31 December 2016

In Nepal: Bardia and Mahendranagar

I stayed five days and six nights at Bardia Jungle Cottage, and for the first two days struggled with a bad headache that took a little of the edge off the full-day jungle walks. But, on the first day, walking with Shiva the guide, Subash, Jorn from Holland, and Flo, from France, we heard a male tiger calling in the jungle a little further upriver.  The evening I’d arrived, Jorn and Shiva had returned at dusk having just seen a tiger at close quarters: just fifty metres away. Jorn’s camera had seized up, but he showed me the photograph he’d made with his phone. It was excellent.

Shiva and I spent the second day in the jungle and neither saw nor heard tigers. We saw rhinos, though: close – almost too close. We could hear the giant animals feeding, and I saw the horn and muzzle of one as it browsed in the metres-high grass, then the sudden snort as one winded us and they crashed away – fortunately, not in our direction. For a while I forgot the headache.

But things other than the headache afflicted me, too. I’d woken that morning from a dream full of nostalgia, of yearning for the best of the days of my childhood, when the world was still large and mysterious; when a person could vanish for months or years and return with tales of people who had never met anyone from a strange and distant land, people whose customs seemed to us strange and different; when vast areas of the planet were still unmapped or at least untrodden by western feet, or even any human foot; when not everything felt known. I knew as I woke that the yearning was romanticism, but I still couldn’t completely shake the sadness.

Perhaps I’d been affected by the events of the last two days. Even in that moment of wildness when I’d heard the tiger calling, the background was suffused not with the roaring of the void, but by the faint, far-off roaring of traffic and towns. I’d grown up with tales of Jim Corbett’s time in the jungles of India, and some of my nostalgia must have been for those tales and the imaginings they conjured. As I’d stood in the dust of the river bed and studied the pug marks of a male tiger, I’d thought of Corbett. But even when I’d first read his stories as a child, those times had all but gone, just as Corbett even then had long gone from India to spend the rest of his life in Kenya. The past had gone; the past is irretrievable except through memory and imagination, and both are hopeless guides to what actually happened. Maybe this, then, is one of the reasons I keep these journals: as a safeguard against the short-comings of memory and a reign on misleading imagination.

By the third day I needed a rest. The headache had almost gone but that and two long days of heat and dust had left me worn down. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I took a rest day, that would be the day I’d have seen the tiger, but I also knew that if I didn’t skip a third consecutive jungle walk I wouldn’t see one. Convinced by this irrefutable logic, I told myself I’d come to Bardia to see lots of animals and birds and a tiger would be a bonus, and I took a rest day.

Taking it easy, I walked slowly down the dusty road towards the Wild Trak lodge where Joe was staying, passing most of the other lodges on the way. I asked after him but he was in a jeep in the jungle. The place seemed well maintained, but the room I was shown stank of mould. The double duvet in my room had needed a good airing too, but the room itself was OK, and the single duvet I’d used instead didn’t suffer from the mouldy smell.

Along the road I’d seen little to start with, but, as is usually the way, the birds began to show themselves. I photographed red-whiskered bulbuls and managed some distant but adequate record shots of Indian pond herons, lapwings, a common kingfisher, greenshanks, and a redshank, but my heart wasn’t entirely in it and I wasn’t sure why. I was going through the motions.

Hans and Mirian, the Dutch couple who’d arrived the previous day had rented bicycles and had met a young German couple who, coincidentally, I’d spoken with at Wild Trak. Back at Bardia Jungle Cottage, we sat at one of the outside tables and talked about travelling. Hans ordered a beer, a Tuborg. I felt comfortable with my new friends, so I thought ‘Why not?’ and ordered one too.

I explained my predicament. I could carry on to Mahendranagar in the far west of Nepal and cross the border to Banbasa, but that would return me to India sooner than I intended. Alternatively, I could return to Kathmandu, but that also had problems. I’d scored a cheap flight from Delhi to India, but all the return flights were expensive, and I’d already spent a substantial sum on the flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj. I could cross the land border, but that would put me well out of my way and I’d waste days getting back to Delhi, then have to head up to Uttarakhand – a roundabout way to get where I wanted to go.

Then there was the problem of getting from Bardia back to Kathmandu. The thought of a thirteen-hour bus trip to Pokhara was more than I could bear – I’d done that trip in the other direction in 2014 and had sworn never again – but flying back from Nepalgunj was out of the question. Then the German woman suggested breaking up that trip with a stop at Tansen. Hans and Mirian agreed immediately; they’d stayed at Tansen and liked it. The Germans jad liked it too. However, that still left the problem of how to get from Kathmandu, which I’d have liked to return to for a few more days, back to Delhi – flying to Kathmandu had been cheap, but the flights back to Delhi were proving to be exorbitant.

But I had food for thought and a few more days to think about it, so I didn’t need to make a decision right then.

I walked the other way along the road in the evening but didn’t feel like going far. On the way back, a family called out to me. I replied and walked over to see them and ask if they’d like a photograph. The young man straddling his motorbike nodded and gave instructions to what I assume were his younger siblings. The toddler burst out crying, and a woman came out of the house, laughing, to pick the child up. The younger of the two girls, though, followed instructions and posed for me, and after a couple of attempts and a little teasing, I managed to get her to smile. I showed them the result and they seemed pleased.
I introduced myself.
  ‘I’m Pete,’ I said.
The young guy’s name was Ahmeed. I thanked him for letting me photograph his sister.
  ‘Danyabad,’ I said.
  ‘You speak Nepali?’
  ‘No. Only danyabad. Namaste.’ I paused. ‘Aloo ghobi.’
We laughed. I’d used the joke before, but it always worked. I asked if he spoke English and he shook his head then held his finger and thumb fractionally apart.

We’d managed some communication, though.

On the way back, I came across a tall Dutch man, with short grey hair, crouching at the side of the road photographing a couple of tethered buffalo. He, too, had seen a tiger in the park, albeit briefly because everyone had got excited and started making a lot of noise. I was beginning to get the impression that everyone who visited Bardia saw a tiger except me. I could only dream of a sighting as good as Jorn’s, and the young German couple had seen one across the river; the photographers with big lenses got excellent pictures, they said.

Ronald, the Dutchman, had also encountered a cash problem of a different sort. He’d expected to be able to use his credit card to pay for his jeep safaris and jungle walks and hadn’t brought enough cash. No problem, his lodge manager had said, you can pay when you get home; I trust you; why should I not trust you?

The account was good to hear. I’d expected Ronald to say the manager had offered to drive him to Nepalgunj to get cash from an ATM, but I suppose the economics of that would have been marginal, and the advantages in terms of goodwill and reputation were more important.

My last day in the jungle failed again to deliver a tiger sighting. I’d said I was philosophical about it, but after hearing about some excellent sightings during my stay, I had to admit some disappointment. Even the rhino encounters had been either more distant or less visible than at Chitwan ten years ago. That was no reflection on Bardia; I’d just dipped out this time. I did see giant hornbills, though, and sightings of those were reputedly rarer than tiger sightings. Somehow this didn’t entirely compensate, though, because if tiger sightings were as common as reputed, I’d been unlucky not to have seen one.

Breakfast was banana pancakes with honey and no banana. This was usual. The menu listed green tea, so I ordered some, but there was no green tea. I asked for a small pot of black tea without sugar; the tea was indeed black – almost lethally so – and it came with a bowl of sugar. I liked the initiative: to have asked for no sugar and received some, fortunately not already added to the tea, was better than asking for sugar and not getting it. The previous day I’d said to Hans and Mirian that when ordering food here you expected what you got. They hadn’t understood at first but soon learned, and any inconvenience was more than compensated for by the good humour of the staff.

Hugely experienced travellers everywhere except South America, Hans and Mirian had decided to take the bus all the way from Bardia to Kathmandu. I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable that would be – I didn’t want to imagine it – but Mirian insisted she’d sleep most of the way. She could sleep anywhere, she said, and being a couple, they’d have seats together so they wouldn’t have a greasy-haired stranger using them as a pillow the way I’d had in 2014 on my 13-hour bus journey from Pokhara to Ambassa.

They were leaving in the middle of the afternoon, and I’d miss their company. Once again I’d be on my own, with the freedom that confers, tinged with the slight melancholy of being anonymous once more in a strange land. For the last few hours together we sat at the only outside table with an umbrella for shade, and we talked and read and ate lunch, and later Hans and I shared a beer and then another. Finally, the time came and, on the spur of the moment, I joined them in the jeep to Thakurdwara just a few minutes down the dusty road.
  ‘Come and stay with us in Holland,’ Hans said, and although I knew he meant it, I knew I never would – not, at least, unless my life changed radically. I walked back to Bardia Jungle Cottage, stopping to talk briefly to some local people and sometimes photographing them, and slowly getting used to yet another change.


