Having effectively scored an own-goal I was once more back in Almora and fast falling to earth, the flying rug of my überplan frayed and swept away. Although the original goal of the journey to India was never fleshed out, it had been only a loosely woven construct, the sudden realisation that I’d exhausted its sustaining powers left me at something of a loss. Like dropping down a step you don’t see. I sat, disoriented, in a chai shop sipping aromatic sweet tea and idly gazing through Almora’s market place, mildly excited by the emptiness before me. Interest in Tibet and its culture didn’t suddenly expire along with my spiritual ambitions. I resolved to head for Dharamsala, centre of the Tibetan diaspora, and like Almora, a hill station comfortably nestling in the foot hills of the Himalaya. A tourist with no camera, I collected memories like coloured trinkets and buried them deep in the hermetic unconscious; perhaps for later exploratory digs when such trawling might reveal narrative lines only synthesised in the dark, in the land of transformation, in the land where, to date, no camera can pass. The tourist state of mind however would soon prove insufficient to my immediate interests. How many fabulous views, how many places can you swallow before it all becomes banal, ordinary? But for now, I was here in the ancient land of India surrounded by roads and rivers, sky and sea, people, their cultures, places and things; so, talking it up as best I could, I wandered on. The town of Dharamsala itself attracted merely the hungry man and I dined feastingly on a mess of foods concocted for the passing parade. Sated, I moved up higher up the hill to McLeod Gunge, where I sat around watching the by then well settled expat Tibetans go about their business; I drank a lot of salty butter tea, climbed even further up the mountain to where the Brits had built a couple of lovely old stone houses with views to infinity, walked miles along picturesque pathways lined by pine trees, their sap pungent in the crisp air, found an apparently disused cow shed to sleep in, woke in the night covered in bed bugs or some other small blood sucking insect which since the departure of the cows had presumably been starved of their favourite redwarm vivifying elixir; they must have got enough that night to fire up another generation from the number of itchy red wounds covering my body. The thousand or so little buggers infesting my clothes had their own tough time of it though when they were subjected to exorcism by boiling water in a local laundry. Back in town on market day a spectacular coat caught my eye. Mid calf in length and putting Joseph’s to shame it was made up of hundreds of horizontal lines of different coloured wools; it wrapped completely around the waist creating a thick double layer at the front, the whole thing held fast by a belt of woven wool. The wool itself was the screaming antithesis to cashmere. Maybe it was yak, I don’t know, but whatever the source of the wool it was scratchy and uncomfortable in direct contact with the skin. But a warmer coat would be hard to find. Trouble was, and this became apparent as I strolled around town, the coat was a woman’s garment. More fun for the locals. Back in Australia the warmth of the coat and its abrasive feel left it unused and unadmired in a cupboard until one day it wasn’t there anymore, perhaps given away, I can’t remember. After a week or so in and around the ‘Gunge it was time to move on, but where to? Although I’d encountered a well established, thriving itinerant population of ethnic Europeans living in India migrating between the northern hills in the hot summer months and tropical beach time Goa for the winter, the rainbow gypsy romance of dance and music, cheap drugs and easy sex did not catch my fancy. Maybe the switch from a dedicated search for ‘higher realities’ to the plainly indulgent sensual gratifications offered by this world was just too much of a leap; I had yet to discover the illusory nature of the spirit/matter dichotomy. I was fast running out of money so I decided to head home, back to Australia, but rather than turn around and backtrack I continued to travel west, the long way home. Out of India and into Pakistan which, in spite of looking and sounding much the same to my occidental eye, proved to have a character, a human character of a quite different order. The general demeanor of the people was markedly less friendly and an incident on a train provided a cartoon of my impression. The carriage didn’t have a central aisle for access but was divided up into sections, maybe seven or eight per carriage with a door on each side. As I climbed in, it was apparent the section was full, so I prepared to either sit on the floor or stand until a seat became available. A quick scan of the other passengers revealed a group of young men, students perhaps, sitting together on the left and on the right some older men; in the corner seat sat a man in rags, his legs tucked in under him. After a couple of minutes one of the students stood up and walked over to this fellow and said something to him whereupon he hopped off the seat and sat on the floor without the faintest murmur of dissent. At this point I could see the man was a cripple, his legs useless appendages; instead he used his arms to move to the ground while skillfully folding his stick-like legs once more under him with a deft move of his upper body. The young man then motioned me to sit in the vacated seat. As I’d long grown accustomed to not questioning the behaviours of the local people I sat down, but had to wrestle with a conscience not at all comfortable with having displaced this unfortunate. But for these young students it was entirely the right thing to do. I was a European and presumably that gave me automatic rights and power. He was a cripple and in that carriage his interests apparently came last. The roots of such a monstrous distortion of human compassion are a matter of conjecture, but the way the poor man accepted his lot with seeming equanimity stuck in my mind as the train clattered on to my destination, a town on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan. As it happened, the ragman hadn’t far to go and as he slithered out of the compartment, he shot me a single brief look, full of forbearance, where the young men radiated only arrogance and disdain, respecting, perhaps even fearing authority but certain of their place in that world of rigid codes and harsh penalties. I watched the crippled man scurry through the crowd on his backside, his legs crossed and folded under him, his arms swinging him along. He’d been doing it for a long time. It struck me that in order to behave so heartlessly those young men needed to have somehow considered the man’s affliction to be a gesture of Allah, a divine punishment for some crime for which the hapless individual was therefore responsible and it was only right that everyone else should make sure he continued to suffer his due fate. Allah here appeared to be another incarnation of the Old Testament Yahweh, the vengeful god. Perhaps one day a new revelation would come for followers of Islam. Or maybe they just needed more time to learn; Islam is after all some three hundred years younger than the Christian juggernaut. So many of the gendered cultural practices associated with Islam today seem remarkably like the behaviours and habits displayed by Christian societies of a few centuries ago. When the train pulled into my final stop in Pakistan and I stepped out onto the platform, it was as though I’d travelled even further back in time, to when the law was something that came out of the barrel of a gun. The wild west of Pakistan. The place was seething with gun-toting men. I’d landed in a haven of bandits. The look of the place was much the same as I’d encountered all over the subcontinent: industry, commerce, trade, consumers, travellers, entrepreneurs all banging together creating an effervescence of busyness. But here the colour was decidedly dark, shaped by apparently every man and his nephew carrying a weapon of some kind. The hardened faces, their teeth often embellished with gold, their skin with different coloured, possibly tribal markings, eyed me suspiciously as I wandered through this strange place. It was dangerous frontier land and all I wanted to do was to find the bus that would take me out, across the border into Afghanistan. I had a drink from a street vendor on my way to the bus station but that was it. My appetite had vanished, replaced by a low swollen sensation lapping in the pit of my stomach. Nothing spectacular, I wasn’t actually afraid, fear was just in the air, a subtle contagion. The bus, unsurprisingly, was packed and the only place left for me was in the small box perched on top of the driver’s cabin. This box is a standard feature on trucks and buses in the East where space is always at a premium and usually accommodated assorted luggage; that day was no exception. Except in this instance I was human luggage, squeezed in between two large quite soft containers of I knew not what, but it was comfortable and best of all, afforded a most spectacular outlook of the road ahead and the breathtaking terrain on all sides. Right out of the city the road began to climb into the mountains, higher and higher until eventually we crested the Khyber Pass under an almost black blue sky, surrounded by arid rock and precipice as I breathed the thin chill air crisping the tips of my ears. The place had no vegetation; it looked like it hadn’t rained in a century. The bus strained its load up and over the mountains only occasionally suggesting it might expire, until eventually, through the pass, I could see the flat plains of Afghanistan stretching away into a hazy distance, the monotony of the arid landscape interrupted only by an occasional stand of pale green poplar trees. Kabul was a lovely, gentle city. Its dusty streets, its markets and mud buildings offering an open- armed welcome to the traveller, its spirit an oasis, shaped to shelter and comfort the weary. And after many hours exposed to the desiccating wind and hot sun I was desperate for some relief. I soon found a hotel; a clean, dormitory style place with a walled, grassy courtyard, its quiet shady corners perfect for R & R after a tiring non-stop journey from India. The room was full of light, streaming in through a big window overlooking the courtyard in the back. It had eight beds lined along the walls leaving a large space in the middle for conversation and exchange among the guests, all of whom were youngish, ethnic Europeans. These days they’d be called backpackers, but then they were just people on the overland route between Europe and India; travelling cheap and light. I’d encountered no other Australians west of Delhi. Here in the peaceful haven of the Hindu Kush Hotel there was a German and his Swiss girlfriend, a Dane, a couple from Holland, a Frenchman, no Italians. I don’t think I met a single Italian in the entire time I travelled in the East…and there were always warnings in the rooms, peppering the travelchat, about the French, notorious for their thieving ways. I did come across a few, desperate French junkies, ready to commit any crime, but easy enough to avoid. In the Hindu Kush however it was all very civilised. In the centre of the room a coffee table carried a fantastically decorative water pipe. Next to the pipe sat a pile of eight or nine cakes of hashish, each one almost a span in diameter and maybe three quarters of an inch thick at the centre. Nobody seemed to own this hash stash, and if the pipe happened to have lain idle for a while a guest just had to stir up the coals and simply help themselves, breaking off great chunks of the rich black dreamcake. This hookah was something of a design masterpiece; its pivoting extension mouthpiece relieved the smoker of having to make any major move to pass it to his neighbour; all he had to do was give it a flick and the rotating mechanism would swing around until the next smoker arrested its journey by a raised hand allowing it to come to rest at precisely mouth height. Canny characters the Afghans, or whoever had devised this piece of equipment. I stayed in the hotel for about ten days, sitting for hours in the courtyard with a drawing pad, copying a rice paper print of three Bhodisatvas on their celestial thrones I’d picked up from a street stall in Dharamsala. The impulse to draw, a backbeat barely noticed, an instinctual image- making gesture here conceived through a combination of a conventional human imperative to make stuff and a fascination for Tibetan religious icons known as thanka. In the evenings I wandered the streets of Kabul, eating the hot, freshly baked flat bread straight out the ovens at the side of the road, mixing with the market crowds for the fun and pleasure of being carried aimlessly along by the tide of people, many in from the countryside doing their weekly shopping mixing with the more sophisticated, sharply dressed townsfolk. I bought chunks of turquoise at crazy prices, ate juicy fruits, olives, tomatoes, cheeses, more bread. I found a boot maker who used camel leather and ordered a pair of calf length boots with Cuban heels. It took me awhile to get the old bloke to understand the Cuban heel, but eventually he seemed to get it. When I picked them up a couple of days later he had indeed got the picture, but the boots very quickly developed an irritating squeak that no amount of oil would quiet. I think it was the Cuban heels. Maybe he didn’t approve and thought he’d have a laugh at the white boy, make him a pair of squeaky boots. They carried on all the way back to Australia, I kept thinking they’d wear in, but they eventually wore me out. Eventually, even though they looked great, well weathered and soft, I put them out with the rubbish. They would squeak to me no longer. Kabul offered one final surprise. As mentioned there was a considerable cohort of western travellers, many of whom were, not to put too fine a point on it, drug tourists. They were everywhere. No doubt the Taliban had a vision to spoil that little party. But then, back in the very early seventies, there were parties going off everywhere. The few I saw weren’t extravagant in any obvious way, no loud rock n’ roll, just groups of smashed individuals lying about, gazing from glassy eyes, peacefully contemplating the rising of the sun and the setting of the same. It seemed in those days the party drug of choice, aside from the very excellent hash which was more of an entrée, was LSD. Acid from god knows where, made by who knows who and swallowed without the least concern for either. It was the first time I’d dropped a trip since deciding it had all become a bit repetitive and probably not worth the long-term expense of profligate serotonin consumption. Anyway, for better or worse, I swallowed the tab with cavalier abandon, out on the high plains of Afghanistan, under a cool dark blue sky. After twenty minutes or so waiting for the chemistry to go work I sat down in a corner of a party crowded hut made with mud bricks and painted white… and watched. For the next ten hours or so I didn’t move, just sat there and watched. I had no thought. Nothing. I forgot even that I had a body or even an “I”. There was absolutely no distortion to my eyesight or hearing, no hallucinations, nothing; someone just sat there, silent and observational. Perfectly at peace and unmotivated to do or say anything. A kind of sparkling emptiness prevailed. For about ten hours. Then slowly I began to return, stirred, felt a bit thirsty, eventually worked out how to stand up, then walk, then found a tap, then drank. An unusual trip. As though I’d arrived at the emptiness of what Buddhists describe as Shunyata. The emptiness of pure consciousness. It would be another thirty five years or so before I’d swallow some of the psychotropic micro molecules again; circumstances would ensure a different experience. Two days later the bus pulled out of Kabul heading south-west for Kandahar and then across the border into Iran, the mullahs still in their place behind mosque walls, the wide avenues of Teheran luxuriant with plane trees, up-market shopping, and consumerism in full flight thanks to the Shah and his love of things Western. Not much of interest here, aside from the main city mosque, a huge doored affair, empty inside, not a soul in sight, as though the removalists had been there and whipped all the furniture off to another, perhaps more fruitful venue; its elaborate decorations, all pure design, no representations; the Lutherans must love Islam’s take on God and what He Likes – the jealous god – having none other but Him, giant silk draped black cubes notwithstanding. Not much chance for craven idolatry here - unless maybe you were an architect. On to the southern holy city of Isfahan where I wandered around under the blue dome, shoeless, bare feet cool on exquisitely designed marble floors. I looked over my shoulder to see if any one noticed me stealing secret pleasure, walking there, on that seductive floor. I wanted to lie down and roll on it but thought that may well have been a move, a prayer, too far. From Isfahan another bus would take a tightly packed load of locals across the Syrian Desert to Damascus with me the only European in the company. No discernible road for the driver to follow; maybe he used the stars. We stopped for a break and I wandered away from the bus till it was tiny in the distance and the stars crackled loudly down on me, a zillion zillion of them from horizon to horizon, hardly any black space up there at all. Inside the bus all was dust and head gear. Every head covered otherwise breathing was impossible. The cabin completely filled with dust. I’d forgotten to buy the accessory de rigueur that makes everyone look like a Bedouin. I had thought it was just an ancient fashion; well yes it was, but it had seriously useful applications once you were out in the desert and the wind whipped up sand that penetrated uninvited into every conceivable crevice and crack. I took off my shirt and wrapped it around my head. Not quite as elegant, but effective enough. It made the difference between breathing and not breathing. I don’t think anybody noticed. They were all wrapped up, sightless, a continuous coat of light ochre dust, packed down by the bouncing bus, blanketing every surface. Driving into Damascus at dawn was a photographer’s heaven. Without a camera I felt like a native, it was all just common place, every day, ordinary. This antique city, where signs of the modern age were restricted to a forest of black television aerials layering across the tops of low rise history, and the cars, buses, motorbikes, and trucks which all competed in a to-the-death struggle for ascendancy on the roads, themselves apparently artifacts of a former era when time moved about as fast as the donkeys which still struggled with their mighty loads, tangling up the system, having long forgotten they were once, themselves, kings of the road. The law of the leading bumper prevailed, here, now. But if you are after a place for eating, drinking, shopping, browsing, or just looking, this is the city for you with its mind-boggling variety of stuff going on. After all, Damascus has been at it unceasingly for about as long as humans have congregated for pleasure and advantage; so the city by now has got it well and truly mastered. I was particularly taken with the ice-cream scene. Pistachio nuts and ice-cream. I think I stayed an extra day for the ice-cream. With a belly full I climbed another bus for the trip over the mountains into Lebanon and a visit to my old place of holidays and residence, Beirut. But this was to be a heavy and disappointing reunion. Part of the disappointment was the quiet sadness which descended on me as I became aware that here it was my family had disintegrated. I saw the building where my mother and father and two sisters had lived, the hotel where my father and I had stayed after his wife had died and he hadn’t wanted to go back to the apartment. The British club on the bay next to the St George Hotel where I’d won the bingo on the Friday night after my mother’s death. It was all a bit morbid; and sad. The city remained much as I remembered it, but without the people I knew. I wandered around the familiar haunts, ate familiar foods, swam at familiar beaches, but it was all rather empty. I knew no one, it was like a dream where you walk around and nobody can see you, so, as a stranger I wandered in this familiar place, strangely alienated. I could only take it for four days before I had to get out and on the road again. North to Istanbul for a few days and then a retreat from eastern cities to a place called Izmir; I can’t quite remember why I went there. Out of town, with a bag full of tomatoes, cheese, bread and olives, I found a long since abandoned monastery, or what remained of it. Enough of one of its broken down walls survived to provide shelter from the wind. The long grasses afforded good comfort in an otherwise rocky terrain. The place overlooked a small shining bay of turquoise water. I settled in there for a week, occasionally going into town to replenish my supplies. The nights were mild and gentle, sleeping in the lee of the ancient crumbling monastic wall. I think perhaps I was recovering from the bruising I’d had in Beirut. A motor yacht pulled in and anchored in the bay one day, its four occupants diving and swimming, sitting on deck, drinking wine, eating. The sight of this luxurious lifestyle eventually soured my pleasure in the place and envy drove me away, back to Istanbul to catch the ferry for Brindisi, on the south-east coast of Italy. Once in Europe I found little that caught my attention. I had travelled in Europe as a child and was reasonably familiar with the marvelous time settled architecture and gentle landscapes. For some reason, perhaps I was getting tired of travelling, my focus was invariably on the next destination, the next train station, and where I’d sleep for the night. This latter consideration was always at the top of the list of things to do on arriving at a destination, and, in common with many travellers it can swallow up a good percentage of your attention and conversation. By the time I got to Paris via a quick split to Barcelona my cash supply was so low and the price of a bed so exorbitant I slept in a city railway station, under a ticket window which, by the time I settled down with my cotton blanket, had closed. I was woken up by some not particularly unfriendly Parisians leaning over me to buy their morning tickets to work. Like a well practiced hobo I got up and wandered over to a café for a morning coffee and croissant. I was amazed to see large numbers of people tanking up on alcoholic drinks for breakfast. Pernod seemed to be the preferred drop, a clear liquid until the addition of a little water turns the drink into a milky cloud. I left that practice to the Parisians. Another day and I was back in England, and a kind of homecoming. Although I’d only gone to boarding school there for five years, for a peripatetic boy like me that that was enough to create a homeish bond - the housemaster used to frequently describe himself as being ‘in loco parentis’ conjuring up the idea that this might be experienced as a home away from home as he sought to substantiate his power and authority over the boarders. It was school holidays at the time so no one was about at the school except the caretaker, Mr Jordan, a fellow with whom I’d always got on well. But now he was less than enthusiastic about this old boy, ragged from months on the road and clearly no great success in life; he invited me to have a quick look around and then clear out. Back in London and down to small change I cabled my dad in Japan requesting a ticket home. He organised the ticket, free travel for family members of pilots, so he didn’t have to renege on his fatherly advice to me on leaving home contained in the cute narrative of a son who cables his dad for help: “No mon, no fun, your son” “So sad, too bad, your dad”. After a few lean weeks I flew to Tokyo and a brief reunion with my dad, his newish wife, and my sisters…now augmented by one stepsister. This meeting wasn’t fabulously successful either. He didn’t approve of the kind of headspace and motivations I was expressing, riddled as those thoughts were with what he seemed to read as woolly, esoteric thinking. Perhaps he was peeved at the amount of money he’d spent on my English education only to see the product wafting in the transcendental. He feared the influence such ideas might have on his still resident children – fears which proved to be not without some justification - the stepsister fell to the pernicious attractions of heroin which she found in cheap and ample supply in India, where she travelled many years later. After a couple of weeks with them in their little house in Yokohama, I boarded another shiny silver Japan Airlines jet and headed finally for my point of departure, the red, red rooftops of Sydney. And another kind of homecoming. In the final ear-popping descent to this ancient north-drifting island I understood the ephemeral nature of my relationship to place and country was the single most influential factor determining my sense of self. The land simply exists, it is. We share of it succour, care for its needs, contribute as we may to its bounty, enjoying the generosity or otherwise of the administrators of its various cultures, but ultimately we are but temporary guests in no man's land.
No Man’s Land
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