Sunday, January 15, 2006

From the Cave: The Oasis Just Dries Up Sometimes

The Oasis Just Dries Up Sometimes

How can one tell the essential, but at times unbelievable stories of worldly travel? We take for granted the passages of our great wide, pioneer provinces. The free movements of our peoples, our skills, our lands of a sweetened freedom on times of return, visit, or holiday. It is a good place that we live compared to more than many. More than so many.

Who was trapped? In a job not unlike that of Dilbert? Uncannily like that? Not exactly, let us compare to the cartoonist himself. Sitting at a desk for some portion of the day, with few requirements, a steady, well over paid. With five months paid holidays. Not a hard enough job? No challenge?

When it came to leave, I had to fight through nearly two and a half months of red tape, going from office to office to get stamps, signs, seals, and deliveries. Very few people exit such an employment situation. Especially according to procedures. Many Westerners I have met have simply absconded during leave. Some leave large, unpaid bank loans, on the assumption that no credit interaction is effectively maintained. Thus many procedures have been tightened, requiring more paper works, a reason for more local employments. Nearly each stamp required signing from separate departments, where more often than not, there were no records of my files.

When my files arrived, they were thick, like a Bible. The same as everyone else. The offices were mostly in a security controlled GHQ. The large, bullet proof glass barriers between departments were particularly troublesome. It necessitated at least ten to fifteen visits before the security offices finally allowed me to pass from one door to the next. Administrative offices were often quite effective. The cordiality of the staff improved with each visit. If nothing else, I learned that GHQ General Staff were a group of well educated, and eloquent conversationalists, clearers of red tape, and patient, staid men.

But somewhere along the way, a debit of two weeks holidays was ledgered with January, 2000. And two weeks leave unpaid in July, 2003 were accounted as paid, but without notice. Note start date Canada Day, 2000.

It seems someone was trying to put me through the full paces of severance, which were generous, fair, and about 90% more than I expected, and 90% less than they thought I was owed in the beginning. Which was why I asked to quit. I figured it would be a tough negotiation. They were adamant that their files were correct, to the point, a Colonel swore off on them, then disappeared for vacation. It is a siesta lifestyle, with a good deal of traditional observed Bedu ways.

The ways were made clear once the original accounting errors were ameliorated. You see, the young fellows are put in charge of all menial office labours. At times, left waiting from office to office for days, or returning weekly. Hand delivery systems, with swaths of high quality leathers, the most outrageously expensive camels on the planet. In some ways, a graceful exit. But think that my peace with the situation was in that manner at the time? At times, my bald forehead pressed up against the glass like some weary water buffalo. After sitting for three days. As if to say…”Dear sir, when can I get the hell out of this place?” It was hot as hell, I was just tired of cooking like a lobster. Smart ones jump out of the traps. Some of my comedy must have been amusing. I loved their flashing ticket windows. No tickets. Ever. More of a throng really.

People come and go. Finally, I was going. But when it came time to collect passport, the officers had instructed to return at five o’clock. The offices normally close at two. I was being offered a final caring gesture of wasta or influence present in the efficient maintenance of such formal pleasantries as are necessary in an essentially tribal and honourable society. But upon arrival at the gate, beyond could be seen the vibrant green soccer fields, quite full of well fed and well kept magpies. Free to come and go, the bustling of their black feathered wings in the air of the sprinklered field, was not unlike some royal official ceremony. To be kept hovering over one’s freedom, a gift from the grounds. Some very meticulous grounds keeping.

Not unlike the Raj Palaces of India, my masters were fairly decent, and generous. They paid me. Allowed free roam. There were portions of the schedule when we were quite free to swim at the beach not 100 yards beyond the fences of our daily work. The seas were uproarious at times. Drowning out the wind, in a land of the doldrums. Sand sifts like snowdrifts, a storm can muster the sands into a blizzard. Heaving Hondas and Cressidas. Air conditioning maxed out, for the Gulf Regions, a space shuttle of breathable air in the midday. The depth of the dive.

Downtown speed limits of 80 km/hour. At times flying forces of Land Rovers and Cruisers. One steps lightly upon lane changes. Especially after break of fast at sunset during Ramadan. On these days it is best to enter the souks upon foot. Parking becomes relaxed. Lanes become merely an expression of lanes. The kind of crowd-like events in the Haj can take place among small groups of office attendants and clients yet upon a lower scale of carnage, a less mortal heaving of bureaucracy. But please remember that vast numbers of sub continentals know no other general meeting patterns. Unless one has a direction through a traditional market, a general tousling about could ensue, different nationalities have different senses of personal spaces. Thus some could become irrationally irritated by such close convulences of crowd movement. Wildebeest at the forge mentality. Fainting the end result. I knew a man last year who had stumbled over others below him, just to survive.

I had yet to encounter such crowds. My closest experience being in the labyrinths of the sacred Hindu Temples of Venketesharma, upon the rural trails of Tirupati and Tirumali, were several odes to Venketesharma are made. I would be interested to know how mainstream Hindu Society considers this particular god. Apparently some form of obsidian basalt, carved into rather hideous and dangerous form. Its eyes being shielded upon the walls of all their homes. Apparently its wrath would burn from its eyes. Usually a nice piece of the finest silk. I was asked to sign a waiver saying I would be respectful of their religion. I hope I am.

The precincts immediately upon the enclosed diety, being encapsulated with purests of golds, and wrought, the most priceless of diamond collections in raw stone, and worked pieces, merely in the tiara, of all the earth. Who exactly was this god? Even business cards were stuck in the fringes of the gold encrusted doors. About the richest temple of all of India. In the scrubby rocky backwoods of Andrar Pradesh. Where even the rats are not disturbed upon the train platforms. In fact, little burrow-like hills and mounds are presented between the sidings like a hill of devotion to the lowly vermin.

It was devotion to non-crowded places, where the waiters quote poetry in the service. Beautiful cityscape bungalows for ten dollars a day, even Bombay’s Airport Road has a Korean Restaurant to rival any in Korea. Being Koreans from the Chinese occupied side of Northern Manchuria. North Korea has always been a Chinese buffer zone, with about as accurately depicted a feudal Confucian Society with embedded Communist batteries, as could have been found there two thousand years ago, but on a smaller scale, perhaps a village of clam and scallop diggers. Enlarging upon their farming areas, merely by stacking their discarded shells upon the shorelines. Some parts of the train route of South Cholla Province, tell of the majesty, the beauty of the rural rice farming lifestyle. The preservation of sacred mountains, the reforestation of devastated hills, the traditional survival roots, and hillside delicacies of King Sejong’s Forest. The split-side lava dome of Haein-sa Sacred Temple. In the pouring rain and mist. Standing above the clouds, and seeing the Temple below. The Art of it.

Some Buddhas are marvelously human looking, their expressive faces bring the dancers of Kathakali to life. The Koreans transformed such expressiveness into wooden masks, also a reinforcement of traditional Mongolian Shaman play. The distinctly slow construction of post and beam carved joinery for Buddhist Temples is classically being performed all over Asia, using the traditional methods, perhaps one man for a dozen years will slowly carve a reverse steeple into each and every interior roof line. The oldest temple I visited was over six hundred years, only because wood rots quickly in places with a rainy season like a deluge. That temple was supposed to be an original source of green tea as it exists in its present form. Supposedly it was one of the few places that the plant itself grew abundantly during prehistory. For many peoples, a mountain is the entire earth. Life’s journey, to the summits to worship the sun, the moon, the fire of the hearth. The dignity of the home. All of these beliefs have been incorporated into all of the world’s religions. Common animist traditions. A page in the development of every cultura. One temple even had an ancient cast iron bowl, capable of cooking for 10,000 monks at a time. Accept that many temples were military staging areas as well, and one begins to understand some very old regional religious and cultural boundaries. Many of these places were also havens of refuge.

The most outstanding of temples in my mind to date, must be that of the Tooth. Arche ways to allow for the elephants to pass in retinue, during festival times. The enclosed and personal libraries, full of international devotionals and sponsors. The wonder of the crenellated balusters and scribe work upon the rooflines, recall the stars and visions of the Saqqara Tombs. The image of a plaster Buddha, which required forty men to carry, and when it fell on its edge, the plaster exploded forth brittle, the force had driven the golden Buddha from within its hidden case. It was being taken to safety ahead of invading Japanese forces. The Buddha was discovered in this century. A remarkable journey through history.

Awakening on the beaches of South Variposa, to the echoing creak, of a grounded tanker, about five kilometers distant. Taking the airs on the verandas, watching the fishermen pull in the nets, collecting the small melchi like fish, no larger than smelts. Their canoes built like gondolas. Sacred cows wandering about like local statesmen, some less fortunate working cows, being diviners, and fortune tellers, usually under the care of a Rajasthani herdsmen on holiday off-season. Having his regular horn the alarm clock of yesteryear. Evenings on the balconies, the phosphorus-rich waves heaving under the full moon. There is a danger in the pleasure of scooters. Too few know well enough. Bicycle is more cautious. Walking is almost always least dangerous. But the occasional cab-ride to the rocks is not only recommended, but the quality of the driving is often incredible. Considering the many hazards of the road. The tuk-tuk has supplied many entertaining travel stories. But none like the bus collapsed under its own weight, right through a portion of pavement, which a tuk-tuk easily negotiates.

The streets of Bombay are best seen from the back of an Ambassador. Simply get your first cabbie to take you to the lowest budget hotels first. See the herds of goat and sheep in the courtyards. Consider the caravansary. Where I was told a private room was available. A light was switched on, a sleeping man was rolled out of his bed, and told to get out. Needless to say I didn’t stay there. I was taken to the nearest business class hotel. Which, if it omits a window, makes up for it, with all the buzzers for personal attendants and amenities. A wall of switches, toggle. Cell phone service was fairly insistent, each company in turn permitted to broadcast a cell page message.

On the day of the Rajish train fires, I was standing next to the bougainvilleas, calling home over my own telephone, to let them know, I was about 1500 km away. The clans of Osho are quite prolific upon the shores of Goa. It is not often that someone may declare you in need of Osho, in less than thirty seconds. The beauties of the beach were quite so alluring. Especially the young doctors. But Portuguese Mass is also quite an impressive gesture towards enlightenment. The legendary garbage mounds of Osho’s Mansions in Pune I did pass up.

There were even special beach cleaning pigs, which went about their duties with great industry, civility, and a modicum of cleanliness. Many Europeans make it an annual return. But some of the more dusty streets, the articulating and wailing buses are a bit too busy for me. But then there was a wonderful Tibetan Restaurant in the middle of it all. One day, I walked to Panjim. It was dusty, fly bites do not heal well in the dust. But the roadside toddy shacks and truck stop diners, are as good foods as could be gotten in North America. Truckers are not fools generally. They only eat good food. It may not always be healthy food. But in India it’s usually the best Indian food. Also the best prices.

Nearby, even in temple towns, one can from there be generally directed to the local bootlegger. Delivery times vary, but can often be as little as forty-five minutes. Such business is offered only to the finest quality clients, hand-delivered, wrapped efficiently and expertly in plain manila. Two bottles often suffice for as many days. So baksheesh may be made on a regular basis. It costs little, and is generally appreciated. Even in small quantities. So on delivery from Bombay International, tip your driver well to the best door, and request the best English speaker he knows, to take you around for a day, or two, or five. Or fifteen. You may help him change a tire or two. In the centre of business-type slums, which are not so shocking.

The quality of the guide, is knowing the tides and times of expert human movement, so that during the rushes of devotions in some illustrious cities, one may witness unimpeded travel through it all. Stopping as you would your burro, almost the kind of trust you could give to your brother. Amazing tours in such fashions, sometimes including student discounts on entries to all parks and reserves, or teacher discounts to all standard historical landmarks. With a mere few choice expressions in a particular language, one can suitably impress expert guides, to deliver you to the exact location that a gentle herd of elephants regularly crosses, at the exact time of crossing. Almost guaranteeing that some images are best kept for want of film. Such a driver may even deliver you to see the best preserved, unprotected, uncovered murals and paintings thousands of years old, without a breath of any other tourists. Being on a ratio of five to one rather than forty-five can make many wonders of greater sense. But one to one gets you to the head of any line up, past the necessary procedures, on negotiated time limits and key features. Pre-reading is required for such planned itineraries.

Negotiating upon your arrival, your full budgetary tour of any country, is actually a higher competitive advantage than booking in home country. Because all of the same booking agencies work through the same companies. It is just their last chance to book you. In which case, up to 80% of costs are saved, including all qualities and availabilities of lodging. The Mount Lavinia for twenty dollars a night. Conveniently placed in an over-booked room, to be bumped up to an amazing suite. Located over a soundproof kitchen, with world class venting, double length panoramic shore view. 180 degrees of sea. And a balcony ten foot wide. Five steps from the swimming pool. A private entrance. A breakfast buffet of palatial platters. Well stocked, from breakfast on return for almost the entire day. Provisioning a two kilometer walk through the richest suburbs of Colombo. Private chauffeur with diesel Toyota to all of the island sites.

Mountain climbing and spa establishments. Adam’s Peak is a particular beauty in full rainfall, like the opening of the seas. The mountain rises upon the bounce of rain. Four hour royal massage treatments to follow. With enclosed oak barrel sauna, and spice bath of various fragrant woods and permeating barks. Arriving to buffets at the best local eatery during purification ceremonies is like arriving at a potluck supper in any provincial church. Remembering the finest quality of carving that I should have not passed up. Knowing esthetic was correct, as opposed to the average charnel souvenir. Knowing that there remain alive many of the carvers, and apprentices of the Maharajah’s palaces of old. The scrollwork, the hand carved paneling of genius artists, even upon the old coal scuttles of the Victorian Era. Generations of traditional country woods, and service. The haunted rooms of the long dead Governor. Where the walls drip. Like sweat on skin.

The room above the convent school of Cairo, had a wonderful southern exposure. The Nile could be seen in the middle, the bridges, the spires of the chapel below, the pealing of the bells. The utterly decrepit majesty of an old Swiss hostelry, with roof top garden, spiral staircases, and a bevy of greenhouse windows surrounding the interior courtyard. The lack of hot water in a hot country is not missed. In fact, cold water is more of a commodity. There was an even a resident Italian Lady, who kept up a jogging routine around the empty hallways. For her, it was the safest place in the evenings.

The Greeks had been forced to abandon her, and Nasser’s despicable act protested quietly in the magisterial chambers, for almost fifty years. The lovely Old Cairo rots, while the courts deliberate the matter of nationalization, of foreign properties -undecided for nearly fifty years. Management thus maintained by the state in ruinous limbo, has caused much of Old Cairo to crumble away in dust. Some of the streets of the dead appear far better. But there remain several quality lodges and hostels which command such majestic views, that they are fully booked, often months in advance.

Solid stone walls tend to block the cacophonies of traffic, and marketplace. The two often just blend into one. Whole stanchions of light fixtures can race past in a flurry of two feet, to avoid police collection of street vendor permits. One can stumble upon a junction mosque, where courtyards converge; stepping about among the prostrate worshippers is often unavoidable. Ditches and open sewers are simply to be avoided, taking the high ground on necessary occasion only, at times simply following the forces of opposing wind.

Non air-conditioned second class sleeper or chair on Indian railway is to be recommended on less used air carriages. On some routes, higher classes are over ridden by various roaches, acclimated to the cold weather to which they might prefer. Well used route air carriages are probably more maintained. Thus more reliable.

Sleeping upon windowless carriage is recommended with feet towards the window, as some stations are prone to petty pilfering it is better not to awaken to such local events. Wear socks to camouflage nationality. Or at times, upon mountain trails, a gutra of purest hand woven Egyptian white cotton. In such times, one is supposed to be an Austrian or Swiss. Far from being an American, the more silent that ye be. Some fairly Scottish looking Kazaks out there. Some Indian traders out there are more British than the British. They teach much about quiet civility in a contemplative land of chaos.

Often wonderful inexpensive, clean and snappy local business hotels can afford the best views of architectural wonders. In most countries, to set ones pack for the day, and peruse the local hotels is like a day ritual. It is an expected behaviour, among the best service establishments.

Or sitting with a man and his family in their restaurant on the roof of his little home, as he quietly carves didgeridoos. In full view of the steppe temples of powerful Hampi, within view, at one time, to a million residents, now supporting a mere 2500. The Temple of Love. During the Shivarastar Festival, along sides, the mango gardens, the restaurants nestled among the trees, almost a sylvan landscape, touched merely by the most interesting of travellers I have met.

The kindness and civility of these Hindu guardians, was to such an extent, that permission was granted by local authority, for those foreigners who enjoy meat, to celebrate nearby. The goat was hand selected by me, the official Muslim respect rituals were performed, even devotional flowers for the soul of the animal. The carcass was delivered on great discount, the vegetarians contributed the bevy of spices, the Irish and the Anglians seasoned the meat, the fires were of well collected coirs and coconut husks. The spit was designed by an engineer. The meat was slow cooked on open fore for six hours, steadily turned on the quarters. Regularly basted, groups of patient diners played chess and backgammon around the perimeters. There were guitarists and drummers.
The party carried a constant rhythm into the early the early hours of the morning. To join the Hindus in the silent, and darkness of the approaching dawn. When the light of the sun would penetrate the cavern of the Shiva. The only sounds, other than the babies resting on there mothers, and the rustling of the temple elephant among it’s forage. The little rascals and ragamuffins that dressed up as hanumans for a daily living at the temples, such a good place in the backroads of Karnataka. Where a dozen sets of yoked buffalo can still be seen working as teams upon the wheat fields and tier farms fringed by stands of jungle and plantation. Where some villages may have more oxen than cars.
Tourist buses in such areas are like outstanding train cars. Each compartment is not unlike a Dutch bed in the days of Rembrandt. The roads are not so wide, it is better not to watch the passing of traffic in either direction. But the roadside panoramas are often outstanding; the plateaus of Indian agriculture are easily loved. Upon arrival in a place like Hampi, there is only one bus a day. And few stay for three weeks. In such a time, the precincts of the old city can be fully explored, the monkeys and thieves identified and avoided. The mountains and hills identified by experience, the rivers piloted by local raft, the rock cut carvings of earliest habitations, the nooks and notches, the memories of structure. The reliefs, the handprints of artistic residues. Returned to nature and farmland.
The cars are generally well secured merely by the presence of other wary travelers. The upper berths of a first class air sleeper have quite a bit of extra room, enough to pile about 120 kilograms of materials or goods, for upwards of forty and fifty hour journeys. The fetal position is a good practical exercise.

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