19 October 2020

The Gardener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes. Lots of homework.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Would you like to see it?’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were both unsure what else to say.

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

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

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



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

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

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

24 September 2020

The magpie

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

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

10 September 2020

The Hermit Marshes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Egret at Bharatpur, India

2. Plain Prinia at Bardia, Nepal

3. Trisul from Kausani, India

4. White wagtail at Bardia, Nepal

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

05 August 2020

Verandah thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

09 April 2020

The Birds of Udaipur

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

Udaipur, Friday 20 December 2019

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

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

Udaipur, Saturday 21 December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

18 February 2020

A Train of Thought

Bundi to Udaipur, Wednesday 18 December 2019

  • The platform signs at Bundi Railway Station are useless. They don’t say which train’s arriving; they just exhort passengers to travel with the correct ticket. When a train arrives at approximately the right time, I have to assume it’s mine. At least it has a coach labelled S1, and I find seat 44; I also find it’s occupied by a supine shrouded figure that could just as easily be a corpse as someone sleeping. The coach is mostly empty, though, so I take the seat opposite and eventually work out how to drop the second-tier seat so I can sit upright.
  • Twenty to thirty minutes after departure, I watch an Egyptian vulture circling low over the sere, thorny landscape of Rajasthan. A woman in saffron tends a small flock of goats.
  • The conductor’s a middle-aged woman. She consults her list and, as I open the ticket on my phone, she pre-empts me and says, ‘Peter?’ A yes from me is good enough for her. No need to produce my passport. It’s nice to be trusted.
  • Fields edged with hedgerows of Euphorbia. I notice a newly-planted row and think Euphorbia would make an excellent hedge. Anything willing to force through a Euphorbia hedge would deserve the rewards on the other side.
  • Mandalgarh arrives after an hour.
  • Looking out at this hard land, I realise I love waste lands and places where human life is marginal. I’m almost overwhelmed by a sense of the significance of these moments in making up my life; the feeling almost breaks my heart. Is this wabi sabi?
  • By the railway lines, three structures that look like graves, each with two headstones. To believe that this is what they are would be unbearable.
  • Many dead animals along the embankments. A dog pulls at the intestines of a bloated cow; the front of a calf has been reduced to a red-and-white skeleton and the dark skin has shrivelled over the back half of the animal.
  • At Bassi, a lunch stop. Someone in the coach is farting brazenly. Fortunately, I’m far enough away to be unaffected.
  • The train leaves Bassi at 4.10 pm, and already the strength has started to go from the sun. 
  • Shadows lengthen and the first cold creeps in through the window. Someone has lit a smoky fire on the edge of a field. I have always been travelling; I am travelling forever.
  • Coal yards near Chittorgarh — the huge piles absorb light like black holes, collapsed stars, the ruins of existence. Behind the yards rises a huge, filthy, smoking industrial plant: Blake’s vision of dark satanic mills reified.
  • At Chittorgarh, kids reel invisible string that binds them to sky-high skittering kites as choking smoke drifts along between the tracks and the road and men drag their wheelie bags along the platform as they talk to their phones. The hacked-off limbs of trees lie where they’ve fallen, waiting to be turned into fuel to create more smoke and maybe a little heat. Where there’s smoke there’s fire — but, in India, not always.
  • Egrets, crows, Peafowl, Brahminy starlings, Red-vented bulbuls, Greenshanks, Black-winged stilts, Red-wattled lapwings, the Egyptian vulture, pigeons, doves, drongos, swifts cutting the air, a pied starling.
  • A small herd of sleek, healthy Nilgai, all females except for one bull. More Nilgai appear as the train speeds past.
  • A flock of parakeets, peppermint-green in the evening sun.
  • Old men wearing white lungis, last century’s tweed sports jackets, and brilliant vermillion turbans.
  • At a quarter to six, the sun is a huge orange disc burning on the horizon.
  • The chimneys of a brickworks pour filthy black smoke into the sky.

I’d enjoyed most of the train journey. The coach had been close to empty, with just a handful of other passengers, and I’d spent most of the time gazing out the window, letting my thoughts and feelings drift where they liked, occasionally scribbling notes and impressions and observations. After dark, though, I could see almost nothing except the inside of the coach, and although sleeper-class coaches on Indian trains can be … let's say, interesting, the novelty wears off quickly. I was keen to get to Udaipur.
The manager of the Nandini guest house showed me my room, explained the hot water system, and said he’d come back with some warmer bedding, a towel, soap, and a toilet roll.
   ‘I don’t need a toilet roll.’
   He grinned and said, ‘Like an Indian.’
   I told him I’d been to India four times and he looked pleased. He came back shortly after with a towel, soap, a big thick fluffy blanket, and a small sheet-like thing he called a comforter. I couldn’t imagine it providing much comfort of any sort, but I appreciated the thought. I settled in quickly and walked up the road to the Lotus Café for an excellent navratan korma. I liked Udaipur already.

Udaipur, Thursday 19 December 2019

I had no plans for the day other than walking around, deciding where to go next, looking for birds — I hoped I’d be able to find and photograph the Bank mynas — and spending some time on the roof of the Nandini catching up on transcribing handwritten notes. I had some emailing to take care of, too, and I was disappointed that I’d been thinking too much about a job offer I’d just received and whether I’d be able to move back into the place where I’d been living for the last twenty years. Easy communication is a curse as well as a blessing, and perhaps one of the reasons the great travellers of last century were great was because they were so often completely cut off and had no choice but to immerse themselves completely in the place and culture in which they were travelling. Even Matthiessen, on his journey with Schaller to the Crystal Mountain, the land of the Snow Leopard, struggled at times to be fully present, to avoid dwelling on the relationships he’d left behind. Could he have written The Snow Leopard if he’d had an Internet connection — if not the whole time, at least frequently? Maybe he’d have written these very thoughts. I think, though, that with his stronger will than mine, his more practised discipline, his greater experience of the risk of letting the outside world interfere, he’d have travelled without the temptations of the modern ‘adventurer’: a satellite phone and a laptop.
   But at least I was writing by hand, which is a form of discipline different from that practised now, if at all, by most travellers. Most, I guess, rely on social media — facebook and Instagram — to share their experiences and as a personal record. As a means of sharing, that has important advantages. It’s quick and easy and can be not just up-to-date but up-to-the-minute. I want to suggest a disadvantage is that the social media approach lacks depth, but that’s not true: being brief is not the same as being shallow, and something concise can also be profound. It just takes effort.
On the road outside the Edelweiss, a young blonde female tourist has been caught in a conversation with a young Indian man leaning on his dusty motorbike. I wonder how long it will take her to get away — but now he leads her away down the road. She has a guide, whether she wanted one or not, and if I see her in a few hours still being led around by the same man, I won’t be surprised. To be a foreign woman in India has difficulties I don’t face — I know this from extensive listening to, and sometimes travelling briefly with, foreign women travelling in India; to be young, foreign, female, alone, and blonde must require a confidence and strength of will I can hardly imagine.
I returned to the Edelweiss in the afternoon for a warmed slice of truly excellent apple-and-cinnamon tart and another flat white that, unusually, tasted slightly like real coffee. The only other customer was a tall, lean Indian man in a black skivvy and tight blue jeans; he had fashionable stubble and sunglasses and appeared to be working on some kind of notes in a large paper pad, at least when he wasn’t studying his phone. He looked like an Indian version of Jeff Goldblum. Later, a foreign family came in. The father, in his fashionable fedora, bossed around his wife and two pre-teen daughters. They sat at the far end of the bench seating on the back wall and spent some time carefully deciding on a late lunch. I wondered what travelling as a family, particularly with two young daughters, would be like. Comments from friends, as well as from locals and other travellers, had encouraged me to think about the advantages and disadvantages of travelling alone, and I’d realised that a major advantage was the freedom to do exactly what I was doing — writing alone for long periods and not seeing the famous sights, which I mostly had no desire to see. That, too, was in contrast to the family now sharing the bench seat. From their accents, I guessed they were British. The parents kept browsing through a very new-looking and necessarily huge copy of the Lonely Planet India guidebook, and snippets of conversation (unintentionally overheard ) suggested they were deciding what to visit before closing time. The daughters played little part in the decision-making but appeared relaxed and happy to inspect their phones.
Despite my reservations about Udaipur’s extreme tourist-focus, I have to admit it’s comfortable here. Good food at reasonable prices is readily available; most cafés are comfortable for writing for long periods; most guest houses, including the Nandini, have rooftops where it’s possible to relax, to write, or to do nothing except sit and pay attention to being here, in Udaipur, in Rajasthan, in India, with Christmas approaching and the future uncertain. How did I end up here? The decision had been mine — I’d kept thinking about India and eventually made up my mind to return, probably for the final time — but as I sat in the glare of the afternoon sun on the rooftop of the Nandini, trying to understand how I’d arrived at that moment in those circumstances, nothing made any sense. Chatwin used that feeling for the title of his book, What Am I Doing Here?, and any traveller who takes the time to reflect (and if they don’t, are they really a traveller?) must surely have moments when they feel the same sense of disorientation, of strangeness, of feeling this is all happening to someone who isn’t entirely me.
   Tomorrow I book a bus ticket for Bhuj, leaving me two whole days in Udaipur. If I can get up early enough, I’ll cross the bridge to see if the Bank mynas are back. When I looked for them this morning, I saw no sign. So far, this has been my only disappointment about Udaipur.

These are excerpts from more extensive notes and writings. They're not intended to be a comprehensive record, but I hope they convey some reasonable impressions of some aspects of the journey.

1.  Udaipur's famous for many things, but Lake Pichola must be near the top of the list.
2.  On my previous train journey from Delhi to Bharatpur, the view from the window was far more restricted.
3. At Bundi these three rode past on a single motorbike (this is not uncommon and I've seen more). I grinned and they turned and came back, keen for a photo.
4.  Some train journeys are just too short.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor

22 January 2020


Bharatpur to Bundi, Friday 13 December 2019

During my last night at Bharatpur a storm had blown through: thunder, lightning, heavy rain, gusts of wind. Perhaps that has something to do with the dense mist that so severely restricts the visibility, the world fading out of existence within a few hundred metres, at times less. But there’s still much to catch attention. A jackal in the dim grey light trots beside a field of yellow-flowering mustard before slipping between the rows as the train roars past. A hoopoe on a fence post, silhouetted against the mist yet easily identified by its crest and long, thin, slightly curved bill. Doves keep pace with the train; a crow caws from a telegraph pole with such intensity it looks as if it must topple off its perch; skinny pigs forage on the sidings just outside Sawai Madhopur, the gateway town for Ranthambhore National Park, where, in 2006 I had my first and so far only sighting of a tiger in the wild.
Around 9.30, not long after leaving Sawai Madhopur, the light begins to brighten and the fog thins, yet, even when enough sunlight breaks through to make a distant building luminous, the sky remains dense grey and hazy. I don’t know how this is possible, how a bright sky strong enough to cast distinct shadows can remain so hazy, so choked with, … with what? Smoke? Mist? A combination of both?
  At Kota, some clues: rubbish fires, stinking and smouldering with at most a few weak flames, throw continuous plumes of smoke into the air of the streets. Kota itself has all the characteristics of a smallish Indian town: the noise, the apparently anarchic bedlam of traffic that somehow works; the mixture of Hindi and English on the shop signs; the smells that range from noxious to highly perfumed; the dirt and filth and litter; the startling, vibrant colours; the bodged constructions; people abjectly destitute and people opulently affluent; and no doubt every kind of personality from irredeemable sinner to saint, with no way to tell the difference until you’re on the receiving end of the scam or the act of astonishing kindness.
  My driver’s in the middle somewhere, possibly closer to the saint end than the other. I really don’t know, but he seems honest, and his fare to the bus station isn’t exorbitant. He thought carefully before quoting me 1200 rupees to take me all the way to Bundi, and while I’m sure he included a tourist tax, I doubt it was outrageous. On the other hand, Deepak drove me all the way from Kathgodam to Naini Tal for just 500.
  He drops me at a bus that right now is leaving for Bundi. He thanks me genuinely, and for just thirty-five rupees I sit in the back of a bus with no functional suspension the whole 30 kilometres or so to Bundi. An 80/- rickshaw ride drops me at the Kasera Paradise, and my time in Bundi has begun.

Bundi, Saturday 14 December 2019

At the rooftop restaurant (Morgan’s Place) yesterday, the only other customer was finishing his lunch. He struck up a conversation. He’d been in Bundi a week already and was planning to go to Sri Lanka, where he’d heard he could find excellent surfing. He told me about the special chai he’d had with some friends at a place down the road.
  ‘At first we didn’t understand,’ he said, ‘and just had normal chai. It was OK. Then we found out we had to ask for “special” chai.’
  He smiled at the memory and said, ’It worked. We got high.’
  I couldn’t understand his accent well enough to know how to find the special chai seller, but I imagined the location would become apparent eventually if I had any interest in getting high, and, if I didn’t find it, I doubted I’d miss out on an important aspect of Bundi’s character. The place had enough charm for me.
  Yuval was from Israel and had no onward ticket so no definite departure date from India. He asked me if I played chess.
  ‘I know how to play it,’ I said, ‘but I’m no good at it.’
  He, on the other hand, was enthusiastic about the game and had taught some of his friends how to play.
  ‘Now they’re better than me,’ he said. ‘They studied hard, and most of the time they beat me.’
  We talked about the rise of the artificial intelligences and I asked if he knew how to play Go.
  ‘The Chinese game? No. I know it’s complicated, though.’
  I told him I’d heard that the world champion Go player had recently stopped playing because the machines were now superior — it was impossible to win against the new algorithms. Neither Yuval nor I could understand why someone would give up the game they loved just because they couldn’t beat an AI.
  ‘Playing a computer’s different from playing a person,’ I said.
  Yuval nodded and said, ‘Even when my friends beat me most of the time, sometimes they make a mistake and I win.’ He shrugged and added, ‘But machines, they don’t make mistakes.’
  I suggested playing sophisticated programs could help you learn — you could study what they’d done to beat you and learn from that.
  He agreed, saying, ‘Sometimes I learn things when my friends beat me.’
  He explained how he still played his friends back in Israel even while he was here in India, using an app.
  ‘All we need is an Internet connection.’
  His enthusiasm for chess was endearing, but I still wasn’t about to relent and offer to play him, even though the game would be brief and the outcome inevitable. I hadn’t played a game of chess for decades, was never serious about it, and knew little more than the rules. I could hardly remember the standard opening moves — was it the King’s or the Queen’s pawn I should move? I suppose I could have let Yuval teach me, but I was keen to get out and explore Bundi again, or at least wander aimlessly, and I wondered how well I’d remember my way around.

Quite well, as it turned out. What I didn’t expect was that Bundi would remember me. Khalid, the young shawl-seller just up the road from where I’d stayed last time, recognised me. So too did Jerry from the Tom and Jerry restaurant. I think the knife-sharpener did also, although I didn’t stop to chat — we just exchanged big grins and waves as I walked past.
   Khalid remembered I’d been here at the same time as Rainer. He and Rainer used to talk for hours over chai, he said, and he wondered if I had Rainer’s email address. I asked him how business was.      He wobbled his head.
  ‘The tourists, not many. It’s difficult. Numbers are down.’
  I told him I didn’t understand why tourism in Bundi had decreased.
  ‘I tell people to visit Bundi,’ I said. ‘Bundi’s great. I like it here. It has a good feel, and the people are friendly and welcoming.’
  I was telling the truth; my experience of Bundi has been mostly wonderful. Yesterday evening I’d ended up talking with tailor Faisal Khan. During the conversation he said he was a Mohammedan.
  ‘You’re Muslim?’
  ‘Asalaam alaikum.’
  He broke into a great smile, said ‘Wa alaikum asalaam,’ and held out his hand for me to shake.
  He sympathised over the Christchurch mosque shootings and shook his head sadly.
  ‘It was awful, horrible,’ I said, ‘but one good thing that came out of it was that it drew people together in a good way.’
  ‘Your … president,’ he said, and hesitated, not quite sure what to say.
  ‘Jacinda Ardern. Our Prime Minister?’
  ‘Yes,’ he said, and he sounded enthusiastic again. ‘She is very good …’
  He seemed to be searching for a way to express his approval.
  ‘She set a great example.’
  ‘For the world,’ Faisal said.
  I thought how lucky we’d been to have had the right leader at that awful time, and how her actions had resonated with someone even here in Bundi, in India, where usually the only awareness of New Zealand would be of its cricket team. Every Indian cricket fan — which is to say almost everyone — knew of Kane Williamson and held him in huge regard, and he was a reliable fallback if a conversation ever started to falter.
  I very much enjoyed talking with Faisal, and the feeling was mutual. He asked where I was staying.
  ‘The Kasera Paradise.’
  Next time in Bundi you stay at my house,’ he said. ‘You stay with my family.’
  I photographed him, and as I walked away I thought, Bundi is truly a great place.

This morning as I walked slowly around the lake, a man holding a baby gradually wandered closer. I paused and looked at him and smiled, and he smiled in return. I knew what he wanted.
  ‘Photo?’ I said, raising the camera.
  He nodded and held his baby up in his arms. The little human looked at me, unsure what was going on, or maybe unable to work out what the strange-looking man was, but the father was smiling. I made two photographs and showed them to him on the LCD screen. I wished I could send him the photos, but he appeared to know no English and the chances of finding him again to give him a print were impossibly small. I hoped I’d be able to find somewhere to get prints of Faisal and the other tailor and some of the others I’d photographed, or would photograph, before I left.

Bundi, Sunday 15 December 2019

Babblers arrive at the rooftop restaurant, apparently wanting to share my breakfast. They’re such endearing birds, with their fierce, crazed looks and nervous energy, that I’m almost tempted but I know better. On the other hand, perhaps I’d be safer abandoning it to them — I’ve ordered the fruit salad, muesli, curd, and honey, and it turns out to be mostly chunks of assorted fruit including green grapes and sliced strawberry which appear to have been washed — but in what? I hope the restaurant’s conscious enough of its reputation to have used boiled or filtered water for the washing, but it’s too late to turn back now. I’ll avoid it in future, but for now it’s delicious — a welcome change from a diet of Indian food and occasional pizza.
  I had chai at the dhaba on the second corner on the way to the market. Good chai, much better than the mouth-burning, ginger-heavy chai prepared for me yesterday by the aggressively friendly woman who grossly overcharged me for tea and paratha. I won’t be going back. No doubt she’ll be put out when she sees me at Krishna chai, directly across the road — excellent chai, according to the manager of the Kasera Paradise and the elderly Israeli woman, who arrived together at Jerry’s last night. I learned a lot from the conversation with them.
  This morning, though, I drink chai made by an elderly man at an ancient stall and share the seating with a family of three. The man asks where I’m from, and his wife asks me something in Hindi.
  ‘Hindi tona tona,’ I say, holding my thumb and index finger a millimetre or two apart. Everyone laughs.
  ‘Little, little,’ the woman says, with a lovely smile.
  I’m pleased to know I’ve at least got that right. The teenage daughter offers me the biscuits they’re dunking. I love these small moments.

After buying a ticket for the fort and palace, I’m immediately accosted by a man who dispenses advice at high speed.
  ‘Visit the fort first,’ he says, tugging at his shirt and explaining it will be very hot later.
  He describes his services as a guide, but I neither need nor want a guide and manage to escape easily, although not before he’s given me a stick to scare off monkeys. It proves to be an inconvenience rather than useful, and I wonder later whether he’ll try charging me for it. But, when I eventually return in the early afternoon, he’s gone, and I leave the stick on the bench from where he picked it up.

  The fort’s a labyrinth badly overgrown with thorn. In 2006 I could at least see the approximate layout of the complex, but now it’s difficult to explore in any methodical fashion. I wander not quite randomly, remembering only some step wells and the old abandoned temple at the far end. The rest is just an impression of familiarity, of a place abandoned, turned over to ghosts and goblins and the decay of time. I’ve been reading William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, and his accounts of unspeakable cruelty, of horrifically imaginative ways to torture and debase one’s enemies, make me wonder what horrors might have been perpetrated here. Maybe the deterioration of this place into ruins and its colonisation by thorn and birds and other animals isn’t such a bad thing. Nature as redeemer, or at least an aid to forgetting.

  The birds won’t cooperate, though. The warblers stay hidden, revealing themselves only in glimpses impossible to photograph; the nervous Indian robins hide in the thickets; a purple sunbird poses beautifully until the instant before I press the shutter button. But my perseverance is finally rewarded when, as I wait quietly on my way down for an Indian robin to reappear, a partridge-like bird, nervous and jumpy, dashes across the path and fossicks warily among the scrub on the edge of the path. I think it’s a Black francolin but later identify it as a Painted spurfowl. I follow it carefully for a few minutes and manage a few acceptable photos.

  Before visiting the palace, I return my monkey-scaring stick to the wall from where the garrulous dispenser of advice had collected it. He’s nowhere to be seen, but at the main gate a man asks for a photo of me with him and his friend. I’m happy to oblige: at least he asked. I’ve often noticed surreptitious videoing and wonder why I’m so fascinating. Surely I’m not that strange and peculiar? Later, in the palace, another, older man asks for a photo. His wife photographs us; he puts his arm around me, so I drape mine over his shoulders. He thanks me and asks me my name and where I’m from. How many Instagram and facebook photos of me have been posted during my last three visits to India? On my first visit, in 2006-7, selfies weren’t even a thing: the first iphone was barely a year old.

I have one more day in India and start the journey back to Aotearoa/NZ the day after. Where has the time gone?

1.  The chai wallah cooking milk to make some kind of sweet.
2.  Dogs adapting to their environment (note the macaque, too).
3.  Faisal.
4.  Father and child.
5.  In the old fort.
6.  Palace guard and guide.
7.  The bigger of these two boys asked for a photo. The smaller, blind in one eye, took his lead from his friend but didn't quite know the pose. I wonder what their lives will bring, and wish them well.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor

07 January 2020

The birds of Bharatpur

Bharatpur, Wednesday 11 December 2019

The luck and the kindness continue. After a comfortable two-and-a-half hour train journey in A/C Chair class, I disembarked at Bharatpur and began walking to the exit. The young woman who’d been sitting across the aisle from my seat caught up with me and asked where I was going and where I was from. She lived in Bharatpur and had been attending a wedding in Delhi. Her uncle owned the Sunbird Hotel, close to the entrance to the bird sanctuary.
  ‘You can stay there if your guest house has no rooms,’ she said.
  I thanked her but didn’t say the Sunbird was well beyond my budget. Besides, I was keen to enjoy the atmosphere at the Kiran Guest House — the big, covered patio above street level; the parakeets arrowing across the evening sky; the sound of doves; the wild-looking free-range pigs with their scurrying piglets; palm squirrels chirruping. Maybe not the mosquitoes and macaques, but the former are inevitable and now, here at the Kiran, I’ve seen no sign of the latter so far.
  Her name was Monica and she was preparing to be a teacher.
  ‘What will you teach?’
  ‘Geography,’ she said.
In July she had an exam which would qualify her for government teaching jobs.
  ‘How are you getting to your guest house?’ she said.
  I told her I’d get an auto-rickshaw and asked how much I should pay.
  ‘About fifty rupees,’ she said.
  I guessed I’d be quoted at least twice that.
  ‘The tourist tax,’ I said, and she laughed politely.
  ‘I can drop you at your guest house,’ she said.
  She had a driver waiting, and they took me right to the Kiran. Ashok was outside and recognized me instantly.
  ‘Hello sir!’ he said, with his great smile.
  I shook hands with Monica and her driver and thanked them and wished her good luck for her exam. I’d had some doubts about what I’d find at Bharatpur this time, but what I found was generosity, the comfort of familiarity, and a wonderful welcome.

At the Kiran, Ashok took my dinner order, and I transferred to the table to write, protecting myself from the pestering mosquitoes with picaridin and the hood of my jacket. As the light faded, small bats began to hawk above the courtyard and an orange, gibbous moon hung low in the sky over the rooftops. I heard voices and, soon after, a man in a pale khaki safari shirt and shorts appeared.
  ‘You’re aware of the mosquitoes?’ I said.
  ‘Yeah,’ he said in a strong Scottish accent, ‘but they’re not too bad, actually.’
  They were bad enough for me, though. Recognising that, he turned the fan on, which discouraged the mosquitoes, but I was glad I was wearing my down jacket and hood. I was pleased to know I wasn’t the only guest and that, therefore, the Kiran was probably doing OK.

Andy had been here for a couple of weeks and had another week to go before returning to Scotland.   His partner had been here part of the time; she was a doctor, he worked in nature conservancy. They loved it here, he said, just chilling out, wandering around, eating at the canteen. Suddenly I felt almost embarrassed by the brevity of my visit to Bharatpur. Had I known the situation would be as good as I’d remembered, I’d have allowed at least another night.

Bharatpur, Thursday 12 December 2019

I was the second visitor into the park. The light was still low, and the haze, almost like a fog, made photographing almost impossible. The first few, of jackals on the road not far from the entrance, could best be described as ‘atmospheric’. As the light increased, though, the opportunities for better photographs improved. The ancient monster of a bicycle I’d rented was set up for riders five foot tall or shorter, but they all were; I had no choice. Pedalling was hard, but the seat was well sprung, the brakes worked, and the bike got me where I wanted to go far faster than walking. That being said, I began to wonder just how much more efficient it really was, because I was stopping every few minutes when yet another bird showed up and invited a portrait. I wasn’t keeping a record of what I saw — the photos would record most of the birds, and the few I didn’t photograph I’d probably remember. Even if I forgot, I wouldn’t feel I’d missed something. Collecting lists stopped being a thing for me a great many years ago, and the value of being able to point to a list and say, ‘I saw X number of species that day,’ escapes me. I suppose the twitchers and collectors can rationalise it. I, on the other hand, rationalised not keeping a list by telling myself that anything I forgot can’t have been important enough to remember.
  I entered the park around 6.30, and I returned the bike and walked back to the Kiran shortly after 2 pm. That was as much as I could handle, mostly because I’d been on the go, pedalling that old dunger, for most of those seven-and-a-half hours. I was hungry, too. I’d assumed I’d be able to get decent food at one of the canteens but was dismayed to find they sold only chips (small bags of potato crisps), a handful of types of biscuits and cakes, and small tetrapaks of mango Frooti. Tea was apparently also available, but no proper chai-making equipment was evident, and I suspected ‘tea’ would be a tea bag in hot water. At 11.30, in desperation, I bought a ‘fruit cake’, which was a small, coffin-shaped lozenge of sweet cake with tiny bits of unidentifiable dried fruit mixed throughout, and a mango Frooti. That revived me, but I began to flag a few hours later and knew my time in the park was up. It had lived up to my hopes and therefore exceeded my expectations; I’d seen and photographed many birds and had finally succeeded in making a good photograph of a hoopoe.
I’d wondered whether I might see Andy in the park but the only obvious foreigners were a couple about my age or slightly older. They wore matching clothing: black jackets and off-white trousers. Later in the afternoon they turned up at the Kiran, and I had a short conversation with the man. He sounded French and said they’d visited Keoladeo once before, fifteen years ago, in 2005. He remarked on the cold, which wasn’t surprising because I was sitting at the outside table typing notes, wearing my down jacket and edging mittens, with my hood up. When they were here at roughly the same time of year in 2005, the air was warm, he said. They’d also noticed big changes in the park — far fewer birds this time, and now there were cattle where they’d been seeing much larger numbers of deer.
  The lower numbers of birds might have had something to do with the amount of water, though. On my first two visits, in 2006 and 2014, the monsoon had missed Keoladeo, and although the variety of birds had been good, it wasn’t until I visited in 2017 and found the place well flooded that I understood why the park was world famous. Huge numbers of storks and other waterbirds were nesting on the islands, and although today the main areas seemed to have plenty of water, the vast flocks had reduced to just good numbers.
  I agreed about the deer. On my previous visits, chital had been abundant; this time I saw a few individuals and groups of two or three here and there. I’d seen sambar often, too, but this time saw just one group of three and a lone stag. On the other hand, I saw several groups of wild pigs (whether they’re truly wild or are the spill-over from the semi-feral inhabitants of the surrounding town isn’t clear to me).
  At the park entrance a notice recommends visitors stay on the paths and not venture into the untracked areas. The reason: recent leopard sightings. I can believe leopards would live in the park — they live in Mumbai, after all.
  Five-thirty approaches and the mosquitoes begin to appear. Time for repellent. I sit outside and talk with Andy. He visits the sanctuary each day and loves it, and gradually he’s coming to know some of the individual birds or at least where to look for them.
  ‘I’m not much good at identifying the birds of prey,’ he says (I agree; you need to know the field marks well), ‘but I know to check in that tree over there and I’m sure to see a Marsh harrier perched there.’
  He’s noticing the interactions, too — how one species chases off another — their habits, their patterns of activity. He asks me what’s been my highlight, and I have to think hard.
  ‘The owlet was pretty special,’ I say, and he nods.
  ‘Cute wee birds.’
Back in Scotland, he works to fight wildlife crime, and he enlightens me about some of the practices continuing on grouse moors. I’d thought those days were long gone, but although the trend is in the right direction, it’s painfully slow, and any kind of predator, be it furred or feathered, isn’t likely to survive long on a grouse moor, even if it’s under strict legal protection. Roughly one fifth of the area of Scotland (or is it the Highlands?) is grouse moor, Andy says, managed so the uber-rich can shoot driven birds.
  ‘Why don’t they just farm them and release them?’ I ask, thinking that, despite the questionable ethics, the environmental effects might improve.
  Andy shakes his head. ‘You can’t raise grouse in captivity. Not like pheasants.’
  He tells me how the chicks are often dosed with antibiotics in the field. ‘They freeze, and the keepers can just pick them up and dose them. Sometimes after a shoot they sell some birds as “organic” meat, but it’s ridiculous — they’re full of antibiotics, not to mention lead shot. I wouldn’t eat them.’
  Neither would I.
  Ashok brings Andy’s dinner, which is a kofta of some kind. ‘Meatballs,’ Andy says, and they smell wonderful. I thought I wasn’t missing meat, but I’ve suddenly developed a craving for meatballs. I’ve seen butchering in India, though, and I can wait another six weeks or so until I’m back in New Zealand. My own meal of dal fry, rice, and chapatis turns up later, and although it’s not as delicious as the smell of Andy’s meatballs, it still does the job.

  Tomorrow I go to Bundi.

I'm back in Delhi now, and tomorrow (8 January) I leave for Nepal. My main goal in Nepal is Bardia National Park, after which I'll return to Delhi on the 19th for the last few days of this journey.

1.  Darter
2.  Common babbler
3.  Rose-ringed parakeet
4.  Treepie and friend
5.  Jacana
6.  Yellow-eyed babbler

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor