27 June 2021

The weather and Brian Doyle


The weather arrived at a quarter to three as I was reclining on the couch reading Brian Doyle’s excellent collection of Brian Doyle essays, Reading In Bed, with the new electric heated throw wrapped over my body from the waist down and my upper body encased in my best largest puffiest down jacket (the Mont Bell) so if anything had been watching I must have looked like a giant grub or chrysalis, but nothing sentient enough to make that comparison was around to watch so I was safe from those kinds of uncomplimentary judgements. But boy, that weather wasn’t holding back. The rain pounded down so hard it sounded like hail, and darkness moved over the face of the land so if I hadn’t been reading on my Kindle I’d have muttered, ‘God, let there be light’ respectfully like a prayer not blasphemously, and would have had to metamorphose into adult form, crawling out of my electric heated throw cocoon to get to a light switch. Fortunately, I had plenty of charge left in the Kindle and I’d adjusted the brightness and font size so I could ignore the rain and keep reading, which is all anyone reading Brian Doyle essays or books or anything else by Brian Doyle ever wants to do. By the time I finished the book the rain had given up trying to discombobulate me or stimulate a premature metamorphosis and had settled into a quieter sulking steady rhythm that I took to be respect for Brian Doyle’s writing, and when I finally closed the cover on the Kindle I noticed the rain had stopped. So it should.

It came back later for another attempt but I was impervious and laughed at it and enjoyed the sound of its tantrum on the roof, and again it exhausted itself and gave up. In the battle of the weather versus Brian Doyle and me, we won by a loooong way. At least for the moment, though, because the weather has now called up a vicious bitterly cold violent hissy fit from the deep Southern Ocean and if the forecasters are to be believed, that evil blast should get here tomorrow night. I’m prepared, though: I have plenty of charge still left in the Kindle and Haruki Murakami’s latest collection of short stories, First Person Singular, to read. I just have to resist the temptation to read it all tonight, which might be a problem because his books are soooo good, which makes me wonder: how can two writers so different in style as Brian Doyle and Haruki Murakami be so wonderful and weather-resistant?


Photo: Evening rain moving up the valley earlier this year

Photos and original text © 2021 Pete McGregor

01 April 2021

That thing about birds


What is it that you love about birds? What’s at the root of the thrill you get when something as apparently ordinary as a sparrow sits on your verandah railing, puffed up against the cold, with a spatter of drizzly raindrops sparkling and gleaming diamond-like on the feathers of its back, and it doesn’t bother to fly off when you walk past the window? Or, when you watch a magpie swoop in fast and streamlined, a white-and-black bullet, low over the paddock then suddenly tilt and arc around and flare its wings and stop in mid-air to lower itself onto the ground, the sheer class and cheek of it a delight you can almost feel physically, as if for a moment you inhabited the bird’s body and felt the rush of air and the forces twisting your wings as you bent the low sky to your will? For a moment, you left your own body and lived in the air with a command and sheer gall you yourself, you slow and awkward lump of mammal fixed to the ground with your fear of falling, never had and never will. No flying bird ever feared falling. How could it? A fish might as well fear water.

Naturally, your pedant’s mind reminds you not all birds fly. But big deal — you love them nevertheless. That pheasant rooster you saw this morning just below the Raumai Hill could have flown if it felt the need, but it didn’t — didn’t fly, didn’t feel the need — and you didn’t love it any the less because it stayed earth-bound, strutting and peering, a little anxious perhaps, but not prepared to waste energy flying. Perhaps it knew you were no threat. Perhaps it sensed you just wanted to admire, on the verge of gasping, anything that could be so spectacular; perhaps it sensed your twinge of envy, your awareness of your own drab and heavy form.

Perhaps you love the insouciance of so many birds, too — the way they just go about their lives not caring about you and your kind even when you might be a danger or a benefit. Those crows among the filth in India, for example — just going about their business, fossicking for the delicious among the unspeakable; they know you’re there, but they ignore you until you’re one step too close, and then they’re gone. A few flaps of those strong, shining wings and they’re above you — you’re beneath them and they’re looking down on you — and when you’re a few steps further on they’re back down to earth, getting on with their day.

You’re a minor nuisance but they’re not bothered. They do what they’re doing. When they’re feeding they’re feeding; when they’re fighting they’re fighting; when they’re mobbing a threat — a cat, an owl, you — they give it all they’ve got. Then they go somewhere else and do something else.

They know how to concentrate, those birds. Watch a heron stalking, or a kingfisher posted on a power line, watching the paddock, or a godwit probing the estuary, and you know you know nothing about focus. You’re a mess of distractions — even when you think you’re writing well, you’re … ooh, hey, look at that rain, how will I get back to the car without getting soaked? … that guy in the brown coat and trendy hair looks familiar, … and so on. Could you focus for an hour on picking worms out of estuarine mud? I bet not.