My turn came, and I was pleased to be moving on and sad to be leaving. After five days and six nights, I’d become used to the routine and had even begun to think of my room with its minor shortcomings, including the only mosquito in Thakurdwara (it constantly woke me on my last night until I finally and deliberately extirpated the species from the region), as a kind of home. I’d liked the helpful, welcoming staff, even though my attempts to photograph them mostly failed to reflect their character. The jeep driver in particular had an excellent sense of humour and was clearly knowledgeable about the animals; when he and Subash had collected Joe and me from Ambassa, he’d heard me say to Subash that I’d like to see a Bengal florican, and although he had almost no English he recognised the species name and immediately explained to Subash that now was the wrong season – no Bengal florican. He laughed a lot, but in the only photograph he looked as grim as if I’d told him he’d just lost his entire family.

Premi accompanied me in the jeep and saw I got on the right bus. He wanted to know when I’d come back, and I felt touched by his appreciation of my stay, but I couldn’t say when I’d be back. Still, the time at Bardia had turned out to be more enjoyable than I’d expected and the thought of returning appealed. I hadn’t seen a tiger. But I had heard one calling, and on my last night at a quarter past eleven a chital had begun an alarm call, and soon after that another joined in. Perhaps a tiger had been prowling not far from where I lay, half awake, thinking of Jim Corbett and my family. We all grew up on Corbett’s tales; they’re part of the family folklore, and I hoped that in a few days’ time I’d be able to add to that folklore by visiting Champawat, where Corbett finally killed the most notorious man-eating tiger in history.

But, in just the two years since I’d first visited Bardia, Premi seemed to have grown noticeably older. It was the kind of aging that made me wonder whether I’d ever see him again, and I wasn’t sure I could visit Bardia knowing he was no longer there.
Already I missed Thakurdwara, too. I’d had just one reason for visiting Bardia: the wildlife. Yet, in the short time I’d stayed, I’d realised one of its main attractions was the way the local people so warmly and genuinely welcomed visitors. I hadn’t counted the number of smiles and waves and namastes, but if I had, I’d have lost count. Several times I was invited to come and photograph, or just come and talk, and never once did it feel as if anyone had an ulterior motive.

A few hours squeezed into a minibus and another hour on a slow but more comfortable local bus got me to Mahendranagar, the small border town for crossing into India, where I checked into the Hotel Opera. The room would have been comfortable if my back hadn’t been causing problems. The minibus ride, squashed in with too many people in a position that meant I was sitting twisted for much of the time, had affected me more than I’d thought, and this confirmed my intention to stay another day and hope my back came right.

The room had some minor inconveniences, like wifi that kept vanishing, but the staff were thoroughly professional and accommodating. This was a risk: it was so easy to relax that I was tempted to stay there and not venture into town. I had nothing in particular to do, and the hotel restaurant turned out to be excellent, with cheap beer, too.

I was aware of the temptation, though, and avoided it. I did spend some time in my room finishing the first blog post, but I thought of how Hans and Mirian would have spent time exploring Mahendranagar and not sitting around. I’d thought of the young German couple too: they were travelling around India on a rented Royal Enfield and were exploring central Asia in a van they’d outfitted themselves. Both couples made the most of wherever they were, and my own travelling seemed low-key and unadventurous in comparison.

I did wonder, though, how much their friends got to share of their experiences. By the time they got home, they’d have a huge store of stories, but how much would they remember, and how much would they remember accurately? Most importantly, would they remember accurately what they felt? Most travellers know the effect someone so aptly called ‘rosy retrospection’: the tendency to remember the good times and subconsciously downplay or forget completely the times of despondency and loneliness. Even difficult but eventful times can be easier to remember than those times when, alone, out of contact with friends and family, and in unfamiliar and uninspiring surroundings it’s easy to look forward to the end of the trip.

As experience accumulates, a traveller learns to recognise this and can therefore deal with it better, understanding its causes and realising it’s usually fleeting. None other than one of the greatest travellers, Colin Thubron, admitted feeling worn out and dejected at one stage of his journeying through China, and when I’d read that I’d felt the twin pangs of empathy and relief. Empathy because I’d felt like that often on my early travels and sometimes on my later ones. Relief because suddenly it had seemed OK to admit those feelings. So many people apparently need to project the persona of the vastly experienced traveller who does ‘authentic’ things and never feels worn down or in need of the company of friends, but if this persona represents them honestly, they’re either rarer than snow leopard sightings or utterly absorbed with their own significance.

I couldn’t imagine any traveller deserving more respect than Colin Thubron, and if it was OK for him to have down periods on his travels, it was OK for me too. I wondered, too, how much time he spent writing when he was travelling. Travelling is always a matter of drawing a line between living a life and recording it, and each of us draws that line differently, and for different reasons. I had decided long ago that travelling mainly to experience the travelling for myself was unjustifiable – for me, at least – and I wanted to share a life that – again, to me – seemed worth documenting.

But this ignored the fact that the major benefit of travelling is not what you do, but who you become. I hoped I was becoming a better person, but that wasn’t going to happen if I spent most of my time sitting in hotel rooms. The irony was that I was thinking about these things when I wasn’t experiencing them. I wasn’t feeling down and dejected, and although plunging into the madhouse of Mahendranagar felt a little daunting, I knew I’d end up glad I’d done it.

And that’s exactly what happened. Mahendranagar was resolutely non-western except for the ubiquitous advertising in English for Samsung and mobile network companies – a decade ago, Coca-Cola had been the inescapable presence in English but that had faded like the signs themselves – but 95% of everything written was in Hindi, which made even less sense to me than Chinese, in which the characters are at least separated.

But most of the people were friendly and welcoming, with an abundance of smiles and namastes. A great many wanted to practise their limited English, too, and I lost count of the number of times I heard the three-phrase greeting, ‘Hello. How are you? Where are you going?’
‘How are you?’ always  had the stress on the last word: ‘How are YOU?’

I stopped for chai and became the centre of attention for a group of young guys who looked as if they’d enjoy being photographed. They looked pleased with the result, and I thought about trying to find somewhere to get the photographs printed. I already had some photographs of a couple of men sewing mattresses outside their shop and no doubt would have others before I left Mahendranagar.

Photographing wasn’t the only form of interaction, though – far from it. I had a great many brief conversations and some longer ones, including one with an off-duty policeman.
  ‘On duty at two o’clock,’ he said.
He wanted to know whether I liked Nepal.
  ‘I love Nepal,’ I said, truthfully.
He beamed, and later he asked me the same question, presumably for the enjoyment of hearing me say I loved his country.
  ‘Any problem, you go to police station,’ he said, and pointed down the road.
I assured him I’d go to the police station if I had any problem, and I thanked him, genuinely. I couldn’t envisage any problems, but I felt looked after, as if I had a friend who would make things happen if I asked for help. It was a good feeling.

I returned to the town in the afternoon, looking for a photo lab, but the man at reception had pointed out they’d be closed because it was a holiday: Saturday. Tomorrow morning they’d be open, he said.

Another reason to stay another day.

Mahendranagar almost trapped me. I’d grown to like it; my few days there quickly became comfortable. The hotel staff knew me, and one of the waiters in the restaurant got to know my breakfast order.
  ‘Banana pancake,’ I said, and he repeated it.
  ‘Cornflakes …’
  ‘With COLD milk,’ he said: for some reason, hot milk was standard on cornflakes.
I paused.
  ‘Cup of black tea,’ he said, and I laughed and congratulated him. He grinned and disappeared to the kitchen.

One morning I visited the meat and vegetable market. The vegetables were beautifully displayed, bright, and diverse. The meat, mostly chicken, was either still alive or already executed. A cluster of filthy white chooks huddled on the ground, apparently unable to escape although I saw no sign they were tethered. Perhaps they were unable to walk after having been confined their entire, short lives in overcrowded cages, or maybe they were paralysed with the horror of their situation. I didn’t know and didn’t want to do too much guessing.

Further on, a man waved all of India’s flies from a row of plucked and gutted chicken carcases. With each pass of his whisk, the flies roared into the air then settled again. Another man brought a cleaver down accurately onto the joint of a chicken leg that was either smoked or old enough to look like it. The chopping block was well stained with countless dismemberments. The place looked mediaeval and horrific.

Late in the afternoon, I walked down City Hall Road past the small slum to the highway. As I passed the slum, four men held down a screaming pig. I walked on, and the screaming suddenly stopped. I looked across and the men still held down the pig as another pig stood close by, watching. A tiny, scrawny puppy trotted along the middle of the road, and no one paid it any mind other than to avoid hitting it with their scooters and motorbikes. The puppy stopped by a large, well-fed dog that clearly wasn’t one of its parents and looked hopeful, but the big dog didn’t acknowledge its existence. I had a bad feeling about the puppy’s future but could do nothing, so again I walked on.

Ahead, a man limped along the road, his right leg loose and his foot turned outward. On the side of the road, black, foetid water oozed towards who knows where. It stank in the late afternoon. The heat had gone out of the sun, although it still hung high in the sky; now it had to struggle through the grey-brown haze, so it looked like an orange disc. Two sacred cows fought, clashing heads on the side of the highway, but no one paid them any mind, either.

In the smoggy dusk, a small, quiet man tried to interest me in a room in his guest house. It was the most polite, gentle, timid attempt I’d ever encountered, and I was almost tempted to stay another day just to bring him some happiness. But his guest house was near the bus station, the main highway, and the busy Campus Road, and the night would have been sleepless.

I didn’t know why I was beginning to develop a real affection for Mahendranagar.

I’d photographed the chai wallah, who I now knew better than anyone in Mahendranagar outside the hotel, and I couldn’t leave without giving him a print. He had a calm, gentle manner that extended to the thin little kitten living under his counter and occasionally venturing out into the sun during quiet periods. It resisted the urge to investigate my wiggling fingers, but the chai wallah saw my attempts and smiled.

I’d had some prints done at a small hole-in-the-wall shop in the main bazaar and had given them to one of the mattress-makers. The prints were muddy and awful but I had no choice, and the man’s expression when I handed him the prints was priceless. He didn’t know what to say and had no English to say it anyway, but he kept looking at the prints then looking at me and smiling as if he’d won the lottery. He held out his hand, and I shook it and said ‘Danyabad’ – I wanted to thank him for letting me photograph him – and he looked again at the prints and made the ‘OK’ gesture, still smiling madly.

I had to leave before I choked up.

I wanted the chai wallah to have a print, and I’d found a Fuji lab, but this was apparently where the first set of prints had been done: the second set was identically muddy and just as awful. The chai wallah didn’t mind, though. I gave him the print; he took and looked at it, then recognised himself and looked up in sheer amazement and delight. A bystander took it from him and handed it around, and I began to wonder what state it would be in by the time he got it back, if he ever did. Eventually it returned, safely but no doubt covered in fingerprints. He wouldn’t let me pay for my chai, and he shook my hand. I’d grown fond of his gentle, efficient, unhurried manner, and I liked him even more for his appreciation of the little kitten.

While I’d waited for the prints, I’d had a professional shave. A young barber had called out to me from his doorway. He wanted a hundred rupees for the shave, but that sounded like a lot, and I started to turn him down.
  ‘OK, fifty rupees,’ he said.
It was the easiest haggling I'd ever done.

One of the other men in his shop sat me down and began the prep. He shaved me carefully and precisely, then trimmed my beard, just as precisely. He even used long, muderously sharp scissors to trim my nose hairs. To flinch was unthinkable. I admired his professionalism, the way he appeared to take pride in his skill at snipping the nose hairs of his clients. In New Zealand, the idea of a job like that would have been either hilarious or depressing, but, having experienced it here, I felt humbled.

He was desperate to barber my hair, too, but having seen the trend, which was even at that moment being executed in the chair next to mine, I had no intention of letting him near my hair with any sharp instrument. It was too much for him, though, so he wet my hair, applied some styling cream, and massaged my head so hard it felt like being beaten up. When I walked out of the shop, I felt a little unsteady on my feet. I think I was mildly concussed.

The style was dreadful, as I’d known it would be. He’d swept it back then added an extreme part on the right-hand side. This, I knew, was one of the trends, but he had no idea about fitting a style to a client. He only charged me 50 rupees, though, and thanked me for my custom. I made a beeline to my room and restyled my hair to its usual unkempt state. The beard trim was excellent, but I could detect no difference in breathing through my nostrils.

I’d spent four nights in Mahendranagar and had grown to like it, but three days was enough. I was restless. I wanted to be moving again. I’d be sad to leave my friends – the hotel staff, the chai wallah in particular, others I’d spoken to and who now at least recognised me – but I wanted to travel through Kumaon and Garwhal again, then rejoin my friends in Delhi and Chandigarh; I wanted to visit Bharatpur for the third time; and I wanted eventually to get to Jamnagar in the hope I could meet once more with Jam Sahib. After that, who knew, but those people and places were calling me, and I needed to answer.

1. The photographs have mostly been prepared in haste so I could get this post published before the end of the year. Some have appeared already on my Instagram account, along with many others.

1. Premi was one of the original guides at Bardia and is something of an institution there. 
2. Not sure precisely what this is, but Shiva called it a flycatcher.
3. Common kingfisher.
4. Some of Bardia's smaller inhabitants were impressive, too. The webs of these big spiders were everywhere.
5. Hans and Mirian wait for the bus at Thajurdwara.
6. Subash at Bardia Jungle Cottage on the morning I left.
7. Scaly-breasted munia at Bardia
8. The chai wallah at Mahendranagar.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

17 December 2016

The flight to Nepal

On the flight from Delhi (figurative as well as literal) I had a window seat next to an elderly Nepalese woman and her daughter. They lived in Kathmandu and had attended the daughter’s graduation with a Masters degree in social work. I asked about Kathmandu’s recovery from the terrible earthquake a year and a half ago. The young woman hesitated, then replied that the city was recovering well.
  ‘About three months to get going again,’ she said.
Given the devastation I’d seen on the news reports, I found this astonishing, but when I finally got to Thamel I saw almost no sign the city had been so badly smashed – if indeed it had been. The mainstream media had, as usual, focused on the worst-hit places, and those reports suggested Nepal would take the better part of a decade to recover, but all I saw of the aftermath was a ruined brick building visible only through my bathroom window.

Much had changed, but much had stayed the same. The streets seemed familiar without being identifiable; I kept coming across places I was sure I remembered from two years earlier, but the shops in those places had changed. I recognised the names of some cafés and bakeries and restaurants, though.

But the overwhelming impression was of being overwhelmed. The streets, narrow, cobbled, and either dusty or with small puddles where shopkeepers had splashed water to lay the dust, were lined with a vast number of small shops selling similar goods: trekking gear, of course; cashmere shawls; souvenirs ranging from small trinkets to enormous brass statues of Ganesh, Kali, Buddha, and others; adventures of all kinds involving outdoor activities; flights, bus trips, and so on. Almost anything could be bought, including peace, enlightenment, and freedom from consumerism in the form of yoga and meditation retreats. Yet, despite the variety, the streets had a predictable sameness. There was so much choice that choice was impossible.

I chose the Roadhouse Café for an evening meal, mostly because I wanted a change from dal and rice. A pizza – so characteristic of anywhere catering for even occasional visitors in Nepal or India that it had become authentic Nepalese or Indian fare in the 21st century – sounded good; a beer sounded even better. I wasn’t fussy, so I ordered a margharita with black olives and a Gorkha beer, which turned out to be a 650 ml bottle. The pizza was similarly huge, but I surprised myself by eating the lot. I surprised myself even more by feeling unaffected by more beer than I could remember drinking in a long time (and that wasn’t because I’d drunk so much I couldn’t remember how much I’d drunk). I found my way back to my room without getting lost and without even stumbling – no mean feat in Kathmandu after dark, even when completely sober.

At breakfast in the dining area of the Hotel Holiday House, an Australian milled around in a T-shirt and puffer vest, his hands thrust into his jeans pockets and his shoulders hunched against the cold. A woman from the US joined him, her hair still damp from the shower.
  ‘A bit cold for short sleeves,’ I said, as they seated themselves at the table next to mine.
  ‘Yeah,’ he said, then, realising an admission he was feeling cold was at odds with the persona he was attempting to project, added, ‘but after you’ve come down from the mountains, everything feels warm.’

They appeared to be acquaintances, recently met, maybe even on the same trek. While I wrote and attended to breakfast, they competed for dominance in the most-accomplished-traveller category. It was impossible not to listen. He took a nil admirari approach: nothing impressed him; everything was yeah, whatever. She took the more common approach of listing achievements and apparent insider knowledge. When she mentioned she had a keen interest in tea, I began actively eavesdropping but lost interest when she failed to mention anything that might have confirmed her claim. No mention of Darjeeling or Oolong, or even green or black tea; no detail at all, in fact. I suspected her interest lay in herbal infusions rather than traditional tea.

Despite this competition, there was no aggression or irritation in their conversation, and they seemed comfortable in each other’s company.

On a crowded street in the morning, a tall, lean, man in a pale shirt, dark slacks, and polished shoes marched along with a small, fair-haired child sprawled on his shoulder. He kept turning around and telling things to the two women who followed several paces behind. Both wore long skirts and had black headscarves pinned to their hair. One also had a small, fair-haired child looking back over her shoulder, while the other held the hand of yet another small child of similar age and appearance to the other two. The group moved with purpose along the street, led by the man. They appeared to be on a mission.

I stopped at the famous Pumpernickel café and bakery for a vanilla swirl and a cappuccino. Both were good and I didn’t have to wait long. A diverse clientele almost filled the place but I found a spare table in the courtyard. During my entire stay, a young woman with a US accent talked animatedly to her laptop screen. Skype had been a novelty on my first visit to India; now it was a convenience whose absence could be an annoyance. Two tough-looking but laughing Nepalese men joked about one’s thinning hair, which contrasted markedly with the long, thick ponytail of the other. They looked like wild but good-natured guys: the sort who could get you into a lot of trouble but would get you out of it, too.

An elderly couple sat at a table nearby, drinking Everest beers. I had no idea what nationality they might be, but they looked relaxed, enjoying the beer and each other’s company in that easy way two people who’ve liked each other for a long time understand each other. Further away, two women, one middle-aged, the other much younger, sat smoking cigarettes. The older woman had short hair with a mini-mullet; she had the gaunt, sallow look of someone ravaged by a lifetime of smoking. Both women – mother and daughter, I guessed – had an air of ennui approaching depression. I couldn’t help wondering whether they’d ever smiled or laughed, but maybe I was judging them unfairly and they were just worn out from long travelling.

I was writing and not minding my own business, although I was trying to be kind in my thoughts but not always succeeding, when two attractive young women came up to my table and asked if they might share it. Of course, I said, and shuffled my plate, mug and notebook further across the table to give them more room. They began talking in what sounded like French; I thought I recognised a few words, but sometimes I thought I heard Spanish, too.
  ‘You are from France?’ I asked.
  ‘Almost,’ one said, laughing a little. ‘We are from Portugal.’
I threw up my hands in horror and apologised.
  ‘No, no,’ she insisted, ‘it’s all right. People often make that mistake.’
I told her how people usually guessed I was from Australia but I was actually from New Zealand. They exclaimed with delight. They had a friend who had recently moved to New Zealand with her partner, and they were intending to visit soon.

I asked about their travels.
  ‘Are you going trekking?’
They’d just got back and now weren’t entirely sure where they’d go next, although eventually they’d re-enter India and go to Sikkim. Their journey – India, Nepal, India – was following the same pattern as mine, although they were spending longer in Nepal: one month.

Their names were Nadia and Ines. Nadia had just bought a hard-covered notebook made from handmade paper and intended using it to record her travels. She’d been keeping very brief hand-written notes, she said. Ines picked up the notebook.
  ‘It’s so light,’ she said.
It didn’t look light to me, but when Ines handed it to me I had the same sensation I’ve felt when holding a small bird – that the thing felt far lighter than it had any right to be: a kind of cognitive dissonance. It was my turn to exclaim with delight. Nadia looked pleased. I hoped she’d fill it with wonderful stories; I, however, was content with my Moleskine cahiers and my fountain pens, which wouldn’t at all suit rough handmade paper.

She looked across at my cahier and complimented my calligraphy. I thanked her but pointed out it wasn’t calligraphy, just handwriting. She smiled and shrugged.

Eventually I said I was just finishing and would leave them to their lunch. I’d enjoyed talking with them, and I left Pumpernickel thinking that despite my love of solitude and the company of animals and wild places, perhaps I fitted the true definition of an extrovert, even if I was far from the popular misconception. I’ve never been the life of the party, but meetings like that with Nadia and Ines often leave me with renewed energy.

The hotel manager had suggested a taxi to the airport would take only about 20 minutes in the morning. I found this difficult to believe after the trip to the hotel from the airport had taken about an hour, much of that stationary in Kathmandu’s infamous traffic. Consequently, I arranged an early taxi, but the manager was right. I’d forgotten it was Saturday, and the roads were almost free of traffic. I arrived at the airport for my flight to Nepalgunj at 6.40 a.m., comfortably within the final check-in time, only to find the Yeti Airlines counter for Flight 421 would open at 7.30. If I’d listened to the manager, I could have enjoyed a leisurely and comfortable breakfast at the hotel.

I settled down to wait, thankful for the small, grimy pad of blue closed-cell foam I carry on most of my journeys – every overseas trip, and every Ruahine trip for as long as I can remember. The cold metal airport seats were apparently designed for maximum discomfort, and I have no natural padding. That little blue pad, and the small roll of black electrical tape that’s fixed everything from holes in mosquito nets to adapter plugs falling out of wall sockets, are the most useful travel items I know, other than money.

In the seats in front of me, a group of middle-aged Japanese made last-minute adjustments to their carry-on bags. All wore trekking gear: down jackets, quick-drying trousers, light walking boots. Some carried serious camera gear. A distinguished-looking man in a silver puffer jacket looked out the windows and exclaimed in Japanese, pointing as he did so. A woman turned to look then got to her feet and hurried to the window.

A troop of macaques was running past. As the woman reached the window, a baby macaque sprinted past to catch up with the other monkeys. The woman called out in delight and crouched for a better view. After the monkeys had passed, she turned back and I smiled, showing I’d enjoyed the sight also.

She stopped and, searching for the words, said, ‘Monkeys. I think is very rare.’
I nodded, although I knew they were common.
  ‘In India, many monkeys,’ I said. It was all I could think of as a response.
She leaned towards me, listening carefully.
  ‘Ah so,’ she said, nodding. The phrase sounded so stereotypical it took me aback, and I didn’t know whether she understood. But that was beside the point: we’d shared the moment.

In the crowded departure lounge, I struck up a conversation with a young guy originally from New York State. Joe had been teaching English in Japan for two-and-a-half years and was spending his savings on travelling. His camera gear and other electronic paraphernalia weighed far more than the rest of his travel gear. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to make a profession of his photography.
  ‘People are reluctant to pay you to go to interesting places and take photos,’ he said. ‘Now everyone’s got their own camera or phone and they want their own photos.’

I agreed and pointed out the risk of killing the thing you love by trying to earn a living from it. He nodded. He was obviously serious about documenting his travels, and on several occasions he GoPro-ed sections of our journey: from Nepalgunj airport into town, where he tried unsuccessfully to withdraw cash from four different ATMs; on the bus leaving Nepalgunj; and on the bone-jarring, dust-drenched jeep ride from Ambassa to Thakurdwara, the village on the edge of Bardia National Park.

He was quiet, with a relaxed, gentle manner, and he looked a little like Matt Damon. After Bardia, he’d be doing a 14-day vipassana silence meditation. The contrast with Kathmandu and Nepalgunj couldn’t have been greater.

He showed me his book of postcards. Each page comprised the outline of an illustration to be hand-coloured, then the page could be removed to make a post-card. He opened the book to a picture of an octopus grasping a treasure chest.
  ‘I’m not artistic,’ he said, ‘so this is something I can do to show the person I’m writing to that I’m thinking of them.’

The colouring – fine and careful, with thoughtfully chosen hues – looked artistic to me, and I didn’t doubt whoever received one of his cards would know Joe had gone to great lengths for them. I told him about Monica and how she wrote postcards and loved writing by hand.
  ‘Some of my friends see me writing my postcards,’ he said, ‘and they say, “Pen and paper? Really? Does anyone even do that anymore?’

The plane departed over an hour late but neither of us was in any hurry. The flight ascended through Kathmandu’s choking brown smog into a clear sky; on the starboard side, the Himalaya shone huge and jagged. I recognised some mountains – Machapuchare, the Annapurna massif, Dhaulagiri – and watched as they slid past the window until eventually they ended abruptly and the horizon faded into low, blue hills. I knew the Himalaya continued far beyond, and on the edge of vision a few more big mountains rose like hope, but the apparent sudden end to those legendary mountains felt like the ending of a glorious age.

I couldn’t look at the Himalaya, particularly the mountains around Dhaulagiri, without thinking of Matthiessen and The Snow Leopard, and the memory afflicted me like grief. Matthiessen had gone now; he had become part of the history he created, and I wondered who could ever again travel the way he and Schaller had. The world is hyper-connected, sponsored, and commercialised, and everything is visible from space. Vanishing from the world the way Schaller and Matthiessen did might still be possible, but it would require such a deliberate effort that the essence would be lost. The time of the true explorers has gone, and perhaps that, too, is the end of a glorious age.

At the bus station in Nepalgunj, I walked fifty metres down the road to sit in a tiny dhaba and drink chai and watch ‘Animal fights’ on a small, grubby CRT TV. A young guy fiddled with the back of the set to try to improve the reception and yelped as he got a mild shock from some live wiring. The two girls at the back of the dhaba, laughed; so did I, and he joined in. He had enough English with which to hold a short conversation but very quickly exhausted his vocabulary, and in any case the bus conductor had come to fetch me.

The long bus ride provided plenty of opportunities for photographs, and I enjoyed gesturing to ask if I might photograph. The response was always positive. I showed one of the first photographs to a woman vendor crouched on a blanket where we stopped for a long time on the outskirts of town. She’d smiled at me and pulled two of her children close to be photographed, and when they saw the photograph on the camera’s LCD, the other children swarmed around, wanting to be part of the action. I obliged, and one little girl stood up, put her hands together high in front of her face and said, very clearly and deliberately, ‘Namaste.’
I returned the compliment. Her mother smiled, a tired, beautiful smile, the whole time.

I photographed others, too, and during the remainder of the journey I began thinking about returning to Nepalgunj and spending a few days there, getting some prints done and trying to find the people I’d photographed so I could give them the prints.

I ended up jammed in a backwards-facing seat, my bag on my lap and a young woman in pain leaning forwards resting her head on the bag. I think she had a bad toothache, so, assuming the woman sitting next to her was her mother, gave the older woman the remains of a packet of ibuprofen. It was all I could do and was little more than a gesture, but I wanted to do something.

I’d been receiving a lot of smiles, including many from women, which I’d found unusual in India. Later, back in India, I was to discover that this avoidance of eye contact wasn’t as obvious as I’d remembered, and I began to think perhaps I looked old and worn out enough to be harmless. One woman who smiled at me on the bus held a beautiful little baby with kohl-blackened eyes; the infant wore a faded red hoodie not unlike mine.

Subash and the jeep driver, whose name I never learned but whom I liked a lot for his good humour and obvious knowledge about the animals and birds, were waiting for us at Ambassa. We dropped Joe off at an intersection in Thakurdwara with instructions about how to get to his lodge, and I gave him one of my contact cards. We shook hands and I was once again a lone foreigner.

1. This all seems a long time ago now, even though it's only about a month. I'm now back in Delhi, moving on to Bharatpur tomorrow. I'll try to catch up a little with the posts, but delays will be inevitable.

1. Preparing street food in Thamel, Kathmandu. I'm annoyed with myself for not including the food in the photograph!
2. One of the wider, better-maintained streets.
3. The Himalaya from the Yeti Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj.
4. Our rickshaw passed another on the way from the airport to Nepalgunj. I waved the camera, got some laughs and nods, and managed a few photographs.
5. Typical street scene in Nepalgunj. Maybe a little quieter than typical, though.
6. Family at the bus stop on the outskirts of Nepalgunj.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

26 November 2016

First days in India

At about half past five in the morning, the Sikh procession to the temple started up in the alley outside my room. The singing and drumming and clashing of what sounded like tambourines grew louder, peaking as it passed my window, then suddenly faded, not because they’d run out of enthusiasm, but because they’d turned the corner in the narrow alley. I didn’t mind being woken. The singing was surprisingly tuneful, the rhythm of the drum complex and interesting. Besides, the thought of a group of men kicking up a din like that at half past five in the morning in a New Zealand town was inconceivable – so much so that, even half asleep, I laughed a little. I was back in India and knew it beyond all doubt.

I dropped back to sleep but still woke early and knew I’d be unable to sleep more. I got up and walked down Chandi Wali Gali to see if I could withdraw some cash from the ATM in Main Bazaar near the end of the alley. A young guy fell in beside me as I walked.
   ‘You want something to smoke?’ he said. ‘I got weed, hash, what you like.’
   ‘No, I don’t want anything,’ I said, pleasantly enough, and although he continued to accompany me to the end of the alley, he clearly knew I was a lost cause. I had enough smoke in my lungs from Delhi’s awful pollution and didn’t want more.

The ease with which he gave up surprised me a little, but over the next few days I noticed the same thing: the few people who bothered trying to sell me something gave up quickly. Perhaps they had other things on their minds, like how on earth they were going to exchange their old 500 and 1000 rupee notes for valid currency after Prime Minister Modi had announced, out of the blue (or, more aptly, out of the brown-tinged blue-grey smog), that those notes were now useless and had either to be deposited into a bank account or exchanged for the new notes when those finally became available.

The consequence, as I soon discovered, was chaos: huge queues outside every bank and functional ATM. People with most of their cash in the form of 500 and 1000 rupee notes suddenly found themselves unable to buy anything; only 100 rupee notes and lesser denominations had any currency (so to speak).

The consequences for me were awkward, too. I had only a few hundred rupees and no hope of getting anywhere near a bank or ATM. When that cash had gone – and it’s easy to burn through far more than that in just a day – I’d be forced to rely on using my cash passport card, meaning my choices of where to eat would be limited to the more expensive, up-market restaurants. I wouldn’t be able to hire a rickshaw to get around, so I’d be limited to walking distance of Pahar Ganj; I couldn’t get to places like the Lodi Gardens or Haus Khas complex, where I could enjoy the relative peace and quiet, nor the birds, which were another important reason I was drawn back to India. I wouldn’t even be able to buy chai – no chai wallah accepts a card to pay 10 rupees for one of the great delights of daily life in India.

I wasn’t alone in this problem. At the smallest of the several Coffee Day places in Connaught Place, I met a small foreigner with a thin crew cut and vaguely hippie attire, including a double necklace of beads and a woven red shoulder-bag with tassels. He looked somewhere in his 60s and spoke slowly, like his actions, with a heavy accent. He asked where I came from, and when I said New Zealand he told me one of his friends, from Alaska, was travelling there. Mostly, though, he kept worrying about not having any cash. Like me, he was at the Coffee Day because they accepted cards; the passable food and coffee and friendly service was a bonus.
He was from Switzerland and had intended spending a month in Goa but was now in such a state of despair he was even contemplating flying out of India.
   ‘I have no money,’ he said, opening his hands wide. ‘I fly to Goa, but how I get from the airport to my hostel?’
That might be possible using a taxi that accepted cards, but his more general point was valid. For the time being, I was relaxed enough, knowing I wouldn’t be travelling onwards for at least another five days, but if I still hadn’t managed to withdraw cash from an ATM or bank as my departure date approached, I’d probably be getting as anxious as the little Swiss man.

Perhaps this, too, was part of the reason for the lack of energy among the traders along Main Bazaar. If the tourists – Indian as well as foreign – had to conserve what little cash they might have, they wouldn’t easily be persuaded to buy something they didn’t need. The most persistent were the drivers of auto and pedal-powered rickshaws, who had no doubt noticed a big upswing in the number of tourists walking to Connaught Place rather than taking a ride. As the days wore on, I was increasingly followed by drivers who insisted that cash was available, despite all evidence to the contrary. They must have been getting desperate as demand for their services dried up, and although I felt bad about not being able to use them, I couldn’t.

At breakfast one morning, I shared a table with a young, dark-haired woman struggling with the spiciness of the puri. She described herself as being from ‘the German part of France’, France being a country she clearly had a low opinion of. When, later, I asked where she’d most like to live, she laughed gently and replied, ‘Anywhere but France.’ The French accent in English, she said, was horrible. This surprised me, partly because her accent closely resembled a French accent, but mostly because I’d always liked it and thought it particularly appealing. But, no, she insisted, it was awful.

She was travelling alone through Rajasthan. The usual places: Jaipur, Pushkar, Udaipur, back to Jodhpur. Her boyfriend, an Indian, had been called home to help with a family problem, but before he’d left, he’d not only booked her entire itinerary but had paid for everything as well. She smiled often – a lovely smile – most often when mentioning him. She would meet his family soon, she said, but this time her smile looked anxious rather than joyful.
   ‘He’s the last one,’ she said. ‘Her mother made him, and now I’m taking him away.’
It was an odd way of saying it but an accurate way of looking at it, and I feared the meeting might justify her anxiety. I didn’t voice that, though, not wishing to reinforce it. She sounded like a young person overwhelmed by new love, but she didn’t sound naïve. I think she wanted to tell someone what she felt and feared, and I hope I listened the way she wanted. She hesitated as she left, as if she was going to say something else, but in the end we just exchanged the usual niceties: good to meet you, hope your travels go well, and so on.

That afternoon, I’d almost got back to my hostel when I remembered the tea shop I’d visited on my previous journeys to India. I turned back and walked the short distance to the main chowk. The proprietor of the tea shop was leaning at the entrance to his shop, eating an apple. As I approached, he saw me and began smiling, and when I was still a few metres away he held out his hand. I shook it and he offered me half his apple. I refused politely, so he broke the half and offered me a quarter. I thanked him and refused again, as politely as possible. We’d only spoken for a few minutes when he ordered chai for us and ushered me into the gloom of his little shop. His friend, a small, traditionally dressed woman with an impish manner that matched her smile, joined us and switched on a dim lamp, apparently chastising him for leaving his guest in the dark. She had even less English than I had Hindi.

The proprietor’s name was Mr Bal Singh. ‘B.A.L.,’ he said, spelling it out for me. He asked how old I was. I told him and he looked gleeful.
   ‘Sixty-seven,’ he said, pointing to himself. He pointed to his friend – he always referred to her as his friend – and said, ‘She is thirty-seven. No marriage.’

He asked how many children I had and uttered a little ‘Oh,’ of sympathy when I said I had none. The status of his friend remained unclear. They clearly regarded each other with great affection, but he freely offered the information that his wife was back in the Punjab. He pointed again at his friend.
   ‘She is from UP,’ he said (Uttar Pradesh). ‘No marriage,’ he repeated, as if determined to make me understand she was still available for a prospective husband.

I felt bad I couldn’t buy tea from him and promised to do so when I could finally withdraw some cash. It wasn’t an idle promise, and I was looking forward to buying some white tea or first flush Darjeeling from him.

However, I had other priorities for my meagre remaining cash, like using it to buy a cheap meal from the one of the dhabas opposite New Delhi Railway Station: specifically, the Capital Hotel Restaurant; ‘100% Pure Vegetarian’. It was an upmarket name for a small restaurant with a kitchen on the street and no front, but I liked the atmosphere, the staff treated me with a kind of amiable amusement, and the food was cheap and good.
I asked the waiter about the difference between dal fry urad and dal fry arahar.
 ‘Urad means black,’ he said, ‘arahar means yellow.’
As simple as that. I ordered dal makhani urad with ‘half rice’ – a reference to the amount, not type – and a plain naan. It was delicious, it cost just 85 rupees, and I ate the lot.

I walked into town early one morning, thinking I might find an open ATM without a queue. I did, but there was a reason for the lack of queues: any ATM open was out of service. I looked questioningly at a man who had just stepped away from one.
   ‘No cash,’ he said, and shrugged. It was hard to tell whether the gesture was one of resignation or despair.

As I’d walked down Chelmsford Road towards Connaught Place, a small but strongly-built man fell in step beside me. Inevitably, he wanted to know where I was from, and after I’d told him and he’d noted that New Zealand was a small but beautiful country, I pointed out it had just had a big earthquake. He laughed happily, but I was sure he had no idea what I was saying.

I asked whether he worked in town – a stupid question, but he understood I was interested in talking with him.
   ‘I am a yoga teacher,’ he said. ‘I work there,’ and he waved at much of Delhi.
He had a swastika tattoed on his forehead. In many countries this would have seen him abused, avoided, or even beaten up – or, unfortunately, accepted into the fold – but here it would have added to his gravitas as a teacher. When we parted ways at Connaught Circus, he offered me advice about where to find tourist information like free maps of Delhi. I’d heard it all innumerable times before, but this time I think he was genuinely trying to be helpful. I liked him.

At breakfast I shared a table with a mother and daughter from London. Andretta, the mother, was quietly spoken and gentle; Perrin was more animated and talkative. Andretta had just two weeks in India. Perrin would stay until January, meeting her boyfriend in Goa before flying south with him to Pondicherry.  Today they’d booked a day tour to Agra. Perrin admitted this rather than sharing it with me; she seemed aware  that this was the most touristy thing anyone could do in India. I assured her that with limited time and the cash problem still acute, a tour with all expenses paid using a card was a sensible idea.

They were good company, and if they’d invited me to join them, which I suspect they’d have done if they’d thought I was interested, I’d have seriously considered it, not because I wanted to see the Taj Mahal – I have far more interest in NOT seeing it. But they had to leave hurriedly for their tour, and I had things to do before I could have joined them. I was looking forward to hearing about their trip, but I never met them again.

I walked back to Connaught Place later in the morning – my life seemed to have reduced to a series of walks between there and Pahar Ganj, along with increasing frustration and concern about the inaccessibility of cash – and ate lunch at the Coffee Day where I’d met the Swiss man, whom I suspected I was beginning to resemble in my grumbling about cash. The place was empty of other customers, other than a young couple sitting at the mezzanine window. They appeared to spend more time on their phones than they did talking to each other, or, more accurately, she – fashionably dressed and heavily made up – spent much of the time on her phone while he talked and they shared the chore of taking selfies. When she wasn’t concentrating on her phone, she studied herself in the mirror wall, sometimes overtly, sometimes surreptitiously.

The sound system played Dido’s ‘White flag’ yet again. The floor trembled, although no one was walking around, and I thought of New Zealand and my badly shaken friends. The old, tattered, oily-looking house crow cawed occasionally from the safety of its usual high perch on one of the shop signs slung beneath the balcony, and two pigeons fought viciously, going for the neck and head, until one finally threw the other off the edge. Birds have an advantage like that: throw them over a cliff and they just fly off. What’s fatal for us is an escape for them.

Down on the ground outside the café, four men loitering around a small, grubby, white, four-door VW were engaged in some kind of negotiation that involved repeated rapid counting of notes from a huge wad of what looked like 500 or 1000 rupee notes. I’d seldom paid attention to banknotes, but now my own lack of them made me acutely aware of the sight. This must be a little like being desperately poor, I thought, except I wasn’t. I had plenty of money for the start of the trip; I just had almost no cash.

As I looked down from the window – I’d commandeered the young couple’s table after they’d gone, she carefully checking herself in the mirror as she descended the stairs – a foreigner with a striking resemblance to a mate back in Palmerston North, walked past in an olive-dun t-shirt, poison green knee length shorts, and a small backpack. He looked worn out, defeated. I wondered what Greg would make of the chaos of India, and the thought of his reaction cheered me and even made me smile a little.

When I left, I strolled around, noticing everything and wondering why I felt so joyful at the sight of things most people would consider squalor or worse: a crow pecking at a dead rat; plastered walls stained with probably unspeakable filth; rubbish everywhere; scrawny dogs, some with mange, curled up asleep on broken footpaths or looking up at me with slow, sad eyes as I walked past. Maybe it was all so hopeless that the only thing left was hope – hope for something, anything better. Or maybe it was the encouragement that when everything was as awful as it could be, life was not only still possible, but possible to enjoy. The yoga teacher lived in this every day, like millions of others, yet he took the opportunity to enjoy a conversation with me.

In the end, I didn’t know why I felt so happy. All the reasons I could think of felt like rationalisations. I was happy. What more did I need?

Several days after arriving in Delhi, the queues at the banks and ATMs showed no sign of abating. Unusually, breakfast was a little late appearing in the hostel’s rooftop eating area, so I walked down the alleyway to Main Bazaar to check the ATMs there. They were all closed, of course, but the late start to breakfast gave me a chance to scribble a few lines while I waited, and I noticed someone at another table also writing diligently by hand in a notebook. Middle-aged, with short, greying hair, she looked French. She wore a loose, pale scarf, a tan top, and loose red trousers. Her reading glasses were fashionable, with dark red frames.

As I steeped my tea bag (I hadn’t been able to buy tea from Mr Singh, so had to resort to the hostel’s bags), I commented on her writing by hand.
   ‘I thought I was the only one,’ I said, gesturing to my table with my pens and cahier.
She laughed and looked delighted.
   ‘I write postcards, too,’ she said.
   ‘I didn’t know you could still get them.’
   ‘They’re hard to find,’ she said, in the accent the German-French woman had thought so horrible and I thought so delightful, ‘but even the …,’ she hesitated, and raised her hands to mime photographing, ‘… the digital people like them.’
   ‘It must be a delight to get one,’ I said, and she smiled.
   ‘It’s an effort.’
I think she meant the digital people appreciated the effort. I guess you can’t write a postcard now without a lot of effort, at least in trying to buy or make one.

We talked a little about writing by hand.
   ‘It’s so tactile,’ she said. I agreed.
   ‘I love the physical sensation of writing by hand,’ I said, but then the breakfast man, small, young, and sombre, interrupted us to check her room number.
   ‘Oh,’ she said, putting her hands to her face, ‘I think it’s …,’ and she mentioned a number I didn’t hear.
   ‘Monica,’ she said, and looked at his clipboard. ‘Yes, that’s me.’
   ‘Two people?’ he asked.
   ‘Yes. My daughter is still sleeping. They sleep a lot at that age.’
We both laughed, and I took my tea back to my table and we resumed writing. Monica’s daughter never appeared while I was there, but a young, strong-looking guy in camo shorts, faded black t-shirt, and a military-style peaked cap came and sat down at her table. He pulled his phone out of the cargo pocket in his shorts and began studying it. I never heard him utter a word, and whenever I looked up from my writing he was still focused on his phone. Even while eating his breakfast with one hand he used the other to peck and swipe at his phone. I saw him later, sitting on the steps of the hostel, smoking a cigarette and taking care to avoid eye contact.

As the days wore on, all I was achieving was a strengthening level of belief that the cash crisis wouldn’t resolve itself any time soon. Despite this, I kept getting reassurances that not only was the crisis starting to show signs of improving, it was already over. Sometimes these were obvious attempts to get me to part with what little cash I had left, but more often they seemed like genuine efforts to ease my worries, even if that meant bending the truth to breaking point.

One evening after dark, I struck up a conversation with a man sitting outside the inappropriately named Drunkyard café in Main Bazaar. Mustafah looked to be in his early thirties, with a thin beard, a good nature, and excellent English. He sympathised with my situation and pointed out how it wasn’t just the tourists having difficulty. He told me what I already knew: that the locals needed somehow not only to get cash but deposit into a bank account whatever 500 and 1000 rupee notes they were stuck with. He also confirmed my suspicions that the vendors in Pahar Ganj (and presumably everywhere in India) had noticed a definite downturn in business as buying reduced to what was essential. The impact on the Indian economy must have been enormous.

I saw Mustafah the following day, in Connaught Place. He was standing at the back of a queue outside a bank, and looked startled, then pleased I’d recognised him. We chatted briefly, and I asked how long he thought he’d have to wait. He shrugged and wobbled his head in the typical Indian gesture that means whatever you’d like it to mean.
   ‘About an hour,’ he said.
I thought briefly of joining the queue, and in hindsight I should have, but instead I shook hands with Mustafah and carried on.

By now, I was thinking seriously of flying to Nepal, where I could spend a few weeks enjoying cash, inexpensive living, and Bardia National Park. At some point in the trip I had to leave India and return because each stay was limited to a maximum of 90 days, so I might as well do that early in the trip instead of leaving it until near the end. I found a cheap flight online and later that day allowed myself to be ushered into one of the innumerable ‘official government’ tourist offices, where I was quoted just over twice the price for the same flight to Kathmandu, with the assurance that this was the absolute cheapest flight available. No thanks.

Back at the hostel, I got back online and found the cheap flight and booked it.

I was leaving India and going to Nepal.

1. The quality of these photographs relies mostly on guesswork and the major shortcomings of android tablets. I hope they're OK.

1. Sukhnath, one of the workers at a joinery in Basanta Road, Pahar Ganj. I think he may have been the foreman.
2. The cash crisis was headline news in India, and the television crews were out filming the queues.
3. Mr Bal Singh, of the Uttam Tea Centre in Pahar Ganj.
4. For the cattle, though, it was life as usual.
5. This dog isn't dead. It had just made itself comfortable in a pothole in the niddle of one of the alleys behind Main Bazaar, and assumed (correctly) that the motorbikes and scooters would avoid it.
6. Rickshaw downtime.
7. Subash, a vendor at the New Delhi Railway Station end of Main Bazaar.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

13 November 2016


I was leaving the valley in November, when the season couldn’t decide whether it was spring or autumn. Everything seemed to be waiting for a decision except for the birds, which had clearly decided this was the time to reproduce. The starlings had made that decision early – not surprising, for such an intelligent and unfairly maligned bird – and already, unseen broods squealed from the nest box on top of the deer fence and from the inside of the rolled-up, disused roller door hanging from the roof of the implement shed next to my car. Those chicks must have had hearing as well developed as their inability to distinguish the bearer of food from the bringer of horrible death. Maybe when I walked past to my car, I sounded more like a parent starling than a rat, stoat, or cat, or maybe they knew they were safe from all those predators. More likely, the only part of their tiny baby brains that had developed was the part that recognised insatiable hunger.

The sparrows had taken longer to decide to nest, or perhaps their nests had required more effort, because they’d only now finished their incessant flights with beaks full of dry grass, baler twine, chook feathers, and anything else capable of being woven into a nest. Now, they did little other than mate, and they did so with a diligence that suggested practice did NOT make perfect. Every time I glanced out the kitchen window, it seemed, they were at it.

At some stage the sparrows would presumably stop shagging, the female would lay the last of her eggs, and incubation would begin. I wouldn’t get to enjoy the sound of tiny blind sparrow chicks squeaking in the kitchen ceiling, though. I’d be long gone by then. The likelihood was high that I’d be listening instead to the caw of crows, the chattering babble of rose-tinted parakeets, the murmur of various kinds of doves, the clockwork chikking of palm squirrels, and the sound of lots of other animals and birds, too, almost none to be found in New Zealand.

And not just the sounds of wildlife, either. Mostly, I’d be hearing the cacophony of human activity – a sometimes ear-splitting shrieking and bellowing and roaring – from an almost inconceivable number of people: one point two something billion, in fact, and more by the day. Maybe by the minute. Sometimes, sitting in an auto-rickshaw in a sea of blaring traffic, each vehicle little more than a layer of paint from its neighbours, I’d wonder whether the entire 1.2 billion had converged on where I happened to be trapped. It should have been a nightmare but it wasn’t. I was looking forward to it, and I didn’t know why.

The contrast between where I was, in a quiet, beautiful, out-of-the-way valley in an out-of-the-way, by world standards almost unpopulated, corner of the world, could hardly have been greater. I love the valley, and I knew I’d miss my friends – not just the human friends, but the chooks and pigeons, and the wild birds making themselves at home in and around my home; the deer, especially the wild deer who so often visited the hill only a few hundred metres from my back door; the rabbits, who I hoped would survive until I returned at the end of February; the scraggly sheep always on the lookout to be hand-fed old bread or vegetable scraps (the sheep who used my house as a scratching post and who inadvertently bashed their heads on the underside of my floor when they sheltered there in bad weather or on cold nights); and even the little spiders who hung about in the corners and the mason wasps who built their clay nests in all sorts of inconvenient places inside the house. So many other kinds of animals, too – I knew I’d miss them all, yet I was still looking forward to my time in India, now only a few days away.

I thought of all those friends I’d be leaving, and a gentle melancholy settled on me.

 ‘See you in three-and-a-half months,’ I said.

1. I'm in New Delhi now. The long journey here proved surprisingly comfortable (a relative term, of course). All I need to do now is find an ATM that isn't attached to a queue of several hundred people: my arrival coincided with Prime Minister Modi's surprise announcement that banknotes of 500 and 1000 rupees were being immediately withdrawn. I can use my cards for some things, but not the small, essential, everyday things like, ... well, ... eating. Looks as if I'll have to eat at expensive restaurants that accept cards :-( 

1. This is my current problem: every functional ATM looks like this or worse.
2. But I'm still enjoying India. This is Mr Bal Singh, proprieter of the Uttam tea centre ('Tea, Spices, Saffron'). I met him on my first trip to India, and each time I've returned, he's greeted me with a smile of recognition and a hand outstretched to shake. He bought me chai, and we sat in his little shop and tried our best to converse. 

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

10 September 2016

Suppositions about a man and his rabbits

Suppose a man had been watching rabbits in his front paddock all summer, and on all through autumn, and into winter when most rabbits would have disappeared because they’d been killed by the cold and rain or by other men with guns who shoot rabbits because they consider them pests that eat grass that sheep could eat, or just because they like shooting things, especially things that die when you shoot them.

This man, however, doesn’t like shooting rabbits, although he used to do that when he was younger and hadn’t yet learned to think maybe rabbits were more than just meat and fur, muscle and bone, blood and brain. Now he likes to watch them: the way they scamper about, thinking rabbit thoughts and eating grass and weeds and sometimes something from the vegetable garden which now lies dormant and untended in the middle of winter, so the rabbits aren't really pests. He watches them stretch like cats, with their front paws outstretched and their bums in the air, and then the long ripple as their arses lower and their back legs stretch out, first one, then the other, and their shoulders rise up, and finally their back legs and bums catch up with the rest of the rabbit’s body and they look like real rabbits again, not cats or other yoga gurus.

Now suppose one day months ago in the summer this man saw a small rabbit, not long out of its mother’s nest — a small rabbit with a curious kink in both ears so the man knew instantly that this rabbit was the one that would appear in the paddock in front of his kitchen window — and because he never saw it actually arrive from somewhere but always saw it just the instant after it materialised like Spock being transported from the Enterprise to the paddock in front of this man’s kitchen but without the sparkly CGI effects of the transporter, so the rabbit was just there like Spock but instantly, among the sheep and a prowling magpie and the earthworms being yanked out of the damp ground and eaten by thirteen blackbirds, and suppose this man saw the rabbit grow, until by the middle of winter it was a big healthy happy rabbit still with kinked ears.

Wouldn’t this man get a little buzz of happiness every time he saw that rabbit nibbling grass there in his paddock? Wouldn’t he sometimes open the door very slowly and quietly, and softly and slowly walk along the verandah and sit on one of the old blue chairs and enjoyably and deliciously drink his bowl of Yunnan Dian Hong Ancient Wild Tree black tea and just sit there for a little while, delighted, as the evening grew dark? Wouldn’t he just sit there with the rabbit for a few minutes while nothing mattered except the warmth and taste of the tea and the soft fading light and the fresh cold of the night brushing his face and the rabbit with kinked ears not too close but not too far away either? Wouldn’t he do this? Probably he would.

Suppose, too, that this man also saw two other rabbits in his paddock, and these two were already full grown healthy rabbits when he first saw them, and neither had kinked ears but he knew these were the same rabbits because they always hung out together and one was slightly larger than the other, and when you’ve watched animals for long enough they begin to become individuals even though you can’t put your finger on exactly why this one’s that rabbit and not another one.

Suppose he sometimes saw these two and the rabbit with kinked ears in the paddock at the same time. Then he’d know he had three rabbits living healthy happy lives, month after month, in front of his house, wouldn’t he? This is undeniable because you don’t see three simultaneous rabbits and say you have only two in your front paddock. You might have more than three because, well, you know what rabbits are famous for, but we’re talking simultaneous rabbits here, so the best you can say is you have at least three rabbits living in your front paddock.

So let's suppose this man had three rabbits (at least) living in his front paddock, along with at least thirteen blackbirds, and on the small hill behind his house he had at least ten wild deer (seen on one occasion simultaneously) visiting from time to time, and let’s also suppose he had three chooks and six pigeons, and a kingfisher in the magnolia, and a pair of putangitangi in the back paddock, and a pair of spur-winged plovers in one or another of the paddocks, and magpies and tui and korimako and starlings and sparrows and yellowhammers and goldfinches, and at least one kahu cruising slowly around the edge of the terrace hoping for roadkill, and lots more birds and other animals besides, not to mention all the wonderful little armoured spineless things living everywhere (some even sharing the house with him). Let’s suppose that.

Wouldn’t he be a happy man? Probably he would. This is undeniable.

Now let’s suppose one night he’s in his kitchen with the curtains drawn, and suddenly he hears a gunshot, and, soon after, he hears another one, and he jumps up and looks out into the black night and sees a spotlight sweeping across the front paddock (which is not actually his but belongs to his neighbours) and the light’s sliding across the part of the paddock where his rabbits hang out. (He thinks of the rabbits as his now, even though he knows they’re not, but they sure as hell belong to no one else.)

Let’s suppose this, but here’s where the supposing stops, because you’d then have to suppose what the man would feel, and that’s not something anyone should have to feel, even though they’re only rabbits.

1. '...other men with guns who shoot rabbits ...'  — this is not intended as condemnation of all hunters, nor hunting in general.

1 & 2. Rabbits in this man's front paddock
3. Spur-winged plover pair at Massey University

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

26 July 2016

Aliens drink in the old New Railway Hotel

We met at the café as arranged, but she’d no sooner arrived than she wanted to go to a pub.

‘The one over there,’ she said, waving towards half of Palmerston North. I tried to think of pubs in that general direction, but because I don’t frequent pubs and seldom drive in that area of the city, I couldn’t think which one she meant. We started walking, and she led me further away from the centre of the city.

‘The old one over there,’ she said, pointing to the New Railway Hotel which was, as she’d indicated, old, not new. I asked whether she knew what it was like, but my question was more a statement — a warning, in fact — than a question. She laughed a little, but was that a note of apprehension in her voice?

We stepped inside and an old man studying the dregs of his beer looked up. He looked shocked. So too did the half dozen haggard guys leaning on one of the bench tables on the far side of the bar. Every pair of eyes in the place looked at us. Even the guys slumped over with their backs to us sat up and turned around and stared, no doubt alerted to this extraordinary sight by the stunned expressions on their mates’ faces.

Perhaps the shock arose from seeing someone new, but I suspect it had little to do with me and everything to do with the sudden appearance of an attractive woman. In the entire time we spent there, the clientele remained resolutely male, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a week passed without that bar being graced by the presence of a woman. Maybe the atmosphere would change on a Saturday night, but I couldn’t guess, because this was late on a Thursday afternoon.

The eyes followed us. I didn’t need to see them to know. Her presence must surely have encouraged the barflies to make a special effort to return on subsequent Thursday afternoons — not that encouragement to frequent the old New Railway Hotel looked necessary — hoping she might return one day, preferably alone. Hope, though, had seemed, if not in desperately short supply, at least not evident, but now just enough of it had been kindled to be dashed. Even while we were there, it began to fade, and our own conversation turned out to be more animated, and possibly louder, than the subdued murmuring from the sombre men. We were enjoying ourselves, but whether they were wasn’t certain. It’s possible, of course, that their conversation livened up after we left and they were free to speculate.

The old man disappeared while we ordered drinks. His expression suggested he couldn’t cope with the apparition that had just walked through the door, but maybe he’d just been unsettled by the disruption of the usual pattern of his Thursday afternoons, or maybe he’d finished his beer and was about to leave, although that last hypothesis seemed the least likely.

Adrian, the barman, was big and bearded and young and my friend’s request for a gin and soda stumped him. He stood there, not sure how to respond, until she rescued him by suggesting perhaps a gin and tonic would be easier if they didn’t have any soda, but even that almost defeated him until he remembered they had little bottles of premixed gin and tonic. He disappeared and returned with a tiny bottle of Gordon’s. He popped the top off and placed it on the bar, where it began rapidly beading with condensation. A glass wasn’t forthcoming, but she was happy to swig it from the bottle, and I liked her more for that.

Adrian asked what I wanted. I had a choice of four identical beers with different names, so I chose an Export Gold. He stood waiting. I wondered what I’d forgotten to say, but this time it was his turn to rescue me.

‘Handle?’ he said.

‘Yeah. Thanks,’ I said, and he drew a handle.

The bar did have EFTPOS: we hadn’t, as I’d begun to wonder, stepped through a wormhole and tumbled into the mid twentieth century. While she paid, we chatted with Adrian, who had recovered from his cognitive dissonance and told us how the even older, historic building across the road was scheduled for imminent demolition. It had been gutted by fire, and while the insurance would cover some of the losses, the building couldn’t be insured unless it was fire-proofed, and (here’s the catch) the insurance company wouldn’t pay for fire-proofing because it hadn’t been in place when the fire had ripped through — if it had, the fire wouldn’t have gutted the building. Something didn’t feel right about that, but I had better things to do than whinge about insurance companies, which in any case was too easy.

We took our drinks to the table vacated by the old guy. All the seating comprised bar stools at bench tables designed to accommodate large numbers of people standing, with the tabletops being about the right height on which to lean hairy tattooed forearms while their owners assessed how much beer remained in their handles. Suspended out of reach, a TV screened Indian Premier League cricket while another showed greyhound racing, but no one was watching.

A sign near the bar said ‘He rules the roost but I rule the rooster’. No one seemed to be ruling anything, though.

A guy in casual clothes and a daypack arrived. Despite the midwinter cold, he wore jandals, and this impressed my friend. As he ambled past she remarked on his footwear but he took it in his stride. He was an electrician, he said, so he wore work boots all day.

‘Bit of a relief to get out of them?’ I said, and he nodded. He’d just come up from Christchurch, which was even colder and damper than Palmerston North, making his choice of footwear even more impressive.

‘Tough guy,’ she said, making it sound like a compliment, and he pretended not to hear. He, at least, had a chance of fitting in, but we were and always would be aliens in the bar of the old New Railway Hotel, and even if we’d struck up a conversation with the sombre barflies on the far side of the room, we’d have remained misfits, aberrations, the Other who didn’t and couldn’t belong. Even with the best of intentions and a genuine effort to fit in and to understand attitudes that might have differed wildly from our own, we couldn’t fit in because we had no shared experience — well, I had no shared experience of any significance even if I’d been able to guess what that might have been. I didn’t know her well enough to speak for her, although her previous occupations might have given her some contact with people who had that kind of experience: the kind, in other words, that resulted in long periods in bars like the Railway Hotel on afternoons when luckier people were working and earning an adequate wage.

I’d been thinking along those lines when I realised, to my shame, that I’d been speculating wildly, making enormous assumptions about the circumstances that had left those men (who might actually have been members of a local philosophy group) melancholy and muttering quietly among themselves, but I had no basis for what I imagined other than what I’d imagined. I’d assumed their conversation most probably focused on sport or cars — undoubtedly Holdens vs Fords — and possibly a little about politics; and I’d imagined opinions were in short supply compared to statements of obvious fact; and questions, … well, what were those? Questions are admissions of weakness among blokes, for whom questions are redundant because they already know the answers.

But, as I've said, I was speculating (itself an admission I don’t qualify as a real bloke, because in real-bloke conversations the indicators of speculation — ‘maybe’, and ‘perhaps’, and suchlike — don’t occur; they’ve been replaced by indicators of certainty, like ‘the fact is...’, or ‘the real reason why...’), and I might have been way off the mark. For all I knew, the quiet men might have been having a deep, civilised colloquy about the merits of a deontological approach to resolving homelessness, or about semiotics and the novels of Jane Austen.

In the end, I decided I was probably wrong about everything. The one thing I might have been right about, I decided, was that even if we’d wanted to fit into the inner circle gathered around that rectangular table, we couldn’t.

1. The barman's name has been changed.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor