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