Flashback Friday #16

A nostalgic look at Geneva whilst on a visit there in late September 2009.

Postcard from Genève
Place du Bourg-de-Four
Place du Bourg-de-Four

I am sitting here outside Chez Ma Cousine ‘on y mange du poulet’, (literal translation – at the house of my cousin one only eats chicken) which is just one of the little cafés in the square, having a rest after walking around the Old Town (lots of ups and downs and cobbled streets), sipping a large café crème. The sun is shining and it has been another very warm day for late September, so the shade of the umbrella above me is welcome. The Place du Bourg is lovely!

Geneva, fountains and flowersThis is the centre of the Old Town and has an 18th century flowered fountain, which I am sitting next to. I have got into fountains in a big way since coming to Genève – they are everywhere, and all so different, flowers, sculptures, swans – fascinating!

As I look around me I notice that this spot attracts lots of little sparrows alternating between sips of water and splashing in the fountain to cheekily trying to pinch crumbs off the tables. They land on the tables and chairs all around me, but are too quick for my camera, though I manage to capture one poised on the edge of the fountain, with his back towards me, of course! There is the sound of someone playing a recorder, badly, from within one of the apartments in the square. Shutters and windows wide open to the sun and the constant murmur of people in conversation buzzes in the background. Continue reading Flashback Friday #16

Flashback Friday #13

The City of Love: How I left my heart in San Francisco

(This is a long post about my love affair with San Francisco which started in 1965)

San Francisco first hit my radar way back in 1965 when “California Dreamin’ ” by the Mamas and the Papas hit the British charts. Knowing nothing about LA or indeed California, anywhere that offered warmth in winter seemed like a good place to be to me. By the time Scott McKenzie was singing “San Francisco (be sure to wear some flowers in your hair)” a hit in the spring of 1967, I was hooked. This was one USA state I had to visit. Haight-Ashbury frequently featured on the television with its flower-power, incense-burning, acid-dropping, tie-dye-wearing, peace-and-love-vibe hippies during the summer of love (1967) and I fell in love with the whole enchilada. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s I too became an incense burning, peace-loving hippy myself, though it was an awful lot more years before I would get to San Fran.

The next time the city nudged its way into my life was in 1972 when I was working for a brief spell in Zürich as an au pair and came into contact with a group of Americans from California who were over in Europe to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Falling in love with a gentle, flute-playing, blonde haired surfer from San Francisco made me yearn to visit that golden state again. All too soon he took off for India and I returned home to the UK, alone. The years passed and the USA was no longer on my ‘must see’ list and San Francisco faded from my dreams. The summer of love was long past… Continue reading Flashback Friday #13

Flashback Friday #12

In 2003 after taking time out whilst waiting to take up a place on a PGCE course I was able to spend three months in Australia visiting my son and granddaughter who then lived in Sydney.  I always take time to go exploring on my own whenever I visit him. It can lead to all sorts of adventures!

A tale of Cassowaries and Aliens…
Photo of a cassowary is courtesy of betta design on flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I chose to stay in the youth hostel in Mission Beach, northern Queensland because of its unusual name and location.

The Treehouse, built on stilts and surrounded by verdant rain forest, is a big open plan log cabin with bare wooden floors and bamboo framed glass-less windows with shutters.

The small number of bamboo doors that exist are open at the top so all sounds drift effortlessly inside and out. Comfortable shabby sofas are arranged in cosy corners encouraging the residents to gather together and chat or make music. Or you can grab a random paperback from one of the many bookcases and curl up in a hammock on the shady veranda and lose yourself in the plot. The air is filled with incense and a touch of dank decay.

On my first morning I am woken early by the torrential rain, thunder and lightning and with the smell of rich earth assaulting my nostrils it almost feels like camping and only slightly drier. The close proximity to the rain forest also means that as soon as dawn cracks an opening in the night sky a cacophony of kookaburras crash into your dreams with the subtleness of falling pan-lids.

It is not a place conducive to much sleep.

It is here that I meet Andy. I have noticed him over the past few days as he bumbles about the place. He’s a quiet, unassuming young man who appears very solitary. On the third morning I am disturbed by the cleaners who start sweeping the floors at 5 am and I can’t get back to sleep. I feel irritated and headachy; I had a hard time dropping off last night due to a group of travellers talking and drumming well into the early hours. The swish, swish of the brushes sweeping over the wooden floors is as annoying as the whine of a mosquito. It’s no good, sleep eludes me. Drowsily I stumble into the kitchen and find Andy with his head in the fridge. Over strong coffee and cereal on the sundeck overlooking the swimming pool we exchange names and watch as the rain drips languidly through the forest. He then tells me about the cassowaries that live here.

Continue reading Flashback Friday #12

Flashback Friday #7

This post was a diversion from my usual travelogues / photography. It was a rewrite of an older post that barely got looked at about a time in my life when I was young, fearless and extremely naïve. And found myself living in the Apartheid era of South Africa.

Another late night shift at the restaurant where I worked had come to an end. The books were balanced and I was ready to go home when Mike, a waiter I was friendly with, asked me if I’d like to go to Joseph’s place with a couple of other colleagues for a few drinks. Joseph was a barman and a really kind person, often giving me a lift back to my bedsit after my shift as he hated the idea of me walking home on my own in the early hours. Being a newcomer I was more than happy to accept the invitation just so long as I could get a lift home afterwards. No problem.

An hour later we were in Joseph’s tiny, but cosy, kitchen in the southern suburbs sharing a few cans and a pretty decent Malay curry and laughing and chatting and exchanging stories and jokes. The atmosphere changed abruptly when there was a knock at the door. It was 2 am. Mike looked up at Joseph and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Joseph shrugged his shoulders and made his way to the front door. Whilst he was gone Mike told me to keep quiet and let him do any talking. I asked him what was the problem.

The date, 1974, was the problem. The country I was living in was the problem. The fact that Mike and I were ‘white’ was the problem. The fact that Joseph was a ‘Cape Coloured’ was the problem. The fact that we were in a designated ‘coloured’ part of Cape Town was the problem and visiting a house that by law Mike and I were not allowed to be in was the problem.

What would have happened to me had that knock at the door belonged to the security police I will never know. Thankfully it was a neighbour who had seen the lights on and who wanted to join the party.

No problem.

This post is a contribution to Fandango’s Flashback Friday. Have you got a post you wrote in the past on this particular day? The world might be glad to see it – either for the first time – or again if they’re long-time loyal readers.

Impressions of India

Amritsar is fairly typical of all the Indian cities I passed through. They were noisy, littered, smelly and crowded with so many people, stray dogs and skinny cows. Children and touts harass you wherever you go, “baksheesh lady” was a common cry, along with men begging me to allow them to show me their uncle’s / father’s / brother’s shop, who was the best jeweller, carpet maker, silk factory, souvenir shop etc. I declined as gracefully as possible, although after a few hours of this it does become very wearing and when the cries become grabs, and the grabs turned into tugs and pulls and being forced to go in a different direction to that I was heading in, my temper started to fray.

The air is thick with sweet scented smoke from roadside fires; spices; fragrant oils and cow dung. Ladies in the streets wear glorious saris in rich jewel-like colours of purple, red and saffron yellow, woven with gold or silver thread despite the filthy conditions of the streets. The noise of horns blasting, people shouting and music playing loudly from street stalls and from within street side shops deafens the senses. India has its own special blend of magic, which is not only seen, but also heard and smelled – all your senses are assaulted when you arrive here.

This is the east – this is what I had imagined and yet it is nothing like my imagination.

A train to Delhi cost around 40p (eight rupees at the time with a student concession), and we were fortunate to get a seat. Wooden slatted and hard as hell, but still a seat. The train was fairly fast and in nine hours we arrived in New Delhi, opting to stay in the old part in Hotel Vishalli for 25 rupees, which included our own bathroom and a European loo and no cockroaches to share it with. What was the catch? Well, probably the price. But with Jon having already fallen foul to the dreaded Delhi belly it was worth it.

Delhi is an exhausting place. The streets are crowded and noisy with whole families living in the streets under tarpaulins. Men defecate and piss openly in the streets and wash outdoors using filthy water in troughs by the roadside; litter is strewn all over the place; mangy dogs; emaciated cows with not a blade of grass in sight and half naked children ran around close to being run over by the incessant traffic. You need to watch your step for goodness knows what you are about to step into. Rickshaws, bicycles, scooters and lorries weave manic routes through the mobs, hands constantly on horns. It is bedlam. And I am shocked and bewildered by it all. The dirt and stench and the poverty are overwhelming.

This is as far removed from my English suburban life as it could be possible.

Whilst in Delhi we visited the Red Fort, one of the city’s main attractions. On the way there we saw street entertainers: dancers, musicians, some saintly looking men reading palms, snake charmers others showing their mongooses and even one person walking on fire and another lying on a bed of nails. The sorts of things you read about or hear about, but are never entirely convinced are true. It was all happening here.

From our hotel room we looked out over market stalls piled with mounds of spices in colours so vibrant they looked like powder paints from an infant’s school – yellows, oranges, reds and green. Cool white yogurt – not at all like the solid creamy Greek style, this was thin and watery and sharp. Curries were in general vegetarian, watery and very hot. Chai-wallas can be found on every corner, calling out “chai! chai! chai!” and pouring steaming tea from a height (called “pulling” the chai), allowing it to cool a bit as it streams into little metal cups. The tea is mixed with condensed milk and often spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and nutmeg. I never found anyone selling coffee, so for once in my life became a tea drinker. It was very refreshing despite being so sweet.

More stalls were laden with exotic looking fruits and vegetables, others with clothing, cushions decorated with tiny mirrors and many different types of material, crockery and china, kitchen utensils and even vinyl records as found in any market around the world. Alongside the tiny alleys are ramshackle wooden shops selling jewellery, silver bangles and chains, rings with star sapphires or star rubies (but be careful, the scam is to stick a paper star to the bottom of a stone before it is mounted, best to buy the stone and have it mounted yourself).

Other shops sold only incense: joss sticks, brass oil burners, soaps and tiny bottles of concentrated oils including lemon, orange, and queen of the night, jasmine and patchouli. These shops smelled wonderful. Craft shops sold brass-ware: candlesticks, large patterned trays, vases, Buddha figures, star-cut lanterns, hanging musical chimes and other ornaments. Carpenters had sweet smelling sandalwood and camphor shelf units, tables, chairs and exquisitely carved elephants. I was very tempted to buy many wonderful things, but knowing I had to carry everything on my back prevented me from going overboard. And not knowing where I was going next prevented me from shipping goods “home”. A necklace of pretty glass beads that glowed in rich colours in the light, a couple of light cheesecloth tops and a small bottle of lemon oil found their way into my rucksack. The lemon oil especially was useful for dabbing on my wrists and giving the illusion of coolness. (It also helped disguise the disgusting smells too).

One evening we were lucky enough to witness an Indian wedding party passing beneath our hotel window. The bride was dressed in a scarlet red sari with gold thread, and sat on top of an elephant, which was covered in coloured cloths decorated in sequins and gold braid and thousands of tiny sewn in mirrors. The elephant and the bride were led through the streets by relatives, dressed in equally vibrant colours, banging drums and singing loudly and happily as they marched by. I felt privileged to have witnessed this event. And disappointed that I didn’t take any photos.

Being so close to Agra we had to take the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal taking a train to get there which took around 4 hours, unfortunately it was so full we stood the entire way. Once there we managed to book into a tourist bungalow with huge rooms and wonderful ceiling fans. The following day we walked the 7 kilometres to the mausoleum passing several shanty shacks and malnourished children along the route. The contrast between what lies outside the grounds of the Taj and the beauty within was shocking.

Without doubt, the Taj Mahal ranks as amongst the most perfect buildings in the world, flawlessly proportionate, built entirely out of marble. Intended to be a commemoration of the memory of Shah Jahan’s beloved wife in reality it is his gift to the entire human race.

Returning to Delhi for one more night we then decided to head on south to Bombay (now known as Mumbai). The train left at 10:47 a.m. and was horribly crowded. For more than eight hours we either stood or crouched on the aisle before managing to get a wooden bench seat for the remainder of the thirty hour journey. Until then we were being hassled at every stop. Guards would board the train and insist on going through our rucksacks. Clothing and personal items were strewn around the floor – and we desperately grabbed things before other hands removed them! It was very tiring, tense and annoying. Stories of European travellers being dragged off Indian trains were beginning to seem more than likely. I am not sure which of us was more grateful to the other for being a travelling companion. More solo men disappear than women, so Jon was more than happy to be accompanied by a female.

We are totally exhausted from the journey by the time we reach Bombay the following evening. Stepping out onto the platform was like hitting a wall – the air was so thick I could taste it on my tongue. Delhi had been dry and comfortably warm during the day though bitterly cold at night. Here the climate is typical tropical with monsoon rains and extreme heat and humidity. We find a cheap hotel (Carlton) near to the Gateway to India (below) and close to the Hotel Ritz, but certainly not of the same calibre. In the high-ceiling box room the blades of the ceiling fans spin lackadaisically, supposedly cooling us, the occupants, but not the air itself. I can’t say they kept me cool and the clack-clacking noise would have disturbed my sleep had I not been so bone-tired.

Every time I step outdoors my skin is coated in a film of moisture and my hair plastered to my neck and forehead. I am so badly bitten by mosquitoes that my arms are swollen and red. My sleep is disturbed by the relentless itching and I have to pour cool water over myself in the middle of the night using the bucket style shower to get any relief. My nerves are shattered from the constant bombardment of beggars and men constantly wanting my attention.

I am beginning to hate India.

We are spending several days here in Bombay before going our separate ways  – visiting shipping offices and getting yellow fever vaccinations, necessary for onward journeys. We took a trip out to Santa Cruz and visited Juhu beach where you can have elephant rides on the beach instead of donkey rides. We had intended to stay there for a few days and relax, but the dirty beach was strewn with litter and possibly sewage and  so full of screaming children, courting couples and rowdy adolescents that it was not at all the peaceful refuge we had expected so we decided to return to Bombay where we stayed for one night in the Rex Hotel before returning to the Carlton.

I did not find Bombay as pleasant as Delhi.  It appeared to be more hostile to Europeans, more aggressive and intolerant. Where in Delhi the people spoke to you politely (even when hassling you) here they shouted and spat. I was becoming increasingly nervous of having to travel on to Goa and Madras (Chennai) on my own in order to catch a ship to Singapore. Talking to other travellers we met in the hotel and at the railway station did nothing to dispel my worries. One young and very pregnant Australian girl was virtually camped out at the station, meeting every train from Delhi to see if her boyfriend was on it. It transpired that during one of the frequent searches by the guards on route he had disappeared from the train. She didn’t know where this happened as it was in the middle of the night and she was unable to see a station sign on the platform. She was now becoming frantic, as she had to shortly fly back to Australia to have her baby, and had no idea where he was.

Her story made me reconsider my plan to go across India and on to Australia on my own. If I disappeared I wouldn’t even be missed by anyone until my family at home realised that I hadn’t been in touch for a while. They would have no idea of where or when I went missing. Postcards and letters from home were very infrequent and only possible if I knew a Poste Restante where I could pick them up from, and who knows how long my letters were taking to get there. If only I could bump into Graham and Diane again and join them. But sadly we had drifted apart once more.

Reluctantly, I abandoned my plans to continue to Australia and went into a shipping office to purchase a ticket to Durban, South Africa with Jon.  I had a cousin who lived and worked in Johannesburg so it would be fun to visit him and hopefully, one day in the future, I would reach my original destination. Australia.

We departed from Bombay at 11 p.m. on a Lloyd Triestino cruiseliner (an Italian liner). Destination: Karachi, Mombasa and Durban. 

And that led to a whole different adventure…

~wander.essence~ prose