Wednesday, 22 March 2017

India

Someone called Martin, a ukulele band leader very kindly told Annette the other day that he enjoys my blog. He said he especially likes the pieces on travel. So, here we go with a few journeys to India, probably my currently favourite country, especially since I've always loved Kipling. One of my top ten works of prose is 'Plain Tales from the Hills' and 'Barrackroom Ballads' high on my list of poetry.

Annette and I first started to go to India in the noughties, having almost exhausted Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore with many, many visits. (My daughter Shaney and her family lived in Singapore for several years and Annette's old boss from our Hong Kong days, Robin Moseley, also put us up several times). It was in 2003 that we did the Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, three fabulous cities with wonderful buildings and natural areas as many tourists have discovered. We drew the triangle in trains and with a Fiat Panda, plus a driver named Vivan who knew how to avoid potholes, and camels and elephants coming the wrong way down a motorway. We stayed in 'heritage' accommodation, which meant old Raj hunting lodges and Maharajah's palaces which recently had been forced to turn into hotels. At the time SARs was widespread and the month of the year ensured that temperatures in Rajasthan were around 50 centigrade: thus we enjoyed the palaces and hunting lodges completely alone, with the staff eagerly expecting us to attend every single meal, including tiffin and supper.

Our sightseeing of Delhi and Agra went much as any tourist expects, visiting all the usual forts, temples, palaces, towers and strange trees. It was on our way to Jaipur that things began to take an unusual slant. Firstly, the aircon in our little Panda exploded as we crossed a small desert and with the windscreen down we drove head first into a bank of hairdriers on full volume. Arriving at our hotel, still in the desert, we discovered it had been closed for six months. Vivan took us on to Jaipur, to the Indian Tourist Office who had helped arrange our trip, and told us, 'Be very angry with them, sir, for they deserve it.' We weren't angry because they put us in the poshest hotel in Jaipur and arranged for us to visit the best game park in that area of India, Ranthambhore. On the way to the game park we entered a village unaware that a riot was taking place and had our windscreen broken with a rock before Vivan managed to drive out into the surrounding ploughed fields, followed by a line of cars and lorries who were also escaping the mayhem.

The following day we were due to go on safari into Ranthambhore to look mainly for tigers. Bill Clinton had been there the week before and had seen none in seven days, so we didn't hold out much hope. However, when we climbed into the jeep there was another man sitting in the front along with guide. He introduced himself as M D Parashar, the wild life artist who painted the tiger face for Esso petrol. His paintings of tigers were, we were told by the guide, famous throughout the world. 'Mr Parashar is allowed to go into areas of the park where normally tourists are not permitted,' said the guide, 'so we are lucky to have him with us.' Indeed we were. We saw two beautiful tigers that day: one lying in the shade of a bush, which we could not photograph with any clarity at all, since his camouflage was almost perfect, and the other a female who almost posed for us. Unfortunately my camera had a fault that day so the poor picture immediately below is mine and the other belongs to an unknown photographer, but is of the same tigress.



Needless to say we were delighted and even got invited back to Mr Parashar's studios for high tea! The rest of that trip passed pleasantly enough, once back in the pink city of Jaipur.

Following this holiday, Annette began going to a remote school in the semi-wild state of Bihar for one month a year to improve the English of the pupils. It was a charitable gesture for a friend whose eye doctor had founded the school for mostly 'untouchable' children, having been one of their number as a child. The bed was very basic, the food mostly lentils with a few other vegetables and at night the watchmen kept waking her up with whistles, which they used to contact each other and inform the sleepers that all was safe and well. Bihar State, close to Bangladesh, is one of the poorest in India, has bandits on the roads and is prone to floods and other disasters. One of the stories which I found touching was of a pupil at the school who was the only child of a poor widow, who would, after school was out for the day, gather other less fortunate small children under a pepel tree and for one ana each teach them those lessons he had learned that day in class, so that he and his mother could eat. Annette enjoyed her visits and afterwards flew down to Kerala where I was waiting for her, so that we could holiday in that Christian state with its Communist local government. Indeed, the red flag flew from church spires and there were companies with names like 'The Infant Jesus Radiator Works'.

We had one more visit to Kerala when Annette stopped going to the school and on that same holiday visited Tamal Nadu's Pondicherry, with Indian policemen still in French uniforms, and Karnaktaka, where we tried to see tigers again, and failed. However, we did see some fabulous birds, including the two kingfishers pictured below.




Our last visit was undoubtedly the best Indian holiday ever, when we visited first Goa, then five game parks in Gujarat, where we saw Asian lions, blackbuck deer and a whole mass of India birds, including several types of eagle, harriers and hawks. Again, we had our own car and driver. Pundit was brilliant, stopping every time he saw a bird on tree or wire, saying, 'Quick, sir, capture that one. What is it? I must learn what they all are. I am becoming a birdman, sir, just like you.' I am not a really knowledgable 'birdman', I simply enjoy photographing wildlife, but when I got home I sent him the same volume I owned myself: 'Birds of India' which I hope he now enjoys and uses to entertain his charges as he drives them along the roads of Gujarat and other Indian states. Here's two or three beasts: an Asian lioness, a Blackbuck deer and I believe the big antlered fellow in the bottom picture is a Sambar.











Thursday, 6 October 2016

Hong Kong Diary (continued)

The Thai Trek (continued)

We leave the Akha about 6.30 and walk all morning along the
ridges to another Lahu village, in the lowlands. There are rice
fields, green and lush, and even a school here. This tribe is quite
wealthy. Just beyond the Lahu village is a waterfall where we bathe and wash the grime of three days off our bodies. The trek is almost over. We
take a path to a road where our vehicle picks us up and takes us back
to Chiang Mai. Ping agrees to meeting us that evening for a farewell
meal. Annette and I go back to our guest house, shower and change,
and go to the prearranged meeting place. Tony arrives with a Tracy
we hardly recognise. She's wearing a dress, an ornamental
clip in her dark hair, and make-up. We stand around feeling awkward and shy now that we're back in civilization, a little aware of our age differences. Ping arrives. He too seems self-conscious. He takes us to a Thai restaurant by the river where the four of us treat him to a meal, then he dashes away on some pretext. The four of us have a final drink, shake hands, the men kiss the ladies on their cheeks, and the little adventure is over. Annette and I go back to our lodgings and flop on the soft bed feeling that a century has passed since we last slept between two white
sheets.

Hong Kong Taxis

Despite the fact that, at the time of writing this, Hong Kong is
a British Colony, you're more likely to find a taxi driver in Bangkok
or Tokyo who understands English. Not that there's any reason why,
in a city where the Cantonese outnumber all other nationalities by
more that sixty to one, they should feel the need to speak anything
but their native tongue. One normally expects, however, that a taxi
driver has at least a vague idea of the geography of the area in which
he works.

Not in Hong Kong.

If you're lucky and you don't end up with a newly arrived
immigrant from the mainland, or a student moonlighting to pay his education fees, you'll get a driver who knows where a district is situated.
Street names are useless unless they're major trunk roads, since
the Chinese characters and English street names do not directly
translate. I have mentioned elsewhere in this book that the Chinese
characters beneath my own address road sign 'Rhondda Road' read 'Lotus
Avenue'. It is pointless getting in a taxi on Hong Kong Island and
saying, "Rhondda Road" which is a tiny cul-de-sac four miles away at
the back of Kowloon Tong. It is equally useless asking for "Lotus
Avenue". Even if the English is understood, the driver will not have
any knowledge of this obscure road, nor any of the roads around it.
The most sensible thing to do would seem to be to learn the
Cantonese words for the nearest fairly big road to one's address and
either direct the taxi driver from there (Joh for 'turn right' and
Yau for 'turn left') or walk the rest of the way. There are
further problems here. Cantonese is a particularly difficult
language for the westerner, since it has nine tones for each single
syllabled word. If you do not get the tones right for the street name, you will be asking for something completely different. When asking for Wan Street (meaning 'Cloud Street') and instead of using tone 4 (low falling) you use Wan tone 6, you will be asking for 'Transit Street', or Wan tone 5 you will be asking for 'Permit Street', and so on, though the 9 tones. Getting the right tone depends on your ear for music.

The safest way, if you can manage it, is to have your address
written down in Chinese characters and show it to the taxi driver.
He won't wait for you to present it before roaring away into the thick
of the traffic so you have to pray a little while he reads it and
drives at the same time. However, if you want to go somewhere you've
never been before and are unprepared, be prepared for any destination
and make the best of it.

There are some classic horror stories about gweilos and Hong Kong
taxi's. A friend of Annette's once got in a taxi in a town in the
New Territories and to her relief (I know the feeling) the driver
spoke some English. She gave the name of a garage that was repairing
her car. The taxi driver nodded and set off. Quarter of an hour
later she guessed something was wrong when they drove through
marsh land and. pulled up in a muddy yard outside a set of shanties. It
was dusk, there were no lights, and the mosquitoes were clouding the
windows. Also, the stench was terrible.
"Where's this?" she cried, thinking that perhaps she was being
abducted.
"Pig farm," said the driver, somewhat apologetically.
"I said I wanted to go to a Lok Fu garage."
The driver shrugged. He had done his bit as far as he was
concerned. He had driven her somewhere. The fact that she didn't
want to go to a pig farm was not his fault.
"Do you know where that is? You said you did."
Another shrug. He obviously didn't but 'saving face' he had
pretended he did. Just as a shopkeeper will say, "Wait a minute,"
when you ask for something he hasn't got and disappear into the back
of his shop, only to reappear once you've got bored waiting and gone
away.
"What made you think I wanted to come to a pig farm?" she
insisted.
Shrug. "Maybe want bacon?"
Coldly. "No, I don't want bacon, I want my bloody car. Take
me to another taxi, please. I'll pay for the journey, but I want
another taxi."
Shrug.
As they drive out of the marshes, he says, "You want car?"
"I want my car - it's at Lok Fu garage."
"Oh, Lok Fu?" he says, hearing it clearly for the first time.
He drives her straight there.
This is typical of many misunderstandings. Trying to unravel it
without some input from the taxi driver, which one rarely gets, is
impossible. Maybe he didn't hear the words correctly the first time,
or thought she said 'bacon' in Cantonese? No one will ever know.
The complex rubic streets of Hong Kong hold as many secrets as the
Bermuda triangle.


Saturday, 30 July 2016

A Visit to the Akha Tribe (Continued)

The hut where we are staying is right beside the water tank: the
hub of the village. Women gather there continually to fill gourds
and carry them back to their huts. There are some thirty or forty
homes on the mud-packed rolling peak. They are all in traditional
dress, which looks heavy and hot, and is predominantly black in
colour. Most of the men are still out hunting. Later we see some
of them returning, mostly without any game, carrying their barrel-loading
rifles over their shoulders. The weapons would fetch a
fortune in the London antique market.

Over the whole village is a haze of opium smoke. Virtually
everyone over the age of thirty has a pipe in his or her mouth. Many
of the pipes' bowls are fashioned from the necks of bottles. When
they find one with nice thick glass, like a Coke bottle, they dip some
string in white spirit, tie it around the base of the bottleneck, and then
set light to it. When they pour water on the glass, it cracks around
the line of the lighted string. Then they plug the bottom, bore a
hole for the stem and an opium pipe is born. Those who are
hard addicts in the village do virtually no work, which is the only
reason why young people are not encouraged to the habit until their
late twenties.

As the sun goes down, we go for a walk to the far end of the
village. There is a gate there, made of hardwood and bamboo and
decorated with carvings. The images are of men and women with
exaggerated sexual organs, some of them astride aeroplanes. The Akha
believe demons go in fear of human sexuality.
Just before the gate is an arch decorated with rotting skulls of
dogs. When we see Ping later he warns us not to touch the gate or
the arch, or the villagers will have to burn them and slaughter more
dogs.

We move on to a more pleasant subject and Ping then explains, "When a couple wish to be married, the young man goes to the
bride's father and offers him a drink. If the father refuses the
drink three times, the young man is rejected. But this doesn't mean
he can't keep trying. What he must do is entice the girl more than
twenty paces from her father's hut and boil an egg in her presence.
If they can eat it together before her father catches them, they can
marry. "

How much of this was embellished by Ping's imagination, was hard
to tell, but the 'love hut' story was substantiated by another Thai we
met later.

"When an Akha man marries, his bride goes back to her family
while he builds a small love hut, because men and women do not sleep
together in the family home, where all the spirits of their ancestors
can see them. It normally takes two weeks to build a love hut, but
of course some take longer and some a shorter time, depending on how
pretty the bride is and how eager the young man is." Ping chuckles.
"It is surprising how quickly a youth can erect a hut with that kind
of incentive."

The village in the evening sun is quite surreal, being 4000 feet
up and yet surrounded by higher mountains. If we thought there were
chickens and pigs enough in the Karen village, their numbers were few
when compared to the Akha livestock. We walk through the 'courting
garden' just inside the village. This is where the young men meet
their girlfriends, fall in love, promise to marry. There is also
divorce amongst the Akha. A divorced woman gets the rough end of the
deal. If she cannot find a new husband within two weeks, she has to
leave the village. At the next village she visits, the same time
scale applies. I had visions of this sad-faced woman wandering
between villages in some kind of eternal quest.

That night there was a forest fire below the village as we tried
to sleep. The attempt at rest was a little futile. The men of the
village sat around in groups, smoked, and talked in loud voices until
dawn (4.30) when they fell asleep. There was about two minutes of
silence, before the women rose and began pounding the rice, filling
their water gourds and walking past the hut to fields. Pigs ran
under our hut, snorting and snuffling most of the night. Cocks
crowed, regardless of the hour. When at home in Hong Kong, I live
between two motorways, which I always regard as a noisy curse.
Believe me, Hong Kong with its concentrated six-million people and
dense traffic is a graveyard when compared with an Akha village. I
came away with two strong feelings after my night in the hills. One,
if there is such a thing as reincarnation I would rather be an Eskimo
than an Akha next time round, thank you very much, and two, if I had
to be an Akha, please let me be a man, because the women do all the
work while the men play around with guns and smoke pot.


Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Thai Akha Tribes

The next morning we wash in the river, since drinking water is precious. It is five-thirty and the whole village is awake and working. I shake my shoes, which are not allowed to be worn in the huts, in case of nasties and go out to inspect the two female elephants that are to take us halfway up into the hills. The cows are young, but not as young as the two elephant boys. One is eight, the other not more than twelve. Nevertheless they are experts or  they would not be trusted with the elephants: very expensive beasts that the Karen often hire out to other tribes. The elephants look hollow-cheeked and we ask if they're well fed. "Oh yes," says Ping, "but you must be careful not to overfeed elephants. When they get too fat they produce an oil from their brow which runs down into their mouths and, once swallowed, sends them crazy. In that state they will attack anyone, even their handlers." We recalled that a German tourist had been trampled to death by an elephant that had run amuck a week before our trip. Personally I was glad that the elephants were trim little misses. If I had my way they would be enrolled in Weight Watchers and sent to aerobics classes.
The journey by elephant up to a Lahu village is slow and ponderous, except when the trail widens, then both elephants begin running to get ahead of each other while their handlers shout and threaten them with whatever scares elephants (no supper?). The elephants seem to have this fierce competitive spirit when it comes to being in front. Once they're there, they slow back down to an amble worthy of a country yokel. And these are the cows. We are told that they take the sexes out inturns: the next tourist trek will get the bulls. The bulls can't bear being behind each other. The elephant trek is along a well-worn path through low vegetation in a steep-sided valley. Banana palms are the tallest trees, until we come to forested slopes, where there are copses of majestic hardwoods. The younger of the two elephant boys is easily distracted and keeps jumping down when he sees something in the grasses, though both of them talk incessantly to their elephants. When they want more than an amble, they use the flat of their machete blades on the elephant's brow, which makes me wince. The younger boy starts whistling 'Rock Of Ages' and looks startled as I join in with the words. Then he grins and looks down, shyly.  We leave the elephants, our posteriors the worse for wear, and climb to a Lahu village on an escarpment. This is a poorer place than the Karen village, though we are proudly shown the rice grain store, a hut the size of a small car. It is a third full. Near to it is a wooden see-saw device worked with the foot and used to pound the grain. There is a nice view over the valley from the plateau, but it is doubtful the Lahu get much time to appreciate it.
The Lahu are found in Burma, Laos, Vietnam and China, as well as Thailand. There are about thirty thousand of them in and around the Golden Triangle. Fairly strict laws, enforced by the headman, keep down incidences of drunkenness, gambling and smoking opium. There is no place for the radical in the Lahu community: one either conforms or leaves the Village. The Lahu recognise a number of spirits and gods, among them a supreme god called Qui-sha. There are Christian tribes too.
After a meal by a stream back down in the valley, we begin a long hot climb up into the high hills. The sun pounds on our heads, since most of the forest canopy has been removed in a 'slash and burn' policy by the tribes. They need areas to plant their rice and the only way they know how to get them is to burn the forest. Instead of fertilizing the soil, they move the rice fields to a new location, and down comes more teak. This policy seems to be still in operation, since we come across smoking areas of land that add their heat to the already stifling day.
We come to a hut on the trail outside which sits an old-looking Akha woman. The Akha are truly 'hill' tribes, since they will not build a village below a thousand feet. The woman sells us bottled water and invites us to sit in the shade. She is wearing a headdress decorated with beads, coloured feathers and silver baubles, and traditional clothes, also heavily decorated. Tony asks her if she lives alone and Ping translates.
"My husband died several years ago at the age of forty-seven, of natural causes," she replies. "What natural causes?" Tracy asks, thinking, she tells us later, of malaria or TB. "Opium," says the woman. Her teeth flash brilliantly in the sun. Ping explains that they
are not gold fillings, but have been painted. "The Akha paint their teeth gold each morning, so that the other tribes think they are rich," he tells us.
After we leave the woman, who must have been banished from the tribe at some time, we go out -onto a saddle between two hills. The heat is tremendous and three of us have trouble in keeping up with Ping. Only Tony can match the guide's pace at this point. Ping calls back and points to a distant peak.
"The Akha," he shouts.
follow the curving ridge round with my eyes, as it swoops and soars, swoops and soars, until I reach the end of the chain of peaks, which is also the highest point. There, perched on a rounded summit, I can see a cluster of huts, half-hidden by trees. They seem miles away, up in the misty regions of the heavens. There is a smoky atmosphere hanging over the devastated valley between our saddle and this celestial habitation. We appear to be leaving the real world behind and entering a place found only between the pages of some Rider Haggard novel. A heat haze causes the distant encampment to shine as if it is indeed some trick, a fata morgana of the high forests. In the nearby bushes the crickets and cicadas are making a tremendous noise, equal to that of a dozen chain saws. It is all very unnerving.
"Are you sure they're insects, making that sound?" I yell to Ping, and he nods.
We plod onwards. I have taken a towel from my backpack and cover my hair with it. The sun has given me a raging headache, despite the cap I wear to protect my bald streak. I hear Annette murmur, "Just leave me to die," but she still keeps walking. Finally we reach a forested area and are able to get out of the sun. It is still hot, but bearably so. The last saddle lies before us, and we walk along the watershed thinking of ice-cold lemonade or beer.

The climb to the village at the end of the saddle, is steep, and saps completely any energy we have left. We have now been climbing some five hours under a fierce sun. Ping shows us to a long hut, not on stilts, in which there are split bamboo platforms raised a foot off the dirt floor. It is dim and cool inside and we flop onto the springy bamboo, after drinking the rest of our water. Moments later, vague forms enter the long hut and sit on the floor, watching us. Some of the women have come to sell us their beaded goods, but we are exhausted. After a long while, most of the women leave, but one with a baby on her back insists we give her some coins. She wants to make her child a headdress with them. We find some silver coins and hand them over.

(Once again, apologies for the presentation, which I have attempted to correct, but my IT skills are not brilliant when dealing with a strange format).