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Archive for August, 2014

India – symbolic of an onslaught on all the known senses.

 Chennai and Delhi (new and old) whirred past in three days of snail traffic. The remaining rules of the streets were dictated by the size of vehicle and by sudden urges of any holy cow. Intersections became battlefields where raucous onlookers would surround the warring parties.

Within this human-transport-device-cow milling mass I observed a sequence of events that piqued my curiosity. On the outskirts of a warzone, frowned faces collected what seemed like money, from eager bystanders. This was accompanied by shrill voices in surreal surround sound. Impatient drivers blasted away on an array of hooters; cows howled for their offspring; agitated vendors shoved for another sale while a wrestling match developed between two drivers or a driver and a pedestrian or maybe even two friends. The squabbling went on for ages as the current we were stuck in stuttered past and beyond before I could witness who the victor was.

Intersections and loaded buses

Intersections and loaded buses

Our taxi-guide nodded in a peculiar way (like those dogs in the back windows of cars) in appreciation of my enquiry. He turned down the volume of booming sixties music to reply: “They are betting on the outcome. Like gambling, you know? It’s tradition and some extra income, and all. Everyone does it – all the time”. His explanation confirmed the regularity and ordinariness of the intersection-wars. All the while his earnest eye-darting to the rearview mirror was accompanied by the constant head-bopping.

Streets, roads and all spaces...shopping

Streets, roads and all spaces…shopping

 

In between intersections our line of outdated cars and basket-bikes moved slowly enough for me to study the pedestrians. The sidewalks became streams of human ants busying to and fro in bright garb, stopping briefly for exchanges of dirty money wrapped in kerchiefs for the on-the-go street curry. Whiffs of danya, cloves, turmeric and saffron (the black market type) blended with fumes of progress. The smell of poverty clung to the air that carried incense and curry. My lungs and nose revolted against the unfamiliar mix. Fortunately an innate tolerance and sense of adventure helped my senses (and me) to rapidly adjust.

I was looking forward to visiting the marble white Taj Mahal. Away from the screaming colors of the ubiquitous saris and smells of spice infused air; to a place of meditation and soul restoring. Head-bopping-guide-driver confirmed that this was a quiet place of worship and peace. “Built in the 15th century, dedicated to the third wife of a shah, yes”, he said. “She was a Persian princess who died in childbirth of her 14th child”, he added in his matter of (everyday) fact way. The rest of his story droned on while a vivid, but sad picture of a modern day Princess of the people occupied my mind.

Princess Diana

Princess Diana 

 

On a tour that touched the world, but a lone figure on a bench, Diana perched in typical stance with the mausoleum as backdrop in this over publicized photo. I wondered if she found magic there? I wondered if the staged emptiness of the gardens around the Taj Mahal echoed her emotions? I wondered if the pool reflection of a clear sky mirrored the blue of her eyes? I wondered if she understood a love capable of devoting a temple as the one behind her?

We arrived at Agra, miraculously still in one, albeit, dusty piece. The road was not that long. It was just that slow. Yielding respectfully when Brahman crossed the road (the cattle, not the caste). Dodging dangling passengers from groaning buses, from and to unpronounceable places. Waiting patiently for traffic jams that uncoiled in unimaginable masses of more noise, creatures and gestures.

Holy and happy

Holy and happy

 

Back in the air-conditioned hotel the concierge dutifully spelled out the plans for the next morning. Stabbing with his pen at the travelling brochure he deflated our enthusiasm with: “It is a religious holiday tomorrow”. Before the consequence of this announcement could make sense he trundled out the words I dreaded to hear: “There will be plenty devotees from the countryside. Everybody in India must visit Taj Mahal at least once. Very pleasant. You will see. Please be on time.” Our exchanged glances were censored before they could be translated.

The next morning, buses deposited us amongst more people and food. Tickets and body searchers helped to slow the procession towards the shrine down to a crawl, (so much for being on time). When we finally got into the gardens and saw the monument for the first time for real, the glamour was dulled by flashes from millions of cameras and the equally dazzling smiles of zealous posers. Even so, my sixth sense intuited the subtle undercurrent of magic.

 

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

 

We followed the human serpent. We rolled across the garden paths, coiled up the stairs and watched its other end emerge on the opposite side. Like the omega – in shape and in continuance. We glided over the cool marble and slid down into the shadowy recesses of the tomb. We were carried forward on a stream of chanters and I found myself slipping into the lull of mass hypnosis.

It was due to this altered state of mind (I told myself afterwards) that people appeared friendlier. We were stopped for photographs and autographs(?!). One photo on the stairs leading into the subterranean chamber, ‘with my daughter and wife, please’. A picture to be posed for in front of the small cemetery gate, ‘for our hanty and huncle who are too old to travel, thank you’. One more with a little girl all pink and shy, for her birthday.

 

For my wife, please

For my wife, please

 

One for the family

One for the family with the birthday girl

 

There was magic in the people. Their unsophisticated warmth melted away the exasperation that usually accompanies hordes. Back in the blazing sun their energy mingled with the festivities under the trees and shaded spaces. The inevitable Indian picnic on holidays featured even on holy ground.

Marble base for a picnic

Marble base for a picnic and some prayers

 

Slowly we made our way towards the exit. There we would find a picture-perfect-position our guide promised. Perfect to capture the gold of the setting sun reflected on the marble. Over the heads of the millions, I smiled. “No problem for you”, he cajoled my husband Rob. “You are big and tall, you can see over everybody. The people from the country has never seen a big man like you, that is why they want to take photos back to their villages, to show the others”. Sense surfaced. We smiled, now knowingly, as our sweet talking guide arranged us on the Di-chair, the famous bench that portrayed the sad solitude of Princess Diana.

Flattery will get one anywhere...

Flattery will get one anywhere…

 

After a digital plethora of poses I was asked to remain seated on the bankie. “A request from the people”, our guide tried to comfort me. Flattery proved to take him everywhere and I waved jokingly at the gathering crowd. I smiled at a worried Rob and allowed Mr Smooth to be director of my final pose. “Please hang your head sideways and smile through your hair. They think you are Diana reincarnated.” His eyes rolled towards the crowd.

 

Princess for that one posed moment

Princess for that one posed moment

 

My moment of magic (although in post analytical reality just a creation of Mr Suave), reduced the gold on the marble to a faint memory.

A split second of undeserved recognition and a shared sense of fun completed my Taj Mahal Magic.

 

 

 

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It was long ago. Michele was blonde and I was mouse.

She still is blonde, but I am now silver. Her blondeness taught me then about social-cultural tolerance. Our South Africanness highlighted the worldwide ignorance regarding Africa and color, which I now appreciate in golden memories.

 

Umbria is a province in the middle of Italy, off the trodden track. But it was the unknown on the brochure that caught our attention and lured us into our first hike in Europe.

Footloose and carefree, it promised.

 

The train weaved down the peninsula from Florence towards the Appenine Mountains where Calvin, our English-speaking guide, met us at Foligno station. On the verandah of Beneditti he explained the unfamiliar term of slackpacking; apologized for the outdated war maps and exchanged phone numbers in case we got lost en route. No, there were no others on this excursion; we were too early for the European hiking season. Michele and I were the group.

 

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

 

Early the next morning a taxi waited to take us to Pettino. Calvin waved us a last “Read the instructions carefully”. We thanked the driver in the one-horse village, more a sheep-still-asleep one, shaded by oak forests. At the dusty crossroads, we consulted the copied notes: From Pettino find the way to Spina Vecchia. We took the only road in the opposite direction to the disappearing taxi. There was a reassuring rusted signpost with a barely visible cursive S.Vech.

 

The motionless air carried no sounds. The world slumbered. We breathed the musky truffle air from the oak forest till we met the sun where it peeped over open wheat fields. Speckles of red poppies in the gold and indigo patches on the cross-valley hills pulled our focus away from the maps. There was an indescribable sense of place. It was as if we were the only wanderers (which we seemed to be), ever to walk this piece of earth.

 

It took a while before the euphoria was replaced by a tinge of concern. We could not find the rusted wire gate or for that matter the old well with a hole in the bucket (dear Liza?). Instead there were fields with sheep, an old man herding them and a sleepy hollow to our left. Somewhere in our entranced state, I skipped a line on the instructions. We needed a phone to contact Calvin.

 

The herder followed us after his unsuccessful attempt to understand our map or us – instead he muttered something about ‘senoritas’ and ‘vino rosso or vino blanco’. At breakfast? I then realized the power of blonde; our illiterate countryside farmer had never seen a bunny like Michele, ever. The awe in his eyes was indescribable and his immediate infatuation overpowered all his logic. I giggled; Michele cringed.

 

A young mother was hanging nappies on a line as we approached her. She dried her hands on an apron and smiled at our expanded group. Mama Maria from Fonni came to our rescue. She understood sign language for telephone. ‘You want shortest route to Cerreto?’ The old Roman road was visible at the tip of her finger; at the bottom of the valley, a direct but challenging descent. This was fortunate, as it proved too difficult for our aged pursuer after he insisted on ‘showing us the way’.

Stone walls and rivers

Stone walls and rivers

 

 

Encouraged by Michele’s endless enthusiasm, I ignored the dull ache in my toes as we followed the off-the-map cobbled path. I let out a loud sigh when the village appeared further down the valley. Elated spirits soon succumbed to pain when we realized that the Panorama Hotel was exactly that. Panoramic. Our destined accommodation was perched on the top of the highest hill of the town. We were entering Cerreto at river level.

 

“You can take your boots off at the first pub we find, and we can have an ice cold beer. We deserve it,” said Michelle. After a day lost in the rural mountains I was too tired to argue, let alone debate the point that neither of us drank beer. The pub sign was visible even before we had a view of the street. Guessing by the blare from that direction, there was obviously a national soccer match on the go. The noise contradicted the emptiness of the main street winding up the hill.

 

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

 

Approaching the door for the promised resurrection, we both immediately understood the futility of the reward as all the men from the village were gathered around the TV. Our attempted casual, but quick stroll past the only pub didn’t go unnoticed. Judging by their exclamations, the few bystanders on the periphery of the soccer flock had just scored winning goals. The all-male crowd turned in unison towards the cause of the jubilations. My scowl was not noticed as the mass gawked at my fair friend, who suddenly had more haste in completing the final stretch.

 

The Hotel Panorama staff were relieved to welcome us; but were concerned about our late arrival and worried about the boots over my shoulder. The only way I could get up the last part of the hill was barefoot. After the abandoned beer stop, my blisters protested beyond reason. Yet strangely, the cobbles were kinder to my feet than the hard-toe hiking boots. And blonde ruled over blue – Michele’s bobbing ponytail accelerating the escape, but at the cost of my loosening toenails.

 

Slackpacking had benefits. Our real luggage was waiting in our rooms while our daypacks now soaked with the day’s fun (and sometimes run) lay in the sun. Then a hot healing shower, feet nursed, attired afresh and the best Italian cuisine – a trusted remedy for any traveler – followed by a soft sleep on crisp linen. The following day we were scheduled to enjoy a non-hiking day in Norcia, a neighboring small town. Blissful browsing and resting sore limbs and battle worn feet, this was the pattern of our trip for the next week. Early start and early arrival, browse around the town and a rest day before beginning again.

 

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

 

Crossing the Appenines of unknown Umbria in a group of two proved to be one of my most memorable travels. Often we walked through medieval town squares where we soon learned to cover our stringy topped shoulders and hiking-shorts knees during this passage; where elders (always men) judged us with watery glares.

 

We learned that siesta was a given along the Mediterranean so there were no open shops or shopkeepers to be seen during midday. That made us grateful for the ‘Mama’ at every overnight stop. She (all of them) packed a part-of-the-package picnic consisting of fresh bread, cheese, chorizo and a bottle of water and a touch of health (fruit) and the inevitable left over wine, (previous dinner’s unfinished extra large carafe of house wine). As we travelled we chose our lunch spots by view and proximity to destination. Where we would relax, secure in the knowledge that our next haven waited around the corner.

 

Idyllic, almost sacred days

Idyllic, almost sacred days

 

We crossed rivers (mostly Rio Nera), passed trout farms and bathed in drinking troughs. We sang, we danced and we explored. Chained and locked chapel doors did not stop us from taking pictures through broken windows so that we could see what it was they were hiding. The painted ceilings were intact, but the frescoes on the walls were disintegrating. Pictures of a harsh religion were recognizable, depicting punishment in paradoxical subtle colors.

 

Stone Arches

Stone Arches

 

Idyllic days followed nights of culinary wonder; consisting of herb and spice infusions with strange names, smells and tastes. Between towns we had the valleys and mountains to ourselves; infrequently a pair of cyclists would pass us. Unused railway tunnels became changing rooms and Roman aqueducts lined the horizon. Olive groves replaced fields of gold and we strolled through vineyards into rural villages with terracotta-lined balconies. The signposts and the maps started synchronizing and the days had their own rhythm. Our bodies followed.

 

 

It was during one of our peaceful lunches next to a district road that we discovered the general ignorance about South Africa. We heard the music before we saw the line of dust from the approaching truck packed with produce for the market. We watched the young farmers with amusement as they sped past and suddenly changed their minds. There was a whirlwind of confused dust particles as they reversed to stop at our picnic spot. Surprised at their forwardness we made ready to leave.

 

Their friendly open faces permitted for broken conversation loosely translated as: “Where are you from?” “We are from South Africa – Afrique du Sud? Mandela? Bafana Bafana?” Ah, the last reference hit the jackpot. They beamed with recognition. Then frowned with confusion. Impossible sounds the same in almost any language. Michele was the chosen. The older of the two prodded her arm with his earthy forefinger: “No noir? Blanco??” Well, those were the only words we could make out from the duet of objections. We were leaving; not prepared to have a political discussion and explain our heritage in two word sentences. Once safely surrounded by vines, we turned around to see we were being forgiven through a million kisses blown to heaven.

 

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

 

Our hiking trip ended and all too soon we were heading to Venice for a refined send off. Betwixt trains and platforms my occupation was watching people go by (sounds like a song?). Michele, in colorful contrast to most of the Mamas on the platform, unawares drew many admiring glances. The blondeness of our trip culminated in the blatant stare of a seemingly distinguished gentleman.

 

Obviously, I decided, he was on a boring business trip and he was looking for distraction – my mother superior alter ego echoed. But not with my friend – my protective loyalty gauge kicked in. Maybe all three emotions overlaid themselves across my expression or my stance, because the gentleman suddenly engaged in my glare. As he hastened towards me I prepared my reprimand – you cannot undress a woman in public, not even only with your eyes…

 

“Senora” – he bowed. I melted slightly. “I am obliged to apologize for my seemingly upsetting behavior.” I approved with a nod. “In my culture it is the finest compliment to savor the appearance of an elegant woman, especially in public. We are a passionate people and we love beauty.” How could I argue with a plea as fervent and honest as that? “I salute you and your friend. You have graced this dreary platform with your presence and….. ” I failed to register the rest of the sentence as he kissed my hand in farewell. I saw Michele gulp and giggle as she observed us from a bookstall.

 

Finally seated on the train to Venice, she would not believe me that I had been protecting her. I surrendered to the teasing. Soon she would forget about it when the Guggenheim and other museums filled her artistic senses.

 

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

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