But here’s your pedant’s mind again, telling you birds aren’t really like that — they can’t be like that, surely? Even when they’re stalking bullies in the shallows, or crabs on the coast, or lizards on the rocks, they’re alert for threats — that cat again, or the owl, or you, or the shadow overhead — and maybe they can use different parts of their bird brains more independently than us. Some, like godwits, can sleep on the wing, switching half the brain off while the other half carries on allowing their wings to carry them on that immense journey from Alaska to New Zealand, eleven thousand kilometres, non-stop.

Try sending half your brain to sleep on your drive home and see how far you get.

You don’t envy birds, though. You love them — among so many other reasons, only a few of which you can identify — because they’re so much more competent than you, yet most of the time they don’t bother rubbing it in the way we would if we were more competent than them. There’s no malice in their superiority — it’s just a fact to them, and they’d probably try to cheer you up if they thought you envied them. You, in turn, only envy them in a good, respectful way, the way you wish you were as wonderful as someone you love.

And maybe that’s exactly why you love birds, but you really don’t know.


Photos

1. Ring-necked pheasant, Pohangina Valley

2. Miromiro (North Island tomtit), No. 1 Line track, Pohangina Valley

Photos and original text © 2021 Pete McGregor

19 October 2020

The Gardener




My recollection of her is faint, which is to be expected because it was a long time ago and I haven’t thought about her in years. Possibly decades. I don’t know why I’ve started thinking about her recently. Perhaps it was the dream, a strange one, like all dreams, that I had a while ago, alone in a mountain hut (Why there? I have to ask) and which left me unsettled and also thinking perhaps I could write a short story about this. But the difficulty is how much to stay true to what I remember (which might be unreliable anyway) and how much I should feel free to make up, or at least extrapolate. The other difficulty is that I don’t know what the story means. A story has to have a point, after all, doesn’t it? Maybe it doesn’t, or maybe the point, the meaning, is something that arrives after the story has been written, and maybe the reader sees the meaning better than the writer? But, having pointed to the story’s existence, I suppose I now have to relate it.



Every day after school I’d get off the bus opposite the Moa Bone cave and walk home around the edge of the Bay — roughly half a mile, a few houses on my left, on my right the road and just to the right of that the stink of mud and rotting sea lettuce if the tide was out or, if it was in, glittering water where the glass shrimps crept and nibbled among the rusting rubbish. Then the abandoned quarry on my left and the road and gravel dumps and waste land on my right, and eventually our road and the ominous row of old trees behind which drinking and other immoral acts sometimes occurred after dark on Fridays and Saturdays and occasionally at other times too. Sometimes when I walked past, a car would be parked there, well back from the road, and I walked past quickly, not looking.

Hers was the last house I passed, not long before the quarry. I often thought the garden was wonderful, crowded with trees and shrubs so it resembled a small forest, and I liked the house, too, mostly because the main part was raised above a garage and what I guessed must have been the laundry and maybe some storage areas. From the upper part of the house she must have been able to look out over the bay and see the water and the birds and probably no other houses except so far away they didn’t matter. She’d see the Causeway with all its traffic, of course, but that was inevitable: nothing to be done about that.

Once I mentioned to my mother that I really liked the woman’s garden. She looked at me, and eventually she said, ‘She’s got too much planted. It’s too crowded.’

She looked away, and then she said, ‘She’s there all on her own.’



One day I was walking home and as I approached the entrance to her property — a gap in the bulk of foliage — I saw her working, snipping with secateurs at a shrub. I think it was a Pittosporum, but that doesn’t matter, except I like Pittosporums because they’re endemic and their foliage is nice and P. tenuifolium (kohuhu; black matipo) has the most beautiful and powerful scent of any plant I know, and the flowers are small and dark so you’d never notice them if the scent didn’t say ‘Check me out’.

She smiled at me and said hello and I said hello.

She asked how my day had been and remarked on my bag, which she supposed must have been very heavy, presumably because it was full of books.

‘Yes. Lots of homework.’

I never found out what kind of work she did, and I don’t know if my mother knew.

She asked if I liked reading, and I said yes, and she asked what kind of books I liked reading.

‘Lots of things, but I particularly like reading about mountains.’

‘Oh,’ she said, and something changed, like the conversation wasn’t just casual anymore.

‘Some books arrived today’ she said. ‘I’ve been looking for them for a while and found them in a bookseller’s catalogue. I’m delighted with them. One’s John Pascoe’s Mr Explorer Douglas. Have you heard of him?’

I had. I knew of Pascoe and even had one of his books, Exploration New Zealand, which I’d won as a prize at school. I’d heard of Charlie Douglas, too.

‘Would you like to see it?’ she said.

We’d been warned about talking to strangers, never getting into cars with someone we didn’t know, that sort of thing. But she wasn’t really a stranger, and maybe it wouldn’t be polite to refuse, and I wanted to see Pascoe’s famous book.


She led me inside, and I took my shoes off at the door because we’d been taught it was the proper thing to do, and her house was so clean and tidy I’d have been uncomfortable walking through it with shoes on. I have only a vague recollection of the large lounge — dim despite the large windows, but perhaps the trees outside kept the light out. As I’d guessed, the main window looked out to the entranceway and across the road to a strip of bay and the causeway with its incessant traffic. I suppose when the light was right she could look right across to the foothills of the Southern Alps. I most clearly remember two books sitting on a dark wooden table. She stood next to them, her arms by her side as if she’d been trained how to stand for formal occasions like public speaking. She smiled again and looked down at the books and picked up the one on top and ran her hand gently over the cover, the way you’d stroke something fragile or desired, even longed for, and she opened it carefully and turned a few pages. She turned them carefully, from the corners, the way I’d been taught to respect books.

‘Would you like to look at it?’ she said, and she held it out for me.

I took the book from her, gently, and turned some pages in the same careful way, hoping she’d notice my respect. I couldn’t say much, though, because it was all text and I didn’t want to flick through it looking for photos.

‘It’s in very good condition,’ I said.

‘Yes. I was very lucky. It’s out of print. Hard to find, and good copies are rare.’

We were both unsure what else to say.


I don’t remember much more — a vague recollection that she might have offered me a biscuit or even a cup of tea, but memories are constructed rather than recalled and are therefore unreliable. If she did offer me anything, I declined politely. I had to get home in case my mother worried. She nodded and let me go.


Later — possibly weeks or months — my mother told me someone had remarked on how well I spoke and how I always looked so neat and well dressed in my school uniform. This surprised me because I didn’t think I spoke particularly well, often loosened my tie and let my socks slip down, and wasn’t sure I wanted to be known for proper speech and tidy presentation anyway. I was at the stage when fitting in was more important. She wouldn’t tell me who the person was, though, and when I asked, she said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I just wanted you to know.’

I could tell she was pleased that my good speech and neatness had been noticed, but I often wondered whether the remark had come from the woman with the garden and the books, and I wondered what my mother knew about her. The time for finding out has gone, though. I have so many questions, but none of them are clear; they’re vague wonderings that I can’t bring myself to pin down. Maybe that’s for the best.

 





Photos:

1. Kotare (New Zealand kingfisher; Todiramphus sanctus), common around the Bay. I photographed this in the Pohangina Valley just a few days ago.

2 & 3. White-faced heron (matuku moana; Egretta novaehollandiae), another common inhabitant of the Bay. I photographed these roughly a decade ago at Flounder Bay on the east coast of the North Island.


Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

24 September 2020

The magpie


I'd been sitting at the kitchen table marking assignments and wearing out my brain, so late in the morning I slung the camera over my shoulder and strolled down the driveway. At the bend I headed towards the letterbox and, as I neared the water trough in the corner of the orchard paddock, a magpie took to the air. It flew awkwardly and I had the impression it was a young bird, although September seems early. I stopped and watched it fly into the big tarata, where it scrabbled briefly before settling on a branch. I took the camera off my shoulder, and as I did so the magpie toppled backwards and hung by its feet from the branch, upside down, wings outstretched. I photographed it, twice, as it hung there.
And then it just dropped. Like the proverbial stone. I heard it hit the ground, and I stood there, waiting for it to get up, but it didn’t. Finally, I walked over and saw it lying on its back, perfectly still. I thought maybe it was playing dead. Maybe this was some kind of defensive behaviour? Magpies are complex and interesting birds, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen this kind of unusual behaviour.
The bird lay on its back, just out of reach beyond the wire fence and I didn’t want to try because that would achieve nothing except further stressing it. I watched it for a minute or so, beginning to feel concerned, and then decided the best thing I could do would be to leave it alone to recover. I’d heard another magpie squawk when the young bird first flew across the drive, but since then I’d neither seen nor heard any adult bird. 
I walked to the letterbox, checked the mail, and on the way back checked the magpie.
It still lay on its back in exactly the same position, and I saw its eye had begun to cloud over. No question now: it was dead.
I have no idea what happened and felt terrible. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was in some way responsible, even though I knew I wasn’t. But what I felt wasn’t important; what mattered was that a living, complex, wonderful bird had gone from being aware and conscious to being an inanimate collection of feathers and bone and muscle and blood. And a brain that had ceased to function, a mind no longer aware. 



Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

10 September 2020

The Hermit Marshes


The day after the deluge, I saw the aftermath — how the rough paddock beside the railway line had turned into a small marsh, the water shining like polished zinc in the quiet morning light, the low rushes reminding me of the places I found so fascinating and wonderful as a child and still do. The small marshy paddock reminded me of places I’ve never seen but want to go — places where wizened sages live solitary lives in small huts and spend their days listening to the thin cries of strange birds, fishing for eels and catfish that taste mostly of mud, watching the trickle of smoke from the small fire rise into the low damp sky, drinking tea from small cracked cups with a patina accumulated year after year after year, at night watching the moon and eating their meagre meals of rice and vegetables and mud-fish, and just sitting there motionless so anyone seeing them would think they were meditating and therefore must be wise and enlightened. But really, they just sit there.

I want to see those places and I don’t even know if they still exist. Most have probably been drained and turned into productive land. ‘Productive’ — I detest that word. To me, it connotes the taking of something beautiful and wondrous and mysterious and removing those qualities so the thing becomes merely useful. It’s like seeing a gorgeous pheasant dustbathing in sunlight in a little clearing in a small stand of scrub in a forgotten corner of a farm and seeing only a meal’s worth of pheasant meat. Productivity would argue for clearing the scrub to grow ryegrass and white clover and get one more stock unit’s worth of grazing, which of course would produce more meat than a stringy old pheasant. This, apparently, would be making good use of the land. 

‘Productivity’ values quantity over quality, and in that contest between quantity and quality, quantity will always win because by its very nature it’s easy to measure; quality, on the other hand, is far harder — and often impossible — to measure.


So, I wonder whether, or to what extent, those exquisite, unknown, lonely places still survive. Probably they don't, but I’d like to go there anyway, but now the world is out of bounds. Maybe these words, or someone else’s better words, are the only way to do that now.

I drove on past the idea of marshes and thought about why travelling, meaning the movement, the actual going from place to place, seems so appealing. I love sitting in a bus, going somewhere, and I’d be happy sitting in a bus as long as the bus was in motion, going somewhere. While I’m on that bus I can’t attend to important matters — productive tasks, that is. I can’t work in any reasonable sense; I can’t read (at least not for more than a few seconds); I can’t do anything productive in the usual sense of that awful word. For a few hours I’m free from the demands of the world.

Maybe that’s why I sometimes prefer buses over trains — on a train writing is almost possible, so I think maybe I should be writing. On the kind of trains where you sit stealing glances across a small, cold, shiny table at the person sitting facing you (who you sense is also stealing glances at you), writing would be perfectly possible if I decided to open a laptop or tablet, but buses don’t offer that option. Handwriting's even harder — far harder. The best I can do is jot a quick, short note or two when the train or bus stops, or scrawl, usually illegibly, when it's moving. The Traveler’s Notebook I carry everywhere carries a record of my travels not just in what I've written but in how it's written — when I browse through it and come across what appears to be written in Urdu (which I neither write nor understand), I know I was on a train or bus. I've seen people jot notes by hand in a moving bus, but I haven’t developed that skill and have no idea how they manage it.

But it’s irrelevant anyway, because mostly I don’t want to write on a bus or train or aeroplane because I have more important things to do, like nothing, or looking out the window at the place I’m passing through and letting my mind wander. The importance of these inactivities cannot be overestimated. For me, time travelling is time out.

Having said that, I’ll now point out I have written in aeroplanes. While they still seem like time out for me and I'd furiously resent having to work on a plane, they’re usually so smooth it’s easy to write by hand in the Traveler’s Notebook or the big Moleskine cahier on the fold-out tray table. Even that has shortcomings, though, because the person in the adjacent seat (on both sides if I’m unlucky) will inevitably want to sneak a look at what I’m writing, and even if I’d otherwise be happy to share the writing, the knowledge that someone might be surreptitiously reading constrains my writing; in fact, sometimes all I can find to write about is the awkwardness of writing about someone sneaking a look at what I’m writing, which of course makes it impossible to write.


Nevertheless, I can sometimes write while in motion, moving from place to place. Last summer I managed several times to write extensively in the Traveler’s Notebook while flying — for example, on the final flight from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi, when I glimpsed, far below between white clouds, the Andaman Islands and longed to be there and knew I never would; or between bouts of gazing out the window at the Himalaya while returning from Kathmandu to Delhi, the giants breaking through ragged cloud, gleaming with snow, their shoulders patterned with bare dark and yellow rock. I recognised the Annapurna massif, could see the Sanctuary in deep shadow, saw Machapuchare; I looked along the Kali Gandaki towards Dolpo and Shey and thought inevitably of Matthiessen and Schaller, of Tukten and the others and their journey. Somewhere where I was gazing, snow leopards were roaming, hunting, living solitary lives on the edge of the possible. If I had unlimited means, I thought, I’d do the trek all the way to Shey to see it with my own eyes and understand better what Matthiessen saw and felt. I scribbled notes and looked back out the window. The mountains went on forever, lower now but still magical. I looked down and realised we must by now be flying over Bardia. Already, that time seemed distant. The plane banked slightly and shadow slid along the wing and the snows of the Himalaya drew further away. Now I recognised the distinctive forms of Trisul and Nanda Devi — we were passing over Kausani and were back in India.

I read those notes now and the ache for India returns, and that raises the paradox I don’t understand: I long for teeming India yet also long for places like the existentially lonely, hermit-haunted marshes, which I find impossible to imagine still exist in India — if anything remotely like those marshes does exist, the fish will not only taste of mud but will probably be dense with heavy metals, litter will line the waterways, goats will gnaw the rushes, and someone not more than a hundred or so metres away will snap small branches from dry shrubs for firewood.

I don't want to think about that, though. I might be wrong and hope I am. And even if I never see the hermit marshes, I want to know they still exist; I want to know that in some almost-forgotten corner of an out-of-the-way part of this old, overwrought world, some small silent sage still sips his tea as he listens to the wind in the reeds and the thin cries of unseen birds.




Photos (all from November 2019 ‒ January 2020, before the world changed).

1. Egret at Bharatpur, India

2. Plain Prinia at Bardia, Nepal

3. Trisul from Kausani, India

4. White wagtail at Bardia, Nepal

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

05 August 2020

Verandah thoughts


Towards dusk I sat on the verandah drinking tea and listening to the silence and the drip of rainwater from the evening’s drizzle. The meagre runoff from the roof sounded curiously like an animal cropping grass; so much so, in fact, that I eventually stood and peered over the verandah railing in the illogical attempt to see if I could spot the miniature sheep, the one that didn’t and couldn’t exist, ripping at the grass. Of course, when I looked, it had a moment earlier stopped eating and returned to the realm of the impossible. Two indisputably real magpies prowled the middle of the far side of the paddock in front of the house, and I hoped a rabbit might appear but it didn’t. I had to admit I was spoiled; I was expecting too much, too many animal sightings. Earlier in the evening I’d seen a rabbit sprinting for cover across the damp back paddock, and at nine o’clock this morning I’d studied a pipiwharauroa at close range through the binoculars. The green iridescence of its plumage delighted me, even though the bird looked a little scruffy, as if a summer’s worth of parasitising the nests of other birds had left it worn out and under-appreciated. I guess ruining the reproductive potential of others isn’t as easy as it sounds.

   Yesterday evening I’d seen a big, reddish-brown hare wiping its ears clean on the back hill, and the evening before that — the evening of my first full day back in the valley after two-and-a-half months in India — I saw a family of pheasants hanging out with a very large rabbit, possibly the Lizzo of rabbits, right at the back of the farm near the fence that marked the boundary between the neatly shorn paddocks and the ungrazed, wild, long-grassed slip with its long-fallen pines. The windfall is almost hidden now by the long dry grass — just a few branches rising up like the snake-necked heads of sea monsters. I’ve seen wild deer feeding there, just a few metres from the fence, and that’s a sight that beats all but the very best of Attenborough’s documentaries.

   Now though, as I sat in the dusk drinking tea and waiting for animals, I was thinking about a documentary I’d just finished watching: H is For Hawk — A New Chapter. Presented by the original book’s author, Helen Macdonald, the film follows her as she trains a new goshawk, ten years after the events of the book. I was watching the documentary On Demand, so the picture quality wasn’t great, but I loved the film nevertheless. It seemed so wonderfully detached from the twenty-first century, from what we think of as contemporary society: nothing about politics, nothing about social media, nothing about economics, almost nothing about technology (even the tiny transmitter attached to the bird had a steam-punk look). Yet the characters, human and bird, as well as her narration, conveyed a sense of something not just arcane but profound, of deep knowledge and understanding, of working with something rather than on it. Something wonderful was happening, and it was focused on a bird that was beautiful and wild and more than a little mysterious. To live with a bird like that required love and understanding and acceptance as well as enormous patience and commitment, none of those at a superficial level. I’m tempted to say there’s a moral there — that the world would be a far better place if we treated not just goshawks but each other with love and understanding and acceptance as well as enormous patience and commitment — and that’s surely indisputable. But that would be missing the most important point. This film wasn’t about trying to find lessons to apply to human interactions. It was about a process and a result which in ‘practical’ terms are mystifyingly useless and in terms that actually matter are priceless.


Notes: 
1. I wrote this in February, a few weeks after returning from India and Nepal and before the world changed, but to me it still seems relevant.

Photo: Not a goshawk. A karearea (New Zealand falcon) that came to check me out on the No. 1 Line track a few days after we moved out of Level 4 lockdown.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

09 April 2020

The Birds of Udaipur

Another post from my last journey in India and Nepal. A reminder, perhaps, that life wasn't always about social distancing and being locked down and fearing the sound of a cough. A reminder, too, that one day we may be able to enjoy times like these once more. Stay safe, my friends.

Udaipur, Friday 20 December 2019

No mosquito bites last night. No Bank mynas this morning, either. I’d crossed the Daiji footbridge to investigate The Little Prince restaurant for breakfast but the prices in the menu scared me off. The walk wasn’t wasted, though. Apart from confirming the absence of mynas, I received a lovely, appealing look from a dog with gentle eyes; it was curled up by the swing gate and looked at me with such hope that I almost bent to pat it. No doubt it would have preferred food.
   But food wasn't on the minds of the two wire-tailed swallows preening on the power lines next to the bridge. I photographed them and considered it partial compensation for the missing mynas. I tried to remember whether I’d seen Bank mynas in Bhuj or Jamnagar but couldn’t. Was my memory failing? On the train from Bundi I’d suddenly realised I’d been thinking I was a year older than I actually was. I’d wondered why the train ticket stated my age wrong and felt like an idiot when I realised it was right and I was the one who’d been wrong. How could that happen? Was it a good thing? Perhaps forgetting my age was an indication that it was becoming less important for me? I wanted to believe my reasoning but couldn’t; it was just another rationalisation.
   I walked back to Satori for breakfast, but the low seating wasn’t suitable for serious writing and I wasn’t prepared to perch at the counter along the front window. Last night’s premature conclusions about the price of food and suitability of cafés for writing were rapidly being shot down. After breakfast I explored the alleys on the far side of the footbridge but found no Bank mynas, just pigeons, a couple of stilts standing offshore on a submerged platform along with a solitary pond heron, and a crowd of Indian tourists being photographed and videoed by Indian men with large zoom lenses and assistants wielding reflectors. Not wishing to end up as an extra in someone’s honeymoon video, I avoided the activity and made my way back to the Edelweiss for a flat white and some writing. An Indian couple occupied the mirror-work alcove. The lean young man dominated the conversation; she said little and, when she did, spoke quietly. When she turned, I noticed she had a full, dark beard.
   After they left, a young man with a tangle of curly hair and cut-off shorts slouched in, looked around, and commandeered a table in the morning sun, slumping back in his chair and fiddling with his phone. He looked Middle Eastern,possibly Israeli, but, having been wrong too often, I was cautious about making that assumption. A hesitant foreign woman in her twenties came and sat on the bench seat at the back but immediately stood up and looked at the restaurant menu on the wall. I was about to suggest the café menu was on the counter next door when one of the staff appeared and took her through to inspect it. Meanwhile, the man in ragged shorts had lit up, and although he blew his smoke out into the street, it drifted back and filled the café. I closed the cahier, packed it away with my pens and left, feeling unreasonably grumpy. He’d at least tried to be considerate and keep his smoke out of the café, but the outcome had been the same as if he hadn’t bothered. My lungs were already taking a beating from Udaipur’s filthy air, which at times was worse than the smog I’d breathed in Delhi. The problem in Udaipur was two-fold: many of the rickshaws ran on diesel and poured dense clouds of black smoke from their exhausts (in Delhi, they’re mostly CNG, with a few electric); and the narrow, ravine-like streets prevented the fumes from dissipating rapidly. Those narrow streets also made the ear-splitting motorbike horns literally painful. Often, after a particularly painful encounter, I found my hearing muffled for several seconds.

I ate lunch on the Namaste’s third floor, a quiet, comfortable place with a glimpse of the lake. The fare looked limited but they had good multigrain rolls and cinnamon rolls. I didn’t want yet another coffee so had a lemon soda, which, when I tried it, was exactly what I wanted. I drank it slowly as I wrote, and although I'd exhausted my will to write,  I’d have been happy staying a little longer.
   But a woman had taken the table behind me and had lit a cigarette. She must have guessed.
   ‘I’m sorry,’ she said as I stood to go, ‘is the smoke bothering you?’
   She held her cigarette as far away as possible and low down. Suddenly I wanted to forgive her; I appreciated her awareness.
   ‘I should have asked,’ she said. ‘I can move …’ and she started to get up.
   I reassured her, said I’d finished and was leaving anyway and thanked her for checking. The bill was reasonable for Udaipur, and I thought this would be a good place to while away the hours the next day while I waited for the evening bus to Bhuj.
   Later in the morning I’d walked across the second bridge, the Chandpole Bridge, to continue exploring the far bank. As I approached the far end of the bridge, I began to remember the place. Several birds — not pigeons — fidgeted on ledges high above the road. The sight delighted me: Bank mynas! I’d been looking in the wrong place, on the wrong bridge. I didn’t have the big lens, just the 12-40mm, and they were too high up for good photographs, but now I knew where they were, and I’d return early the next morning. I love these birds.
...
I walked to the Lotus for dinner but found it still closed. A man saw me and came over to explain that ‘something had happened in the family’. The owner’s uncle, he said, and assured me the café would be open in the morning. I walked down the road to the Raj Palace, which I was sure I remembered, and had excellent malai kofta — the flavour of the potato skins nicely discernible amid the well-judged spices — with plain rice (hot, not tepid!) and a Kingfisher. An obese pug snuffled around my feet, found me of no interest despite my affectionate pat, and staggered off. Someone had fired up a brazier. A young woman with a backpack seated herself next to an older man who looked like Carl Jung and Gandhi, and they sat quietly watching the flames. Udaipur, I thought, might not have the charm of Bundi, but it still had a lot to offer.
...
I’d eaten enough. I’d bought the bus ticket. I’d walked a long way, and I’d found the Bank mynas. Now, worn out, I returned to my room, stopping only to buy ridiculously cheap ibuprofen. I slept. In the evening I sat on the rooftop and watched the light fade. The sky was full of pigeons and luminous mare’s tails, both going in all directions. On a nearby rooftop, a sleek cat crept over some black plastic water tanks, jumped down out of sight, and reappeared at the top of the steps leading down into the building. It paused, then in a few quick steps dropped down and was gone. On the peak of the highest tower nearby, a small falcon looked down at the cat’s rooftop. I had no binoculars and no camera. A lone egret and a black kite flew past. In a city seething with people, the abundance of other lives sometimes startled me. Earlier in the day, as I'd stepped off the Daiji footbridge, a small rat had scrabbled desperately up some vertical, crumbling brickwork, the mortar disintegrating beneath its tiny paws. I was sure the little animal would fall, but it made it to the safety of a hole and vanished, showering dust and mortar as it fled. I almost cheered.
   Later, the rooftop cat returned, reversing its route. I sat in the mild evening, thinking about the feel of a cat’s fur. The cat was only about twenty metres away, but between us lay a five-storey canyon and generations of caution. I wanted it to cross those barriers and curl up on my lap, purring while I stroked it, but some things are not possible.

