Posts Tagged ‘exotic’

Fringelords cover idea came out of a discussion with my art photography student son . We traveled a lot when he was young…. he was schooled in many exotic locals. We took a lot of pictures….hmmmmm…small wonder he became enamored with visual arts? The idea of a person with their travel experiences shown like tattoo’s on their flesh was a reflection of how we saw ourselves after one particularily enlightening trip, a year in duration, backpacking around Asia and the South Pacific. I amalgamated the concept of a hereditary mark depicting a sub class of humanoids into my novel, Fringelords-Return to Gaia. This book…like all my work is available on Amazon, KIndle, Smashwords etc…..kind comments only please.


When the opportunity to fly to Bali on a cheap flight out of Singapore came up I jumped at the chance. My wife Patricia and I had first visited together twenty two years before with an eighteen month old infant son in tow. We were stoked to go back on our own as fancy free adults and perhaps relive a few of the fantastic experiences we had wrought in the past. A S$-70 dollar return fare from Singers to Denpassar on Jet Star Air was the only catalyst we needed. Although we hadn’t planned to go to Indonesia the temptation was just too great. We were too far down the rabbit hole of close conversations over Masala Dosa about the ancient temples, beautiful beaches, enthralling culture and the magical Monkey Forest Road of Ubud and quickly talked ourselves into buying the tickets on a whim. If nothing else, Pat and I are whimsical travelers. As Oscar Wilde said “The only thing I can’t resist is temptation”.

The Mandarin Oriental hotel in Singapore we stay at as regular guests was happy to accommodate us by rearranging our reservations at no extra cost. They also offered to store our excess baggage in their left luggage closet for the week we would be away. My wife sometimes accuses me of being too chatty with every one we meet along the way, but I have found that by meeting people on their own terms and recognizing every person as a human being  brings great rewards. The main benefit of being easily recognized and generally well thought of is that most people will go out of their way to do special favours for you if they like you, so be nice to the staff fellow travelers, you may need a favour sometime. It’s OK to talk to strangers when you travel, within reason. I find great people everywhere we go. Being a loyal guest at hotel chains will also get you great upgrades and free breakfasts etc. I nurture my professional travel relationships for this reason.

Patricia and I still get excited when we travel. We still fight over the window seat, she always wins. The process of travel has become slightly more arduous because of  security and immigration concerns, but we turn a blind eye to all that and stay keen on the destination and never dwell on the hassles of getting there. When we’d last visited, Bali had been a highly spiritual place with peoples main focus being on their daily rituals. This was one of the main reasons the environment had been so endearing to us, it had been like living in a dreamworld of chanting, incense and flowers. Even further back, when I had first been there in the 70’s as a hippie trader, Bali had been an island of villages barely connected to one another let alone the pathways to the modern world. At the time we had last visited these neo-Hindu-Buddhist people had managed to escape the ravages of the twentieth century by some cultural miracle. To the relatively few spiritually sensitive westerners who had visited up until then, and I’m talking 1975, it was a heaven on Earth.

Until the age of guide books and the mass tourism that was created by their publication, Bali was a retreat for a few off beat surfers from Australia and California. Later came the routards who had chanced upon the stunning textile design, silver work and abundance of decaying wood sculpture by accidental cross cultural exchange between  surfers and the road warriors in spots like Oahu and Peru where meetings of travelers and surfers were common for the time. I started hearing of this fantastically creative place while traveling in India from other traders who were collecting goods for sale in the west as I was. Stories spread and attracted the guide book writers leading to the devastation of once pristine places every where.

Bali in the 70’s consisted of a few surf shacks bunched together along a pristine stretch of beach known as Kuta. The hippies had trekked into the hill country where the Ubud Balinese had established communities of traditional carvers, stone smiths, jewelers and textile weavers, all for use a ritual items in their ceremonies. The coolness factor was admired in the west as fashions were based on the display of oriental finery at the time. Anyone who got their hands on the products of Bali found themselves able to make easy money as these were the first Balinese offerings being made available and the styles were much more spiritually resplendent than the Indian wares had become. Families that had been producing traditional ritual finery from tiny jungle villages were finding that the hippy travelers were seeking them out and beginning to live among them.

Patricia and I were fortunate to see the last of that traditional Balinese culture as it had been practiced for centuries before tourism overwhelmed the island kingdom. Within five years of the Lonely Planet guide being published thousands upon thousands of mainstream backpackers had descended on Bali.  In a very short time foreigners began buying land and building guest bungalows for the invading hordes of magic mushroom and suntan seekers attracted by the prospect of piggybacking a spiritual experience for the duration of their package vacation. Balinese culture kept the facade of ‘cool’ flowing for a short while, but soon the Balinese were pushed out of the traditional village life by another group, the Javanese, who brought mainstream business from the ruling Indonesian culture to displace the old ways  with commerce.

Bali in the year 2012 is not the funky traditional village culture it once was. So what was the draw for us now? A S$70 ticket was one thing, another was the idea that we could possibility relive a past experience if we got off the beaten track and away from the tourist rut. This proved impossible, Bali has become a mere caricature of what it once was, scratch the surface and only tourist infrastructure remains. Kuta has become a bar zone and disco hovel for sex tourists and boozers of all ages from any number of countries. Gone are the quaint ceremonial customs replaced by hotel tourism and heavy traffic. Ubud’s Monkey Forest Road is now an end to end trail of exhaust belching tour buses filled with giddy tourists. There was a sweet fragrance to the island thirty years ago, now the sewage overflow stings the air and permeates every aspect of ones day.

Once pristine beaches are now dark with pollutants from the restaurants and hotels that have been piping them a short way out into the surf only to have the sewage wash ashore with the next high tide. The water is so thick with raw sewage effluent that it is impossible to imagine swimming anymore. In heavenly Ubud the same problem exists where the tourist structures all pipe the untreated effluent into streams running in the ravines behind the hotel strip but the water run is insufficient to carry the volume of muck away and the banks are layered with stinking toilet waste. In the upscale beach resort of Sanur I watched as the hotel staff had to continually rake the tidal sewage off the beach so that the tourists wouldn’t see what had come ashore. The water however was a grey greasy pulp in the same way as other beaches around the island. I found that the design world of the Balinese had been hijacked and has become boring and predictable, no longer driven by spirituality, but by commerce alone. In fact, one Australian ‘entrepreneur’ has legally copyrighted all the traditional designs so that no one can produce authentic pieces anymore. He lives in splendor, close to Ubud, in a spiritual graveyard of his own making, the master of nothing.

Anyone could argue that the tourist trade has increased the standard of living for the Balinese. Who am I to argue against these people joining in the rush towards modernity? Patricia and I continued to look for any signs that Bali was still alive under the thick blanket of mass tourism. The culture remains although barely noticeable. People have in fact joined the modern era, working seven days a week to pay off banks loans they have taken out towards mod-con appurtenances. But there is nothing of the Bali I knew left to make me want to visit again. After searching for something real we were left with the impression that an old friend had died. Rest in Peace Bali, we will never go back, as far as tourist destinations are concerned , there are much better preserved in the world. Bali has become a choice made available by ultra cheap air fare offerings. It is not a magical magnet that one must see.It is one of the most extreme examples of how the destructive power of the guide book culture can literally tear the soul out of a beautiful place and leave it unalterably changed.

International tourists come to Bali in droves, sold on the cheap tickets and the dreams that guide books still falsely perpetrate. These people see a sham of what the business community has designed for their temporary pleasure. I have gone on to seek my pleasures elsewhere.

The Trabzon border station into Iran from Turkey was chaotic.  Turkey was contemporary in 1975  compared to Medieval Iran. It was as if we’d slipped through a time portal into a world that had passed thousands of years before. Turkey was a  nation built on mud brick, Iran had been snatched from the dust. These people had nothing, not even shelter. At the ragged lean-to that Eddy, our intrepid driver, assured us was the border station, a wretchedly filthy and toothless man was butchering a goat on the sidewalk , bleeding the carcass into the street. The Magic Bus from London to New Delhi had arrived.

“Welcome to Iran,” Eddy called back to us. This was everyone’s first experience with the brutal poverty of Iran , a state which  would entertain us for the next several thousand miles across the bleak section of the world called Asia Minor. The big silver door had just been opened when a wild eyed young man in a ragged tunic jumped aboard wearing a military looking peaked cap as if blown in by a desert scirrocco . He shouted ‘Passport, Passport,” in a thick accent and waving his arms.

Eddy promptly turned him around by the scruff of his neck and eased him out the door without argument. “Your passport’s worth a thousand dollars in these parts,” he said. “Never let it out of your sight.” Instead we waited in the baking heat for several hours behind a train of trucks and trailers at the border  for the real guards to finish whatever they were doing and get to us. I had a brief chat with some  lorry drivers and they told me that depending on what they were carrying they could be here for days, “In Shah Allah,” God willing. When the border agents did finally come our way they were intercepted by others trying to jump the queue who insisted the Muslims should be allowed through first and that seemed to carry some influence with the guards.

The collection of shacks on the border was the last sign of human occupation for a thousand miles. We were in the deep desert, uninhabited except for the occasional nomad caravan of camels and shadow people in the distance. The sand had swallowed everything that had come before us. Heading towards the capital of Tehran was a grinding process because of the heat. We had to drive slowly so as not to bake the engine. At night an  incredible view of  unblemished constellations was visible from our stand on the ghostly silent road. The phrase ‘in the middle of nowhere’ took on a deeply profound new significance. After a day and a vigilant night  a white city began to  loom in the distance.  I thought I had been transported back to ancient Babylon.

As we entered the outer city limits,  grey desert began to transform into lush greenery. Paved roads replaced the dirt track highway. White low rise buildings were hung with layers of flowing leafy creepers, window ledges crowded with flowering pots in red and purple. The streets were deserted, shadow women in wraith like burka’s darted in and out of sight, we were in the empire of the Shah Reza Pahlavi, a brutal and repressive dictator. His close friends and regime supporters had surrounded themselves with a decadent  island of civilization not shared with the rest of the country. Eddy knew of a parking lot fairly close to the center of the city and we stopped there.

It was a walled caravansarai in every sense of the word except that these wandering merchants were not leading camels, they were the drivers of truck convoys laden with goods destined for hinterlands far beyond Tehran. Open air cold showers and roast mutton were welcomed by all but the women who had to bucket bath behind blankets and couldn’t eat within sight of the men’s camp. Sorry girls, that part of the world is still mired in proto-modernity. We men sat around an open fire swapping travel stories under the moon as travelers had along the silk road from the time of  ancient kingdoms that time had long since swept  into oblivion. I slept in the open that night under a pantheon of stars.  I thought that this scene had welcomed travelers on this  spot for perhaps thousands of years. It was like Marco Polo, in the 20th century.

Loaded with provisions we were road savvy zealots by the time we headed off to Meshed on the  Afghan border. We would cross at Herat. Little would we know the storm of war brewing in the Kremlin and how  Russia would invade Afghanistan within 18 months plunging the brutally impoverished country into a murderous no mans land for travelers . The farther east along the highway we sped, the farther back in time we traveled. When we came to the  Afghan border the Tardis  stopped spinning somewhere around the 6th  century. It was the first time I had encountered troglodytes, cave dwellers along the hillsides. The border guards didn’t have shoes or shirts under their threadbare uniform jackets let alone any obvious sense of the 20th century about them.

I had read about places like Herat in the journals of Marco Polo and the famous Arabic scholar/traveler Ibn Battuta. The red mud of the desert had been made to stand up into  rudimentary one story hovels on a simple frame of tortured wood poles. The peoples costume had something of the Aladdin flair. The extra large turbans  Afghan men wore and the long beards were something I hadn’t seen before. Their curled toed leather sandals were brilliant. I bought a pair.

It was only here where women wore  netting over the eye’s  so that nothing of their appearance could be seen by an outsider. They held the netting tight to their eyes to see where they were going and not trip over the full length hems of their blue or grey burkhas as they picked their way through the rubbish  strewn and sodden streets. Raw meat dangled on hooks in shop fronts, but none  made me hungry. Butchery seemed more like an act of tearing flesh off a dead animal in ragged strips rather than the linear precision we’d call presentable in the west. Flies were ubiquitous , no attempt was made to curtail their dominance.

Houses and shopfronts were interchangeable,  like  fortresses with heavy gates to bar forced entry . The courtyards were filled with animals, mostly goats and small donkey’s. Larger area’s had pens of bound camel , waiting on their knee’s for who knows what. The most memorable characteristic of the town was the incredible stench of sewage and blood. Guts were left to lay in the sun under black blankets of buzzing flies and ringed by snarling curs.

I would come back to Afghanistan in the months before the war to visit the Lapis blue lakes above the Bamiyan Valley  to see the incredible statues of Buddha carved into the cliff walls. The lakes are still there, the Buddha’s have been blown to smithereens by the Taliban after resting in the sleepy valley for 2500 years. Kabul was a  flyblown shotgun setting  of one miserable treet gilded by a single hotel, the Holiday Inn. It was such an anomaly we had to stop and have a drink in the bar. It was the only place serving alcohol for thousands of miles in either direction. The rectangular building looked like a space machine had landed in the midst of a 7th century biblical ghetto.

I fended off many offers to buy large and small firearms from various merchants in the Kabul Bazaar. It was  a country where every man young and old was armed to the teeth with pistols, knives, swords, muskets and modern weapons of every sort. Being a man and unarmed in this country was  unusual , they wanted me to load up for my own good. Looking back I should have know that something was up. The gun shops in the back lanes of Kabul were cranking out knock off weapons like a war was coming, it was, three decades worth and counting.

I was looking forward to the Khyber Pass crossing into Pakistan. We’d be retracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Darius, Genghis Khan the Moguls and the British Expeditionary Force. The police told us  we’d have to join a caravan of vehicles to cross through  Pushtun territory. Unruly tribesmen could make short work out of a busload of unarmed hippies.  Afghan tribal leaders have been murdering foreigners who dared cross into their territory since  Alexander. We’d stay with the caravan through the border region, past Peshawar and well on the way to Islamabad where the tribes no longer had the gun power to flaunt the national fantasies of the State of Pakistan.

I talked my way onto the roof of a loaded lorry so  I could ride through the Khyber in the open. It was breathtaking, I was sitting on the shoulders of my heroes, the great explorers. We wound through the winding pass on razor thin tracks cut into the side of raw mountain. Rock falls were evident , down in the valleys below at the worst corners, evidence of misfortune lay glinting in the unforgiving sun. Eddy assured us that Pakistan was nothing but filth and squalor, we took him at his word, and sped right through towards India. We would cross at Waguh, on the colonial Grand Trunk Road, the only passable land border between the feuding states of India and Pakistan.

The scene I  met at the border stuck in my mind forever, The Punjabi Sikh border guard met me as if I were a long lost relative being rescued from an ultimate evil. The impossibly tall man in full regalia shouted “Welcome to India Sir” and ushered me under a stone arch that divides the two mortal enemies. It was a strange feeling, but after so much time on the road I actually experienced an emotion of ‘home coming’. Every subsequent visit to India has brought back that memory. I feel very much at home there to this day. I answered his invitation with , “I’m really happy to be here”. Stamp stamp  and I was a native of India for the next six months as stated in my well used passport.

I can describe a state of mind where bliss and happiness, satisfaction and wonder are all rolled up into one beautiful moment. Amazingly, my companion travelers were all of the same  persuasion. Even the usually talkative and boisterous Eddy was pensive and contemplative as we made a bee-line towards Delhi. Everyone had their own plans around what they would do once we left the Tardis…ahem…Magic Bus.

The countryside was hypnotic. The Indians have chosen colour as their weapon against  drab clay and rusty earth. Everything was new, words, food, deeds, people, livestock, architecture. Fantastic ziggurat temples rose out of the flat soil, painted in every bright hue . The gods they housed were every bit as fantastic as the temples that housed them.

The city of New Delhi begins a thousand miles away from it’s epicenter. The build up in population is only a precursor to the crowded streets  in the city. It reached a point where we were  constantly shoulder to shoulder inside a seething mass of humanity. I was elated, afraid, in wonder, amused, all in a day. Our journey as a clan of intrepid travelers ended in a  nondescript parking lot in the Pahar Ganj district close to  Delhi railway station. This would prove fortuitous to me as I would ride the trains for months to discover this great land in a way that many Indians envy . I went everywhere, north-south-east-west , no matter the distance or hardship.

Eventually I found a virtually secret little place along the coast south of Bombay called Goa. There were only four other westerners there, no where to stay and no restaurants. Just an untended beach along the Arabian Sea.

I was fortunate to be introduced to a fisherman who agreed to move  his family out of his comfortable mud and cow dung thatch roofed shack with  outside well and pig cleaned outhouse, for the princely sum of sixteen cents a day. I had to get up early if I wanted  fresh fish from the boats on the beach.  I bought a kerosene cooker to make rice with the only two vegetables grown in local gardens, tomato and onion. My journey to India had just begun.