Something To Keep From Aleppo
Aleppo: 36.198806, 37.160375
My old school shoes are falling apart. I don’t want to ask for a new pair but the sole has come so loose I have to adjust my walking and it won’t be long before it falls off completely. The unusual rubber sole comes up high around the leather so it looks possible to repair them. Outside the citadel there is a cobbler who sets himself up by the side of the road so I stand and watched him at work for a while. He presses his needle through both layers then puts it back through, leaving a loop. Through that loop he threads another thread before pulling it tight, and so on. At our hotel, our darning kit only has thin cotton which doesn’t seem strong enough.
It had become a ritual, wherever we were, to seek out the closest tea and sheesha place and play a game of backgammon. In Morocco it had been glasses packed with fresh mint leaves and sugar, by now it was small hourglass shaped glasses of brown tea, so saturated with sugar it sat undissolved at the bottom of the glass. We see at the end of the street men with hookahs and tea glasses but on the corner as we pass there are two small shops, filled with backgammon boards. They are the most intricate boards I have seen anywere, displayed hanging from the walls with fine geometrically patterned inlays, with polygons only millimetres across fitted together into circles, radiating lines and stars. At a table a man sits crafting them. I’d always wondered how they managed to do such fine work and now I see. He holds together and adjusts tight bundles of long thin strips of wood. At each end the geometric pattern is clear. Why hadn’t I realised before, something so obvious, that they didn’t individually carve out and fit together each and every tiny piece. Rather they would glue long strips into a bundle with the pattern all the way through and take slices from the end to then fit into the board. It would still take fine craftsmanship to shape the thin rods to fit perfectly together along their entire length, but it would none the less make the whole production process much quicker and easier. They could churn out a great many boards in that manner, each as intricate as the last. We can’t afford souvenirs, and we couldn’t carry them anyway, but if ever there was something I wanted to be the proud owner of it was a fine backgammon set from the craftsmen of Aleppo. One day, in many years time, when all this is over, when I live somewhere, when I have money, I will come back for one.
Looking down, always looking for something to find, there is a strand of green insulated copper wire so I pick it up. After backgammon and tea, back at our hotel, I try to stitch up my shoe with the insulated wire the way the cobbler did it, but it’s too thick. It goes through in a crude and simpler way, just threaded through one hole and out the other, and being wire, seems strong enough.
Scorpions In The Dark
River Nile: 24.642511, 32.931000
One of the felucca sailors, the one always smiling, jumped off the stern into the Nile. His head came up smiling and he called to his mate who got up from the tiller, rummaged around and finally threw out a bottle of shampoo. The sailor in the water washed his hair and with his lean, muscular arms beckoned the people on the boat to jump in. Noone did. The rule has always been not to swim in the Nile because of the bugs that can get under your skin and burrow their way up to your brain. We all just watched him smiling until he ducked his head under water for a final rinse and climbed back aboard.
We came ashore at a lesser known ruin by the Nile. It was on the right bank, going downriver, at a stretch were there desert came right to the river and there were no farms or houses. It was a small site and low to the ground, only a few stone blocks stood as high as the waist, but there were no other tourists there. The 6 or so of us from the boat slowly dispersed around it. I was in a far corner, a good way off from anybody. While there was nothing standing at this site there were recesses in the ground, and here at the far corner I found a relatively deep one, more than a metre or so. If I jumped in I’d still be able to reach the top and climb out. At the bottom to the side there was a small dark rectangular hole, a narrow passage, perhaps for channeling water. A dark passage in an Egyptian ruin, with no-one around? If people were allowed to walk around above, why not below? There didn’t appear to be anything I could destroy down there, just stone blocks and a little sand and rubble, as with on the ground above. I climbed down into the recess, knelt down and putting my head near the dust and stones on the floor peered into the passage way. It was just big enough to crawl into and there was sunlight at the end of it, about 20 metres or so away, mostly likely another ditch like the one I was in. There was something about the shadow of the tunnel that made me hesitate. The light in Egypt was pure. Strong but not the oppressive, sweltering glare of Queensland summers. At this site, far from the city, on a quiet still day, without dust, pollution and humidity, the Egyptian sun illuminated everything with absolute clarity. The shadow was equally its perfect opposite. There was a razor sharp line between where the sunlight fell and the shadows it cast. I scrutinised that boundary closely. Beyond the line separating light from dark not a single grain of sand could be seen. It was