Udaipur, Saturday 21 December 2019

I love mynas, and Bank mynas especially. Not finding them in Udaipur had depressed me a little, although I’d consoled myself with the thought that I was only halfway through my journey and the likelihood of encountering Bank mynas somewhere was still high. But, yesterday, when I'd finally found them, my heart lifted. Just seeing them was almost enough, but this morning I made an earlier than usual start and walked across the Chandpole Bridge. Pigeons, crows, and a handful of Bank mynas were feeding. I stayed at a distance and photographed — mostly the mynas, with a few House crow portraits. A man walked along the footpath, placing a handful of food on the parapet for the birds, throwing another handful into the water for the fishes. He didn’t stop to watch, just moved on without fuss, as if this was simply something he did every morning.
   ‘Good morning,’ he said to me and carried on.
 
I’d seen this in other places in India and liked it, the way I liked seeing people feeding ducks at local parks in New Zealand even though I knew it wasn’t good for the ducks. The action reminded me that most people still respond well to animals. Questions about whether feeding ‘wild’ animals is good, and whether habituated animals should even be considered ‘wild’ are other issues. Things can be good and bad at the same time, and to insist that something’s one or the other is to take a naïve and simplistic view. This, however, is not the same as taking an intermediate, neither-this-nor-that position on an issue. I love mynas and stoats but I also accept they have devastating effects on New Zealand’s native fauna (I’m talking about Common mynas, not Bank mynas, which were not introduced to New Zealand). My views on these species are strong, both positive and negative, and I can’t think of anything about either species on which my opinion is lukewarm.
...
   I packed and checked out of the Nandini, leaving the Shuttle bag there for the day. Next to the three large packs left by other guests, mine looked pleasingly small and manageable. The owner of the Nandini made me a cup of chai, I paid my very reasonable bill and walked to the Edelweiss for apple pie. I didn’t order coffee but a flat white arrived anyway, and I felt mildly flattered that I’d been not only recognised but remembered. A young couple, possibly Israeli, occupied the alcove; an older woman, European I think, sat on the bench seat at the back; and the man who’d been there every morning sat at a table near the road, checking his phone. He looked very much like the Swedish man I’d met on my trek in Ladakh in 2014: the man who'd arrived near our homestay and had camped by the river, spending hours frying potatoes over a fire to eat the next day and sleeping in preparation for his unguided trek over a pass.
   Eventually, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. I paid my bill and went over to him. He was still studying his phone, but as soon as he looked up I knew he wasn’t the crazy Swede.
   ‘Do you mind if I ask where you’re from?’ I said.
   ‘I’m from France.’
   I explained how he looked like someone I’d met in Ladakh in 2014, and we talked for a while. His name was George; he’d been travelling in India for two months, mostly in places further south where I hadn’t been.
   ‘How much longer do you have in India?’ I said.
   ‘I leave today. I fly to Mumbai, then home.’
   I thought how, if I hadn’t spoken to him then, I’d have forever wondered whether he was the Swedish nut-job from Ladakh. An auto-rickshaw roared past while I was in the middle of a sentence and George shook his head and pointed to his ear. I rolled my eyes in empathy and waited until the din subsided, but just as I started speaking again, another rickshaw howled past. We both laughed.
   ‘It’s part of travelling in India,’ I said.
   He nodded, adding, ‘My hearing, it’s not as good as two months ago, I think.’
   I could identify with that. On this trip so far, Udaipur had hurt my hearing more regularly than anywhere else, including Delhi, and although there was much I’d miss about what was reputed to be the most romantic city in India, I wouldn’t miss having my hearing tortured and my respiratory tract poisoned by exhaust fumes.
   George appeared to have warmed to the conversation and I wondered whether, like me, travelling alone for long periods had helped him appreciate easy conversations. When I said goodbye, he thanked me and said perhaps we might run into each other again. It seemed unlikely if he was flying to Mumbai shortly, but repeatedly meeting travellers was, in my experience, not uncommon.

