I am on a sandbank in northern India. There is a full moon. The Ganges is the most sacred river of India if you speak to a Hindu for whom it is a goddess itself, bringing spiritual power from the abode of Shiva, creator and destroyer. It is a monumentally important river to an agriculturist, as its floodplain feeds a third of India’s population, to a geographer it transfers water and nutrients from the Himalaya in its flow, to an economic or military strategist it is a vital supply route, to an anthropologist is is part of the cradle of a civilisation that is twice as old as the pyramids.
‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’, as the Ancient Mariner bemoaned. Of course he was surrounded by seawater, but for a large number of the world’s people the same issue of lack or inability to use water dogs their lives. Simple bonds of hydrogen and oxygen (H2O), create one of nature’s most incredible substances. With properties so constant in some ways that our metric system of weights and volume is based on it; one litre of water weighs a kilogram, one cubic metre of water weighs a tonne.
There is a humourous anecdote I recall from years ago, where a somewhat puzzled child asks their father why Grandma spends such a lot of time reading just that one book. “It’s the bible, son, there are lots of lessons for us all in there.” A beam of enlightenment crosses the child’s face; “Oh, I understand, now, thanks; I guess she must be swotting up for her finals !”
There are sights that immediately tug at the heartstrings for many people, perhaps more than we imagine. To my mind, a sight of the open road is a symbol of freedom, of potential; of the choice to go or to stay, to feel that one’s personal space extends beyond the horizon. This last sensation is commonplace among native peoples the world over, but I encountered it first among the Sami inhabitants of Northern Scandinavia.
In India there are uncountable religious festivals, drawing in devotees, pilgrims and other people from all walks of life, in uncountable numbers. One such is encountered at Pushkar, in Rajasthan, a desert state. From all over India and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands gather at the full moon in November, around a temple dedicated to Brahma, the creator in Indian cosmology. It is said to be the only such temple in all India, and is sited in the centre of the village.
Do not be mistaken here; it is not begging as a western-bred assumption might conclude. This is Zaqat, one of the principal duties of all Muslims, to behave charitably toward those in need. It requires a person to give directly to those in need and is a mainstay for elderly people of the community who may find themselves in leaner times. The older man is not a beggar, he is aware of that, and is aware that it is his right to expect support. For his side, the shopkeeper is aware that his obligations include giving a percentage of his income directly to those in need, and that he receives blessings for his act.
A tranquil rural scene in Sweden; in this bucolic setting, I formed several striking memories. The best was from the shed in the background; it was the location of a nest from where a newly fledged Pied Wagtail fluttered down and settled on my hand for a few minutes. The most surreal was to open the tent flap on a misty morning with the sun breaking through on the magnificent Harley Davidson in the picture. How it could have arrived there silently in the night was baffling, and there was no-one around to explain it. Other aspects of Tannas (in Jamtland), provided painful lessons.
Art and Survival in the Tassili Plateau
As I’d spent my formative tourleading years in Morocco, when one of the rarely operated tours to the middle of the Sahara came up for grabs, my managers and I both made a beeline for it.
The tour involved taking everything with me to run a trip which was centred around the charming sounding town of Djanet, pretty much smack in the centre of the Sahara, sandwiched between the mountainous region of Tassili n’Ajjer and the legendary Tenere stretching away south to Niger.
Collecting STUFF. We all do it in some way or another but collecting passport stamps as a pursuit in itself, rather than incidentals that just happen from time to time always veers a bit close to braggadocio for me. Nevertheless just as train and car number plates fascinate some people, so do passport stamps. It takes all sorts ! (I have to admit my own peccadillo is collecting CAA airport significator codes – LHR, DEL, MCW etc).
Podcast version here
I had completely forgotten that my name might arouse some amusement, to say the least, when I went on a trip to Central Asia. Bob, you see, means a bean in Russian (also Hungarian for that matter), and a polite but wry smirk crossed the face of every Intourist guide and receptionist for the next few weeks.