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India is a severe and unforgiving place; the disintegrating roads and buildings, the chaos of traffic, the dirt and pollution, the extreme poverty. Even the sacred cows, who could be very happy about not being eaten, stand on piles of litter eating the rotting refuse. Whole families have made their homes on the pavements and send their kids into the traffic to beg for a few Rupees.

Living on the street

Living on the street

Sure there are beautiful temples and colourful saris, a vibrancy and buzz of people, not to mention Bollywood movies; but the reality cannot be hidden, and we had seen enough (and had enough curry). So we cut our time short and headed to Bali, via Singapore.

Begging street children

Begging street children

I did not realise how extreme the contrast would be. I was shocked. The immigration hall at Singapore Airport was so immaculately clean you could have licked its shiny marble floors. In fact I was so excited by the change in our circumstances, I was nearly tempted to do just this! And this was just the start.

Singapore Botanical Gardens

Singapore Botanical Gardens

Beautiful Singapore orchid

Beautiful Singapore orchid

Stunning Singapore orchid

Stunning Singapore orchid

The taxis are air-conditioned, the roads are lined with manicured gardens, and the high-rises are painted. There is no litter. Anywhere. The public toilets function, the buses are efficient and easy to use. The architecture…well the architecture is spectacular! And you can eat, without fear!

Singapore architecture

Singapore architecture

Singapore architecture

Singapore architecture

Crime is low, laughable by South African standards. A police sign was placed outside a high-rise complex. A bicycle had been stolen here on a particular day and the police were looking for information from the public. That’s right folks; one bicycle stolen…and the police looking for information. I’m in awe.
CRIME ALERT 20131126_141007

SINGAPORE: 25-11-2013

We made our way, first by Tuk-tuk, then on foot through the grimy backstreets of the Kwatwaria Sara district of New Delhi. We clearly did not fit in here and had to ask numerous times for directions. Where were we going, you might well ask? Well we were on our way to consult a Nadi Astrology leaf reader.
Apparently about 2000 years ago 18 Hindu sages had divine revelations, which they recorded on a series of palm leaves. That is, they wrote down the past, present and future of all humans on old palm leaves!
Eventually we found ourselves at a beauty salon, which seemed to be our address, and just next door we noticed an open door and a small waiting room. With gestures we were asked to remove our shoes and take a seat inside. The man, who seemed to be in charge, asked us some questions in Hindi, but we could make no sense of anything until a friendly man, sitting with his brother in the waiting room, kindly translated for us.

In the waiting room

In the waiting room

The procedure was that the assistant would take our thumb print and name, and with this information, would see if our leaves could be found. We were told that not everyone’s leaf is found, only those destined to know about their records and only when the time is right!

‘By your Thumb – impression (Gents Right & Ladies Left thumb), we predict by seeing ancient palm leaves …about you, your family & future Ups & Downs as accurate and in Detail.’

After our prints were taken in purple ink, we were given a small pamphlet to read. I was astounded to discover the full extent of what a reading would reveal. To list just a few:

* About Brothers and Sisters, Benefits and Problems from them.
* Dangers and Difficulties in life & about the consultants courage in detail.
* Diseases, Debts, Litigation, Enemies when will these problems arise and when will disappear as accurate & in detail
*The Life Longevity of the consultants Father, about getting father’s properties.
*The consultants Life Longevity, How long will be the life, at which period the danger and problem will arise, when death will occur in detail.

The assistant returned to announce Stefan’s leaf had been found, the brothers grinned excitedly at this news. But this was not good enough for Stefan. “Where is it?” he asked.
“He wants to know where it is, he wants to see it?” the brothers translated for us.
The assistant looked slightly annoyed and disappeared again. After 10 minutes he reappeared with what looked like a large closed fan.

Purple thumb prints

Purple thumb prints

Palm leaves with Stefan's destiny

Palm leaves with Stefan’s destiny

He unwound a long piece of rope holding together a bundle of about 50 palm leaves sandwiched between two pieces of wood, and opened it up at a leaf that seemed quite random to us. But this particular leaf, we were told, was Stefan’s. It was covered in a small, ancient Tamil script. As there was no English translator available, he was told to return the first week of December.
“But we won’t be here then. I asked for an English reading when I phoned.” Said Stefan annoyed. “How come they couldn’t predict that they would need an English translator here today.” He said to me disappointed.
“Today No English. You phone.” He was handed a business card with a number written on the back. “That number you say when phone.”
“And what about me?” I asked. I also wanted my leaf to be found. If for no other reason than to say they found it. Once again the assistant disappeared. It was a very tense 15 minute wait!
“He found your leaf too! You very lucky!” said the thrilled brothers when he returned. I too was given a business card with a number written on the back. And for a few seconds I did indeed feel very lucky. Whether we will ever discover the rest of our destiny, I don’t know. But having read through that pamphlet I am not too sure I want to!

LESSON LEARNT
It’s better to turn over a new leaf than an old leaf.

NEW DELHI, INDIA: 24-11-2013

It was dusk, the streets were crowded, the temples were lit up with multi-coloured lights, and we were pushed and jostled along with the crowds.

Prem Mandir temple, Vrindivan

Prem Mandir temple, Vrindivan

Prem Mandir temple

Prem Mandir temple

Being easily recognisable as tourists, we quickly became the target of beggars and vendors, who desperately tried to strike up a deal with us. Groups of girls stared at Stefan and giggled, begging children clung onto my arms.

It was time to get off this road; so we walked down a shabby, dusty side-alley through a security controlled entrance.
The gardens here were surprisingly well-maintained with neatly cut hedges. The paths were lit by flickering lights and in the distance we could hear a faint melody. We followed the strains of singing voices and the garden opened up into a large lawn where people, dressed in long flowing garments, were seated cross-legged.

Hare Krishna devotees

Hare Krishna devotees

They were arranged in a semicircle around an Indian Guru singing;
Hare Krishna…Hare Krishna…
With nodding heads and serene faces they chanted softly and melodically.
…Krishna Krishna…Hare Hare…
It was such a respite from where we had just been, that I found myself drawing closer.
…Hare Rama…Hare Rama…
Accompanied by a beating drum the Guru chanted and the chorus of devotees  replied.
…Rama Rama…Hare Hare…
The same melody, the same words, repeated again and again.
…Hare Krishna… Hare Krishna…
Like a scene from the from the sixties, all peace and love and harmony.
And as the chant continued, so more and more  joined the group.
…Krishna Krishna…
The volume of the chant swelled.
It was strangely urging, almost addictive.
…Hare Hare…
All I had to do was take off my shoes, sit on the lawn, nod along.
…Hare Rama…Hare Rama…
I could sing the words, the melody was simple.
…Rama Rama…
But my English reserve held me back…

When an hour had passed and they were still “Hare Krishna-ing” to the same tune,
I realised I did just not have the serenity or patience.
I was ready to hit the street again.
…Hurry Hurry…

LESSON LEARNT
Calm is one step away from chaos.

VRINDAVAN, INDIA: 17-11-2013

Who would have thought that travelling around India would be more thrilling than any Disney World ride?
After all, what could be more exciting than crossing two lanes of on-coming traffic in a rickshaw, or passing between a truck and a bus while in a tuk-tuk on a one-lane road? How about driving the wrong way up a road at night while watching the fast approaching headlights of a car? That sure can make your hair stand on end!

terror of the tuk-tuk

terror of the tuk-tuk

But that’s not all; add pedestrians (a lot) and animals (a number of species) into the mix. Decorated white cows amble into the road as they please, herds of buffalo’s bring all traffic to a grinding halt, pigs squeal and sprint away and goats seem to be incredibly nimble at getting out the way fast. Many dogs, I have noticed, have only three legs, a testimony of a narrow escape. Camels and horses pulling carts and donkeys with massive loads, compete for space on the road.

Along the dusty fringe of the roads there is a bustle of activity as hundreds of women in colourful sari’s, men in dhoti’s and school children, in spotlessly clean white pants and shoes, make their way between the busy street vendors and road traffic.
Finally add noise; a cacophony of hooters, the rumblings and grumblings of traffic, the shouting vendors and whistling of traffic cops; and you in for one hell of a ride!

rickshaw ride, I'm still alive!

rickshaw ride, I’m still alive!

LESSON LEARNT
Tuk-tuk’s are more terrifying than tigers.

VRINDAVAN, INDIA: 18-11-2013

We decided to book a number of ‘experiences’ while staying at the Sapana Village Lodge near the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. We chose an elephant ride, a canoe down the river, a jungle walk and a visit to the local village. Everything was more-or-less as I expected, that was until today; the jungle walk.
It was a short walk from the river bridge to the jungle. At a clearing we stopped briefly for what I thought was to be an introduction to the jungle but turned out to be a security briefing.
“We have four very dangerous animals here.” Our guide commenced, holding out four fingers, “and you need to know what to do if you meet any of them.”
What? Oh sh** , I never read the small print.
“Oh we know,” said Stefan gleefully.
“You know?” asked the guide surprised.
“Of course” said Stefan confidently, “You hold them back with your stick while we run!”
“AAhhaahaha!” laughed the guide flinging his head back in mirth.
Hilarious,  I thought.

Dangerous jungle

Dangerous jungle

“The first is rhino. If you see rhino you run, but not in straight line. You run zigzag. Rhino run fast, but not turn sudden, he too big. Then you climb tree, not too small.  At least this high.” he demonstrated with an outstretched arm.  “You keep still, he can smell but can’t see well.”
Zigzag, find tree. This could be difficult I thought looking at the thick undergrowth and unclimbable trees around us.
“Second is wild elephant, very dangerous. You know he’s wild if he has no chain round neck.” said the guide.
“Or if there are no people on his back.” laughed Stefan.
“AAhhaahaha!” laughed the guide.
So NOT funny, I thought.
“If you see one you change direction quick. Get out of way. Luckily they very big so you can see them.” said the guide.
Lucky they are big? I was confused.
“The third is black bear.” said the guide
“You have bears here?” said Stefan excited by the inclusion of this unexpected dangerous animal.
“Yes, like panda, but black. If you see bear, you stay in group. Do not run. I hit with stick.” He held up the stick he was carrying.
I had mistaken his bamboo stick for a walking stick not a weapon of self-defence.
“But you can’t hit anywhere, he not feel on skin, you hit on nose.”
Hit bear on nose with stick. I made a mental note.
“Last, most dangerous,” said the guide pausing, “Bengali tiger.”
TIGER!!!! I felt weak.
“I thought there were no tigers here,” said Stefan, his eyes sparkling with excitement.
“Of course there is tigers. But you don’t see him, he hide in long grass, he see you first. If you see him, you stare at tiger, in eyes.” He widened his eyes and pointed at them dramatically. “Never, never turn back on tiger. Then slowly you step away. No run. He can run. He can catch. No climb. He can climb. He can catch.”
Stare at tiger, do not climb, he can catch. I desperately tried to remember.
“Have people been attacked by tigers?” asked Stefan.
Shuddup, shuddup, I don’t want to know, I thought.
“Yes, this year, two people.”
“I want to see a tiger.” said Stefan.
Nooo, you don’t I screamed inside.
“Has anyone been attacked by a tiger while on an elephant?” asked Stefan.
“Yes, mahout, elephant driver, was taken by tiger, tiger jump right up on elephant. There were tourists also on elephant.”
It took all my restraint not to cover up my ears and make loud noises so that I could hear no more. Was it run from a bear or elephant? Climb or stay still for a tiger? And can the rhino smell or see? What about the stick? I have no stick!! My mind was in a whirl and my imagination far too vivid. I remembered exactly why I avoided game walks in South African wildlife reserves. I just don’t like the thought of having to outrun, outclimb or outstare wild animals in order to survive.
“I don’t think I want to go anymore.” I whispered to Stefan.
“Are you scared?” he asked loudly. I nodded. “Look you’ve made her scared now.” He told the guide smiling.
“Don’t you worry ma’am, we will protect you.” he laughed.

We will protect you ma'am.

We will protect you ma’am.

So with two small Nepalese men ‘armed’ with bamboo sticks we headed straight into the dangerous jungle. I looked neither right nor left hoping not to see anything. The guide climbed trees and took us down overgrown paths trying to find us a dangerous animal. But he was either inexperienced or unlucky, which, I really did not mind; as I was praying we would see nothing, nothing at all. We did see a wild elephant in the very far distance, and the paw print of a tiger on the river bank. The circumference of the print was carefully measured and doubled (or trebled?) with a jungle calculator (a long piece of grass) to determine the height of the tiger. It was big!

Searching for dangerous animals

Searching for dangerous animals

Calculating the tiger height from a paw print

Calculating the tiger height from a paw print

We also saw a common cobra snake skin, some pretty spotted deer and monkeys. And Stefan was bitten (sucked?) by three leeches. (Hee-hee)
But the nicest thing I saw, by far, was a delicate white orchid growing high up in a tree. It was just so ‘non-dangerous’.

LESSON LEARNT
Always read the small print.

CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK: NEPAL
08-11-2013

When you enter Nepal at Kathmandu airport, you will find a  number of information signs have been placed along the walkway. Hooting, you are informed, is a way that the Nepalese show their joy. If this is true, then the Nepalese are one joyful nation; for the minute you step out of the airport, your ears are assailed with the sounds of blaring and on-going hooting. The next thing you cannot fail to notice, is the seemingly chaotic movement of vehicles and people all around you. There seems to be a keep left traffic rule, but that is about it. The drivers drive without hesitation and hoot to make their presence known to other cars, people, motorcycles, dogs, rickshaws, buses, idiot tourists and cows. They are highly skilled at negotiating the smallest spaces, avoiding potholes and quick bursts of joyful hooting.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Accommodation consists of cramped apartment blocks, semi-complete or in disrepair; poverty and decay are in evidence everywhere. Public areas are littered and the air is polluted with dust and car fumes, many people walk around wearing masks. But the streets are lined with neat shops and the people are friendly and polite. Surprisingly there are some well-kept courtyard restaurants just a few steps from the frenetic energy of the street , where you can find some welcome relief and refreshment.

wiring Kathmandu style

wiring Kathmandu style

fixing wires

Nepalese cable guy

There are masses of tangled wires dangling overhead, an electrical nightmare; but no problem for the enterprising Nepalese. They simply tie up the wires in bundles when they droop too low to the ground. All that is needed is a man on a ladder and six men to hold it!

LESSON LEARNT
Consideration trumps road rules to keep the traffic moving.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL : 03-11-2013

How far you have been
Oh, little black car!
You’ve driven with oompa
So very, very far. (16 000 kilometres!)

Our little French car

Our little French car

A dint in Croatia
A puncture in Greece
You drank lots of diesel
But needed no grease.

You kept on the road
You found the right track
And when we’ve been uncertain
You’ve even turned back.

You sailed on the ferries
Across many a sea
You drove through the dirt
But you did it with glee.

You look a bit grimy
A bit worse for wear
But your spirit is strong
And we’ll miss you, it’s clear.

For now we must carry
Our bags and our books
And use public transport
To explore other nooks.

So we wish you good luck
And hope that you find
A special new owner
Who’s careful and kind.

PARIS, FRANCE: 29-10-2013

I never thought I would be writing about sheep, but with our two recent farm stays, I have had the opportunity to observe the peculiar habits of sheep.  My only other experience of sheep has been the fat-tailed sheep at Solms-Delta, who I thought were pretty wild, but let me tell you, they are quite domesticated and not nearly as odd as some of the sheep I have met here.

A Flock of Sheep

Sheep typically graze and lie down. I have not yet managed to get a handle on exactly how they communicate, but it seems that when one sheep decides to lie down the rest soon follow suit.

“Hey Okes, Larry was really snoring again last night, I didn’t get any shuteye… I really need some downtime now.”

When one decides to graze, they all graze.

“Yo dudes, the grass is looking greener down thata way, let’s mosey down there for a bit of nosh.”

The tendency is to do things together. The saying should be copy sheep not copy cat. (Have you ever seen cats copy each other?)

The other thing sheep do in unison, is run. If one decides ‘RUN’ would be the right course of action, they all run, keeping in tight formation. But I don’t think they give any thought of where to run.

“FENCE!…STOP!…Geez, Joe, why do you always have to bash into me?”

Soay sheep grazing

Soay sheep grazing

Soay sheep running

Soay sheep running

The sheep I have observed in Scotland seem to do more than the usual amount of running. They are Soay sheep, a primitive breed of domestic sheep originating in the Western Isles. This is a smaller, hardier breed than our modern domestic sheep and their dreadlock coats can be black but more often beige or brown. The slightest movement seems to set them off; the wind, a leaf, a bird…

”…And they are OFF…Henry has taken the lead, followed closely by Tom, keeping up with ease is Chippie…Mary is somewhere in the middle of the tight bunch, running with great determination…Randolph and Ralph were a bit slow at start, they were so busy head-butting, and they now are bringing up the rear…’

There are twelve of them, all tups (that is a male sheep) except for one. I know this as I have to count them every day. It is quite amusing watching them hurtle across the paddock for no apparent reason.  But I suspect it is that young tup, Jimbob causing the trouble, setting them off …maybe one of them should tell him that Cry Wolf story.

The Black Sheep of the Family

On a small farm near the French village of Boussac, we met Becky. Now biologically-speaking Becky would be classified as a black sheep, but her confusion about her species was as a result of her being raised by a goat. Becky and her goat-mother were given free-reign of the farm and did everything together. Unfortunately Becky’s goat-mother died and so Becky was on her own. Quite obviously Becky, being a sheep, was put into the paddock with the white sheep. But she was having none of that. Becky was so determined that she did not want to be associated with sheep, that she took a run at the electric fence and escaped, with a shock. In her opinion she is no sheep and she prefers to make her own way around the farm. Sometimes she accompanies another goat with whom she has an off/on relationship. At times she thinks she is one of the dogs, and alarmingly, at others she feels like a chicken. Becky may be confused about who she is, but she knows for sure who she is not. She is NOT one of those dreadful sheep.

Becky the goat?

Becky the goat?

Becky the chicken?

Becky the chicken?

KILCHRENAN, SCOTLAND: 09-10-2013

Daybreak in Venice

Daybreak in Venice

Venice is no stranger to tourists; it has been a hugely popular destination for hundreds of years, and at this time of the year, is simply bustling with visitors. The surrounding water and narrow canals leave no room for expansion. Groups of sweaty tourists stream through the narrow streets, following their tour leaders who, like modern day pied-pipers, lead the way holding a flag or a specially designed sparkling stick, to command their unwieldy wards. It is difficult to cross bridges as every tourist has to stop in the middle to pose for a picture, three-hour-long queues wind their way around the piazza and the shops are just too crowded to step inside.

Gondula's of tourists

Gondola’s of tourists

Yet among all this mayhem and madness there is still something magical about Venice. It is the stone palaces and gracious houses that seem to float on the water, the curvilinear bridges, the buzzing water taxis, the sound of Italian opera echoing through the watery labyrinth, the brightly-coloured Murano glass, the extravagant hand-made masks and the hundreds of pigeons that fill San Marco square. All in all an intoxicating potion for the senses. 

Mystical Venice

Mystical Venice

Venice is a mystical and romantic place, it is different from anything else we have experienced and will undoubtedly remain so until the day it actually does disappear into the sea.

LESSON LEARNT
See Venice…before it sinks.

VENICE, ITALY: 23-08-2013

When you are tired of the hammering heat and crazy crowds on the Greek beaches, travel north to the Pindus Mountains,near the Albanian border, for some welcome relief. Here you will find fertile green valleys, meandering rivers, lush forests and the Bourazani Nature Reserve. Here too is the world’s deepest gorge, the stunning Vikos Gorge.

Vikos Gorge

Vikos Gorge

Crystal clear water

Crystal clear water

Stone Bridge

Stone Bridge

View through the trees

View through the trees

There is an abundance of water in this mountainous region, and you can view the bubbling natural spring of Mana Nerou, a Monument of Nature, that flows into the Aoos River.

Mana Nerou Spring

Mana Nerou Spring

Natural Spring

A Monument of Nature

With all this water, you would be right to expect the Greeks to have harnessed this hydro-power to drive mills and machines, but perhaps you would not have imagined a natural washing machine? The fast flowing spring water has been forced into channels pouring into conical wooden barrels that have been designed to create whirlpools, the result; two powerful outdoor washing machines! I was impressed as I have been on the lookout for washing machines, ever since our laundry experience in Istanbul, where we could have bought a whole washing machine for what we paid there!

Unfortunately we had already done all of our washing, by the stomp and scrub technique in the bath, for if you live close by, washing day is no bind at all. Just bring your heavy stuff; carpets, rugs and blankets, they will be thrown into one of two giant wooden tubs, where they will be twirled, swirled and softened with the purest of water straight from the natural spring. No soap is required, as the action of the water is powerful enough to remove even the toughest of stains, so it is ecologically friendly too.

Giant outdoor washing machine

Giant outdoor washing machine

Man hanging washing

Man hanging washing

And the bonus is that it seems the men folk are in charge, so women, leave your washing here.

LESSON LEARNT

Don’t be too diligent about doing your washing, as you never know what you may find out in the sticks.

BOURAZANI NATURE RESERVE, GREECE: 14-08-2013