: past the water carriers filling their oil drums before sealing them closed with tightly stretched plastic and wheeling them off to the poorer parts of town on their rickety, ragged-tyred, three-wheeled carts; past three small and dusty donkeys feeding from a rubbish pile; around the corner and into the Old Town. At the palace I begin the steady climb up the still-cool track and past the small cairns of rocks and stones that remind me of secular chortens -- the kind that seem to spring up wherever someone adds a second cairn, and so a tradition begins -- until, almost at the point where the track forks, I look up and see a chukar.

A second bird appears. Carefully I retrieve the binoculars and admire the pair -- their beige, rock-and-dust-coloured bodies and black markings with vivid red bills and legs, their typical game bird shape. They make their way along the ridge in clear view, drop out of sight on the far side, reappear, and pose against the backdrop of the mountains and blue morning sky with prayer flags fluttering overhead. When they again drop out of sight I follow with the telephoto lens mounted, but they've gone now and I catch no further sight of them, as if they've become the rocks they resemble so closely, as if saying this is enough, a photograph another time perhaps.

As I sit at the knoll, still thinking of the delight of seeing the chukar and of being here before anyone else, a small falcon comes speeding across the mountainside. When close, it spreads its tail and begins to circle, gaining height, moving closer, until finally it flies right overhead. A kestrel. Through the binoculars I can see the patterns, the colours, the details, and the intensity of this small, beautiful predator. The sun shines through its wings and tail and they glow as if illuminated by the energy of the bird itself.

Through cool shade and burning sunlight I make my way back down the track towards the Old Town, from where the smell of bread baking in tandoor ovens hundreds of years old drifts up the mountainside. The dust of Ladakh lies on my shoes, the memory of birds lingers in my heart.

The minibus that will take me away from this place will leave at one in the morning; I must report at half past midnight. Jameel and Saira insist I eat with them on this last evening, and they stay up until midnight until I have to step out the door for the last time. They hug me, and Saira gives me a long, lithe poplar stick to fend off the night dogs. Leaving this place, leaving Leh, is like leaving home, but harder -- the thought of home always contains the idea that maybe, one day at last, we will return. Now, though, I step out feeling close to undone by my time here and still not fully understanding why. I cannot leave Leh but do not know how to come back.

All these emotions. I walk on into the night with the promise of more journeying ahead. My life has been enriched immensely during these two, too-short weeks, but the present has now become the past. Somehow I must learn to let go, and to do so without diminishing the gift.

I walk on, stepping through the moon shadows, watching for dogs, listening to the knock of my poplar pole on the stony path, and wondering whether I will always be beset by the restlessness that hopes that at last it might find what it did not know it was looking for.

1. '… the books of Jim Corbett …': Corbett, in whose honour Corbett National Park is named, was famous first for shooting numerous man-eating tigers and leopards in the region now known as Uttarakhand; later he was a vocal proponent for conservation in India. His first major book, Man-eaters of Kumaon, was published in 1944. 
2. 'Men and women come and go …': a reference to a whakatauki (loosely, a Maori saying), one version of which is ' Whatungarongaro te tangata toitÅ« te whenua: People perish; the land remains'.
3. 'The thought of home …': 'He who returns,' Neruda said, 'has never left.' 

1. Getting closer to Leh on the second day of travel from Manali.
2. This tandoor bakery is reputedly 600-700 years old.
3. Dog-skull fetish, Leh Old Town.
4. Leh gompa.
5. Old town door, Leh.
6. Last light behind Leh, from the prayer flag knoll.
7. Chukar calling at Rumbak.
8. Early morning, Leh. A water carrier wheels his empty load back up the hill. On the the way down, that load will weigh the better part of a couple of hundred kilos, over 160 of those in the 44-gallon drum alone. I asked one of the men how often he did this each day. 15 times, he said.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor