As the uncle who disappeared for lengthy periods, usually in winter time to India, I was curious about what my very young nephew thought I might be finding in such a place. It may have been his exposure to the enigmatic Scottish poet Ivor Cutler, but he only had to think for a second or two and announced that there were probably egg trees.
The first book I remember reading that involved travel to far flung locations was one written by an old colonial hand, Fred G Merfield, with the alluring title ‘Gorillas were my Neighbours’. Looking back, I now see it as the memoirs of a casual racist, (amazingly quite acceptable at the time), with caricatures of tribal rituals, cannibalism and bush meat in Equatorial Africa. However, it was a considerable eye-opener for an eleven year old boy and certain phrases from it still loiter in my mind.
Join the dots and make a picture, win a major prize !
As the caption always read in the children’s comics puzzle page I used to love, I’m a great one for connections. Searching a page of scattered pinheads for patterns drove me crazy but the lure of the (never-won) prize was of less importance than the discovery of hidden forms. It’s hardly surprising that his has spilled over into a lifetime of travel, and I wonder how widely this affliction or condition is felt. Perhaps it’s a form of synaesthesia, where a person can hear a word that overwhelms them with colour, or may be able to see the wind passing.
When we travel, many of us will at least pay a nod to the old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. I guess that this is generally useful advice, in particular paying attention to socially acceptable dress and behaviour, and I have heard numerous instances of people thrown out of places of worship for wearing shorts, hauled off for kissing in public, and of course being obnoxiously drunk. It seems to me rather odd, even disturbing, that so many people will demand that visitors to their country adhere to the current views, but obstinately refuse to adapt their own behaviour when abroad. However, the choices we make once out of the office and ‘into the wild’ can be surprising, even to the participants. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me ‘I’d never have dared do that before’, and am glad I was able to help them go off the rails a little, its good to get out of your comfort zone.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, arrivals in India will encounter a deluge of offers, entreaties and unexpected, labyrinthine connections that will leave them reeling, or laughing their heads off. I heard that J.K.Galbraith described India as ‘functioning anarchy’ as depicted in the postcard I found in Goa. I also heard a description I particularly liked, which is ‘5,000 years of poetry and no two lines rhyme !’
Hungary, through many eyes, is a country of extremes. It lies on the fringes of Europe, unlike most European countries it is landlocked, and commonly experiences scorching heat in the summer and tree-cracking cold in winter. The Hungarian language is also one of a kind with no near relations; this allows a defensive impenetrability, but engenders a cultural homogeneity almost like that of Israel.
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 !”
Appearing much like a sprite, Durga Das was a willing helper and camel driver on a trip I took through the villages of Northern Rajasthan. We were following the old desert tracks from near to Bikaner the seat of a Princely State, to Jaisalmer, another fairytale turreted fortress town on the edge of India’s Thar desert.
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.
Or; a funny thing happened on the way to the theatre.
I’d never envisaged a situation where I would encounter a sculptor with a scalpel; well, perhaps becoming the object of a sculpture is taking the analogy a bit far, but it certainly involved phenomenal levels of skill, imagination and attention to detail. In life we rarely become part of the ‘installation’, but this is the best image I can conjure of a surgical team. I felt at the time that I was absorbed into the cosy collaboration of a dedicated repertory theatre group in a spirited rendition of a favourite performance for them, but an important one for me.
Waiting for the Oporto train to take us to Vila Nova de Cerveira, I’m, brought to musing, watching people moving around our planet. And years glide sweetly by, downstream; with many changes and many things the same, I sit again with pen in hand, with two houses and two girlfriends behind this present peregrine.
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
In the mid 1990’s a company I was working for as a tour leader wanted to capitalise on the Channel 4 TV series “Beyond The Clouds”, the name referencing a mis-translation of “Yunnan” (South of the Clouds), a province of southwest China. I would be the first person from the office to visit the area and therefore there was no tour leader manual, save some pages photocopied from the Lonely Planet China guide for the region.
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.