Avaes Mohammad

Posts Tagged ‘Journeys’

India: PANJO KUTCH – OUR KUTCH (200609)

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2009 at 5:35 pm

PANJO KUTCH

It’s a hazy day.  Cloudy.  Overcast, grey and quite cold.  Absolutely perfect!!  Just over 48 hours ago I was in the stifling heat of Lahore, Pakistan, where I remained for a week.  Temperatures were around 46C and by order of the government, electricity is turned off every alternate hour.  they call it Load Shedding.  No fans.  No AC.  Those who can afford Air Conditioning in Pakistani cities abuse it this time of year to the extent that the National Grid simply can’t cope.  Fat, trousered behinds comfortably cooled on leather swivel chairs and padded settees, behinds that can afford their own generators anyway and so ensure an unhampered coolness to waft between their well-pampered buttocks.  While the rest of Pakistan waits in those alternate hours, unable to do anything but sweat.  And wait.  Nevertheless I remained in magnificent Lahore, which I’ll speak about later, for a week.

After a month in the kaleidoscopic whirlwind of sensory overloads that are the cities of Northern India, even Lahore seemed a welcome respite.  Despite my best efforts though, the heat simply didn’t provide favourable writing conditions for an adventuring artiste as I.  I lie a little.  It wasn’t just the heat.  It was also the fact that Lahore, with its outrageous generosity, is an incredibly easy place to make friends and with its splendid beauty is an equally easy place to distract yourself into with them.  And so after a week of fighting several losing battles, I’ve torn myself away into the peace, serenity and absolute magnificence of the Hunza Valley in the Karakoram Range of Mountains, by the Chinese border.  Purely for the sake of my art of course.  It’s a hazy day.  Cloudy.  Grey and quite cold.  Beautiful!  From outside my window are golden brown barren mountains, the clouds have wrapped themselves around the snow covered peaks, as though they haven’t met in a while and demand some ‘us time’.  Forests of fruit trees spray against the mountain base.  It’s cherry and apricot season.  Big, sweet Marks and Spencers type cherries are everywhere and I pick them on demand, no green aisles, no checkout till, no money even…just the best cherries i’ve ever tasted and it’s all part of the legendary hospitality of this misunderstood country.  The Hunza river, confident, strong and eternal roars magnanimously just below me, feeding into the mighty Indus only a few kilometres downstream.   On my journey up here I’d followed the Indus up from the North West Frontier Province region and couldn’t help a deep feeling of admiration towards the river’s sense of purpose.  So forthright, so committed to its objective, so assured in its direction, I was in awe of it.

As well as my passion for mountains however, I’m actually here to catch up on my writing.  India, where I was previous to Pakistan, demands that you look.  That you hear.  That you touch.  That you are touched.  That you speak.  That you’re spoken to.  That you shout.  That you’re shouted at.  That you scream, that you smell, that you taste and that you get out of my fuckin’ way!  Now!!  With the uncompromising petulance of a brat, it demands.  Constantly.  For a month I was victim to these demands.  If writing material is what I was looking for then I simply had too much and it’s only now, over a week after leaving India that I feel I’m able to write more about my time there.  The dust having settled.  I arrived in Bombay and have already shared my incredible introduction into the country.  In Bombay I met with artists, performed my poetry at various venues around the city, hobnobbed with the ‘cultured’ and ‘hip’ middle classes and spent most evenings enjoying the company of Raju and his community of friends on the side streets of Colaba.  Laughing, singing and being sung to but like with most things, especially on this journey, I had to leave.  But I left so i could go somewhere else.  I left so I could make my way towards Kutch.  It’s the base root of this journey in a way.  The region which hosts the language both my parents speak, which also hosts ancestry from both sides of my parents, from where my forefathers and foremothers originally emigrated.

It was Tuesday the second of June I think when I entered the Kutch region of India.  I woke up around 6am from the berth of my train so I could take in as much of the landscape as possible from the window.  The Rann of Kutch in North-Western India is Frontier Land, the last point at which sand can still be attributed to this noble Bharat-Desh and bear the sacredness of Indian identity before it turns into conspiring, terrorist sand of the enemy, Pakistan.  Some sand lies on the edge though.  Some sand is blown in the wind.  But that’s the enemy within sir.  Traitor, problem-sand.

Like the other Wild West, Kutchi land is also arid.  The train strides like a Mancunian through this expanse of scorched desert, markered by barren hills.  Cacti sit with elegance by the side of the road, accompanied by occasional small green bushes and round mud huts, littering this serenity of red earth and dark hills.  Red earth and mud huts like those between Nairobi and Mombasa.  Some farm land is occasionally seen, but not much.  The train finally ends its 16 hour marathon in Bhuj, the capital of Kutch.  From there I was to get down to Mandvi, on the southern coast of this area by the Arabian Sea, the town of my maternal ancestry.  Once more though, coincidences provided me with good company.  In the booth next to mine were a father and son from Mandvi itself, actual friends of the family I still have there.

The train pulls into Bhuj and people collectively ignore the idioms of rail-safety and choose instead to jump on and off train tracks in order to cross platforms.  My Mandvi travelling companions and I begin the day with breakfast…freshly fried ganthia, green chillies, chutney and jalebi.  A cup of tea later and we board an aptly named Toofan, (Storm), the local mode of 4×4 transport to help us cross the deserts and hills into Mandvi.  The same rules of public transport have been following me from Nairobi…get as many in as possible…and then some more.  It’s only an hour long journey to Mandvi and its joyous.  Trains provide a smooth feeling of watching from afar, of aloof linearity, whilst driving embraces the contours of the landscape, sharing its joys when smooth and comfortable and also its pains when steep, rocky or hilly.

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We cross dusty roads, barren landscape at first.  Cacti peer in to see who’s arriving.  Occasional white cows meander.  Red earth glows.  A gentle wind blows and loose earth is displaced around the landscape, without actually changing though.  There’s space.  And in that there’s so much beauty.  Humble but no less profound than any other beauty I’ve been fortunate enough to witness.  There’s not a lot of anything but the sparseness out of the window overwhelms me with peace, security and a strange feeling of understanding.  Like I understand this landscape.  I’m not sure what I understand about it, but I know it.  It looks like the language I speak.  It echoes with the humour my family shares.  It looks like the colour of my parents’ skin, sometimes.  The land is extreme, but it’s soft also. and against this stillness, everything else is just further highlighted.  The ripple of a snake against the roadside, the lines in the man’s face sat next to me, the smiles.  We cross through small towns with buildings painted in pastille shades of blue and pink.  Jain temples with rainbows trapped in their walls.

‘Ha salaam alaikum.  Ker aay?  Khaliq!  We have your relative with us…we should be at the bridge in 15 minutes.’

As we get closer to the coast, green introduces itself onto the canvas too:  Green crops that reflect the light of the sun and that earthy green atop ubiquitous date and coconut palms.  They’ve become ubiquitous for me lately anyway and here they signal the presence of that great contradiction: desert oases.

Fifteen minutes later and we arrive at the bridge.  The other side of it is Khaliq, my ‘uncle’ sat on his scooter, his white shalwar kameez flapping in the cool sea breeze.  I get off the Toofan and Khaliq and I embrace tightly.

‘You look exactly the same’

Except he’d got a bit fatter.

‘So do you’

Except my hairs a lot longer.  Three years ago he came to my hotel room when I was staying in Bhuj on my own.

‘Salaam alaikum.  We’re related.  I’ve come to pick you up’

Or something like that anyway.  He looks well nowadays but also burdened with a new sense of responsibility since his older brother died two years ago.  He loads the scooter with my bags and I look to the left of us to see the great wooden ships they still handbuild here according to centuries old designs.  The same ships I had seen in Mombasa and Zanzibar.

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India: BADA’I ZANZIBAR…SALAAM BOMBAY! (250509)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Bada’i Zanzibar…Salaam Bombay!

 

Yesterday, Sunday morning, May 24th 2009, 4.45 am, we’re awakened by the pilot. 

 

 

‘…With a temperature of 17C, the weather in Mumbai is hazy…’

 

 

Out of the window it’s still night.  Butterflies crash like a crescendo against my stomach walls as lights are cued into the frame.  The plane descends slowly and Bombay: City of Dreams, spreads herself open to me: Bright yellow and white streetlights sparkle against the black like an Indian Film Heroines’ Sequenced Sari.  Enraptured, a little boy, my celluloid dreams manifest to greet me.  The plane, descending lower and lower, follows a dusty amber hue.  The dust clears.  From an aerial view, all the glory of a Bombay slum is revealed and begins to give chase relentlessly all the way to the runway edge…Salaam Bombay!       

 

The plane lands and I wait outside it for Sreenath whom I met at the airport in Zanzibar.  If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have made it this far…

 

…One day earlier…Saturday 23rd May 2009, approximately 11.30 am, Zanzibar.  I’m due to fly in just over 4 hours so it’s as good a time as any to run to a bank and get cash for India.  Sorry.  This transaction has not been honoured!  I go to another bank…No money.  Still another bank….still no money.  I desperately halt a taxi to rush me out of the winding, confining alleys of Stone Town and to the Central Barclays branch…No blasted money!!  Charging inside, I plead with the Bank Staff…I’m a UK Barclays customer for God’s sake! 

 

 

‘Sorry sir…we’re affiliated with Barclays in name only really…unfortunately you’ll have to call your bank in the UK.’

 

 

Except I don’t have enough cash for the phonecall.  The paradox is lost on those in uniform and I’ve gotta leave soon anyway.  I haven’t even packed!  With the cash I have on me, I pay the taxi.  The rest isn’t enough to pay my hotel bill anyway so I agree with the manager to pay half for now with a promise to pay the rest when this has all cleared up.  Everyone at the hotel wishes me a warm goodbye and Abu, the hotel carpenter helps me out with my bags.  We embrace and hope to see each other again.  Bada’i. 

 

The Tanzanian shillings I have left, I convert to dollars.  Fourteen.  I’m about to enter a country, a new city where I know no-one with just fourteen dollars.  A little voice of mischief in my head laughs, ‘let’s see what happens’

 

After check-in at the airport I impress myself by talking an official into letting me onboard with a drum I bought.  As I and my world take a moment to celebrate this small victory (Avaes: 1, Authority: 0) the earth suddenly halts.

 

 

Take it then.  But check in the big bag.  And then go pay your airport tax before immigration.

 

 

Airport tax!  What in funk’s name is that?! 

 

 

In Zanzibar you pay it in cash at the airport sir…Thirty dollars!           

 

      

[Once the earth resumes rotation]

 

 

Look mate…I’m not being funny yeah, but I can’t pay it…simple!  The machines aren’t giving me any money today…I’ve tried them all…and you lot only accept cash.  I’ve got fourteen dollars and that’s all, and I’m gonna need that for India anyway.  So look, I’m sorry yeah?…but I just can’t pay!

 

 

[Beat]

 

 

They won’t let you on the plane without paying sir.

 

Look brother!  What exactly d’you expect me to pay with?  No-one told me I gotta pay thirty dollar to leave… all I got is what you see…fourteen dollars…take my shirt and my shoes if you want but I ain’t got thirty. 

 

 

He thinks long…I think I’m winning again…My minds eye sees the scoreboard about to flip over…(Avaes: 2, Authority: Isn’t playing!)

 

 

Well sir…You’ll just have to borrow it…there are people here going to Bombay…borrow it from someone.

 

You what?  How’m I gonna ask someone for money who I don’t even know?…I’ll tell you what…It’s your idea!…So you lend me the money!  Go on!!  You lend it us then and I’ll pay you back!’

 

 

Eventually I walk away.  To think, as arguing isn’t helping.  I met someone in Zanzibar who might be able to help.  Upon calling, she says she can give the money but has no car.  Wait! she says.  I’ll see what I can do and call you back.

 

 

The flight leaves in about an hour.  The guy at the counter comes over to me. 

 

 

Any luck?

 

I’ve called someone.  Dunno.

 

Look sir.  That fella over there.  He’s going to Bombay. Ask him!

 

But I don’t know him man!

 

[frustrated] Okay!  You do it your way then!!

 

 

I stand looking at the man texting into his phone.  My height, short haired Indian fella.  Not much older than me.  He seems dismissive, aloof.  He seems gentle, friendly.

 

 

Excuse me.  Hi.  Are you travelling to Bombay?

 

Yes.

 

Sorry to have disturbed you but I’ve been instructed by that gentleman over there to ask if you can help at all.  I’m also travelling to Bombay today but can’t pay the airport tax.  I don’t have enough and no machine in Zanzibar will give me money today.  Now I know I have the money there…

 

…You sure?

 

Yes.  I’m sure.  The bank must have frozen my account coz they think it’s got stolen.  English banks do that sometimes when it’s used abroad a lot…so I need to ask someone to lend me the money…

 

[while texting]  I’ll pay.

 

Sorry?

 

[looks up]  I’ll pay.

 

…Thanks… Thank you very much.  I’ll of course pay you back when we get to Bombay.

 

Fine.

 

 

And that was how I got to Bombay.  ‘Filmi’ even before I arrived.  So when we landed I was waiting for Sreenath outside the plane and we walked through immigration together, where he told me about his wife and son that he hasn’t seen for three years.  He gave me his contact details before catching his connecting flight to Hyderabad.  Another debt I’ve collected.  Another act of kindness from a stranger.    

 

I walk towards the exit, ready to lose myself in the folds of that Sequenced Sari I saw from above, as much as fourteen whole dollars would allow.