   That was confirmed shortly afterwards. I’d crossed the Daiji footbridge, intending to walk along the water’s edge to the Chandpole Bridge where the Bank mynas hung out, and as I passed in front of The Little Prince restaurant — ‘Recommended by Lonely Planet since 2017’, said the enormous billboard — l saw the middle-aged Korean couple from the Smyle in Delhi. The man called out a greeting. I walked over and we managed to exchange just enough words and phrases to be understood. We worked out that we must have arrived in Udaipur on the same day, and they, too were leaving today on a sleeper bus. They, however, were going in the opposite direction, to Agra. Later, I wondered whether I should visit Agra so I could say I’d been there and not visited the Taj Mahal, but that would be too perverse even for me.
   I took a seat at a table nearby and ordered green tea — eighty rupees for a cup of hot water with a Lipton’s tea bag. The Korean couple had ordered a huge plate of chicken thighs coated in Hoisin sauce. It looked delicious, but when the man offered me some, I declined as graciously as I could, having seen not only how chickens were butchered in India but also how they were raised. The offer warmed my heart, though, and despite our lack of a common language, the rapport felt genuine.
   I wondered how I’d spend the rest of the day. I had almost nine hours to kill and no desire to see famous sights. Sitting somewhere, watching the birds and people, thinking, not thinking, watching sunlight reflected from the lake rippling on the underside of the footbridge’s arches, and occasionally eating and drinking was good enough for me. I could see the Chirag’s rooftop restaurant across the water. It was shaded and had lots of plants, and I was sure I remembered eating there on my last visit to Udaipur. If it didn’t look as good when I got there, or if the menu turned out to be poor or expensive, I could always walk away and go elsewhere.
   If these were the most pressing decisions I had to make, I was surely one of the luckiest people around — certainly luckier than the man stripping to his underpants to wash his clothes in the lake on the far bank.

The Chirag’s rooftop restaurant: a nice view; comfortable (but the chairs are too low for the tables, even after I’ve shifted to a slightly taller one); an OK menu (but no multigrain rolls like the Namaste’s); the young woman at the table next to mine very beautiful, but she lights a cigarette just after I set up my pens and notebooks. I order a lemon soda and a cheese omelette. The soda’s very lemony and refreshing, the omelette, when it eventually arrives after a wait that makes me wonder if they’re making the cheese, is filling. From this high viewpoint I can see the Korean couple still at The Little Prince; presumably, like me, they’re killing time until they catch their sleeper bus to Agra. Shortly before my omelette arrives, I look across the water and see they’ve gone at last from their table; looking around, I recognise them making their way slowly across the Daiji footbridge. I watch until the woman follows her husband out of sight, and, as she does, I’m sure I’ll never see them again. Their disappearance is like a marker in the passage of time, a moment in my insignificant history.
   Three young people with British accents arrive and take a table on the other side of me. They, too, light cigarettes. One of the staff turns the stereo on — electronica; pounding, thumping bass. Conversation would be difficult if I had anyone to converse with. Below the rooftop on a streetlight, a pair of pigeons shag then preen. Perhaps they know of Udaipur’s reputation, and, as if to confirm it, they shag again, brazenly. The British trio are playing cards. Maybe they, too, are killing time. I glance across at the beautiful young woman and see she’s looking at me; she smiles, and I smile back and quickly look away.

   The sun had begun to slide in under the awning and I had to shift my chair back to avoid being cooked. The young woman got up to use the bathroom, and on the way back she stopped at my table.
   ‘Do you mind if I look at your pen?’ she said.
   ‘Please, feel free.’
   She picked it up and turned it around in her fingers but didn’t uncap it.
   ‘It is a Lamy?’ she said.
   ‘Yes.’
   She remarked on how you don’t see many fountain pens nowadays and how it’s unusual to see someone writing by hand. I told her I thought the mind thinks differently when you write by hand compared to typing. She asked if she might look at my writing.
   ‘I don’t want to read it,’ she said, ‘just look at it.’
   I thumbed through a few pages of the cahier for her and she made complimentary remarks.
   ‘These pens are good for drawing, for watercolours,’ she said.
   I replied that I didn’t sketch and asked if she did.
   ‘Yes, I do,’ she said, smiling.
   As she walked away I asked where she was from. She half-turned and, looking over her shoulder, gave me the kind of smile that unsettles old men.
   ‘I am French,’ she said, but I'd already guessed.




Photos: 
1 & 3. Bank mynas at the feeding station on the Chandpole Bridge
2. Crow at the feeding station. I love crows too. You can't tell me an eye like that isn't a portal to an intelligent mind.
4. Udaipur has plenty of wonderful sights, but not everything resembles the soulless beauty of the travel brochures. At the first guesthouse I stayed (which shall remain nameless), the view from the rooftop revealed another side of the city — an aspect I found just as appealing because of the possibilities it contained, the questions it raised, the stories it suggested. And langurs hung out here, too, which made it even more appealing.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor