Our intrepid traveller summarizes many journeys past, as she prepares for another in Bengal.
The country was poetry come to life -- ‘seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ only slightly farther North -- red and russet leaves, green moss on rocks against grey sky, windswept or mist-laden meadows, wildflowers, fresh and delicate smells like the ghost scents of summer. There have been portrait lakes of metallic blue surrounded by trees which peer in at their reflections, and apple trees surrounded by red and yellow fruit. Red, yellow, blue and white boxes of houses with deep, clean white windowsills crowded with African violets in porcelain pots, candles and lamps that are lit each night to warm the traveler’s path home.
Göteborg photo from Chalmers Matematik och datavetenskap, Göteborg University
Then in the city; cobbled walkways, canals, window-boxes planted with cabbage flowers, two-tiered pale buildings in white and yellow and cream like wedding cakes (without the frou-frou icing). The Avenue with wide walkways, cyclists, tram tracks crossing and encircling the city, bridges set with ornate lamp posts, green and bronzed statues hovering over squares or fountains. Florist shops with the same scents as the wet woods, flowers behind glass cases like jewels. The harbor with its waters meeting the streets abruptly, the old and carefully preserved boats and the new. Kebab stands, the cafes with their second-storey smoking sections, cases full of cinnamon buns, the coffee cups without handles, sugar lumps and warm beaming wood.
Visiting someone’s house in Sweden means entering into what seems like a solemn, ancient ritual. Guests surrender their shoes and capabilities of independent thought at the door. From now on, everything must and will be done for them by the hosts. You are there to be fed and to talk, or in my Swedish-less case, to be fed and talked about. Flowers that you bring with you in big paper packets get unwrapped, exclaimed over, arranged immediately in a vase and set in a place of honor on the dining table. If you move into another room later on, the flowers come, too.
You are served meat or fish, fried or baked, potatoes boiled with dill or au gratin, creamy sauces on the side, salads of lettuce, cucumber and tomato, cauliflower, grated carrot, two or three different varieties of soft bread, rye crispbread, apple crumbles, apple cakes, cinnamon buns, butter biscuits, chocolate biscuits, liqueur biscuits, fruit salad with berries, ice cream, vanilla cream or whipped cream. With dessert comes coffee, coffee, more coffee or tea. If you take anything less than a second helping of everything you are met with a guilt-inducing look of surprise and sorrow. You must eat! Is the Swedish credo. It is beautiful to eat! To drink, too -- strong Swedish vodka, innocuous French red wine, sharp Aussie white. If the bottle is opened, it must be finished. By you. Before the hour is out. You’re only let off the hook if you’re seriously allergic to anything, if you dare admit to it.
Belfast & Dublin
Belfast is an easy city to know – nearly everything can be reached by foot -- but what's more important, everything was sincere and frank. We went very early down to St. George's Markets, just as the marketers were setting up their stalls. We bought scones and fresh fruit and went to the tea stall and sat down with all the Belfastians with their fried eggs and cigarettes. Things and people were what they appeared to be. We toured the Unionist and Nationalist parts of Belfast, and took in some of the political murals and the peace wall. It stands there almost as a monument, even though it is still closed every night, guarding two sides of the city against the pacifism of the other. It is only done nowadays, said a local, to keep some fella in a job.
Belfast photo from rjgeib.com
Saturday I took the bus down to Dublin and sat some of the way next to a little old Irish grandmother who had 20 grandchildren scattered about the country and played the bureau de change to those traveling from North to South and back again. It was attempting to get down to the south part of Dublin that I met and asked directions of a little old Irishman (I am still getting lost, despite my feeling of ease in this place, and having a map on hand) and was told the directions twice over and 'God blessed' at the end of it. Little old men in Ireland tend to be very nice, if you know the ones to pick -- those wearing hats and knitted vests and carrying newspapers are good bets.
I can't quite make up my mind about Dublin. For one thing, there hardly seems to be any people living here -- I haven't seen many houses with televisions and fried lamp chops and lace curtains. There are shops, there are some fantastic street performers, but there aren't any homes, and not many locals -- just a lot of tourists. Yet the pubs on every corner light up the whole city -- there is something going on in every nook and cranny, with someone laughing or vomiting or kissing someone else. And no-one seems to sleep very much, which could just be the impression given to me by the six ladies from Yorkshire who are sharing the room, who all have smokers coughs, wear stilettos, and suffer hangovers. They just called out to me 'See you later, chicken -- hope you get some work done' as they went out to chase up something spicy to eat after a heavy night on the Guinness.
An idea about this city has been forming in my head since Sunday when I was loping around the streets of Nove Mesto (New Town): Prague would seem very empty if not for the people in it. I'm stating the blinking obvious as always, but I'm talking about a non-physical emptiness. Without the Czech people, Prague is a series of dollhouses, I thought, a toy city complete with castles and ramparts and bridges. Sunday was empty except in the tourist areas -- in other places it was like Adelaide south of Victoria Square on a Saturday afternoon. Where were all the real people? I felt like an old wise man newly married to a beautiful and stupid woman -- still bedazzled outwardly, beginning to realise the inner void.
Praha photo from Peter's Rum Pages.com
The real people were back on Monday, to my relief, going mildly about their business. Tuesday, my idea developed further -- Prague is a beautiful backdrop to an empty stage, with all the real activity going on behind the scenes, with the occasional person remembering the audience, popping out to perform obligatorily, but really wanting to go backstage again. The same thought occurred to me today, walking around Mala Strana, peeking into all the shop windows. The people working in the shops all seemed to be doing something other than shop keeping -- they were sitting in their back rooms watching little TVs, eating grapes, reading books. They looked almost scared that I would come in to disturb them.
I can understand this reaction. Tourists come with cameras and fists of money and bad pronunciation and these people, who do have a real culture under all the layers of tourist-provided prettiness, have to serve them as they demand. So many other countries are like this, I know, but it surprises me in Prague -- it should be enough to just let the city be and stun -- because it does stun -- without being done up. I felt sad walking over Charles Bridge. I stopped near a stone representation of the Pieta – there was poor old JC dead with gashes in his skin and his ribs sticking out, and Mary M. looking sincerely sorrowful -- and across the way, a jazz band was cheerfully tootling 'On the Sunny Side of the Street'.
I arrived in Leningrad at night to see the lights casting a magnificent silver aura around the obelisk outside the Winter Palace (a huge gilded orchid of a building). I had my first taste of the milk of Russian kindness when the coat-check man in Na Zdorv’e (restaurant), who must have thought I was a crazy foreigner to be wearing so few layers in such profound cold (my lost luggage still hadn’t arrived), bowed me out as I left, then ran after me to hike the hood of my red jacket onto my head with a paternal smile.
St. Petersburg photo from Flickr.com
The city is the perfect place to feast your senses. I found the Hermitage eventually after getting lost and signed up for a tour led by an art student who reminded me of a blonde Anne Shirley. She had an impassioned way of talking about the Dutch and Flemish masters and made me appreciate them at last. I visited the JFC Jazz Club, like a slice of New York excepting the booths were upholstered with fake leopard skin print, in an inevitably Russian touch, and where I stood at the bar, “listening to five white Russians play the blues.” I saw Giselle performed at the Mariinsky Theatre and burst into tears when at the point of her descent when her hair comes tumbling down.
Moscow & Irkustsk
Getting there was half the magic……particularly the three-night journey out of Moscow and into Siberia. ‘All countries look just like the moving pictures.’ Ernest Hemingway wrote that. I used to think it was before he got to know Spain like the bottom of a bottle, but now they strike me as the words of someone who has seen more of the world than less of it, to the point that it’s started to lose its allure. Maybe he was trying to regain that first fresh glimpse of a new world, or else he was trying to forget it ever existed. In any case, he was one crazy kid. Hemingway’s line repeats in my mind in quite a different way when I watch the scenes that flash over the four frames of the train’s compartment window, the screen that my own moving pictures play on. To me they are fascinating shots of various shades of grey flying past in shards and splinters, often quicker than my pen and camera lens, for the careful packaging by memory only.
Moscow photo from Johannes Gutenberg Universtät.de
Tonight I saw an orange moon. And when the morning comes there will be silver and white plains of snow, belts of birch trees with dark bruises in their trunks, travelling closer and farther with the rhythm of the train, or parting altogether to reveal settlements of wooden houses. These houses have dark wood walls and scarlet or blue peels of paint, or rough patterns in white and yellow along their gables. Some look like hencoops and others have no windows, just shutters left open to their air. These houses are inhabited and uninhabited; they need closer study than a few seconds. You can imagine people living in them like bears, or can imagine bears like people pawing through the landscape. Sometimes the train passes through larger towns where blocks of flats are built a length away from a station and where illuminated squares of windows show through the night sky.
During the day there might be a dog in the reeds beside the tracks, or smoke from a chimney. There have been children, faces lined by hoods like the sprouting manes of lion cubs, staring onto the train from the snow.
At the stations the passengers slip from the iced-over steps onto frozen ground in thongs forced over socks. They buy bottles of water and beer from wheelbarrows, lumps of frozen bread, wurst or dried fish snapped from strings, packets of soup and noodles for dousing under the water from the samovars. There are Russians with fur coats and hats selling stuffed toys, vases and glassware as last minute gifts. Some trawl down the train corridor with baskets of hats, knitted socks, mittens and shawls.
This leg of the trip has been like one full day, or a very long afternoon. There have been washing trips to the not-so-grotty but smelly bathrooms, where an air vent shoots an icy blast up your legs when you stand in front of the sink. There have been railway workers standing to watch the train pass, wearing orange safety vests and burning piles of reeds. The light is fresh and clear because of the reflection of the sun on the snow, the sky is blue, and even though it’s about it’s about -13°C outside we’re having a tropical old time inside a 25°C carriage.
Ulaanbaatar is a dry, hazy city, full of dust…it is strange to see dry grass and dusty dirt, blue sky and a covering of snow everywhere…it is freezing with a kind of crisp and biting cold that’s so different from wet cold in Russia. The air is razor sharp. The temples smell of incense and bodies…the walls were hung with coloured streamers faded with dirt…around the statue there was a roped off section in which people lit little brass candle stands filled with wax -- kept lighting and lighting them and bowing over them -- hundreds of tiny flames flickering in the darkness over hundreds of faces. I sat and watched the chanting monks come and go (talking of Michelangelo?), and one monk in particular fiddle with his mobile phone, probably texting the Dalai Lama.
Ulaanbaatar photo from NomadicJourneys.com
Mongolia was the land of adventure, as I rode a caramel-coloured pony “down the road and across, past large outcrops of rock, then on through patches of snow with the sky a clear blue overhead, around a small mountain, where a condor was circling...” The same night I ventured out into the freezing cold night to be overwhelmed by the Northern sky, lying on my back on the icy ground, catching two falling stars. Came back in for a warming sip or two or Genghis Khan Vodka. On the way out, from the window of my train, I saw the dusty steppes of the Gobi Desert and felt like a great explorer. And no, I didn’t have any vodka with me at that stage.
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I’m glad to know that my wandering days are not over, even though the beginning of every journey signals the definite termination of the one before. I’d like it all back again. But for now, I'm looking forward to Dhaka. To all my fellow travellers, may the road, as ever, rise up to meet you. Watch for my next column, "The Bengal Gaze", documenting a year of living and working in Dhaka . . . I'm packing, now.