Amjad Ali Khan in the late seventies
Amjad Ali Khan’s Outdoor Concert. Delhi, April 1979
I sit myself near the front in a massive marquee set up in a park, crowded with folk eating, gossiping, taking care of noisy children and in between times paying attention to the music. I’m only here because a friend recommended that as a long-time guitarist, I shouldn’t miss it. Beyond a cursory look at a sitar here in Delhi and a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall by Ravi Shankar a few years previously, which had gone right over my head, I’ve no real interest in Indian classical music. She and I sit on carpets on the ground and the artists come and go for hours, and none of it means much at all to me. But at some point in the middle of the night a handsome man in his mid-thirties, dressed immaculately in white kurta, unveils this shiny silver beast of a stringed instrument and knocks my socks off with his playing. The stage lights reflect multicoloured from it’s metallic fretboard and strings; it’s sound is clean and penetrating, the notes like silver arrows that seem to go straight into me. Dazed, I study the programme notes, which refer to lots of people whose names all seem to be Ali Khan. I make an effort to retain the name Amjad and the word sarod. Somehow inside me a decision has been made, as if a destiny has been suddenly announced: this is the instrument I am going to learn to play.
Fast forward to 1983 from that electrifying moment in Delhi when I first clapped eyes on the sarod. Now it’s Britain, spring of 1983, and at last after four years of playing along with sarod LPs on my guitar, (neither instrument nor teacher having shown up in my home town of London in the interval) I can find out what it’s like to hold one and to be taught to play it. Finally one has appeared in London’s ‘Little India’ of Southall, at Britain’s sole Indian instrument store, where I also learn that a sarod player will be visiting for the summer.
Looking back now over the thirty plus years since, I see my sarod as a wondrous vessel that has carried me over the deep ocean of Hindustani classical music, and repeatedly set me ashore on far-flung islands of adventure. Before I set forth to try to convey a little of those depths, or portray some of those islands, let me first:
Describe the Good Ship Sarod.
Like any Arab dhow, or British man o‘ war plying the Indian Ocean trade in the days of sail, her hull is Indian teak, from the forests above the Malabar coast that supplied durable shipbuilding timber to Arabs, Portugese and all other comers. Aged twenty years in the maker’s warehouse before being adzed into shape, I’m told – but that may be just one of the innumerable stories with which she is freighted. Her sails are goatskin, stretched tight to catch the faintest hint ruffled up by the ocean of sound below; she is rigged with high tension steel piano wires from her nineteen pegs; and decked with chrome plating to receive the pressure of fingernails onto strings. All in all a wonder of East-West technology, combining traditional Bengali craftmanship with the German industrial ingenuity which supplies the steel for her wires.
So then, as an instrument she must be a relatively modern invention? As stories begin to spill from her hold, who can say for sure? Her parentage is fabled to be in Afghanistan, where the gut-stringed rabab once spearheaded Pashtun armies as they marched into battle, and from where a khan, ancestor of todays Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, (whose concert so entranced me in Delhi that night) brought his rabab down to the plains of India a hundred and fifty years or so ago, to be refashioned into today’s sarod. Or not, if the treasurehouse of ancient fretless instruments in the Calcutta museum is to be taken account of, as many of them, much older, could have supplied a template for her. Her eight playing strings are struck by a plectrum made of coconut shell, and here is my Ustad’s first job: to show me how to make one.
Gurdev Singh, my teacher, is a Punjabi Sikh, and Ustad-ji is his honorary title as master and teacher. I fetch a nut from one of the many Asian grocers that line the main street in Southall, West London’s ‘Little India’, and bring it to the house nearby where he is visiting for the summer. We squat on the floor (there is no furniture in the rental house save a couple of beds) as he demonstrates, his sparse English smattered with Punjabi, liberally dashed with charming smiles. As with all of my lessons with him on his repeated visits over the ensuing four years, there are comings and goings – the front door is rarely locked – other students (although I am the only non-Indian), fellow musicians, supplicants, listeners, hangers on, bringers of food, home cooked in sympathetic local families homes – mostly male, all speaking Punjabi or slang-laden Hindi.
There are strict etiquettes to follow and abundant tales of musicians historical and contemporary to imbibe with the teaching. A sarod must never be disrespected by being touched with a foot, I learn; once I merely stepped over the instrument in passing, albeit without touching it, to general horror; mention of famous, or well-regarded fellow musicians should be accompanied by a respectful touch of the earlobe. I watch how Gurdev receives applause after a concert, holding the sarod up in front of his face, to allow the instrument to take the limelight. Lessons are frequently chaotic, interrupted, or take the form of simply listening to a fellow student or Gurdev himself play, or driving him, his friends, or visiting musicians around town for hours on shopping and social visits. But when he does give me his undivided attention I follow him as he dives into the ocean of music below.
sarod playing, showing fingernails pressing strings
We begin with raga Yaman Kalyan, considered by some the doyen of ragas, capable of expressing many of the moods that other ragas only touch individually. It is also one with the most demanding stretches for the left hand, as its rules determine that the intervals between the notes are maximal. As a long-time guitar player I can soon figure out that this is a Western major scale, but with a raised (sharp) fourth. The fifth as well as any note higher can only be played following that fourth. The tonic ‘Sa’ (Western do) is only approached by way of the seventh below it followed by the second above it (in Western notation the move must be ti-re-do). Naturally taking all this in is not a job of a single lesson, and I will have to come again and again merely to learn how to hold, tune and restring (including eleven unstruck ‘sympathetic’ resonating strings) the instrument, let alone play an accurate note on her. One of Gurdev’s visitors cheers me on by telling me how lucky I am that we are not living in the olden days, when students spent the first year or more solely learning how to intone Sa correctly.
Gurdev Singh with Latif Ahmed Khan
More stories from the good ship’s hold: Ali Akbar Khan’s father the legendary Allauddin Khan (earnest touch of earlobes all round) taught him sixty years or so previously by tying his hair up to the branch of a tree, so that when being made to practice all night he couldn’t nod off. Haridas was guru to Mian Tansen, one of the jewels of Emperor Akbar’s renaissance Mughal court in Delhi and creator of many famous ragas. Haridas renounced playing in public, and had to be begged by the Emperor on his knees to perform at court (his conditions in agreeing, that the audience must sit without moving a muscle or making a sound, have a famous punch line – a fable for another day). Persian poet and Sufi mystic Amir Khusrau, who is said to have invented the tabla and brought the four-stringed setar (forerunner of the sitar) from his ancestral land to the early medieval Delhi Sultanate. He was a key figure in the creation of the extraordinary fusion of Persian, Arabic and Turkish elements with native Indian music that became what we call Hindustani classical.
As a complete newcomer to this musical culture, and aside from the difficulty of producing a note in tune on a fretless instrument, and keeping the nails on the two first fingers of the left hand from being ground away by the pressure on steel string and chrome plate, I found plenty of room for blunders. For example Gurdev helped me write down much of the music he taught me, using Roman notation for the Indian names of the twelve notes of the scale (perhaps a nod to my being non-Indian, as Hindustani classical is traditionally learned by ear). So when I first graduated from simple exercises and was presented with a gat or fixed melody and a set of variations or tans I wrote them all down carefully. But when after earnestly practicing these at home exactly as written, I played them all back to him, he laughed. The sample tans he had given me were in fact improvisations, meant to be performed alternately with repetitions of the gat. On the other hand I received a supreme compliment one day from a senior musician. Putting his head round the door to a back room at Gurdev’s house where I was furiously rehearsing, he commented to the effect that he couldn’t believe it wasn’t an Indian playing!
Blunders and wonders: the stories became part of the teaching. Osho also talked about Annapurna Devi, daughter of Allauddin Khan, who as a Muslim girl wasn’t permitted to present herself to the public. So while her brother, Ali Akbar Khan and Allauddin’s other notable disciple, Ravi Shankar, went off and made themselves world famous, she stayed home and was initiated into her father’s deepest musical secrets. She started performing in public only at the beginning of her ill-starred marriage to Ravi Shankar, which Allauddin arranged, changing her religion in the process. At some point Shankar extracted a vow from her that she would give it all up and hence no audience has heard her play these past fifty plus years. But her reputation endures and her select disciples it is said, including flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, still take the stairs up to her flat in Bombay to sit at her feet and learn.
I took my sarod everywhere in those early days, practicing in the back of my car, in forgotten corners of the foyers of convention centers to which my work took me, in little-frequented spots in airports. On reflection, as I’ve said, it was actually the sarod beginning to fulfill her dharma of conveying me to places I would never otherwise have gone.
She took me to islands –some bejeweled, some haunted – that I would never otherwise even have imagined. I will mention some, but the details must be a story for another day. To Calcutta, where a new sarod was made for me in 1986 by the hands old Hemen Chandra Sen (with his scrubby white hair and worn-out shirt and dhoti he would often be mistaken as a simple helper rather than the world-famous master craftsman that he was) in his sawdust-filled shoebox of a shop on Rashbehari Avenue, and where two doomed love affairs with local women would consume much of the rest of my eighties in regret; to a new teacher, Shekhar Borkar, in Pune and the Music Department at Osho Commune (where Milarepa, then co-ordinator, heard me practicing in a corner of the Ashram garden and invited me in) so that I could be part of the band in Buddha Hall playing for Osho before he left his body; to Ireland in 2002, where after performing for Paul McCartney at his wedding, he told me how one of my CDs had been on continuous play at his home for weeks; to Delhi in 2010 for high-profile performances for the Commonwealth Games and the British Council as part of a band I formed with some of the city’s best professional fusion musicians.
Today my sarod and I cruise calmer waters: the islands of New Zealand are relatively un-bejewelled (the music scene here permits me to be a big fish in a very tiny pond in a very unpretentious way) and un-haunted – I’m a family man now, happily past the hormone-driven excesses of ambition. Yet she is still conducting me ever deeper into the ocean, although I no longer feel any need to prove myself, or strive to impress the opposite sex, with dazzling displays of virtuosity. So the new project I am working on with her (like my previous ‘Ragas Relax’) is based on alaaps (gentle explorations without rhythm) of six rare and intricate ragas. It takes everything we have learned over these three decades both from teachers and stories to (paraphrasing Miles Davis) keep ourselves from playing too many unnecessary notes, so that we can just play the beautiful ones.
1979 India: A second sip of the Subcontinent
Including ‘How I discovered Sarod’
Monday 26th March
Ariana Afgan Airlines flies me over Istanbul (massacres in the streets, a coup d’etat in the making); stops over in Teheran (Shah just deposed, Iranian revolution in progress); and then Kabul (where chaos reigns and I’m wondering if those sounds I can vaguely hear outside the aircraft might be gunfire). It’s miles of desolation below us, grey snowy mountains marching off forever. It’s strange to reflect that just four years ago I crossed all those landscapes beneath me by roads that are now off limits to travellers. Then we cross the brown-streaked lands around the Indus and reach Punjab, a jumbly patchwork of coloured squares, interspersed with straight watercourses and villages radiating roads like stars. It’s a toy landscape complete with inexplicable splashes and stains where a child might have spilt food over the model.
It takes a few moments, after I disembark and step out into Delhi’s heat and flies, to shake off the culture I’ve just left. Taxi drivers mob me and insist that the buses are not running today; I’m panicky and looking out for other Westerners to cling to but the few there are are quickly gone on their own imperatives. Then memories of Pakistan kick in and I hit the ‘slow’ button, lean back against a wall, light a cigarette and answer all queries about my needs and immediate destination with a relaxed wave of a hand as if I’m simply not planning to go anywhere at all. That’s a signal for general relaxation and soon I’m exchanging friendly talk and smoke with a group.
Taxi down to a guest house on Fire Brigade Lane, just off Connaught Place, where travellers rent rooms in the old servants quarters back of the gardens. The strongest impression to hit me yet: the exotic smells, flowers and leaves of this garden. Some of the plants seem related to ones I’ve seen in England but flourishing on some stronger energy. I head off round the corner for tourist information, maps, telegram station on Janpath. More impressions: so nice to see beautiful and beautifully dressed women everywhere, free and alone; and also compared to Pakistan, don’t these Indians seem a touch less pushy? I just had to witness with amusement a Sikh guy ripping me off for Rs30 with his ‘magic’ tricks and his charming smile. I couldn’t stop myself. Remembering the lovely dahi of Pakistan, I search for it, but no one seems to understand my appalling accent, so I get the guest house people to fetch me some. I’m surprised: India doesn’t feel ‘spiritual’ if that’s what I expected; in fact it feels more earthy, more ’this worldly’, more abundantly alive than England.
I sit around with some fellow travellers but they seem somehow younger than me, and going through something I’ve already been through. I’m grateful for their company, and Pink Floyd on the cassette deck and wonder if I’m really as different from them as I feel?
After a mostly sleepless night, crazy mind churning, I wake up to the sound of sitar, a Japanese guy called Yuji playing it in his room. I ask him about it, put my fingers on it, get the address of his guru in Benares. He practices all day and I envy him his dedication.
I drift into a Hanuman temple on Janpath. To the sound of the ringing of the temple bell, and with my back to a pillar, I get carried away to a dreamy place. A steady stream of devotees – young and old, Western-dressed and sari-clad, near-naked sadhus, children in arms – bring flowers, ring the bell, light incense and murmur their prayers towards the idol. I feel so much peace inside to participate, even if only by observing, in the merit of their devotion. Outside there are kids I give sweets to, beggars I give paise to, beggars I don’t give paise to and it feels like everyone I meet here is God.
Walking towards Buddha Jayanti Park, head down studying my map, I’m interrupted by Lawrence. He’s walking the same way, he tells me and as we walk he relates his story. He’s a Christian from Tamil Nadu who spent ten years in jail for accidentally killing a man who threatened to throw his Bible out of a train window. In a rage, Lawrence, a trained boxer, clocked him and the fellow died instantly. He’s been out of jail seven months now, he tells me, and been turned down hundreds of times for jobs because of his Christian name. He shows me a letter offering him a job in Kashmir to start on 1st April.
“But, Sir. How can I possibly afford to go there? The train fare alone is 30 rupees!”
I look him up and down, his old clothes smart and straight, his references and a pen in his top pocket, a Times of India under his arm. I wonder how he keeps it all together as I hand him forty.
“Sir, I will write my wife and tell her of you. Only today I wrote and told her I had not found the money for the train. She will be overjoyed!”
We drink Thumbs Up at the Park Café, talk about religion and life. He reminds me so much of John from Circle Trust (an ex-prisoner I befriended in London three years earlier while working for a charity), his build and face, even down to the boxing. Life has been hard on them but somehow hasn’t hardened them or made them cynical, even if they are both a pair of old cons! So what if this story is mostly blarney, there must be tens of thousands of others for whom it’s true. Can anyone in Europe imagine what it’s like to have two pounds stand between a job and a life roaming the streets looking for work?
“Sir, I am weak now, for I only eat once a day. But if not for you I would have walked ten miles each way today to try to get an advance on this job to pay fare.”
I give him my address and wonder if, as he promises, he will contact me in a month once he is settled in and his wife and daughter have joined him. Then I stroll, dazed, amongst the colourful blooms, butterflies, parakeets, feeling like I’ve stumbled into paradise. The squirrels, with the marks of Rama’s fingers along their backs, twist around the tree trunks, peafowl promenade along the carefully clipped verges and the warm sun envelops me. I feel flooded with joy to be in India’s embrace as I lie on a path and watch scarlet blossoms and palm leaves dance against the pure blue of the sky overhead. Young Indians gather around me, find me funny and give me a cigarette.
I take a bus back, crammed in with a diversity of characters, hurrying to get to a film. A mistake: I get irritated and sweaty and anyway am too late for the show. A long cool lassi refreshes me as I watch a Japanese traveller buying a sitar and check out prices myself. But I can’t really imagine burdening myself with a material possession at this time and actually see all that extra unnecessary thinking is cutting into my awareness of the here and now.
More street scenes as my sandal breaks and for Rs5 a street cobbler fixes it on the spot. In England that would be a “Sorry, we’ll have to send it off for repairs”, or more likely a throw away. My first sacred cows, wide-horned bulls, taking up pavement space; two bullock carts full of gaily-clad village folk blocking the road. Chai (35 paise) at a roadside stall, my few words of Hindi greeted with smiles, laughter shared. Old people still use “ath anna” here for fifty paise, from the days when there were sixteen annas in a rupee.
Evening waiting for Dagdha to call, feeling insecure. Will she come? And if she does how will travelling together be? I fill in the time talking to Simma, a Stratford-on-Avon girl just out of school. Since arriving last year at the height of the monsoon, she’s been volunteering at a kindergarten in a small village in UP. Her portrait of the village inspires a strong urge in me to find out more about the lives of the 80% of Indians who live outside towns and cities.
Hardly any sleep again due to late night talkers, so early morning I take myself off for a nap in the Hanuman temple. I wake up to watch the Hindu world go by: wiry, well-muscled labourers rebuilding around me, shifting great baskets of rubble hour after hour, dark-skinned and graceful of movement, seeming like giants or gods in their fluidity of motion; a neatly-dressed middle-aged man meticulously setting out his mat, blanket, candle, flowers, incense and holy book and reading quietly to himself; an orange-robed sannyasin, complete with beard and flower garland, making a great fuss of setting out his own place next to him, chanting mantras and then reading haltingly but loudly from his own book; first fellow is obviously disturbed but just makes a calming motion towards his neighbor with his hand whenever it gets too much; sannyasin shouts disapprovingly at two girls talking and giggling in a corner, pointedly indicating middle-aged man’s book and saying “Gita, Gita”; girls present me with prasad, bananas with ghee and black pepper; sannyasin puts orange mark on my third eye; I wash it off as I leave.
Nearby is the gaudy new and huge Laxmi Narayan temple, devoid of atmosphere or worshippers (though I daresay many will turn up when it comes to an auspicious day for begging the goddess for monetary favours!). I go to watch Shyam Benegal’s “Junoon” which features Shabana Azmi again (I’ve seen her in his “Ankur” and been bewitched by this portrait Indian village life) and has me on the edge of my seat in fear, excitement and tears. A young Orissan helps me with bits of the plot I can’t follow.
Evening I go down to the PO to phone Dagdha’s hotel in Poona and – joy! – I’m told that she left for Delhi today. Desperate to get some sleep tonight, but it looks like my sugary diet of fruit, curd, ice cream and lassi (which is all I’ve managed to get down today) is not going to allow it. A midnight attack of subhjee and chapatti does the job!
Up against the walls.
Of fear, as I walk on the Yamuna floodplain, looking for the ghats. Super hot day, aggressive dogs (rabid?), scores of persistent children demanding baksheesh. Their elders stare at me from their straw and plastic shacks, which they share with their cows, from hollow, uninterested eyes. I’m uneasily conscious of my pocket fat with money and retreat quickly back to the familiar Delhi.
And of worry and over-emotional reactions. Where is Dagdha? I wait for the 8pm Punjab Mail to come in at the station, desperate for her to be on it. Then freak out that I only left her a phone number here so call her Poona hotel again and leave my address too. And mindfuck that perhaps the number came out scrambled on the telegram I sent her…….?
If only I knew when she was coming I could relax, because there’s so much I want to do here. I make lemon tea on the gaz canister stove I brought with me, eat curd all day and pass the time with other travellers.
I feel tired on waking and retreat from the glare into reading John Stewart Collis and gossiping. As I walk the streets I’m aware that already I’m beginning to not see and not wonder, so caught up am I in my petty thoughts and plans.
Spend an hour and Rs30 on that bottomless pit, the Indian telephone system, trying and trying to get a line to Poona, taking turns with a couple of Indians who are also not getting through. Again I wait for the Punjab Mail, and a hint of bitterness arises that I should have to wait for her into the second of these valuable four weeks. But I tell myself it is my faulty planning that’s to blame, and it’s the same with the single gaz canister I brought that is now running out.
Resisting a strong urge to mope sluggishly, I walk around Old Delhi for seven hours. At Rajghat there’s Gandhi’s samadhi, where despite the Mahatma’s lifework getting Indian people to take responsibility for hygiene, the toilets are filthy. I continue along the Yamuna again, this time more relaxed as I have only Rs30 in my pocket, but feel intensely the cutoff because of language. A few corpses are burning in the ghats and a few onlookers, but no sense of ceremony, despite the pyre-men diligently dripping on the ghee. Further on the Ladakhi Buddhist temple is nearly deserted, although there are monkeys and vultures as well as beautiful green birds. Boats are being poled across the muddy river to the further bank where straw huts and racks of drying hay hang shimmering in the heat haze. Timeless but hardly romantic: unlike the tourist photos the reality smells of shit.
Old Delhi bazaar brought back the very best memories of Pakistan, bustling and wealthy with things being sold. I fuel myself with fresh watermelon juice and bidis and have enough energy left for a late afternoon yoga class suggested by a fellow resident Greet from Belgium. It’s all haste and hotch-potch, no comparison to what I’m used to in Canterbury!
Wondering continues but there’s nothing I can do. After all this is India where a multitude of things are just waiting to go wrong. Where is Dagdha?
Sun 1st April
I continue hanging out with Greet, passing time as we both wait (her boyfriend is due soon from Europe), by going to a lecture by a friend of hers who is a Gandhi-inspired nature cure type. A charming fellow with bright eyes and ready smile, he gave us some basic yoga philosophy and me my first experience of sitting at the feet of a guru. We left as bhajans were starting up to go to an air-conditioned restaurant and eat as much as we could from the salad bar for Rs12.
There is a strange sense of inevitability about Dagdha not coming; I just can’t seem to imagine seeing her any more. The news is that…..
(Here the diary ends mid-sentence and from now on I have only fragmentary memories left, which include the seminal moment when I meet sarod).
Amjad Ali Khan’s outdoor concert.
A massive marquee set up in a park, crowded with folk eating, gossiping, taking care of noisy children and in between times paying attention to the music. We sit on carpets on the ground and the artists come and go for hours. At some point in the middle of the night a handsome man in his mid-thirties, dressed immaculately in white kurta, unveils this shiny silver beast of a stringed instrument and knocks my socks off with his playing. I study the programme notes, which refer to lots of people who’s names all seem to be Ali Khan. I retain the name Amjad and the word sarod. My decision is made: this is the instrument I am going to learn to play.
Somehow we find each other by leaving notes at the Post Restaunte and it turns out that she has been in Delhi for days looking for me! The next weeks are busy with intense processing of our relationship. My innocent Kentish mind is deeply disturbed by her tales of the high jinks of which she has been part around the Ashram in Pune. We must have settled something though, because some decision is made that she will go back to Pune and then return to England to be with me.
We take the train to Pathankot and the bus to Chamba (3 ½ bone-rattling hours, Rs13). After a few days there we walk up to the lake at Khajiar (then brim full to the trees’ edge, now – 2016 – merely a puddle). Of the climb up I remember only looking down the long slopes of terraces below and blessing the shade of the few remaining forest patches. (It’s more than a thousand meter climb and twenty kilometers of distance, I see now from Google Maps, so no wonder I felt the impact of the heat and scale of it all). Further lessons in Himalayan scale take place once we have settled in at Khajiar: my English conditioning says: ‘We’ve come up so high and are now in the forest, therefore there must be just a bit more to go before we come to clear ground and a spectacular view’. Wrong of course; we huff and puff up through the trees, only to find more terraces and farms above us, and beyond the next ridge what looks like more of the same.
We contemplate the exciting looking trek from Chamba via Brahmaur to Dharamsala but are told the route is still snow-bound.
More buses bring us to the bustling hippy zone of McLeod Ganj, where I embarrass Dagdha by getting utterly stoned and wandering the bazaar making a fool of myself. (Perhaps I am getting more and more disturbed by her revelations?). I bump into Sid and Jill, last seen when we squatted together in a tiny vicarage in North London three years before, from which they announced they were leaving for India. We stay at the comfortable government tourist Hotel Bhagsu, which gives us a bit of privacy and distance from the frenetic travellers scene. We enroll for a few days at lectures at the Tibetan Medical centre, visit the usual visitors spots and that’s it. No memory at all of returning to Delhi, parting from Dagdha and flying back to college in Canterbury. And no photos either.
Self Portrait ’70s
6th October 1973(Yom Kippur)
I board a flight in London, bound for Tel Aviv, where I am due to help out on an archaeological dig at Caesaria on the Galilee. The plane makes an unscheduled stop in Athens and the captain makes a dramatic announcement: due to outbreak of war we will fly no further. Anyone who wants to can get off here, he informs us, then the flight will return to London.
I get off. And for the first time in my eighteen years of life I am truly alone. Nobody on the planet now knows where I am. For the next month I am free to do just whatever I want and am answerable to nobody.
I head to a travelers doss house near the Parthenon, full of other long-hairs like myself from northern Europe and America. Tanks rumble through the streets outside the windows in the evening; the military junta showing off its strength, I’m told.
Over the next weeks I will find myself pulled back to this place again and again, torn between urges to go it alone and need for company. A mysterious French girl holds court here, surrounded by her acolytes, smoking weed and hanging out. There is some sort of unspoken attraction between us but I will never have the opportunity or the courage to take it any further.
I take the ferry to Crete, roughing it on deck with many others heading for beaches or jobs as olive pickers, and then hitchhike over the mountains to Matala to join the hippies sleeping in the famous caves. Joni Mitchell had been here a handful of years before, writing songs I love. The company is jovial and dope-ridden and I am soon offered a spot to put down my sleeping bag. Loud cries and the smell of burning awaken us from stoned slumbers in the middle of the night. Amidst the confusion word goes round that the local police are smoking us out. We huddle on the sands and return when the action is over.
Next morning the whole scene suddenly seems shallow to me. Are we going to repeat this night after night? Didn’t I come here to explore, not just hang around in the comfort zone of beach and hash? I shoulder my tiny pack up over the cliffs above the cave complex and head north along an empty coastline. A friendly farmer gives me a lift at walking pace through the sunbaked olive groves on his ancient tractor. As the day wears on I become increasingly conscious of having no idea of where I am actually aiming for, and of starting to worry about where I will sleep the night. It is the first time real loneliness has ever touched a carefully raised boy like me.
I bump into a Spaniard who tells me that there will be a beach party tonight in Agia Galini further along the coast. I am vaguely and un-enthusiastically heading for it when the spirit of adventure overcomes me. As evening falls, I take a right turn up a desolate mountain road near Mandres, past a scary-looking military base and just keep on walking.
Over the next three nights I will sleep in a ditch, a mosquito-infested outhouse and amidst the drying onions on someone’s flat roof. I will plod through mountain scenery the likes of which a boy from gently rolling Kent could never even conceive, past peasants ploughing their stony little fields with donkeys; I will be fed in farmers’ homes and not meet another foreigner. Memories of the war are still very fresh: the older folk I run into want to know my nationality immediately. British? Smiles and cheers. “German not good!”
Late afternoon on the dusty streets of the first town in three days I drink coffee and pore over my pathetic little tourist map. I seem to be heading back towards the north coast (the comforts of Athens are tugging at me) and there appears to be a road marked from here to Spili, a town on the way. I show the map to the café owner. He shakes his head. I persist. Shaking becomes more vehement: “Ochi, ochi, no road!” But I’m not convinced and point myself out of town in what feels like must be the general direction. Afternoon turns quickly to dusk; what began as a road turns gradually into a donkey track. As darkness falls I am surrounded by black mountains and can barely discern a path. I stumble blindly over a high ridge and see a few lights below me. Astonished locals drinking outside their village hall watch me approach from an impossible direction! I am given a hero’s welcome and a bed for the night.
The villagers are still discussing my exploit and patting me on the back next morning and a ride is arranged on the dead end road down into the plains. When a final hitchhike brings me to Rethymno I am suddenly engulfed by another aspect of Crete: flat sandy beaches, sunbathing tourists from Northern Europe and English beer for sale. Is that mountain road experience over already? It feels too soon.
After an unsatisfying few days back in the Athens dosshouse, where everybody seems to be stuck in exactly the same position – slumped against the walls and passing round a spliff – as they were when I left, I push off round the Peloponnese with the usual combination of hard walking and occasional rides. At the Mycenae archaeological site I slip back in after a guard closes the wire gate and spend the night among the ruins. Early the next morning before anyone else arrives, I explore underground passageways, and forbidden corners. Sleeping out in the great amphitheater at Ithoni, I am surprised by a thunderstorm and am rescued by a Dutch family in a VW camper.
They invite me to travel with them but are running short of time, so rather too rapidly I find myself back in Athens again. After some days pointlessly orbiting the scene around the French girl and pounding the streets of the city in frustration, the date of my flight home approaches. Hoping to catch a final taste of those first days in Crete I hurry off to Euboea, the closest island I have time and finances to reach. But is an increasingly disconsolate period. I pass time making a campfire on a beach, reading and re-reading Borges “Labyrinths’. Bemused local fishermen bring me bread, eggs and tomatoes but we have no language in common.
It is clear that by now I am simply lonely and desperately miss home and friends. But as I stamp back into town alongside the dry, crumbling hills and dusty construction sites and make for the airport, a sense of pride comes over me. I’ve made it! My habits as a walker amongst England’s soft green pastures have stood me in good stead: I’ve walked Greece’s bare boney landscapes; I’ve slept alone in wild country; above all I’ve caught the bug – wandering. From now on I’m going to make mine a wanderful life!
Bairo Alto spring
Early in 2013 I was living in the village of Assagao in North Goa when I chanced on a little privately-printed booklet about the village. I was immediately intrigued to read in it of ‚seven mineral-rich hill springs with healing properties, now abandoned and forgotten’. As the hot season began to intensify and with the vision of finding cool spring water, I set out to try to find them. Assagao is set in a valley just five kilometers long and two wide, split down the middle by the Vau, a central stream bordered by ricefields and coconut groves, and enclosed by low hills of red laterite rock covered in jungle and cashew plantations. There are two seasons: eight rainless months, getting hotter and more humid as the year progresses; and monsoon, when the area receives over three meters of rain between June and September. Up until the development of the tourism industry over the past generation (which has provided new sources of income on the nearby coastal strip, and in the village itself by the selling off or renting out of houses and building land to outsiders) the villagers were traditionally completely dependant on farming for their livelihoods. As my explorations were to reveal, the abandonment of the traditional springs has been part of a general shift away from agriculture, evidenced by disused fields, overgrown plantations, crumbling walls and collapsed irrigation ditches, all quickly returning to a state of impenetrable jungle. Pretty ironic in a country with hundreds of millions of poor inhabitants, desperate for land to feed themselves!
Banyan tree, Assagao
This part of Goa was ruled by the Portugese for 450 years and was thoroughly ‚christianized’ by these fanatical invaders, its ancient Hindu temples and sacred trees destroyed, its inhabitants forced to chose between exile or convertion. Today Assagao’s population of around 3,500 is split evenly between Christians and Hindus, with the Hindus having returned here only during the past half century since the Portugese left. This is significant, because another of my discoveries shows how, despite a Christian veneer – the churches, chapels and wayside crosses – original customs and beliefs with a deep respect for natural phenomena must have survived the centuries of persecution.
Forest around Assagao
Laterite block bridge
Valle in monsoon
The terrain around Assagao is not difficult, distances are small, and aside from the need to be alert for snakes and the thorny nature of many jungle plants, exploring here is hardly demanding. But there are no detailed maps available in India (the powers-that-be consider making these available to the general public a security risk) and finding anywhere in India therefore comes down to asking around and following one’s nose. I decided to begin with the Valle, source of the Vau that ran right past my house, described in the booklet as an ‚age old perennial spring good for lung problems and rheumatism’. Following the stream, with its lining of crumbling laterite blocks, up into the hills from my home might therefore seem the obvious way to find the place. But, as I quickly found out, this involves swamps, muddy rice fields and disused paths blocked by scrub and newly-built walled compounds. So, after poring over Google Earth, tracing the line of darker green that indicates the thick forest and coconut groves marking out the Vau’s course, I headed off on a minor road leading up towards higher ground. This soon melted away into overgrown cashew orchards and regenerating jungle. Beside a decaying chapel a local man pointed vaguely towards the green hills. ‚Oh yes’, he told me, ‚there used to be a path to the Valle from here, but for years the cashew harvesters have no longer come to clear the paths. You can’t get through now.’
I tried a second road which dwindled into a labyrinth of tracks, all bristling with thorny bushes and hidden beneath fallen leaves, each ending in impenetrable thickets. Spider webs laced the spaces between old mango and palm trees and overhead a cacophany of birds called out their displeasure at my clumsy intrusion. I found myself beating about the bush for an hour before I reached the dry streambed. Coming on some ruined walls, and finally hearing the tinkle of flowing water, I felt a sudden sense of dislocation from the world outside; I had entered the Valle. The place possesses an astonishing serenity: a thin trickle of clear water seeping out of the earth between maidenhair ferns, its flow gathering strength and tumbling over multicoloured strata; the forest trees seeming to congregate around the spot, soaring upwards to create a wide bowl of clear space beneath interlacing branches high overhead. A few meters from the source someone had channeled the springwater into a slim cascade with a short piece of hosepipe and I was able to shower off the sweat of my exertions. It became a place of contemplation for me on many visits there over the ensuing months: musing over the fallen blocks of rough-hewn laterite, which give the impression of having been strewn about by mighty forces, and which are clearly the remains of a complex water management system; enjoying the company of a towering banyan tree, its roots embracing giant boulders, that presides over the spring from a vantage point a little higher up the watercourse; and picking up garbage. One afternoon a family came down a precipitous path from the slummy housing colony on the hill above to do their laundry under the hosepipe. They must come regularly because every time I went there were always their soap wrappers and odd bits of abandoned clothing for me to clean up. Plus the torrent of household garbage that the monsoon rains wash down the streambed above the spring from the road on the hilltop, which is used (like so many of Goa’s roads) as a rubbish dump. The Valle is a paradise –and it seems not totally forgotten – but a tarnished one.
Sonarkhed spring in monsoon
The only other specific reference in the book was to a spring called ‚Dossazor at Dossoxir’, and a grainy picture of a rectangular walled pit accompanied it; but once again the book gave no indication as to its location. A local friend had vaguely heard of it and pointed me north over the hills to Sonarkhed, a small corner of Assagao parish which lies outside the main valley. There I took a path past the last houses and the Sri Dutta Hindu temple into old coconut and mango plantations. Pre-monsoon clearing of unwanted underbrush had obviously taken place and the little valley was choked with cut branches. Noting again the ruined walls and abandoned channels, I began to understand that this, like the Valle and the Vau beside my house, were part of some huge irrigation system that had once fed the village with water for agriculture. The spring itself in the pre-monsoon heat was a mere trickle emerging beneath a dark ochre rockface and fed a pool just big enough for a shallow but welcome dip. It was my second one of the seven, but clearly not the Dossazor on the photo. Next a bit of luck on a Google search led me to a map. Finally a proper large scale map, albeit not one with a single name on it! The Assagao Regional Plan is the product of the village Panchayat (the lowest tier of local government) and apart from marking with symbols the sites of five churches and six temples, concerns itself solely with plot numbers and zoning regulations. But there on the southern boundary of the village, an arrow marked ‚SPRING’.
I must have driven past it dozens of times over the years, for it sits right beside a popular shortcut through to the tourist belt at Baga. And sure enough a battered handpainted sign on the road I had never before bothered to read said: ‚Do not throw garbage in the vicinity….Notice issued by vilagers of Dasashir’. I found the Dossazor spring beneath a mighty banyan, which blocks any view of it from the road. It is approached through a little ramshackle temple and has, as the photo showed, been neatly walled with the local laterite into a rectangular pool. In this season, when any water is a blessed relief from 38 degree heat and 95% humidity, the coolness of the spring’s water on my hand was almost a shock. Even though it was deserted, it felt just a little too public a place for me to strip off for a dip, so I contented myself with paddling my feet in the orange-tinted water and abandoning myself to the sensation of schools of tiny fish nibbling at my toes.
Sacred grove above Dossazor
Ritual objects in sacred grove
Here I must interrupt the narrative flow to illustrate my point about the survival of ancient pre-Christian beliefs during the centuries of Portugese rule. For on one of my rambles a year or so previously I had stumbled into an extraordinary spot hidden amidst overgrown cashew trees commanding the steep hillside above the place which I had now established was the Dossazor: a rare surviving devrai or sacred grove. (I have visited some of these ancient forest patches in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, which retained its Hindu identity under British rule. They are considered sacred to a powerful local nature spirit and it is forbidden to cut or remove anything from within their boundaries at the risk of the spirit’s wrath. They thus contain remnants of original pre-human occupation vegetation, often with rare and medicinal plants that are extinct anywhere else in the area). This tiny grove is focused around a twisted banyan entwined with creepers, some of them thicker than a thigh, which take centuries to mature to such a size. It must have been planted once, for its maze of roots begins at chest height, clutching a support of shaped laterite blocks. Scattered on the forest floor I found terracotta waterpots, tiny mirrors and little green combs, many of them already entombed in mud and leaf litter. Apart from these ritual objects, there was no sign of more recent ‚hinduization’: no religious images or symbols, no coloured threads tied around the tree trunk as is usual at venerated trees in temples and villages throughout Hindu India. Yet despite the absense of a god or goddess to worship, someone was still coming here to pay their mysterious respects, as his or her ancestors must have been doing during the long Christian centuries when other such places had been uprooted. My mind reeled back even further to a time when this hillside was part of unbroken primaeval forest, inhabited only by peoples whose remnants India now calls tribals, and who had recognized this spot above the spring, and perhaps even the ancestor of this tree, as special.
Yoni and Lingam at Bairo Alto spring
Once again Google Earth came to my rescue in uncovering a fourth sacred spring. I was learning to judge the varied shades of green on satellite photos and, while the Valle was clearly in the largest area of the darkest shade (indicating mature forest) right opposite my house on the hillside above Bairo Alto ward was a smaller patch of the same colour. I took myself up there just as the cashew harvesters were hacking a path through last monsoon’s overgrowth up to the orchards. Their track passed a gully full of impenetrable jungle and forked at a tall banyan. The harvesters headed their way up the upper one and I took the lower down to the streambed. This was dry, and already redolant with the scent of fallen and fermenting cashew fruits, but upstream a tiny cave beckoned. Sure enough, even in May, the driest month of the year, when not a drop of rain had fallen for seven months, a shrivelled pool lay hidden within it. Not inviting for a drink, or even a wash, but it was a spring and I knew that with the monsoon the place would come fully alive again. A little yoni (vagina-shaped stone) with a loose river-polished pebble lingam (phallus) had been cemented onto a rock beside the spring. A recent addition for sure, and like the little temple under the banyan at Dossazor, a sign that the Hindus of Assagao had been reclaiming their heritage.
Spring fed pond, Sauta Vaddo
Four down and three to go, I came to a dry-season hiatus. There are just so many empty gullies running down the hillsides to join the Vau, most of them strewn with garbage as they pass the farms and houses at the roadsides. They channel Goa’s three meters of rain during the monsoon, but now they were blocked with a tangle of thorns and fallen branches. Following each one up to a doubtful source at a spring would be an impossible task. A pond in a ricefield near my home in Sauta Vaddo provided a respite and a potential number five. Its roughly circular banks are lined with laterite blocks, overgrown with weeds and slim trees that provide shade. With even the Vau in this season a mere trickle, and the well at our house providing just a last gasp of muddy water, the pond’s source must be deep underground for it brims with clear, cold water. I swam in it daily, often with my three year-old daughter, and could arrive back home cooled down enough to survive the desperate heat of the pre-monsoon afternoons. Should I count this as number five?
Siolim boundary spring
The arrival of the monsoon in early June provided a wealth of information for my search, as the brush and garbage-choked gullies cleared by runoff. Now I could distinguish between those that flowed only for a short time after a heavy shower, and those that maintained their flow during drier spells, indicating underground recharge. Back at Sonarkhed I tracked the courses of two further monsoon-fed streams, and just above the junction point in mature forest on the Siolim boundary, I found the prettiest hill spring yet. A deep pool of clear turquoise water bubbled away over bright yellowish-orange laterite to join the main channel. I drank it greedily, its exquisite taste better than anything money could buy after my sweaty trek over the hills. This spring is not forgotten, for there are signs of the local people using it to do their washing, while the well-worn track past it leads to a rectangular basin cut out of the bedrock, used for the distillation of feni (cashew alcohol) and still stained with cashew juice from the past harvest.
Pool beneath Badem spring
The book provided me with my final clue – or perhaps it was not to be final if the valley pool near my house was not to be counted amongst the seven? The neighbouring village of Badem had been part of Assagao parish until a separate church was consecrated for it half a century ago, and still came under Assagao’s local government. The only patches of forest there deep enough to hide a spring lie in a thin strip on the northern side facing the Chaporra estuary. It was a simple matter to establish that a waterfall, which flows into a wide pool formed at the site of an old quarry, is the only waterflow of sufficient size to be powered by a spring rather than stormwater runoff. What was not so simple was to get on top to check the source of the stream feeding the falls. The water ran in a narrow V-shaped gully over sheer quarried rock faces and the monsoon had by now been in full swing for over a month and all traces of paths had been hidden under new growth. I abandoned the attempt and contented myself with clambering my way to a clear view of the falls from below.
Anjuna spring falls
By now I had become a bit obsessed. Had I in fact identified seven mineral-rich hill springs? The pool in the ricefields near my home at Sauta Vaddo was hardly a hill spring, was it? My Scorpionic love of uncovering the hidden led me on, together with the fact that in these monsoon days there was not much else going on to fill my time. I drove again around the village lanes peering into gulches; there was simply only one more possibility, and it lay just outside Assagao. It was to prove an equal to the Valle in terms of its fascination.
Hewn rock walls at Anjuna spring
Consoling myself with the thought that after all the area might once have been considered part of Assagao, I crossed over from the Dossazor along the hillslopes into the nighbouring parish of Anjuna, striking for a shallow side valley that discharges into the central flats along the Vau. It was a short hike (I had hardly left Assagao really, had I?) until below me tall forest marked the stream’s course. I worked my way down, with the usual probes into the impossible tangle of monsoon foliage along the course, hoping to glimpse the signs of human intervention. Suddenly they were all before me: laterite walls, a gigantic banyan, the sound of cascading water; a curious white marble chappati plate, embossed with a flower motif, lying abandoned in the streambed. Easing past the banyan’s arial roots, I looked down onto a waterfall in a cleft in the rock which had been carefully shaped until its walls were vertical. The cleft opened out into a wider space, its sides also hewn into the vertical. Openings at the side, now filled with mud and debris, as well as rectangular pits in the streambed itself, all showed signs of having been carved into shape out of the living rock.
I went back many times, pondering the efforts a small community must have put into fashioning the place. It too must have been part of that valley-wide irrigation project which had once fed the whole village, and signs of which I had seen all over my wanderings in search of springs. But then where were the tumbled-down remains of a dam to contain the water? Or of channels to conduct it? And why such a concern with exact verticals? The presence of that great banyan reminds me that, however purely utilitarian the place’s function once was, the people who made it (and maintained it until the recent advent of government-piped water, diesel pumps and alternative employment in the tourist industry) had a veneration and respect for water, trees and the powers of the natural world that went beyond their mere usefulness. They modified the land they occupied with an aesthetic that shows how finely tuned their senses were to the sacred.
Watch my film Seven Sacred Springs here
A trip to a little-visited island made in 1981 with Diana Herrington
Text, drawings and photos by Chinmaya Dunster
Tokyo, 8-12 October 1981
Arriving at Tokyo airport from Vancouver. Not a single sign in English. We scrabble through our phrasebook looking for the kanji character for Exit and head for the nearest one. How to use the payphone? No-one around speaks more than a few words of English, though they eagerly come over to offer their help. I manage to get through to our Servas (a pre-internetequivalent of Couchsurfing) host’s number to be greeted with a distressed-sounding female voice, until finally I hear our host’s name spoken and a single English word: „Dead.“
From a journal written on the road between England and the East in 1975. I had just turned 20; my girlfriend L was just 17.
Tuesday March 25th
Leaving England on the 6.30 boat from Dover, stoned on the beach with L, watching myself watching the scene. Remembering walking painfully with all our gear through suburban New Cross to the first hitchable point on the main road out of London and the dismal wait for a first lift. As the saying goes: „The journey of a thousand miles (actually five thousand to our destination –India) begins with a single step.“ In fact it begins at New Cross roundabout on the A2 and it’s over two hours until we finally make it out of London. At this rate how long can we expect to Istanbul??
A mild evening in Ostende: we crawl under some bushes and spread out our stuff, plastic sheeting, double sleeping bag, layers of clothing, a goodnight pipe finishing off a tiny well-secreted stash and –snore.
Wednesday March 26th
L is always sleepy in the mornings and takes ages to wake up and get anything together. Ostende hummed, bustled and finally roared around us before we emerged from our bag and into the world. Passing pedestrians must have noted our choice of resting place with a smile: the front garden of the local Police Station.
Brussels, Liege, Aachen: the Continent’s fine autobahns and amiable drivers took us on through appalling weather. A kindly German detoured us round Koln for a sightseeing tour and then regretfully dropped us in pouring rain at the city’s edge for our journey south. Rain turned to snow as, soaked through, we finally got a ride to Frankfurt. So here we are, drying out in an expensive pensionne.
Friday March 28th
Scene: an expensive (£5) and snowbound gasthaus in Spittal, Austria. About a hundred miles off our intended route.
Aschaffenburg. I hope I never have to hear that name again. Twelve hours, morning to evening, standing in rain, sleet and snow at the edge of town beside the autobahn. Not even a hint of a lift. Bus back into town to a Youth Hostel (overheated and segregated by sex) then bus back out to autobahn this morning.
Three winning lifts later we find ourselves in a snowstorm in the Alps, somewhere near the Austria/Yugoslavia border. Our driver (no English) points out a choice of roads, and gesticulates that we can get out if we want the left fork, or continue with him if we want the right. We have no idea, but obviously getting out of the car would be mania, so right it is. Next thing we know, we find ourselves being asked for our passports at the Italian border. Italy?? This isn’t part of the plan at all!
We walk back into Austria and reluctantly pay up here.
Saturday March 29th
Unable to bear a day cooped up in the gasthaus, we decide to walk out of Spittal through a meter or so of snow and take the first ride we can. It turns out to be headed for Italy again; oh well, anywhere is better than nowhere. Treviso sees us drenched in a veritable blizzard and the road into Yugoslavia deserted. We wait in a cafe for a promised bus, but two hours later it is announced that the bus has in fact already left. By nighfall we manage to get one that is going as far as the border.
The Yugoslav authorities look at us with undisguised hostility. Or perhaps we are simply too cold to read them properly and they are in fact looking at us as if we are completely mad. The border is a desolate scene of grey snow, with a few parked lorries looking like they would have a hard time managing to pull out over the dirty ridges of ploughed snow that block their access to the icy road. Yet there is a bus, and it takes us to Ljubljana, where a fellow passenger offers to help us find a room. He takes us to a dingy bar and introduces us a guy whose stare in L’s direction we don’t like the look of one little bit. Mumbling excuses we hasten off to the train station and at the Information desk there, just about to close for the night, are given an address on a scrap of paper.
We bang on a door on a dark street and a woman pulls us hastily inside with a panicy look around; i she checking that we haven’t been followed? There’s no heating to dry our clothes; the washbasin emits only a sludge of rusty water and then pulls off the wall to lean out into the room at a drunken angle.
Sunday March 30th
We trudge off through melting snow and pick up a couple of easy lifts to Zagreb. There a lorry driver offers us a lift to Beograd. After six hours of fending off his paws as they reach across me to fondle L’s (well-wrapped up) legs we have obviously had enough of each others company and he drops us at a service station well short of the city where we put down our sleeping bags for the night.
Monday March 31st
Joy of joys! The day dawns hot and sunny. While I hide behind our packs, L hitches what little traffic there is amidst the dust and smells. A racy-looking car with German plates offers us a ride all the way to Istanbul! The Iranian driver tells us he’s taking the car to Teheran for his brother. But even with L on the rear seat he can’t seem to keep his hands from reaching back to try to stroke her knee. Irritation sets in again on all sides and we are dropped at Nis. By now I’m beginning to feel unwell, so we take a bus to Skopje, sleeping most of the journey.
A fellow-passenger takes an interest in us and offers to put us up for the night at his student digs. Lo and behold as I collapse in a corner the nitwit tries to grab L, so off we go again, wandering the town in a daze until we find a spot in some ruins in which to kip down.
Tuesday April 1st
We are awoken by policemen with hands on their holsters demanding passports. Perhaps it is our inane early-morning grins that relaxes them, but without a single word of mutual comprehension, we manage to part laughing.
We pass through a tumbledown shanty town on our way to the main road, watched by assorted peasants and dogs and escorted at a discreet distance by a couple more policemen. Then we’re off smoothly towards the Greek border. Having been dropped off some kilometers short, we discover that there is simply no proper traffic on the road at all! We walk a bit, ride a bit on the back of a tractor, walk a bit more, find a bus going a few kilometers, meet up with a couple of English travellers bound for Athens and eventually arrive with them in rain at the border on sore feet.
From there a bus takes us to the bright lights of Thessaloniki, a cheerful town that offers us a hotel room with hot bath for £2. Hot water has been our main dream this past week, and after a long soak, a tasty meal and a stroll among the town’s noisy and excitable evening street scene, we sleep like the dead.
Wednesday April 2nd
Bustling around town, buying bread, feta, olives, ouzo etc. How good it feels to have left the North behind! We hit the Istanbul road by noon, and are carried 100 km by a Greek who stops to buy us coffee. On to Kavala with a French-speaking lorry driver carrying bales of tobacco, who insists on treating us to the full details of the trade at top volume. Here we abandon our no-longer-needed coats and pick up a lorry for Alexandropolis. The driver hasn’t a word of any language we speak, but insists on treating us to a fine meal of fish, bread and tomato, washed down with beer, before dropping us off.
We wander the desolation of Alexandropolis’ railway yards looking for somewhere to bed down, and end up passing an ugly night beside a road overlooked by a farmhouse, disturbed by barking dogs and the silhouette of a peasant passing by gun in hand.
Thursday April 3rd
A few short rides along the customary deserted road to the border; a long walk between customs posts and a lot of bored-looking soldiers at the Turkish end. Fortunately there’s a nice open air cafe, in which a family are tucking into what looks like a delicious feast, dominated by a large bowl of lettuce center-table. We gesticulate to our waiter to indicate that we want what they’re having. Half an hour later he appears with a bowl of lettuce. Nothing else seems to be forthcoming, so we pick up a lift on a drinks lorry, and squash into its cab, already filled by three Turks. It has great difficulty negotiating the frequent hills, so after a while we opt to walk as a quicker option.
We are soon taken in by an equally decrepid twin, and many hours and torturous hills later we are dropped into the mediaeval chaos of what is obviously not our intended quarter of Istanbul.
Tiny winding streets with mud and sparce paving as road surface; ruts and puddles and horse shit as pavement; and muck and metal and old tyres spilling out of the mechanics workshops lining the way. Through this winds a melee of small boys carrying car parts, beaten up taxis horning incessantly and horses and metal-wheeled carts clattering to deafen us.
We bunder through asking ‚Sultan Ahmet?’ from likely-looking fellows and being pointed in various directions, until finally a packed bus, sporting a jagged hole in its roof, deposits us in a square bearing more resemblance to a twentieth-century city.
By sunset we are ensconced in a Youth Hostel and surrounded by fellow-travellers and their tales. Emaciated ones are returning West, fresh-faced ones like us are optimistically pointed East. We meet a friend of a friend –small world- then L and I go out for a cheap and uninspiring kebab and find ourselves overindulging in the famous Pudding Shops’ honey cake on the Hostel landing before parting in a vague state of despondancy to our separate beds. Is it just a little too small? A little too reminiscent of Camden Town here?
Sunday Arpil 6th
Two days wandering the bazaars of Istanbul, unsucessfully searching for sandles and hats. Finally make do with flipflops and an old felt hat (part exchange for L’s jeans). At one point perhaps the heat and frustration had got to us, but L and I find ourselves having a long consoling hug and look up from it to find a circle of incredulous watchers has formed around us.
We arrange to meet Heidi, an Englishwoman friend of my mothers. who has been living for almost forty years in Turkey. She is married to a ninety-three year old Turkish gentleman, who we meet at their beautiful residence on the banks of the Bosphorus. He entertains us with stories of his meetings as part of the new republic’s diplomatic service with Ataturk, Stalin, Trotsky and the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm.
Today we lunch in the old couple’s garden overlooking the Bosphorus before Heidi drops us near the new bridge that joins Europe to Asia to pick up an overnight bus for Izmir.
Tuesday April 8th
Arrive in Izmir tired and in poor spirits after a tough night on the bus and, beach calling us, pick out a local bus for Kusadasi pretty much at random. The beach is a disappointment and then sun far too intense for our pale Northern skins. For reasons known only to himself, a man chases us out of the rocks where we are trying to hide in some shade. For the first time a hint of a question is beginning to creep over us: what are we doing here?
Three local lads rescue us from our despondancy, and joined by a huge Californian negro by the name of Keith, we are taken along a coastal path to a tourist village with a perfect sandy beach. By evening the boys are promising us a smoke back at their home, and we all squeeze in to a room alraedy occupied by grandparents, parents and two kids. The smoke doesn’t materialize, but as we leave we are treated to the sight of the nine of them bedding down together in that single room.
We sleep on the beach nearby and spend a day tanning and swimming, before getting together with Abidin, Hussein and Gengis again. We buy a load of food and take it back to the family to cook. By the time the food is served there are twenty people crammed in there. The boys play Turkish pop on a battered old gramaphone and we three foreigners (Keith with reluctance, his huge size completey unmanagable in the confined space) dance for our supper.
Thursday April 10th
A couple of minibus rides bring us south down the coast to Didim and another uninspiring beach. A chance meeting with a couple of Germans in a cafe results in us being invited back to their campsite, five kilometers along a rough track beside the coast. There’s a camper van, tents, a guitar and nine travellers altogether. We wine and dine in luxury and put our sleeping bags down nearby.
Today is a laze around and eat too much day. Good to see that we’re not alone on the food trip front, as the Germans seem to spend a lot of time eating it, talking about it and planning their next meal. In the evening four of us go off to play football in the village match. After ten exhausting minutes I’m reduced to giving up the chase and standing and waiting for the ball to come my way. At one point a herd of cattle is driven across the pitch, at another a minibus. Neither stops play. The village policeman, in full uniform, acts as referee, and is not adverse to hanging around one goalmouth and attempting to score at every opportunity.
Friday April 11th
Bump bump rattle on the minibus to Bodrum through pine forests and jagged mountains, buying saucepans and food to cook en route. A lorry rescues us from our trudge out of town towards the beach and takes us along the peninsular on a hair-raising ‚road’ for half an hour to a tiny village, where we are pointed in the direction of the ‚pilage’ (beach –the French seem to have influenced the language here somehow). The path vanishes into a peasant’s front yard and they are delighted to watch us build a ring of stones and gather wood for a fire on the sand nearby. We cook a meal of rice and vegetables and they bring us out some fresh yoghurt as a gift.
Saturday April 12th
We wake to the sound of rain, which worsens until most of our stuff is drenched. Back by minibus along the track to Bodrum, where we book a pensionne to dry out and spend an aimless day wandering up and down the streets buying foodstuffs to munch on. L finds a nice pair of sandals and I order a pair for delivery tomorrow. There isn’t another foreign face to be seen in this town, and limited French seems to be the only foreign language spoken. Everyone greets us with „OK, English, OK!“ but that’s it.
Sunday April 13th
We have found a far out spot to camp on top of a hill overlooking the town. The sun has come out at last and in the evening light the mountains shine in stupendous colours. We are nestled out of a strong wind among boulders and shaded by twisted oaks. I take a long walk which leads me to a huge Cyclopean wall of closely-fitting stone blocks. Following high along the ridge above it, I chance on a series of concentric platforms, half buried under earth and roots. At their center is an ancient wizened tree.
Monday April 14th
Pick up sandals in Bodrum and then head Milos-Mugla-Fettye. We are getting the hang of the minibus thing. Main point is to avoid taking the back seats, which have more legroom, but endure the worst of the bumps. And carry a polythene bag, as do all the locals (who use them too!).
A windy night on the beach, spending hours cooking an unspectacular curry with a lot of sand in it. Spectacular sunset to make up for it, but after dark boredom sets in. L and I could be spending too much time alone together. We decide to push on faster towards Afganistan and other Westerners.
Tuesday April 15th
No buses out of Fettiye and we have to get a shared taxi out of town to a village where, to the amusement of the locals, we set ourselves down on the deserted road towards Antalya to autostop. Several hours later a car finally putters by and stops. Two likely lads, chainsmokers with Turkish music on the cassette player and a smattering of French, offer us a lift all the way. We stop for lunch in a tiny village, drink raki and eat boiled eggs, fresh bread and yoghurt and everything seems to be going along cheerfully.
By late afternoon something has turned sour. We’ve been cooped up with them too long and long since run out of jokes to make in French. But they insist on taking us all the way, promise to pay for our hotel and to take us out for a meal, with ‚Turkish dancing’ later. We simply don’t know how to read all this.
Antalya: a hot shower and a bourgeois restaurant but our companions, who had such a hearty appetite at lunchtime, are now picking at their food and talking to each other in a worried-looking way. An awkward hour passes. L and I say ‚no’ to the disco, „back to hotel s’il vous plait!“ Lo and behold they turn the wrong way out of the restaraunt and next thing we know we’re heading away from the town center. „Promenade on pilage“ they insist. Rising panic. „No promenade. Hotel!“ we scream and bundle out of their car into a taxi.
Back at the hotel, from the other side of our locked door, we hear soft knock, pathetic voice: „Monsiour, parle un moment…“ „Demain“ I tell them, and eventually they go away.
Wednesday April 16th
We meet them again on our way to the bus station, and neither of us can figure them out. Are they undecided nasties, bad-intentioned but bungling? Or misunderstood niceguys who found themselves trying to keep face after having promised more than they really could comfortably deliver?
L and I talk it out on our long bus ride to Alanya. Fact is she is getting tired of all the stares and fending off men’s wandering hands.
It continues in the same vein this evening. After a lovely day wandering the vast castle dominating the town from its perch on sheer cliffs, we get picked up by a well-fed looking puppy, who follows us to the cheap cafe where we have left our stuff. The weather is worsening rapidly and some local guys invite us to come and sleep in their front room. Perhaps it’s paranoia to refuse but we head off into a gathering storm towards the beach, dog in tow, and bed down under our inadequate plastic sheeting. Puppy joins us in our bag out of the rain.
Thursday April 17th
We exchanged warm and wet for windy and cold last night as the rain let up and a howling gale took it’s place. Doggie has chewed my sandal. We are heading fast for the train at Mersin today; might as well spend this money in Afganistan or Nepal rather than here.
Saturday April 19th
Scene: a railway carriage halted somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
We got on this train twenty-eight hours ago in Adana, bound for Elazig. We have now been stopped here for eight hours. No-one has a clue what’s going on, or enough English to explain if they do.
The journey started well (if late: we had to bed down on the platform at Adana after the promised 1am train failed to arrive until 4am). We slept in a compartment with one young guy the only other occupant. He woke up and immediately claimed to have has 150 Turkish Lira (£4) stolen from his top pocket. In came the guards, the guy produced tears, and suspicious looks were given us as the guards heavied us for tickets, student cards, passports etc. They soon had enough of him though, and began to relax and exchange cigarettes with us. All the while the train was pottering throug the fields, making innumerable long stops to give the locals a chance to peer at us through the windows and offload crates of chickens, bags of oranges etc.
Later, after a change of guards and compartment (rid of Mr Victim at last) we were again asked for our tickets. Puzzlement: we can’t find them!
Cohorts of officials gather, while I scurry back along the train to search our original compartment, and look in vain for one of our original guards who could vouch for us. Finally a cleaner appears, who has found them in the toilet. General relaxation all round; the guards show us to their own compartment and produce chai for us. This is spoiled by the re-appearance of Mr Victim, who repeats his stolen money story with accusatory stares in our direction. This seems to be briefly entertained, for there are serious looks and I have a momentary vision of a Turkish jail, but as suddenly as he came he is gone, and there is another round of chai.
Our second night passes alone in the guards compartment, with fitful sleep interrupted by heavy footfalls outseide the door, which is thrown open at intervals and a torch shone in on us.
Sunday April 20th
Our stopping halt turns out to be called Dogansehir, and we are stuck there for 22 hours. Crowds surround us as we head into the nearby village to buy oranges and yoghurt; we feel like film starts as hordes of boys examine our every move and are escorted down the muddy streets and back to the inert train by the village elders.
Somehow the hours pass and eventually we move off and arrive in Elazig (journey distance around 350km) at 11.30 at night, after 44 hours on the train.
Monday April 21st
Little relief in Elazig, as our hotel owner wakes us three times during the night, banging on our door and shouting that the hot water for our shower is ready. He is oblivious to the abuse we hurl at him from the bed we have no intention of leaving for a small hours bathe.
Via Mus to Tatvan by bus, across plains surrounded by snow-clad mountains; flocks of sheep, goats, cattle, buffalo, a solitary stork or two. The locals, dressed in hides with dark skins and thick beards, look more and more earth-coloured as we progress.
Here in Tatvan we get a hotel with a nice hot bath for £1 and a full-on meal of shish kebab, bread, salad, tomatoes, honey cake, chai and cigarettes for 15 English pence at a restaurant run by a local gay (at least we assume he must be by his mannerisms) who commands a charming smattering of English.
Tuesday April 22nd
Afternoon ferry across the huge lake to Van. The officers invite us for chai, and then the Captain takes us up to the bridge to watch the departure. Then the crew have us into the mess for a big meal and ply us with sickening quantities of beer before we manage to extricate ourselves and plonk ourselves on deck feeling ill. One of them, pretty drunk, follows us up and offers us a cabin for the night, free. Suspicious, we check with the Captain, who informs us that in fact the ship will be returning to Tatvan straight after reaching Van. Something weird we avoided there for sure.
The walk from the jetty into town is long and L is feeling increasingly unwell. We crash in a pit of a hotel room for 50 pence.
Wednesday April 23rd
L is now sick and groaning in bed. I roam the town fruitlessly trying to locate a bus to Iran, then hitch to the train station and back, but there is no train until Friday. I decide to join L in an oranges fast for the day and the long hours pass. Takes some adjustment this Eastern ‚doing nothing’.
Thursday April 24th
Our autobus to Iran steers us through bare hills and snowy mountains and then dumps us in a godawful village some 40 kms before the border. The taxi drivers shout „Hundred Lira!“, the wind blows cold, and the street kids are hostile enough to throw some stones our way. We make a good show of being prepared to hitch until a murderous-looking pair in a taxi relent and offer to take us for thirty.
Darkness is falling in a wasteland of mountains and snow as the taxi suddenly stops and the two get out. ‚This is it!’ we feel, exchanging frightened as hell glances, and clutching our moneybelts tight. For a long moment I endure visions of robbery and rape, but then having relieved themselves, the two get back in and on we continue to the border.
„Bye-bye Turkey‚Alas Maladuk! Choc guzel! Gule gule!“
Iran snapshots: Arabic lettering and numerals everywhere mean we are suddenly illiterate; Teheran – the shock of a Western-style city after the squalor of Eastern Turkey, yet where breakfast for the locals appears to a whole sheep’s head in a plate of soup; the Hotel Amir Kabir, where the travellers’ talk is always about where you’re headed for, or where you’ve just come from, and the only time spent in the present seems to be to order some more to eat.
From the Afgan border on (the local Chief of Police joins us in a crowded shared taxi into Herat and sells us a lump of local charas) things become far too trippy to keep a regular journal. Patrick Marnham faced the same problem in his classic ‚Road to Kathmandu’: from Herat on it’s all fragments and decoherence.