31 August 2007

Bundi: Goblins and uneasy dreams

Inside the Taragarh fortSunday 25 February 2007
The honey man squats on the path with his scales in his hand. He puts the mostly empty jar on one pan, a few freshly collected rocks on the other, and tries several combinations of rocks until the pans balance. Then he spoons honey into the jar, adds an aged metal weight to the rocks and spoons a little more honey into the jar until the pans balance again. Using what's at hand to tare the jar—simple, efficient, and effective.


I sat in the pleasant shade under a tree at the Lake View restaurant. Earlier I'd been out on the sun-baked patio where I'd had a glass of lemon-honey-ginger and a barely edible veg rice—soggy and an evil khaki colour; full of bitter okra and flaccid cabbage. The gentle shade under the tree compensated a little for the foul food, and I tried to enjoy it. After all, I wouldn't be back.

But, if the Lake View's food resembled the view of the lake—a roughly similar bilious colour, the smell of decayGoats; Bundi, a mucilaginous consistency, and a substantial garnish of refuse, Bundi made amends with the best lassis in India. Thick and creamy, a blend of yoghurt, saffron, honey, pistachios, cardamom and sultanas, the Sathi lassis were the best food I had in Bundi.

I slept for about an hour in the afternoon then walked to the Taragarh fort and palace, where I explained I didn't want to visit the palace, just the fort. The man at the ticket office waved me on through.

The guide book describes it as “a 20-minute difficult climb”. A gross exaggeration, and the rewards were well worth the small exertion. Great views, of course, but more important for me was the solitude. During the entire time I spent there—the better part of a couple of hours—I saw no more than half a dozen people, all distant and unobtrusive. Old cannons lay around, rusting quietly, one pointing out over the city, another abandoned in a shelter splattered with graffiti scrawled and scratched in Hindi. Most of the stonework still stood as it must have when the fort was occupied, but here and there the structures had collapsed or been broken down. Dry, hard, thorny trees infested much of the enclosed area. Everything felt abandoned, on the verge of being forgotten.

As the light began to dim after sunset, I tried to find my way out. This was when I realised the complexity of the system of concentric battlements. I walked past several stepwells—eerie, deep structures, the water thick and green. A frog called from one, the sound echoing from the walls and water; in the dusk I saw the surface of the water pocked by the rings of hatching insects. Mosquitoes, probably. Shelters under the battlements filled up with night, their arched entranceways framing darkness, the home of uneasy dreams[1]. Goblin country. One might half expect to glimpse a small band to scuttle from the shadows and run, snarling and spitting, with a clink of mail and weapons, across the dusty ground to disappear along a path between the thorn bushes. Out of imagination, into the dark.

I climbed the battlements and looked out, trying to get my bearings. The telecoms tower marking the entrance to which cars can drive was only a short distance away but might as well have been in the Pohangina Valley. By now the light had faded substantially, and although the half moon would have enabled me to walk, even well after dark, I didn't relish the idea of stumbling around among the thorns and ruins, perhaps losing an eye to an inch-long spine or ending up floating, face down and stunned, at the bottom of a well. I decided to retrace my steps and return the way I'd entered, Rhesus; Bundiconfident that even if they'd locked the gates I'd be able to escape through one of the broken sections of wall I'd seen when I'd climbed to the fort earlier in the evening.

By the time I'd begun to negotiate the final section before entering the palace grounds, the last hint of daylight had almost vanished. I picked my way down the rough and rocky track by moonlight and intuition. A large troop of langurs lined the path, as if preparing to descend on the town; some sat on the walls, some in the trees—and some sat on the path. I kept walking steadily, hoping that by avoiding abrupt changes of pace or sudden movements I wouldn't startle them. They sat there, some ignoring me, others looking in my direction as if they could locate the sound of my approach but were unable to see what caused it. I walked through the troop. Some of the monkeys sat within arm's reach; I had to detour around one to avoid stepping on his long tail. In the twilight they could easily have been Kipling's goblins.

I left the langur troop behind and immediately encountered a large gang of rhesus monkeys. Again, the curious, apparently unconcerned behaviour. I picked my way carefully and steadily past. A small juvenile looked up at me, unafraid—if I'd lost my senses I could have reached down and patted it. I didn't. I kept walking. Behind me, one of the macaques spat; Rhesus juvenilehalf hiss, half expletive. Given their otherwise complete disregard for me, I guessed it was abusing another rhesus.

The gates had remained open and I walked back down the cobbled ramp into the town. I bought a bottle of water, and the man counted the coins and handed back the one rupee I'd inadvertently overpaid him.

In a moment of contrariness, I ordered a veg fried rice for dinner, thinking surely it couldn't be as bad as the version I'd had at the Lake View. The Parihar's was definitely better, lacking the okra and with chunks of potato, but it still had that peculiar Bundi character to it—slightly like the pervasive smell of the town itself; a smell like old vegetable scraps or boiled cabbage. The fried rice might, with imagination, have been identified as fried, but actually resembled risotto. I surprised myself by eating it all, but that might have been because I ate it without noticing what I was eating; I was enjoying the conversation with S, a woman from Perth in Scotland, who was waiting for her rickshaw to take her to the bus at 10 p.m. She was heading for Mt Abu, via Udaipur. Less than 24 hours ago I'd travelled by bus along that road between Bundi to Udaipur, and I didn't envy her. The ride had been rough, possibly the roughest since Uttaranchal, possibly as bad in places as all but the worst of the final section of the track to Kileswar. I don't believe I'm exaggerating much. I also realised I'd had only a couple of brief naps since doing that journey in the other direction. I said goodbye and good luck to her and returned to my room, where I slept comfortably all night.

Monday 26 February 2007
No one can give me the same information about a simple thing like getting a bus from Bundi to Sawai Madhopur. As far as I can gather, the best option is to go to Kota, then to Sawai Madhopur, but I'm unable to remember whether it's by train to Kota then bus to Sawai Madhopur or vice versa. The latter, I think[2]. A bus directly from Bundi to Sawai Madhopur takes about four hours, the Kota Bundioption just half that. Both seem to require early starts, but given how hot it is during the middle of the day, travelling in the morning seems like a good idea.

I explored the town—a little of it—in the morning, buying a couple of chiku, topping up the phone, photographing a couple of goats lying on the steps below a doorway, chatting with a man near the goats. At the Sathi I sat and enjoyed another lassi and a conversation with a man from Quebec. He looked to be in his 30s and said he was in Bundi for the fourth time, going on to Jaisalmer. He worked in Mumbai, spent about half the year in Tokyo and the other half in Montreal, and travelled extensively for his work. I asked him what he did.
“Photography,” he said.
Laurent now works freelance, having quit his agency. He asked about my work.
“Semi-retired,” I said, not sure how true it was. “Earning a small income from editing, and doing a lot of writing and photographing.”
He smiled when he heard that.
“I'll give you my card,” he said, and produced a simple, stylish card, explaining as he did so that his website wasn't yet functional. A pity, as I'd like to see more of his work—the photo forming one side of the card reminded me strongly of Bruce Connew's earlier work[3]. A strong composition; black-and-white with a good range of tones.
“It's in Nepal. That's me,” he said, pointing to the person swinging from a bamboo bar, framed against a dark sky.

Nepal. I wondered what I'd find there, how it would affect me.


Towards evening I visited the palace to explore, to find out what inhabited the uneasy dreams of men. Kipling's guess—that it was goblins—seemed close to the truth. Palace; BundiAgain, that air of abandonment, of humans as intruders, of a place around one of time's corners, made it easy to imagine goblins lived there, hiding away from the light in tunnels behind walls, in barricaded rooms, in secret attics. Waiting for the footfalls of humans to fade, the key to turn in the lock.

The surviving murals are fragile, so flash is prohibited; that constraint coupled with strong contrast between sunlight and shade made photography difficult. Not impossible, though, and I enjoyed it—the attempt to capture not so much what I saw, but what I felt. How do you photograph a goblin? Perhaps by photographing its environment.

I struck up a conversation with a German couple, slightly older than me; the only others wandering about the half-ruined grounds at the late hour. They'd visited India several times before, but this was their first time in Rajasthan. While they were enjoying it and finding people generally welcoming and friendly—hardly surprising, given their personalities—finding somewhere satisfactory to eat in Bundi had proved difficult. I wasn't surprised; with the exception of breakfasts at the Parihar and the Sathi lassis, the food had been at best mediocre. Anna wanted to try the restaurant at the Diamond Hotel, so we met again at 6:30 and walked there. The only other diners were the mice darting across the floor. Justus's dal fry and rice looked good and apparently tasted so; Anna's kashmiri pulao looked better than the pea-dominated semi-risotto I'd had for lunch; my dum aloo, Bus station, Bundiwhen it finally appeared (one of the waiters had seemingly mistaken my order for scrap paper), arrived swimming in oil. I ate the aloo (potato) and a few spoonfuls of greasy sauce. The chapatis were good though—almost like naan.

We exchanged email addresses. Justus examined mine. He said nothing, then finally spoke.
“Your grandfather came from Ireland,” he said.
It took me a few seconds to realise he was making a serious statement.
“Somewhere South of Dublin.”
Strictly, my grandfather had been a New Zealander, from Oxford, but he'd identified strongly with his Irish heritage. I asked Justus how he knew.
“This means something,” he said, laughing and indicating the contrasting stripe dyed at an angle across his short hair. I noticed Anna had one also, although the colours were reversed—hers a lighter stripe on her dark hair.

Maybe it does mean something, although Justus didn't elaborate. But for me, just enjoying their company carried enough meaning, and if there was a little magic, it seemed appropriate in a town overlooked by the work of goblins.

1. “...such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams—the work of goblins rather than of men.” Rudyard Kipling, writing of the palace at Bundi. From Sea to Sea and other sketches: Letters of Travel; ch. XVII.
2. It was indeed the latter. From Bundi, catch a bus to Kota and take the train to Sawai Madhopur from there.
3. Unfortunately, Bruce Connew's website doesn't do justice to his work; the photos are too small and seem to have lost much of their tonal range during their transfer to the web. However, you can still get some idea of the quality of his work here, here, and here, for example.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The abandoned temple in the Taragarh fort.
2. Street scene, Bundi.
3. Rhesus macaque, Macaca mulata. This one was just outside my window at the Parihar; you don't leave doors or windows open.
4. Juvenile rhesus.
5. Bundi from the fort.
6. Inside the palace.
7. The bus station at Bundi. That's an auto rickshaw, also called a tuktuk.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

17 August 2007

Kileshwar, Gujarat

Old man, Barda hills, Gujarat

Wednesday 14 February 2007
little palm squirrel sits on the road, in the opposite lane. Jagdish slows and beeps, sending the little animal scurrying to a safer location. Three doves get the same treatment, the same respect. Jagdish is a gardener, but his concerns extend beyond plants. We continue towards the Barda Hills and Kileswar[1].
J's birthday. The memory draws my thoughts to my family, even more than usual. This year, being so far from them—geographically, but not in other senses—I'm closer to them than ever. And, two days later (I write this on the 16th), as Jagdish drives us to Kileswar through a landscape that reminds me of parts of Canterbury and much of the Mongolia I visited, I think of Winchester and Temuka, where my father and mother spent much of their childhoods; I think of Banks Peninsula, to which so much of my own childhood belongs—and to which I still belong—and I think of Mongolia; so much of my past; and I wonder who accompanies me, other than Jagdish and M.
At the Guest House an unsmiling man in a uniform which appears to be his pride and joy shows us one room with two beds. No, we were to have two rooms. Jagdish goes off to find another man who resolves the problem simply by showing us separate rooms on the second level and asking if they're suitable. They are. Meanwhile, I've had a rudimentary conversation with the slow, immaculately uniformed man, and even managed to get a slight smile from him. But we never see him again.
Another man, ex-military, tells us to “refresh”. He will come to collect us later.
One o'clock,” he says, pointing to his watch.
I shower—the cold water's bearably pleasant—
wash my hair and my shirt and am just about to hang the shirt to dry when the military man returns. At midday. “One o'clock,” we gather, means, “in one hour's time.”
Lunch, as we're also beginning to realise whenever it's associated with the Maharaja, is wonderful, a slightly smoky flavour suffusing most dishes. We're also introduced to a delicious, nondescript fruit about the size of a golf ball; round, brown, with a suede-like skin and a delicious, butterscotch flavour. Chiku, better known elsewhere as sapodilla[2] (and with many other common names), becomes a favourite. The setting's cool and tranquil, the table under the strangler fig providing great opportunities for viewing birds: black ibis, tailor birds, magpie robins, babblers, red-vented bulbuls, an occasional koel, treepies, and the remarkable paradise flycatcher[2]. Afterwards, we're given a tour of the grounds, seeing one of the muggers in the lake and a turtle hauled out to sunbathe, and in the late afternoon the military man—I call him that because although he's left the army, the army hasn't left him—takes us around the Rabari village.
We return to the table under the tree for another chai (our cook pronounces it “char”) and a chance to relax and talk. A conversation about power and responsibility and freedom, and, inevitably, religious beliefs. M's attitudes are much the same as mine, but, unlike me, she has extensive experience of life in India—including its multitude of religions—on which to base her thinking. And I wonder: perhaps the saddest consequence of belief in any kind of afterlife is that it allows you to waste at least some of your moments. If you believe you'll get another chance, it's not so important if you fail to appreciate every moment. On the other hand, perhaps the best consequence of such a belief is that it allows you to appreciate each moment unconstrained by the almost unbearable sadness of knowing this is the only chance you'll get.
A triangle of sunlight on an old, plastered wall; a lone shirt tugged and fluttered by the breeze in an open window. The snap of pigeons' wings and the gurgling coo from those already lined up along the high ledges. The triangle of light fades, and the heat goes from the sun.
We're served dinner at the Guest House, after dark. During the meal the generator provides power for lights and enables me to recharge the camera battery — not quite fully, but enough. The meal finished, the night watchman turns off the generator and the building fills with darkness and the sound of the night wind. I sterilise two of bottles of water and write by the light of a guttering candle until tiredness forces me to bed.

Saturday 17 February 2007
During the night a bat eats part of two of our bananas. I assume it was a bat—I hope it was a bat. I did hear many dogs barking, but nothing identifiable as a leopard, although this is leopard country and the military man had assured us he's seen one just behind the Maharaja's enclave one evening. The night eventually grew cool, and for the first time since Mt Abu, I crawled into my sleeping bag.
I manage to wake and get out of bed at 7 a.m., in time for breakfast at 7:30. Saija bhai[4], the Rabari cook, with his smile and welcoming attitude, brings breakfast of puri, an aloo dish, and chai. He has no English—not a single word—but with great patience he teaches us a few words of his own language, smiling wonderfully when we get something right. After we've eaten, the military man walks us to Jamsaheb's enclave, stopping just before the entrance to admire the enormous strangler fig and the wall loosely mosaiced with broken crockery. But it's the little palm squirrel collecting nest material that most appeals to me.
Our programme, according to the military man, is, “7:30 breakfast; 8:30 walk!” But lunch must be prepared. This takes some time and throws the programme into disarray—well, at least it causes a readjustment of the plan. Now we are to walk at 9:30–10:00 a.m.
And walk we do. About 5 hours of it, although for much of the time we sit around at small Rabari settlements—sometimes only a single house, sometimes two or three; one, where a wedding party was in progress, more substantial.
We left for our “trek” at about 10 a.m., accompanied by a 60-year-old guide and a boy in his early teens. They carried our enormous lunch; the MM carried the burden of responsibility for our safety—particularly, it seemed, for M's—and a large kitchen knife which he tucked, sheathed, under his belt at his back, bringing it out occasionally to slash at brambles and thorns. Not that the slashing was entirely gratuitous, however, as the first section of the walk proved the hardest, through vicious thorn scrub and scrambling, hook-toothed vines, along a rudimentary or nonexistent trail up the watercourse above the temple lake. Mehsu bhai, our oldBrown fish-owl, Barda Hills but nimble guide, had little difficulty and still managed to spot a huge, brown fish-owl[5] in a tree on the far side of the gully, while we'd been mostly concerned with spotting where to put our feet and which thorn branches were about to impale us.
But the going eased after this section, and as the thorny shrubs opened out we came to a dam. The lake behind this, we were informed, was where Lord Krishna had bathed. Now, a small herd of buffalo bathed at the far end. On the dam itself, the carapace and a few limbs of a freshwater crab lay, black and dry, in the shimmering heat; at the edge of the lake another crab, very much alive, slid sideways into its burrow beneath the water as we approached. A turtle basked on a rock at the water's edge and a black ibis stepped slowly over the mud at the head of the lake beyond a small group of attractive little ducks; a couple of pond herons[6] stood hunched and motionless nearby, and the ubiquitous red-wattled lapwing[7] yelled from the mud by an inlet. A buffalo lumbered down out of the scrub and peered at us. Sullen and huge, the beast stared as if making up what little mind it had, before taking the hint when the MM threw a stick at it. It heaved itself down to the water and made its way along the track towards the other wallowing buffalo.
On the far side of the swampy inlet, we stopped to meet a Rabari family. I tried my hand at churning milk, teaming up with the ancient woman after she and her husband had showed us the technique—one on each side of a long, upright paddle, each person holding the ends of a cord wound around the paddle; synchronised to-and-fro pulling on the ends of the cords spinning the paddle like a bow-drill. After a false start, I got the hang of it. A simple arrangement, but effective. Appropriate technology? Probably, but certainly it was traditional—I imagine milk being churned this way a thousand years ago. Possibly more.
I asked the MM to ask if I might photograph them. The old man nodded, and glowered, grim and suspicious, at the camera. His sons did likewise, peering closely; the old woman had vanished into the darkness of the house. I suspect none had ever seen a camera.
We stopped for lunch in what shade we could find, just beyond the settlement where the marriage party was underway. More ritual than knees-up, the party comprised mostly middle-aged to elderly men except for Mother & child, Barda Hillsthe groom, who lounged on a charpoi at the base of a spreading tree, seemingly indifferent to the activity around him. How would his life change after his marriage? Where were the other men of his age? Was he one of the few who had chosen, or not had the opportunity, to leave; to pursue the rumours of that world beyond buffalo milking and dust, heat and thorn scrub, ritual and myth?
Another family further on tended strange buffalo, a paler colour, the calves with distinct whites around the irises of their eyes. One had one eye like this, the other almost entirely dark like that of normal buffalo. The old woman showed us how she moulds fresh cow dung into thin rounds the shape and size of pizza bases to dry in the sun, later to be used as fuel or sold for the same purpose. Two other family members bathed and washed laundry in the well nearby. How much longer can this way of life survive? Longer here than elsewhere, I suspect, because the area is a wildlife sanctuary—here, a human way of life will remain insulated from encroaching “progress” and “development”. But not forever. Watching the laundry drying on the dusty ground and the old woman, hands deftly manipulating the green-black shit, I realised I could never live like this; realised that, where one person sees simplicity, another sees poverty and disempowerment. What will be lost, and what will be gained? 'Grandfather'Those who will notice the loss and feel it most keenly will, I suspect, be those who already have the most, who already enjoy the greatest privilege.
At the last settlement—comprising a house and a well—we were introduced to the MM's elderly friend, known to everyone simply as “uttar”—“grandfather”. Like everyone else we'd met, he spoke no English, but the humour in his face communicated what's most important. Seeing an elderly woman making her way slowly up the hill from the well, carrying two full kerosene tins of water, I jogged down, took the cans from her and carried them up to the house. I felt comfortable, at ease; felt we were welcomed, enjoyed. Everyone wanted photos and M and I were kept busy, although I found it a struggle because of the harsh, contrasty light. The old, small, and dull LCD screen on my camera made it nearly impossible to show the subjects the results, but M was better off, as the screen on her camera was much larger and brighter. When we finally left, we were pursued down the path by someone who'd heard about the visiting photowallahs. A man with a small boy in his arms caught up with us; I encouraged him into the shade and took two photos. With a little encouragement he smiled beautifully. The opportunities for photos had been good, despite the hard light; the catch was that we were asked for prints. But this was hardly even a price to pay—even if we hadn't been asked, I'd have tried to get prints to them. It's a chance to give, not just take.

Monday 19 February 2007
Wind rattles shutters and doors all night; the hooks and eyes holding open the shutters squeak. A rat eats the remains of the small bar of green ayurvedic soap from my handbasin and leaves two droppings in return. In the morning we sit and read at each end of the long hall. Heavy wooden armchairs and a settee at each end; Boy in the Barda Hillstapestry upholstery. I read The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and we both wait for breakfast. When it comes, puri and a potato dish with a bite, we finish it all, for the first time.
The second bird I see at the table under the tree is the male paradise flycatcher[5]. He drops from the branch and vanishes behind the wall, his enormously long, white tail streaming behind him, his black head and bill like the cap on a projectile. The simile could not be worse, unless you're a fly.
Sunlight on the corky bark of the fig; the deep crevices like the skin on the face of the old man at the first settlement we visited yesterday. The man and the tree, which might have been growing here for centuries, could be the same age. The wind picks up, and patches of soft-edged sunlight sway back and forth over the torn plastic tablecloth, over the weathered wooden tabletop where the plastic has torn or peeled back, over the closed book, the open page where these words follow the movement of the pen. Sunlight, dancing, forms patterns in time between the memory of leaves.
A glimpse of the paradise flycatcher, the chestnut female, but by the time I've raised the binoculars to my eyes, she's gone. Paradise remains elusive. I write postcards to friends and family in another time, other worlds. The postcards are my photos from Khijadiya and Jamnagar—a painted stork[8]; a pelican in flight, leaving the water; the stillness of reflected posts in the dawn lake; the infinite patience of a spider hanging in its web at the Darbargadh. When all you know is how to hang in a web, waiting, can you be considered patient? This is what you do.

Wednesday 21 February 2007
At dawn the wailing cries of peafowl echo around the guest house, the stone walls, the ruined buildings, like a lament for memories; for what, even now as I lie listening, half asleep, is being lost. How different will this place and its people be ten years from now? When will the great change come, and what will bring it? Electricity and television, so the children can grow up seeing a fantastic—mostly in the pejorative sense—world, so they see what they think they're denied by living here? Education, which will unlock some of the doors currently keeping them here? People like us, whose presence suggests a wider world to be explored? Dissatisfaction can be one of the consequences of curiosity; perhaps, to know how lucky you are, you must find out for yourself how less fortunate others are. Living a simple life because you grew up like that differs from living a simple life because you've chosen it:
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.[9]
Perhaps this is what I’m doing. Trying to find the simplicity to deal with what happens as it arises; travelling without expectations; carrying my life with me. But simplicity is relative, and here, for me, temporary. I lie half asleep, listening to the peafowl, knowing I’ll soon leave; knowing I’ll leave this world of birds and leopards, cattle and buffalo, the still, glittering lake, and old women yoked to kerosene cans of well water. Drying dung and churning milk. Soon I’ll leave, and re-enter the complex world. I have no idea what of me will remain.

Magpie robin, Kileswar, Gujarat
1 Kileswar is often (perhaps usually) spelled "Kileshwar", a more phonetic spelling for English speakers. I've used "Kileswar" because this is the spelling on the identification plate of the Guest House.
2. Manilkara zapotilla, Sapotaceae.
3. Black ibis, Pseudibis papillosa; tailor bird, Orthotomus sutorius; magpie robin, Copsychus saularis; common babbler, Turdoides caudatus; red-vented bulbul, Pycnonotus cafer; koel, Eudynamys scolopacea; rufous treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda; paradise flycatcher, Terpsiphone paradisi.
4. Pronounced “SAY juh”. I confess to not knowing how to spell his name. “Bhai” ("BUY-ee") seems to be a term of respect, much like the Japanese “san”, I suppose.
5. Ketupa zeylonensis
6. Ardeola grayii
7. Vanellus indicus
Mycteria leucocephala9. T.S. Eliot. Four Quartets (East Coker). P. 201 in Collected Poems 1909–1962. London, Faber & Faber (1963). 238 Pp. ISBN 0 571 05549 4. I chose this rather than the over-quoted “We shall not cease from exploration...” for two reasons: first, the latter quotation is over-quoted, and second, the quotation I’ve used has a depth and complexity that appeals to me.

Photos (click on the smaller photos to enlarge them):
1. The man at the first household, where I churned milk and was laughed at until I got the knack.
2. One of the kids at the village at Kileswar. I wanted to do something different with this photo, so I played around with it in Lightroom and Elements.
3. One of the babblers that regularly checked us out at the table by the temple.
4. The brown fish-owl. The photo's heavily cropped, as the owl was a long way off, on the far side of the gully.
5. Mother and child at the last household.
6. This is grandfather. Everyone's grandfather, I think.
7. One of his grandkids, I assume.
8. Oriental magpie robin.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

05 August 2007


How do you return to a place? After seven months in India, Nepal, and Africa, and having most recently spent a week in Paris with its animated cafes, its restaurants, its all-hours activity, its famous Boehm's bee eaterfeatures, its legendary art and culture, how could I return here? I stood in the carpark outside the shopping mall in drab Palmerston North with its grey and windy streets and distracted people─many of whom seem focused on shopping for stuff that means nothing at all to me, a slight desperation in their rummaging through clothes shops filled with cheap Chinese imitations of haute couture—and felt almost overwhelmed by bleak despondency, a sense of loss, a kind of uncertainty not bright with possibility but dull with the knowledge that a return to the places of the last seven months, if not impossible, was so unlikely it's not even worth thinking about. Even while travelling I'd begun to wonder whether the travelling was a mistake, not because it wasn't wonderful, but because it was; because, perhaps, I'd be unable ever to settle again; because instead of satisfying my restlessness it might aggravate it.
Now, everything seems strangely unreal, as if all that's happened over the last eight months has been too strange, and mostly too wonderful, to believe. A bit like a dream, really.
A few days after returning I picked up one of the books stacked in heaps on the floor─Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I opened it─at random, I thought─and read:
Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.
The synchronicity of it struck me─and in Paris my friend was becoming interested in Jung and had a copy of Victor Mansfield's Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making, which I began reading. She'd met Vic Bushbuck, Nyika and had a copy of his paper, which I read and found intriguing. Well written, too. He's a physicist, but with a much broader worldview than the reductionist stereotype, and I suppose I felt a kind of affinity, having myself come from a science background and becoming, as he did, dissatisfied with the constrained way of understanding imposed by that kind of science but grateful for the training and the rigour it encourages. Even there in Paris I had that strange and wonderful feeling that “things” were beginning to connect; that the threads of my life had begun to weave together into something not entirely random─that something might begin to form. Then I returned to the Pohangina Valley and picked up Rebecca Solnit's book and read that passage and was delighted not only by the synchronicity of reading that passage, but by the synchronicity of reading that passage after having read about synchronicity.
The moment in the carpark proved transitory. Occasionally I've glimpsed it again, usually while reading my notebooks, but a month after returning, I've yet to encounter the pervasive dislocation and culture shock felt by many travellers returning from long journeys, particularly those who have spent time in cultures wildly different from their own. This seems not to surprise my friends, who usually flatter me with a comment like, “You're so good at adapting to where you are.”
Maybe. I'm less sure than they are that adapting comes naturally to me. Rebecca Solnit's distinction between those confident in their own selves and those who reinvent themselves is the sort of dichotomy that should annoy me, but it doesn't, not because it's not artificial—it is—but because it contains enough truth to make me wonder where on that psychological cline I lie. Unusually, I'm fairly sure I know where that might be.
But, getting back to the shock of the return, I think my escape from from this feeling—that is, from the feeling which I happen not to be feeling—arises from my awareness that it does happen and can strike hard; forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes. Or, perhaps I've been so preoccupied that the reality of where I was and what I did hasn't really sunk in. That explanation seems to tally better with the peculiar feeling that it was all unreal; that the person who travelled to those places and did those things was, in fact, someone else. And it's true I've been preoccupied: with catching up with friends; with finding and setting up what was stored; with several weeks of solid contract editing; with looking after one of the Eastbourne houses (a delight, especially because Ralph and I got to share time together); and with all those small tasks you face after a long absence.
Moreover, if there's a sense of loss, it might in fact be more to do with how the Pohangina valley's beginning to change. One evening a few weeks after returning, I walked out onto the verandah after dark and was astonished and a little dismayed to see a line of lights along the opposite side of the valley. House lights. The character of the valley has begun to change; it has begun to relinquish that relaxed, rough-and-ready feel, that kind of easy dishevelment and low-level untidiness so often characteristic of necessary pragmatism and the long histories of rooted lives, of generations whom the land has adapted even as those lives have adapted the land. Now the valley in places seems too neat, too orderly, too manicured, as if new wealth has begun to modify and control, to shape the land according to a particular, human, vision. All with the best of intentions, I'm sure—but the valley is no longer a refuge from the suburbs. It is becoming a suburb.
At about 4:30 p.m. the sun breaks through, dipping below the watery greywash of cloud, into the irregular gap between cloud and western hills. I turn to look downvalley, at fractal winter trees caught by the light, so alight they seem almost illuminated from within. On the far side of the valley, beyond the road, gullies form a chiaroscuro brought into relief by that low, glancing light. Form and light; detail confined to the boundary between shadow and sunlight. A heron perches high in one of the leafless poplars on a bank of the swollen, turbid TeAwaoteatua Stream. The bird stands, hunched, head drawn down into its shoulders; a pale grey body on thin legs; white face tapering to a beak long and thin and sinister. The pale bird stands there on a thin branch, high in the stark tree; stands there like an omen, wrapped around by the sound of rushing water.
I wonder what I burned — my house, or the bridges behind me? Where, now, is my own ground?

Zebra, Nyika

Here, as promised, Zhoen, are a few more critters.
I'll return to my travels in later posts, interspersed with, ... well, ... whatever I feel like writing about. Perhaps it's something to do with rebuilding.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Boehm's bee eater, Merops boehmi, at Chinguni hills, Liwonde National Park, Malawi.
2. Bushbuck, Tragelaphus scriptus, Nyika Plateau, Malawi.
This was among the wrack near the Pencarrow lighthouse, along the Wellington coast South of Eastbourne.
4. Saddle-billed storks, Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, Kruger National Park, South Africa.
5. Burchell's zebra, Equus quagga burchellii, Nyika Plateau, Malawi.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor