Saturday, 27 August 2011

Charlie Don’t Scoot

Vientiane turned out to be a bit of a wash-out. Not because we had high hopes that we failed to realise, rather that it rained more or less constantly the whole time we were there. And this time, when I say rain, I mean downpours that sting your skin with the ferocity with which they fall to earth. The first rain started the day after we arrived. It eased off a bit thirty six hours later, but by that time the both of us had had a bad reaction to something we’d eaten and spent a listless day trying to put off the child’s demands for entertainment. A conversation with a backpacker from Jersey brought the horrors of monosodium glutamate to our notice. She reeled off a long list of undesirable side effects – “and they add it to everything”. We started to retrospectively wonder about the irregular headaches and those occasional listless days spent in mild reaction to something disagreeable. Then we noticed that most touristy western food places had notes on the bottom of their menus to the effect that they cooked with bottled water and without MSG. No smoke without fire – it must be a “bad” thing.

Pati raincoat

Frustratingly, the riverside park at the end of the street our hotel was on had a very well-equipped kids playground. Which was under about a foot of water. Oisin was undeterred, and when we arrived there in cabin fever desperation, wearing our Berghaus jackets for the first time since leaving the UK, carrying an umbrella and trying to get him to keep on the ridiculous plastic raincoat we had bought in Bangkok, he immediately stripped off to his boxers and joined the local kids in sliding down the plastic chute straight into a huge puddle. The screams of laughter were international – no translation was needed here.

IMG_3006

The impromptu dip in the kids playground led us to contemplate a visit to the local swimming pool. First, a swimming costume would be needed for the child (this wasn’t unpreparedness – the last one was left behind in Cardiff as he would have outgrown it by now). We did the rounds of the shopping centre (“the” shopping centre – I think they only have one. You gotta love these one party state socialists.) We finally found one little unit that sold sports equipment and I immediately got distracted by a junior set of strap-on wheels that convert your shoes to roller-skates. After foolishly spending a laborious 15 minutes getting Oisin into them, he was delighted. But there was no way they were going to fit into our by now over-stretched rucksacks. Pati watched, staring silently with that “you dug the hole, you get yourself out of it” look on her face. We were at a potential make-or-break point in father-son relations. After such a long time getting him into the skates, how could I deny him? There was only one way out of the impasse – gratuitous bribery. The son of the shop-owner zoomed into the tiny unit atop a small scooter and Oisin’s eyes lit up. Not only that, but the wheels of the scooter lit up as well when it was moving. He had a couple of trial scoots around the arcade, we had a quick haggle, and the deal was done. The skates were forgotten: we had a whole new piece of luggage to travel with us.

The swimming pool was open air. I think I can say with certainty that it’s the first time I’ve been for a swim where the hammer and sickle fluttered proudly from a flagpole at the entrance. That felt like it adjusted the historical balance after I grew up going swimming in the Robinson Centre in Castlereagh – named after a proto-fascist who was born too late for Mosley and had to masquerade as a democratic politician. Whatever happened to him? The pool was watched over by what I hoped was a lifeguard, sitting smoking in a small tower. Then the rain started again. We splashed around until it felt like it was easing off, dried ourselves in the socialist changing rooms, and tried to return to the hotel huddling under our tiny umbrella. Halfway back, a Laotian boy of about twelve leapt out into the pavement in front of us. We’d not been asked for money yet in Laos, and we were wondering what his script would be. The usual “hello!” and “what’s your name?” were hollered at us with unusual vigour. Then he ran on ahead before turning back with a stick in his hand, pointing it at us with stabbing motions. I’ve only been in one other one party socialist state before in my life, so I was feeling a little out of my cultural depth, and wasn’t quite sure what might be in store with this pointy stick encounter. Oisin was beginning to make finger pistols and his “pisshhooo” shooting noises in return, while the twelve year old was roaring with laughter. Struggling to match his interrogatorial skills, I shouted back “what’s your name?”. He stopped mid-stride, turned to us and shouted “Harry Potter Laos!” Waving his stick at us one more time he was gone.

IMG_3024

The scooter, it turns out, has been the best 18 quid I’ve spent in a very long time. Oisin happily exhausts himself up and down the banks of the Mekong while most of Vientiane’s promenaders stand and stare, and Pati and I get something approaching a walk. The next challenge is to impart some degree of road sense. There’s nothing quite like watching your son, about two hundred yards distant, deliriously oblivious to all and sundry on his new scooter, riding it straight into the heels of some unsuspecting Laotian couple. I’m not sure they’re keen on that sort of children’s behaviour in one party socialist states.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Heart of Laos

I suspected that the timetable was not going to be followed to the letter when the uniformed buffet car waiter asked us if we wanted to order breakfast. “What time do you serve breakfast?” I asked somewhat perplexedly. “Oh, about 7.30, 8 o’clock.” “But the train arrives at 8.30,” I replied, yet more perplexed. Our transvestite waiter batted his eyelids at me in amused disbelief. “Oh no, the train won’t arrive at 8.30. Breakfast?”

We placed our order and paid up. No receipt was issued, so there then ensued a period of anxiety while we wondered whether our immaculately made-up waiter was actually an employee of the Thai railways, or just someone who knew how to part unsuspecting gringos from their cash. You can’t be too careful…

Indian trains were not of the highest order, in terms of their interior accoutrements, but in the month we spent travelling on them, I don’t think any arrived more than an hour late. Even our first one from Delhi that left about two hours behind schedule made the time up overnight. In Thailand, on the other hand, the train was immaculately furnished with fully functioning adornments (should a toilet ever really qualify as an “adornment”?), and the trip north from Bangkok to Nong Khai on the border with Laos was supposed to take from 8.30pm to 8.30am. We breakfasted without haste. Once the air of anticipation dissipated we gave up and lunched, and then finally arrived around 1pm. Bored senseless. It’s the question of where your horizon of expectation lies. If we’d expected to spend seventeen hours on the train instead of the advertised twelve, we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to get so pointlessly impatient so quickly.

Off one train and onto the next at Nong Khai. With our careful, trademark preparedness, we had run out of cash and didn’t even have the price of the Laos visa. The Thais have had people like us before, and have thoughfully installed an ATM in the railway station. (Yes, I give up, it’s an “ATM”. You won’t get anywhere if you ask for a cash machine. The only cash machines round here are the tourists.) While tuk-tuks and motos zip back and forward on either side our next train runs on tracks down the middle of Friendship Bridge, spanning the famous Mekong, and to the border point with Laos. Welcome to Laos, it’ll cost you ninety quid to get in. I nearly lost my temper with the woman behind the visa counter. Firstly, I had to bend double just to be able to hear her through the tiny window, and then to add insult to western injury, they had installed their little facial image camera at about the height of my navel. She demanded thirty quid each for us to get our three visas. No, the child wouldn’t go free. I had just heard her charge three Spaniards twenty quid each, so it seemed like a good idea to kick right off right there right then. She didn’t even bother to smile back and curtly informed me that different nationalities pay different visa prices. Just like it is back home. At this point I remembered that Laos is a one party socialist state, and while it is usually fruitless to argue with border guards in the west, it felt like a whole lot more risky a proposition in a one party state.

The Mekong. Another landmark river. It was broad, in full spate with monsoon rains, and flowing swiftly past the banks of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I can’t think of anything except Apocalypse Now. It’s not even the right country, but then again, the conflict left its mark on the entire region. Laos is, per capita, the most cluster-bombed country in the world. The Americans dropped something like two million tonnes of cluster munitions onto Laos (they weren’t even officially at war) in an attempt to cut the supply routes that the North Vietnamese Army used during the Second Indochina War. With a failure rate on impact of about one third, Laotians calculate that there are still 80 million unexploded cluster bombs littering their country. If economics determined the war, economics continues to drive Laotians to risk losing life and limb – children gather bombs for their value as scrap metal, never knowing if they are duds or still live.

IMG_3028

The COPE Centre in Vientiane tells the story of the “bombies” as they are known here, and fabricates prosthetic limbs for those that survive their encounter with the American legacy, as well as rehabilitating disabled victims and designing ingenious three-wheeled chairs for those that have only one complete arm remaining of their original four limbs. (The picture above shows a display of redundant homemade limbs fabricated in despair by bomb victims before they found their way to the COPE Centre. If you want to do a good deed today, follow the link and sponsor a leg for a Laotian.) It was a sobering visit, and one with its own particular challenges of how to explain to a three year old why little boys younger than him have only one leg. It seemed like it would be a good counter-balance to all his current enthusiasm for guns and killing things (thanks to too many hotel room tellies and too much Ben Ten). He took it all in, but it has generated its own discomfort in turn. The streets have a noticeable number of disabled people, usually asking for money, and when he spies them, Oisin now asks in a loud, innocent voice if they don’t have their arms or legs because they did step on a bomb in the ground and it did blow them up. I just hope his youth defrays any potential offence his enquiries might cause to those being so loudly discussed.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Laos

Escribiré acerca de Tailandia cuando estemos allá de nuevo, cuando tenga la memoria fresca para hacerle justicia a todas las cosas hermosas de ese país. A veces cuando veo que Gareth publica mucho más cercano a la fecha de las visitas me dan ganas de llevar el mismo ritmo, pero no en este caso, la distancia que me dan Laos y Cambodia para ver a Tailandia en perspectiva ha permitido que no escriba un post impregnado de alabanzas al país que nos fascinó de entrada por hacer un contraste tan marcado con las dificultades que experimentamos en India. Pero como Tailandia es mucho más que una cuerda salvavidas me dejo las descripciones de ahí para cuando regresemos.

De Tailandia tomamos un "sleeping train" hasta la frontera con Laos. Un tren que se suponía iba a durar 12 horas (de 8pm a 8am) pero que duró como 17… al menos el tren era cómodo y tenía cocina a bordo (ay las comparaciones con India de nuevo!) pero igual no dormimos, Gareth ya explica en detalle en su post las razones.

Sobra decir lo mucho que disfruto esos microcosmos que son los trenes nocturnos. Me deleita observar a los que se toman el viaje tan enserio que hasta se ponen pijama de dos piezas, ver a las familias, incluyéndonos a nosotros mismos, haciendo el viaje hasta el baño a lavarse los dientes en manada, fijarme en pasajero solitario que le cuesta quedarse en su compartimento por más de una hora y sube y baja el pasillo con unos niveles de energía que disminuyen con la cercanía al destino. Y en el caso de este tren era una verdadera delicia ver pasar al mesero del vagón, un travesti rubio con un labial rosa que le combinaba di-vi-na-men-te con los zapaticos de charol beige, super amable con nosotros y adorable con Oisín. Había que verla deteniéndose a mitad del pasillo para cederle el paso a un parco policía ferrovial con un ligero movimiento de melena.

IMG_3177

Llegamos a la frontera después del mediodía y la vuelta de la visa no involucro mucho más que llenar un formulario pequeño y pagar en ventanilla más de lo que habíamos previsto. El contraste con Tailandia se nota inmediatamente, la gente en general habla menos Ingles y hay un cierto desaceleramiento hipnotizador en las calles, como que las cosas se hacen a su tiempo y no antes. Después de cruzar la frontera compartimos un taxi con una japonesa preciosa de ojos verdes y con un bronceado tan bien establecido que delataba meses de estar viajando. Así llegamos a Vientiane, capital de Laos, la capital más relajada que yo he visto, tanto así que no parece capital. El libro de guía prometió con hipérboles una ciudad que todavía se experimenta el legado colonial francés, una ciudad que yo no encontré, la ciudad que encontramos es un lugar sosegado donde los carros van despacio y casi nunca emplean el pito, una ciudad que parece replicar el ritmo lento y constante de las aguas del Mekong.

Mekong

Conocimos a una chica encantadora, Javiera, la segunda Chilena que encontramos en dos meses viajando sola. A Javiera la encontramos unos días más tarde cuando llegamos a Luang Prabang al norte de Laos lista para irse a un retiro de meditación de diez días. En nuestra primera noche de hotel en Luang Prabang en una casa de huéspedes de lo más simple y gris, encontré un libro de Herman Hesse que no había leído: Journey To The East. Como casi siempre que termino leyendo uno de sus libros, este llegó en un momento muy oportuno. El viaje nuestro ha estado desde el principio marcado por experiencias espirituales que siempre experimentamos de segunda mano. Todas esas manifestaciones de fe de terceros han ido despertando un interés en conocer más acerca del budismo. A esto hay que sumarle el libro maravilloso que nos regaló nuestro amigo Rick Hall antes de salir de Belfast (Blood Washing Blood) Así que por estos días de playa en la costa de Cambodia me entretengo leyendo las transcripciones de un seminario de un Rimpoche a un grupo de occidentales.

Train to Nong Khai

It’s hard to believe the effect that one pretty young Thai girl can have on a whole gaggle of older men, but it’s nearly midnight and I’m sitting up on the sleeper train from Bangkok to Nong Khai on the Thai-Laos border, listening to the wagon attendant chat up this particular passenger. A few hours earlier the ticket inspectors came round. They hunt in threes, and they spent longer inspecting her ticket than they did on the rest of the wagon combined. She appears to be selling “grape seed oil”, from what I could read upside down on the laminated sheets that she produced every time she had someone’s, some man’s, attention – perhaps she is some sort of grape seed Mata Hari, luring unsuspecting Thai men to a good, if costly, oiling.

Oisin on Nong Khai train

The thing about the officials in this country is that they wear the most improbably tight-fitting uniforms. It’s as if the costume designer from Chips sketched up the patterns for the Thai police force. What I can’t understand is that there is never so much as a pin prick of perspiration to be seen seeping through these figure-hugging black and grey garments. Is the major entry requirement for the Thai police an ability not to sweat no matter what the climatic conditions? When the monsoon rains come during the night, the next days are blessed with a clear blue sky and soaring temperatures. A heat of the sort that has me dripping as I leave the shower, to the point where it becomes senseless to towel off, for where does the bath water stop and my dehydration begin? Yet I slop out into the street, leaving a trail of untalcumed sweat drops spattering the pavement behind me, to find policemen directing traffic, or riding motorcycles, or patrolling the streets with not a damp patch to be seen between them. What catches me off-guard about this is that behind the high camp stretch pants, lycra shirts and mirror glasses, there doesn’t seem to be a macho authority swagger. Policemen fall over themselves to help us, to find someone to translate our questions (Pati’s questions, I still have a punk rocker’s aversion to talking to policemen), to indulge the child. I was struggling in the queue for the enquiry desk in Agra train station last month when an Indian police officer decided I needed some help with the decidedly unruly way that Indians “queue”. He produced his lathi, a bamboo pole about twice the size of my son, and proceeded to prod the locals brusquely into line. The moustache, the Frank Spencer beret and the paunch did nothing for the cut of his jib in my book, but his big stick and unquestioning swagger had the would-be enquirers in parade ground order in no time. I didn’t really feel the need to be grateful. I could have dealt with the jumbled queue (eventually). “Treat people like scum and they’ll start behaving like scum” said Robert Carlyle’s murderous character in a 16-year old episode of Cracker that we recently watched. I wonder if that logic would make much impact on the requisitioners of the Indian police lathi.

Now there is a full-on conversation taking place on the other side of my Thai Railways curtain. The unsteady American who appeared in Pati’s face about two hours ago, asking if she knew where the bar was, has returned, half bottle of Singha beer in hand, to join the conversation in Thai between the lovestruck wagon attendant and the fragrant grape seed oil Mata Hari. Pati explodes out of her top berth in mute frustration at not being able to sleep, and throws herself down in a sulk at the other end of my bunk. I put the laptop away and stick my head out into the aisle. “Any chance of taking the conversation somewhere else guys? It’s nearly midnight. Maybe the bar?” The American looks round at me over his shoulder and readies his reply. “The bar’s closed.” “There’s probably a good reason for that,” I smile back. The Thai Railways chap is looking embarrassed, grape seed girl is tantalisingly only half visible behind her own curtain, and the American is translating my points for them. I keep my head out in the aisle in as cheerful an impression of block-headed stubbornness as I can manage at midnight. The American struggles down the wagon, and the Thai suitor snuggles his bum back onto its perch – on top of our backpacks. I keep staring. He bows his head in another excruciating apology. I keep staring. He mutters something to the Mata HHari and finally moves off. I pull the curtain closed in relief and we prepare for another attempt at sleep. By the time I come back from the bathroom Pati is giggling to herself. The wagon attendant had returned and climbed into the berth with the grape seed girl. Looks like she had so much attention because she was his girlfriend all along.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bangkok Sauce

Sadly, we packed and left the leafy surroundings of our gifted two nights in the boutique hotel of Phranakorn Nornlen. There had only been one aspect of our stay that had unnerved me: there were signs on various surfaces with the decree “No Sex Tourists”. Yet no matter how many times I read it, my brain kept putting a comma in and making it an exhortation to travelling celibacy on the part of foreign visitors.

IMG_2584

We headed down the main street towards the centre of Bangkok, checking every hotel we could find along the way. The longer I spend with guide books in my hand, the less I trust them, as the recommendations from the Lonely Planet were either ludicrously expensive or ludicrously crap. We finally hit on a little villa on a side street next to one of the canals. Despite my four years in the Sherman Cymru scenic workshop, I’m very far from having anything like a passable knowledge of wood, sheets of cheap ply apart. The entire place was built out of a gorgeous dark hardwood – my guess is that it is teak, and the louvred window shutters and brightly polished floors were a joy to behold. Clearly, though, respectable Thai hotels don’t have any truck with “loving you long time” these days. The sign on the front door was even less specific than the last one – “No Thais Allowed Please”. Can you be racist against your own people?!


IMG_2951

The streets outside were a riot of food stalls. The trouble is, being vegetarian means that I’m not really able to jump in without having a rough idea of what it is that is being dished up. So a lot of these places are a point and stare experience for me. Combined with an allergic partner who inflates at the mere mention of seafood, the two of us aren’t really the ideal gourmet explorers. Throw in a grumpy three year old who will eat any dish as long as it is spaghetti bolognese, and you have a recipe for culinary conservatism that is as frustrating as it is repetitive.

To redress the balance I hunted down May Kaidee’s veggie restaurant, and after a delicious massaman curry (followed by awe-inspiring vegetable tempura that the child refused to eat despite our pleas that it “was chips”), immediately signed up for her cooking class the next day. The morning started with a degree of disorganisation that anyone who has eaten in my kitchen will recognise as symptomatic of the type of cooking style I’m hoping to leave behind. I got up early to walk 45 minutes to the restaurant where I’d been told to present myself. After half an hour of sipping a bottle of water, they rustled up a bloke on a scooter who then drove me (I had my special protective baseball cap on, I didn’t need a helmet) back to the cookery school, which was at the bottom of the street where our guest house was. Well, a pointless brisk walk followed by casually dicing with death on the back of an underpowered scooter is as good a way as any to start a half day of Thai cooking.

May Kaidee then made her appearance. May is petite, beautiful, charming and bonkers in equal measures. And she can cook wonderfully. She appeared in full traditional Thai dress, and after a couple of hours of cooking instructions, had us all sit down to watch her dance for ten minutes. In the restaurant. While other people were eating their food. She then made the rest of us get up and follow her. At this point the bemused diners gave up on their dishes and just sat and filmed or photographed us. I loved her cooking school, but I think if the flyer had contained the sentence “class includes involuntary 20 minute Thai line dancing session in public view” I would have had serious doubts about attending.

IMG_2858

The child obviously realised that things were careering out of control and that we had sought the advice of his grandmother, for his behaviour seemed to improve immediately following the 90 minutes I spent on the phone to Belfast. This probably has more to do with us finding a moment of solace in the wise words of his Nana, and getting a bit of perspective on our collective frustrations and fallibilities. Bangkok makes generous parenting easy. There is a huge park, with working children’s playground (some of the slides we had seen in India were a rusting metal kiddie deathtrap). There are shopping centres (no, not “malls”, shopping centres) with enormous children’s amusements areas. There are soft play centres. There are also lots of western style restaurants where there is an endless supply of tomato sauce. Now that we had taken a mental breather, our fight is no longer with our own son but rather his crack squirrel addiction to tomato sauce. A good friend of mine once requested tomato sauce before even sampling the dish that I had just laboriously concocted for him. We are no longer on speaking terms. I don’t want the same thing to happen to my son. If you see a small blond child forlornly wandering the streets of Bangkok, don’t give him tomato sauce no matter what he says.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Two nights in Bangkok…

Bangkok. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand breath out.

IMG_2522

Gleaming airport. Fast queues. Smiling immigration. Safe luggage. Working ATMs. Taxi rank (taxi rank!). Shiny car. Ice cold air con. Fast road. Toll booth. Skyscrapers. Megacity skyline. Neon dazzle. Megacity buzz. Stomachs tighten. Megacity promise.

The western world welcomed us back with open arms. After six weeks in India and Nepal Bangkok airport was first world familiar and yet strangely new. Even the immigration official had a smile, as he apologised after belatedly realising that I had a Thai visa and that he hadn’t stamped me in for the appropriate one month stay. The taxi drivers were waiting patiently outside in a huddle on the other side of crowd barriers, and kindly waved us to the booking desk where a chit was issued for our journey. The polished taxis were neatly lined up at identical 45 degree angles to the kerb, the driver charged us exactly what the guide book said the cost of the trip would be, and took us straight to our hotel door.

On the toll motorway into central Bangkok the skyline slowly grew as we approached it. Glittering spikes of advertising aimed their points at the lowering monsoon twilight – “Joy is BMW” glowed up the side of one tower in letters that must have been ten metres wide to be able to dominate an entire panorama with such ease. Billboards that would have had a desultory couple of floodlights pointed up at them at home were made of LCD screens here, with images so blinding in intensity that it was hard to believe they didn’t constitute a driving hazard for the passing traffic. And then a ramp, and down, down off the elevated motorway and suddenly the city revealed itself at first hand: handcarts jostle at the side of the road for space to sell every type of food imaginable, rickshaws weave in and out of the bigger vehicles, countdown clocks tick red at traffic lights so that drivers know how long they have to wait (and presumably don’t sit and gun their engines?), police and parked motorbikes stand and watch intersections, and of course the king. The King. His Maj.

Enormous images of the king appear at every turn in Bangkok. The king in official pose. The king going “casual”. The king taking photographs. The king watching us looking at him. The revolting orgy of sycophancy that was the “royal” wedding in London earlier this year made me think that the UK was a royal-obsessed country, but Thailand has a trick or two to teach us yet. If you’re reading this in the hope of some political, cultural or historical erudition concerning the countries we’re visiting, then you’ll be sadly disappointed. I have no idea what the king represents to the Thai people, but judging from the outside, he seems like a father-figure that everyone loves and who has successfully prevented his offspring from reading Freud. There are entire shops dedicated purely to the business of selling images of the king, and we’re not just talking about postcards – some of these things could be used to clad the side of a house. My prejudices get the better of me. I don’t like him. No matter what anyone says, a society that is functioning healthily needs a monarch like a fish needs a bicycle. Where was Elizabeth Windsor when Tottenham was burning, eh?


IMG_2455

But I keep my feelings to myself (and resolve never to be caught out at the cinema in Thailand at 6pm when apparently they play the national anthem and everyone stands. As in, “everyone stands”). The hotel is an oasis of untrammelled delight in the middle of this megacity. A birthday present from two of the loveliest people in Cardiff, we have two nights in the place to gawp at the effortless Thai kitsch, the flawless cooking, the indefatigably hospitable staff, the kids play area. Even the plumbing is stupidly, unnecessarily pretty.

IMG_2472

Oisin stares in mute disbelief – a kids play area. With other children! Take a child away from everything he has ever known, drag him halfway round the world to places where no one speaks his language, everyone seems to want to pull his cheeks off his face, and the unrecognisable food is largely inedible despite what your parents insist, and maroon him with precisely the very two bores who have spent most of his life shouting instructions at him and what do you get? You get a little boy who initially seems to be taking things in his stride, but by the time you get to Bangkok you have a little boy who is clearly not at ease but unable to articulate it, and who has two parents who expend far too much energy reacting against the bad behaviour and not enough time wondering where it is coming from. It’s not long before there are fisticuffs and tears in the play area, and we dive in (again) to drag him off and ask ourselves what is going on. There’s only one answer for an emergency like this, now that we’ve finally twigged that something more than simple naughtiness is afoot – a phone call to Nana.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Bangkok pics

IMG_2244

Kids' superhero Ben 10 gets a poetic upgrade from a Chinese pirate in a Durbar Square toyshop!


IMG_2501

On the river bus in Bangkok


IMG_2509

My god


IMG_2616

Coconut curry by the roadside in Chinatown. Oisin couldn't even deal with the idea that I was eating this, much less try any of it himself.


IMG_2916

There comes a point where you start to think "once you've seen one temple, you've seen them all". Especially if you're three.


Sunday, 7 August 2011

Nepal

Cruzamos la frontera en rickshaw dejando India atrás. Así llegamos a un Nepal que pareció idílico.

Nepal rural: serenos jardines de Lumbini (pueblo natal de Buda), calles transitables, el aire limpio y tanto espacio libre en comparación con India. Y luego Pokhara: cañones enormes, montañas nevadas, ríos caudalosos, lago limpio, mosquitos inclementes con nuestra dulce sangre nueva. Tan bien que estábamos ahí y nos dio por irnos para la capital. Entonces Katmandú: tumultos de gente otra vez, edificaciones tipo pagoda, casas con balcones de madera, callecitas estrechas de edificios altos y decrépitos (por donde a veces se cuela la luz) y gringos al cien, turistas visiblemente blancos por todos lados, de todos los tamaños y denominaciones concentrados – eso si – en el mismo distrito (Thamel) donde llegamos nosotros tres, visiblemente sucios y hambrientos al final de una tarde lluviosa después de mil horas en bus desde Pokhara.

Y como si la de templos que nos hicimos en India no hubiera sido suficiente, en Katmandú nos dio por visitar otro par. Templos de esos que tienen escaleras “descorazonadoras” de las que el libro de guía no hace mención. El tipo de escaleritas estrechas que uno NO escogería ver al medio día con 35 grados centígrados cuando lleva de la mano a una criatura a la que hay que seguir estimulando a como dé lugar para que no mencione la palabra cansancio. Después de diez minutos de escalada vertical cuando ya no vale la pena devolverse uno se da cuenta que los otros que suben son peregrinos, que tienen sus buenas razones para subir. Cuando se corona el templo budista, las caras de los fieles, y los ritos que se ven arriba justifican de más el ascenso.


IMG_2248
Lo que más me impactó en Katmandú fue uno de sus templos vivos, el Kumari. Se llaman así porque están habitados por deidades de carne y hueso. Justo en el centro, dentro de Durbar Square, hay una casa cuadrada de madera oscura, asiduamente visitada por turistas. La casa está actualmente habitada por una nena de seis años y sus cuidanderos. La niña, que representa una deidad local, y que fue seleccionada a los tres años entre muchas otras por poseer ciertos atributos particulares, tiene restringidas sus apariciones en público, solo sale de su casa en ocasiones religiosas especiales. Su estatus de deidad acabará al llegar a la pubertad, cuando tendrá que abandonar la casa para que entre la nueva diosa. Al irse le darán una pensión mínima para el resto de su vida. Lo triste de esta historia es que estas ex diosas, tan acostumbradas a ser veneradas de niñas, terminan sus días solas ya que por superstición se cree que los hombres que se enamoren de ellas morirán jóvenes. Valiente reinado!

De Katmandú salimos nuevamente para India, solo para hacer el vuelo de conexión que nos llevaría a Bangkok la capital de Tailandia donde nos esperaba la comodidad y el buen gusto de un boutique hotel que nos escogieron nuestros amigos Andy y Anke como regalo de cumpleaños. Y Tailandia, señoras y señores, es una fiesta!

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Kathmandu pics

IMG_2312

A corner of Durbar Square in Kathmandu


IMG_2290

These are the sort of people who wait for people like Pati to come along to give them money in return for taking photographs of them. Judge for yourselves.

IMG_2279

Silk shop in Kathmandu

Namaste India

At Kathmandu airport

The security personnel in Delhi airport seemed determined both to help us miss our connection and leave us with a totally contrary last memory of their country – surly, unfriendly and rude. They were the distillation of everything we hadn’t experienced with Indian people during our month there, but after a fortnight in Nepal our flight changed in Delhi before heading for Bangkok, and the “direct transfer” was proving to be anything but. Getting off the plane, we found ourselves in the very same arrival hall that we had walked through with such trepidation just six weeks earlier. We were waved casually to the back of a decent queue. We had spent over a week in Nepal before we realised that it was 15 minutes ahead of Indian time (fifteen minutes! Who divides the world up into such bitty little pieces?). Where we thought we were making good time for our dinner date in Pokhara with Jazminda and her mum and dad, we actually must have been closer to half an hour late by their watches. So by the time we got back to Delhi, we weren’t really sure what time of the day it was. And with by now familiar Indian bureaucratic inefficiency, the queue was moving at a snail’s pace.

When we got to the top of the queue the guy behind the desk looked at our boarding passes, snorted that we shouldn’t even have been in it, and ushered us on through to security. At the entrance to the metal detector a semi-comatose Indian guard looked at our boarding passes and mumble needed mumble DT mumble desk over there mumble mumble back here mumble top of the queue mumble. Airports don’t relax me. Being late for flights definitely doesn’t relax me. But not knowing what time it is in an airport where your plane is leaving shortly and the staff don’t seem to have mastered the basic motor skills necessary for intelligible enunciation starts to stress me out just a little bit. I left the other two waiting at the top of the queue and headed for the indicated desk. Trouble was clearly brewing as the Brits gathered around the desk weren’t in a polite line and were muttering darkly. The various staff behind the counter were all engaged in pressing activities, none of which seemed to involve looking any of us in the eye, taking our boarding passes or telling us where we were supposed to be. The passengers were talking to each other in that way that only shared near-death experiences bring British people to actually talk to each other. And there was that faint whiff in the air, frustration mixed with a drop of post-colonial condescension, ‘ah look, the natives still haven’t managed to work out how to do it properly by themselves’.

When I finally managed to press our boarding passes into the hand of one of the people behind the desk, she glanced at them, scrawled “DT” on each in turn, and handed them back to me. The farce encroached on textbook absurdity – we would have had a much more “direct transfer” if we hadn’t been directed away from the departure lounge to queue at a desk to have the letters “DT” handwritten onto our boarding passes.

Having endured the absurdist airline prologue, the Indian security staff took over the main duties of the serious drama. Unsmiling, pointing, shouting when pointing didn’t achieve anything for them, they were everything that every Indian we’d met in the previous month hadn’t been. You know polite relations have broken down when you are swallowing your bile and trying to not address a boorish armed and uniformed security guard in his own airport in the same terms as you speak to your 3 year old son: “what’s the magic word?” Their sucker punch came when the male guard demanded my boarding pass. It was in Pati’s hand, and she and Oisin were inside the curtained space for women to be patted down. My guard seemed to be gearing up to have me ejected from the airport for want of a boarding pass, despite me repeating “my wife has it, she’s in there” and pointing at the modesty closet. At the same time, Pati was being sternly warned not to touch the curtain, as she sought to hand back my boarding pass after overhearing my predicament with the guard. Stalemate.

We nearly did miss the flight. You’re definitely late when the flight supervisor meets you halfway down the departure lounge and greets you by name. It was a shame to leave India with a parting sense of being glad to escape Delhi airport, but the irritation soon gave way to astonishment as we settled down on the Jet Airways flight to watch the stewards hand out endless quantities of canned beer before lunch was even served. I can’t remember the last time I was on an aircraft where complimentary booze was distributed. Sadly, the last few tattered shreds of a sense of parental responsibility meant that I was in no position to take advantage of this situation, but we were starting to feel that things were going to be a little bit different in Bangkok.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Kathmandu crisis

It was our last full day in Kathmandu, and we bumped into Tony at breakfast. He’d heard us speaking Spanish, most likely reprimanding the recalcitrant child, and mooched over to introduce himself. From Barcelona, he’d arrived in Nepal that week and was waiting to see the owner of the restaurant we were in – a friend of a friend and someone who was going to be able to provide him with work. At 42, in Kathmandu with not much more than his acoustic guitar and songbook, and looking for a troubadour’s position, he was arguably in a worse mid-life crisis situation that I am. Without drawing breath, his story unfolded to confirm our preconceptions. He’d just split up from his partner, with whom he’d spent years renovating a historic country house in Catalunya and turning it into a boutique retreat. He’d travelled to Nepal with marijuana in his luggage, and once that had run out, had nearly been busted by the Nepali police when they stopped him with a local who had guided him to a nearby holy man who supported his own spiritual meditations by supplying weed to adequately introduced westerners. He shared our disdain for Thamel and the backpacker scene, and we got to discussing the sex tourism side of things. The day before we’d passed an enormous billboard warning of the legal sanctions against those who visit Nepal to procure child prostitutes. Tony described having been offered sex by a school-age boy touting on the street. He then told us he’d landed an incredibly pretty Nepali girlfriend, but to his apparent abashment she was the same age as his (22 year old) daughter. The details were coming thick and fast and we’d hardly even had the chance to share our places of birth with him. Of course he would come and visit us when he got to South America, he had people to stay with all over the continent and it was only a matter of time before he was in Colombia. We said our farewells without Tony even noticing that we hadn’t swapped email addresses.

We walked away from Thamel and headed for Swayambhunath Temple. On the way we mistakenly stopped at Bijeshwori Temple, and found a Nepali family preparing for the wedding of their 12 year old daughter. Fortunately she was being married to one of the deities, in something resembling a first communion from what we could tell. The novelty of being photographed has now completed worn off for my son, and he can turn into quite an obnoxious little person if someone produces a camera in his company – myself included. Hence the chance to get a photograph with the little girl, in her Nepali finery, disappeared in an angry shout and the sight of him running out the door of the temple. We made our apologies and followed him out, shamefaced.

At Swayambhunath we faced some of the most insanely steep steps that I’ve ever encountered. And one of the largest troupes of monkeys that we’d ever seen. A stall holder warned us to put even the bottle of juice away out of sight, or risk having it snatched. We heeded her advice. We may have fallen victims to monkeys once, but never again, not even holy ones. On the way back down we met Tony. By this time, a mere five hours after our breakfast conversation, he’d acquired a large tattoo on one of his shoulders. A tribal design of uncertain origin, I was sure it did spell out one thing – mid-life crisis.

The next day we headed for the airport for our early morning flight to Bangkok via Delhi. Rushing through the airport, I made the mistake of going through security on the presumption that there’d be a currency exchange in the departures lounge, that not being an unreasonable place to assume that departing travellers might want to exchange their last handful of rupees. But no, no exchange facilities were to be found, and I now find myself the proud owner of over twenty quid’s worth of a closed currency that no one in the rest of the world deals in. If anyone is travelling to Nepal in the near future and wants a few Nepali rupees in cash to get a head start on the rickshaw drivers, get in touch.