a corrodor of pure blackness. I put my hand into the shadow and couldn’t see it. I decided that if I felt forwards carefully I would be able to avoid any holes in the middle of it. I would probably only ever be here once in my life. I would forever regret being too cowardly to enter. There was, after all, a light at the other end and it was only a short way. I crawled into the tunnel, feeling out ahead. The way was clear until about half way through. I hadn’t been able to tell from the end but the floor stepped upwards at that point, narrowing the tunnel. Not large enough to crawl through but still enough to scrape through on elbows and knees. I paused to think about whether I should carry on or turn back, when it occurred to me there might be scorpions in here. There weren’t uncommon, I remembered the one in the sink in Guardiagrele, a big one, as long as my little finger, and it somehow seemed strange that it looked exactly as they do in pictures, and just as menacing, and someone was saying, it’s not the big ones you have to worry about, it’s the small ones that kill you. There was no way I’d be able to see them. If I felt my way forwards and touched one, it would probably sting me because I’d disturbed it. I stopped still and listened in the narrow black tunnel, alone with the fear of unseen scorpions. Calling for help would be useless. I’d still have to make my way out if someone came or not. There’d be an embarrassing scene where they peered in the tunnel, beckoning to me, other people coming to see what the fuss was about, telling me to have courage like I was some simpering idiot. As if the problem was my fear and not the scorpions. This wasn’t about crying and panic and being petrified. It was a logical, sensible thing. There was no course of events that didn’t involve crawling to one end of the tunnel or the other. I could not control or detect the presence of scorpions. Therefore I had no choice, no option but to move on, whether I was stung by a scorpion or not, and whether I lived or died was something I couldn’t do anything about. Doing nothing wouldn’t change that. Rather than turn back, I might as well have the satisfaction of reaching the end. I pressed myself through into the light at the other end. Squinting in the brightness, dusting myself off, I stood and looked over the edge of the recess. No-one was around. I hauled myself up and went back towards the shore. “Where have you been?” my father asked, “Just looking in a tunnel.” “Well hurry up, we’ve been looking for you and the boat’s waiting.”
Karachi: 24.844594, 67.043013
Carrying our bags down a street between white buildings with black windows to the hotel Dad said, “They said there’s been bombings here lately so we won’t stay long. We’ll get a train tomorrow.”
Train To Rawalpindi
Pakistan: 33.603799, 73.048599
We found our seat and it was occupied. We showed our ticket to the man in it, who showed us his, and it was no surprise that they sell the same seat to two or three people. We had bought a sleeper, and the bench like bed was above the row of seats and already occupied. After some jostling we sat. It was going to be a long 12 hour trip. As the train trundled along, my thoughts wandered and beggars came through. A man with one side of his face sagging down to his chest, as if melting off like wax. A man whose top parts of his arms were fixed straight out to the side from his body, thin and twig like with his forearms dangling uselessly off the ends of them. A woman dirty, carrying a small child. I daydreamed about a bit in Midaq Alley by Naquib Mahfouz. The part about the beggars’ doctor. The doctor who for a certain fee, could give you any kind of impairment you like, permanent or temporary. People came to him to have their limbs broken, to be given eyedrops for blindness that, hopefully, if the dose was right would only last a week. It was an investment. Anything to improve a beggars prospects, anything a little more pathetic, for a little more money to eat. Drifting away on the long trip I imagined those scenes at night, and wondered whether these beggars here might have had recourse to such things, whether it was peculiar to Midaq Alley or was the unspoken truth for all desperate people around the world. It’s a night that you would go, you would muster up the courage to ask, to deal with the pain, to confront the possibility of things going wrong, of being blinded forever, of never walking again, the doctor would give you a talk about what’s involved, demand money, it would be all your money. It would be painful.
Eventually I needed to go to the toilet. I waited as long as I could to avoid losing my seat. Suddenly the bunk above became available and dad told me to get it so I jumped up into it before anyone else could but laying there I could not ignore my bladder. I tried to coax myself to sleep, even a little sleep would be worth while, but I couldn’t hold on, and was only in the bunk 15 minutes or so until I had to go to the toilet. When I returned, Dad asked me what I was doing and when I explained he said I could at least have passed the bunk up to him or Marilyn. I sat down again. I would have to sleep sometime, somehow. It was a long trip. I figured that people around this part of the world meditate, so I sat up straight, closed my eyes and focused on emptying my mind, not even thinking about emptying my mind. Many hours later, half in the crowded train, half in emptiness we arrived.
Blood, Feathers and Mud
Peshawar: 34.015151, 71.580237
It would be good to get off the bus after so many hours but standing on the bottom step, there was no good place to put my foot. Under the overcast sky everywhere was mud. It was a street of thick black mud. Not mud but muck. There was nothing clean about it, like mud. It was a human muck. Stepped on over and over again, soaked with refuse and it was black, like the dirt between your toes. I stepped into it. It was about an inch deep. Deeper than the soles of my shoes, so that after walking in it for a while it would seep through the stitching. We hoisted our bags on our shoulders, checked the map and went looking for a hotel. Everywhere the streets were an inch or more deep in black mud. We made our way through a market. A stall had chickens stacked up in small cages. A man took one out and handed it to another man seated in front of a wood block with a knife blade fixed in the middle of it, pointing up. He took the chicken and brought it down hard on the knife and pulled it this way and that, cutting it to pieces. Blood and feathers in the mud.
Pakistan rice terraces: 34.910672, 72.531545
On almost vertical slopes tier after tier, like topology lines on a map, rice terraces step up the mountain. The bus wound it’s way up the gorges hour after hour and finally stopped in a small hamlet on the mountainside. The passengers got off and stretched their legs and most went into a small blue building, which must be where you get food, and some around the side of it. I went in to look for a toilet but there wasn’t one. It must be around the side so I went outside and around the corner. Up near the wall of the dirt yard were stinking piles of shit and piss. I couldn’t even piss there it stank so much. I went back inside. Dad had ordered food which was good because I was hungry. It came quickly as there was only one thing they served from a large metal cylinder. It was a some kind of meat stew on rice, I picked through it looking for a chunk of meat but could only find bones and gristle. “It’s goat.” Dad said. It was the worst meal I’d had since that salt beef enchilada in the desert in North Mexico two years ago but I was used to eating anything by then. It’s good to a little taste of what is normal for the people here. The road so long, the terraces so beautiful, the air so cold and fresh, and the goat stew so spare. And we are only half way there.
Gilgit: 35.920173, 74.306719
I left the hotel room without saying anything to anyone, just to be on my own. The hotel was concrete and painted light blue with tiles on the patio. It was the only hotel in town. It was cold outside and I put my hand in the pocket of my coat looking right and left. To the left there were shops and people so I went that way for a look. The snow topped mountains in the distance were so tall you could see them above the buildings. I went right into the first road to branch off which quickly turned left again to run parallel to the main street. There were more smaller shops, closer together, with their owners sitting in them and a few customers here and there. The men all wore warm looking knitted hats flat on the top and rolled up. The looked warm and I wished I had one. There were shops for various things, plastic containers, carpets, and then a stall wall to wall with machine guns. I had never seen so many guns before. A couple of men were looking at one with the owner. With the initial shock I was afraid I could be shot then and there, but soon realised it was normal. It was normal to have a machine gun and so normal for there to be a shop for them. I went on a little way but was curious about the shop and turned back, to try to see as much as I could of it as I passed. I couldn’t stop and stare, and having already passed twice I couldn’t turn back again, so I kept going, back around the bend and past the hotel. I kept going, past a few people, houses, a cat, a chicken standing on a wall around a yard, a small girl wrapped in a red head scarf, and was soon walking past the last houses at the edge of town along the road through flat fields by a stream running with water fresh from the mountains. I looked around for a cloud and there was not one. The air was crisp, the sky deep blue, the flat fields yellow, stretching all the way to the towering walls of grey rock and white snow, the Hindu Kush. What it would be like for that girl growing up here? Who is that kid and what do they think about things. What will they think growing up here? It’s so clean and good, but for everyone where they grow up it’s ordinary and I know nothing at all about the way it is here and will be gone tomorrow. I stopped and breathed vapour clouds into the air. It would be good to walk all the way to those mountains but it would be a long journey, a lot longer than a few hours and I had no food, and who knows? Maybe they like to take pot shots at tourists. I could disappear up here. It wouldn’t matter so much but we are getting closer to Australia, almost home.
Golden Temple, Amritsar: 31.619993, 74.876475
Standing near the gate in the cold Dad said, “They’re supposed to let anyone stay here, if you haven’t got any money. Wait here, I’m going in to ask.” In a while he came back and said, “They thought we were just tourists at first, but I explained we don’t have any money. They reckon they’re a charity. I had to remind them they’re supposed to take people in. Come on. We have to be out at dawn.” I picked up a couple of pamphlets on the way through the archway, and took our shoes off. A man gestured for us to turn left, and right there was a door to the room we were to sleep in. He left us as soon as we entered. There were three straw mats on the floor. We dropped our bags and lay our our sleeping bags. I started reading one of the pamphlets. It was on flimsy brown paper in purple ink. It explained that our hair is sacred and should never be cut because it is like aerials picking up cosmic rays from the Universe. I only had a chance to look at the words ‘Guru Nanak’ on the cover of the other one when Dad said, “Let’s go have a look at this place. You have to wear a hat. And don’t talk.” I didn’t have a hat, so he threw me his spare beanie, a yellow and brown striped one with a pom pom on top.
We walked slowly around the white marble walk way, looking at the beautiful temple of gold reflected in the large square pond. At first I felt like I was intruding on this place with out of place clothes and a ridiculous beany when everyone else had a neatly folded turban but nobody seemed to mind and by the time I’d walked a quarter of the way around my thoughts had settled and I was immersed in appreciating the unparalleled beauty and tranquillity of this place. At the far end a causeway leads into a small room in the middle of the pond. Approaching it I heard music. Elaborate, winding threads of music. Looking through the door I saw musicians seated on cushions each working on their instrument. One was just getting comfortably seated, adjusting his sitar and I understood that as musicians took turns this music could go on forever. I could listen to it for ever. But I remembered I was wearing a ridiculous beanie, and that I was probably taking up the place of someone else who wanted to see the musicians so I moved on. I could walk around this lake and return to the centre to listen to the music again and again, day after day, and eat the charity food. It wouldn’t be any different to the rising and setting of the sun, the cycle of life and death, and what difference would it make to anything or anyone if I lived out there or in here?
Tea and Dahl
New Delhi: 28.5272181,77.068898
“Do you want some tea?”
I stepped up on the step of the tea shop and looked over the counter. The man ladled a cup from a large pot of swirling milky tea. The air was brisk so I held the cup with both hands, looking over the bus depot at all the busses decorated with garlands, flourescent elephants and chrome, glancing up from time to time at the television on the wall where a woman danced in red pants ballooning out at the ankles. I took a sip and it tasted so good, something much more than tea with milk, I spent the rest of the time waiting trying to find words to describe it.
“Is there anything you want to do in Delhi? We’re out of money so we can’t stay long.”
“Think of something.”
“I don’t know, see a movie.”
“What? I don’t think they’ll have many movies.”
“No I mean an Indian movie. I’ve seen signs for them. They make a lot of movies here.”
“I don’t know, I don’t think so. We should do something to do with India.”
We came to the corner where two streets met at an acute angle and, filling the space where there was no building, there were dozens of beds all against each other. No-one was in them in the middle of the day but they looked well used. It looked warm and comfortable enough but wouldn’t the mattresses get ruined in the rain? A woman with her baby asked us for money and we walked on. We went into the first place serving food we found. There were two large metal cylinders, each filled with dahl. The man ladled it into a bowl and placed a piece of flat bread on it. I took it to the plastic table and chairs and sat across from my father. There were no utensils. My father was tearing off bits of bread shaping them into a cup and scooping up the dahl. “You have to make sure you don’t run out of bread.” he said. I followed his example, remembering to use the right hand only. The dahl was hotter than anything I had ever eaten. I could barely eat a mouthful. There was no water. “It’s too hot.” I said. “It’s all there is.” he said, “We’re out of money.” I was hungry so I ate it. I thought, ‘The only thing separating a beggar and me is a few rupees.’
Stone Roses In Fields Of Marble
Taj Mahal: 27.175102, 78.042074
From a distance, reflected in the long pond, each tower, in the fore and in the background, is equally spaced. By mathematical design, in perspective the top of the most distant towers are level with the mid point of those in the foreground. Inside, in minute detail, living forms of leaves, vines and flowers are petrified as precious gems set in smooth marble. The decoration is fine and tastefully restrained in proportion to the marble, such that the white stone is not a surface for showing the decoration, but that the decoration shows the pure whiteness of the room. Between this flower petal and the marble it’s set into there is no seam. There is no gap and no filler, not even the shadow of a line of dirt from the passing centuries has accumulated there. Between this leaf and the marble there is no seam, nor between this vine that joins them, and following this vine and it’s sprouting leaves and flowers there is still no seam to be found. The vines travel up and around every wall. Visitors constantly move through this place, this moment fixed in time and space, jostled by crowds seeing only briefly this perfect, frozen, eternal monument to beauty, love and death.
Stone roses, seamless in marble fields. Minarets equally measured. Mausoleum of eternal love.
Sizzler All You Can Eat Restaurant
Toowong, Brisbane: -27.485591, 152.992825
We crossed at the lights and walked up the concrete steps towards the tall mirror cube of Toowong Village shopping centre. There was my cousin, only one year older than me but tall and fit from surfing, and his girlfriend in black jeans and blonde hair, looking like she stepped out of a heavy metal film clip, nicknamed ‘Legs’ by everyone, for obvious reasons, and with us a batch of their friends, girls and boys. I might have managed to mumble ‘Hi’ to some of them. They were all chattering and breaking off in small groups and coming back together again. At the top of the steps was Sizzler All You Can Eat Restaurant and the footpath lead around it each way. Someone went one way and others went another. I didn’t know which way to go, but had to decide quickly to avoid just standing there looking stupid so I went right, but it turned out that most had gone left, and only two girls were going right and they ran off ahead. I walked slowly, glad at least to have a moment alone, wondering what I could possibly say to somebody, to anybody, wondering if anyone thought it was too strange I hadn’t said anything to anyone, wondering if they knew I couldn’t however much I wanted to, or if they thought it meant I thought something bad about them, wondering how they could say things so easily to each other, and what there even was to say. I tried to pull myself together in case anyone looked at me as I walked up.
It was the long way around so everyone was already there when I arrived. Not only that, but it was busy so a queue had formed behind my cousin and his friends. I wasn’t sure if I should go ahead to them or wait at the end of the line in case someone thought I was pushing in. My cousin saw me and waved me forward to them so I joined them. Just as I reached them the man standing behind them stopped me with his hand. He was angry, “Hey, you kids. Have some respect. We’ve been standing here all this time, and first one, then one after another, a whole crowd of you comes up and pushes in. One or two is alright, but it’s been one after another…”
I looked at my shoes. They were new sneakers. Dad had thrown away my old shoes. I had got them in London and walked half way around the world in them. They were simple black leather school shoes with a rubber sole. By the time we’d been through Europe and North Africa and reached Syria they were falling apart. Outside the citadel at Aleppo there was a cobbler who set himself up by the side of the road so I stood and watched him at work and figured out how he resoled shoes by stitching a loop through the hole and threading another thread through it before pulling it taught. Our darning kit only had thin cotton and I couldn’t find any thick thread, but in the street I found some insulated copper wire and stitched up my shoes with that. That copper wire was still in my shoes after taking me through the markets at Damascus, the canyons at Petra, into the Pyramids, to the shore of the Red Sea, among the alleys of Baghdad, through the mud of Rawalpindi, into the foothills of the Hindu Kush, around the music in the Golden Temple and all the places in between. I’d said barely a word to anyone. Everywhere I was looking from the world to my shoes and back again, thinking. I walked into my Aunty’s kitchen that morning and said, “Where’s my shoes.” and my father said, “I chucked ’em. They stank.” I hated him. Hate.
In the queue at Sizzler All You Can Eat Restaurant with a stranger I didn’t mean to offend shouting at me, staring at these new shoes, I almost walked away. My cousin somehow resolved the whole thing with a wave of his hand. I wanted to dissolve into the Atlas mountains, the Alaskan woods, the Skye moors. I wanted to be set down, to walk away from the road and disappear. To go and never arrive.
I can’t remember where. There is just the silhouette of a solitary concrete building, empty and without windows, beside a road against the orange sky. We were waiting for something.