Saturday, March 28, 2020


Eric Newby (1919-2006)

Partly because he'd been stationed in Fatehgarh along the Ganges river when he was a junior officer in the Indian army in 1941, and partly because he was a born traveler and curious about everything, he and his wife Wanda decided to take a trip down the river to familiarize themselves with the native culture and to examine some of the historical monuments and artifacts of the area.  The Ganges rises at the foot of the Gharwal Himalayas in north-western India and trends south-east and east until it reaches the Bay of Bengal.  But for all practical purposes only the lower 1200 miles is navigable (it's 1600 miles long, more or less) because that's where it ceases plunging down and into mountain gorges and becomes a meandering waterway suitable, supposedly, for boat traffic.  In point of fact, though, the depth of the river varies greatly with the changing seasons, being shallow during the dry season and flood-prone in the wet one.

The intention was to float down the river in some sort of houseboat, so after the pair's arrival they looked around for a suitable craft and settled on an 18' double-ended affair that was made out of tin and had a lot of rusted holes in it.  They had it fixed up and set off with four helpers and grounded out in 200 yards in 16" of water.  The bottom of the river was covered with large boulders and in order to progress at all, they had to move them by hand, making a sort of channel for the boat to float in.  All six worked until sunset, shifting rocks and pushing the boat while being stared at and commented on by herds of cows lined up along the bank.  The river was about 70 yards wide at this point so there wasn't a lot of choice between channels.  Sometimes they'd suddenly reach a deeper spot and the boat would accelerate, precipitating itself over a series of cascades or falls.  Inevitably some damage to the vessel transpired, but through dogged persistence, they managed to keep up the work for a week until they arrived at Raoli where the river bottom sediment load finally turned to mud, sand and silt.  They had traveled 35 miles, grounded the boat 63 times, coursed down 36 rapids and pretty well trashed the boat.  They were about out of food and running low on funds so they abandoned travel on the water and took the bus to a small village named Bijnor, 10 miles away.

A Newby quote:  "It is better in India to say you will do a thing and not do it, rather than say it is impossible".

Eric had in his possession a letter from Jawaharlal Nehru that he had hoped would smooth some of the difficulties he knew were inevitable, but whenever he tried showing it to local authorities they either didn't know who he was or didn't consider it very motivational.  At any rate, Eric and Wanda took the train to Garmunhtesar and later to Bareilly, experiencing in real life some of the unpleasantness of lower class travel:  sleeping on concrete floors with rats and over friendly Hindus and riding in overcrowded, stinky boxcars.  The stove which allowed them to eat on board whatever boat they were traveling in was stolen at one point and Eric dashed to the local market to buy one before the next train left.  He couldn't get what he wanted right away and frantically ran from one storekeeper to another, agonizing over missing the train and worrying about Wanda who was sick at the time.  When he finally managed to acquire a satisfactory substitute he ran back only to discover the train had been delayed several hours.  This incident epitomized to some extent much of their experience in their haphazard, peripatetic journey.

All along the river, once it's navigability increased, the banks displayed old ruined temples and mosques, villages every few miles, lots of cows, millet, rice and wheat fields, and lots of garbage.  Fairly often dead bodies floated by.  The river itself changed channels frequently and unpredictably, the bed itself shoaling and making sandbars that made their presence known whenever the passengers relaxed a bit.  When they reached Farehgarh at last they were able to rest for several days, as it was a military station with which Eric was familiar.  The bungalows were clean and the food was edible. 

Back on the river they rowed (with help) 90 miles down to Kanpur, where they were snubbed by the Anglo-Indian enclave but heartily welcomed by the Indian Officers Club.  They spent six days at the Circuit House, another well maintained military establishment.  Their next interesting destination was located at the junction of the Ganges, Jumna, and Sarasvati rivers, a very holy spot in the Hindu religion, a place where millions of Hindi pilgrims aspired to bathe themselves in the holy waters, especially at the Sangam (a Hindu holy celebration), thereby receiving forgiveness for their sins and guaranteeing their eventual entrance into a better incarnation.  "Ghats" are the stepped formations leading down into the water that enable easier access to the muddy river for the eager worshippers.  Eric and Wanda toured the area for several days, visiting the Well of the World, a magical source of miracle-working water, as well as more temples and mosques.

All along the banks, bird-life was riotous, with every variation from cranes to ducks, flying and fishing in the waters.  There were fresh-water dolphins  and crocodiles and other sorts of fish unfamiliar to the travelers and lots of large turtles.  These all became more evident as they made their way to Mirzapur in an 18 foot boat.  They saw bandal builders:  bandals were channel fences made of bamboo stalks paled close together, the purpose being to establish permanent channels for the meandering sands and silts.  As a side-note, Thomas Love Peacock, the English author, lived in the area for a few years, and was responsible for introducing steamboats as a means of transport on the river up to the port of Mirzapur.

At Benares, Allahabad, Patna and Bankipore they played tourist and had more adventures.  After a very cold trip on top of a sort of grain ship called a "bhur", Wanda become upset with the ongoing lack of food, the poor sleeping facilities and the unsanitary food and told Eric that "I'm leaving you and I'm never coming back".  But she  soon changed her mind in spite of their situation continuing to be pretty much the same.  Actually she went to all the trouble to cook an enormous dish of lamb Baffat for Eric and the crew, a sort of onion-spiced curry, and was chagrined when none of them would eat it because she'd left out the onion, which she didn't like.

In Colganj, Eric inspected more old ruins while being followed around by about 60 school children all yelling "What are you looking at"  repeatedly.  Here they had their first taste of fried fish which was delicious;  they hadn't been able to find any up to this point as it was a marketable item and not for personal use.  Statues, carvings, caves, lots of jackals, rats, dead bodies, and loud booms as sections of the riverbank fell into the water.  They toured the Italianate Palace of the Nawab Nazims
of Bengal in a jeep:  it reminded Eric of Buckingham Palace.  Old abandoned factories, mostly for indigo production were common.  They drank cocoanut milk directly from the palm with a sort of tubular affair built by a native.

Finally, though, they reached the lower part of the river (actually the Hooghly) and paid too much for a boat to take them to Calcutta where they arrived just in time to board the S.S. Jalavijaya on which they experienced a hair-raising trip, playing tag with lots of bends and shoals, down to the Bay of Bengal. 

I read Newby's "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" a couple of years ago and liked it a lot:  it seemed like a kind of parody of Himalayan mountain climbing and was quite funny.  So i tried this book but while it was informative and startlingly amazing, it didn't have the same nonchalance that the previous book did.  But Newby knew how to write.  He was a journalist for the London Observer for almost thirty years and wrote mostly about travel, which he devoted most of his spare time to...  he published a lot of books, some of them sounding attractive, so i'll probably read more of his work.

Sunday, March 22, 2020


Paul Bowles (1910-1999)

* from "The Jumblies", a poem by Edward Lear

Mr. Bowles was a world traveler in his early years, when he visited many of the middle eastern countries and spent time living in some of them.  the book opens in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), with several descriptions of the primitive and not so primitive conveniences afforded the itinerant traveler.  He stayed for a while in a native domicile and experienced the unique pleasure associated with sleeping on a concrete floor with other companions:  gekkos, cicadas, mosquitos and the occasional cobra.  Later he spent some time in the hill-top menage of one of the local authorities which was a big improvement even though it was not blessed with actual glass windows.  There was a species of bird, unidentified, the members of which held lengthy conversations all through the night in stentorious tones, talking to each other from one side of the house to the other.  This didn't bother the lizards and other residents, but Paul found sleeping to be not a socially accepted activity in that vicinity.  He became familiar with various Singhalese religious rites, which often involved the use of large numbers of fireworks.  The Buddhist Perith rite was a popular procedure to eliminate evil from local characters noted for their pronounced dubiety.  This was usually accompanied by music.  Flutes and drums were the instruments of choice and the tonalities ranged over four notes, played with great subtlety, utilizing un-Western modalities that included 1/4 and even 1/8 note discriminations.  The music attracted Paul's attention and he eventually was hired in North Africa to make recordings of some of the native tribes in the Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountains.

He moved to Tangier in the middle 'fifties and with two friends, Christopher (who owned an ancient Volkswagen) and Mohammed Larbi, a supposed guide and baggage carrier, he toured around Northwest Africa in fulfillment of a six-month contract with the American Library of Congress to record native music.  Paul had applied, conscientiously, for the requisite permission to pursue his investigations but was more or less ignored by officialdom so, following the advice of the American embassy, he just went ahead with his explorations.  Permission for the project arrived just before the six months was over, and when they had already gathered a substantial number of recordings.

They spent about a year bouncing around the primitive roads of Morocco equipped with a large recording machine, trying to persuade local chieftains to stage dances so that they could capture the performances for posterity.  Often electricity was not available, or unreliable and they were reduced to using generators that frequently ceased operating at crucial stages due to contaminated gasoline or other mechanical issues.  But they did end up with a selection of drum music and some recordings of unusual Berber instruments such as the Zamar, a double-reed shawm with two bull horns attached at the bottom.

Bowles wrote about the silence of the desert to an impressive extent, describing the hypnotic effect of the utter quiet combined with the seemingly solid blue sky.  These qualities seemed to be related to the music he was listening to, reverberating with the mystical states he was observing in the dances and performances he was attempting to capture.  One of the most successful sessions occurred in a remote village at the bottom of a canyon in the Anti-Atlas mountains.  The three were argued into descending a very long, rocky and unpaved road that in due course led them into a mini-paradise with trees and shrubbery and a small waterfall right at the end of the gorge.  After consultation with the village elders, a concert/dance was arranged that took place the same evening.  About 100 men took part along with 70 or so ladies later.  The village had its own recording machine, but when they finally got it to operate, the man in charge held the pickup mike so close to the machine that Paul was sure nothing would be recorded but static.  He was happily surprised at the end of the performance to find out that it had worked perfectly and he was in possession of 14 out of 18 separate musical pieces.  Included were transcriptions not only of the intricate drumming rhythms, but of the very loud zamar, the rhaita, a sort of outdoor oboe, and the qsbah, a native reed flute, very low pitched and sonorous. 

A few years later, Paul was living in Costa Rica where he came to admire parrots.  On the spur of the moment he purchased one in a market place.  Shortly afterwards it demonstrated its voracity by eating a lens out of his binoculars, followed by a tube of toothpaste and part of a Russian novel.  Paul took it along when he moved to Antigua, where it managed to chew its way out of a tin cage and escape into a nearby avocado tree.  Then he had a parakeet named Hitler that bit anything that approached and screamed and raged over the servant's toes.  It loved to screech "periquito burro" in a voice that uncomfortably resembled his namesake ("stupid parakeet").  His experiences with a Macaw named Loplop were uncomfortable.  They are very loud and aggressive.  Loplop loved having his tummy scratched and once pinned Paul down in a hammock for several hours, forcing him to scratch away in fear of being attacked by the macaw's formidable scissor-like beak.

This book was a sort of window into the personality and experiences of Paul Bowles.  I've known about his writing for several years but never have investigated any of his books so i thought i'd read this small volume of essays.  He's a very competent and humorous writer with a mystical slant to his perceptions that he's well able to incorporate into his descriptive portrayals of geographical features and to use as elements in the personalities of the characters occupying his stories.  He lived in Tangiers for most of his life, when he wasn't traveling even though, by what he has to say about the area, he was well aware of the ignorance and unenlightened behaviors of the government and the ubiquitous money hunger of the average citizen.  His true love, it seemed to me, was of the Sahara desert, an area larger than the continental United States.  When i paid a visit to Death Valley, California many years ago, i had the same feeling, standing in the playa between the Black and the Panamint mountains, that Bowles describes, of utter silence and isolation situated on a whirling globe in a vast black universe...

Saturday, March 14, 2020


 Ed Stafford (1975-   )

Ed was adopted as a baby by the Staffords who lived in a small English village.  At an early age he showed a predilection for outdoor activities and during boarding school he became known for his skill at playing rugby.  He graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in Geography and immediately joined the army.  After four years spent partly in Ireland he sold out and resigned, having attained the rank of captain.  Being interested primarily in open air pursuits, he began working in Central America for aid-related organizations and gained a lot of experience in managing expeditions and dealing with officialdom as regards passports, visas and travel permits.  While working for Trekforce in Belize he decided to go for a world record of some sort and realized that no person had ever walked the length of the Amazon river.

Since Ed was not wealthy, he used his knowledge and networking abilities to obtain a list of sponsors who donated money for his projected excursion.  April 2, 2008 saw Ed and several companions walk down to the beach from a small Peruvian village, Camana, to dip their toes into the Pacific Ocean, signaling the beginning of a 4,345 mile hike through some of the most arduous country in the world.  Initially they set off boldly to go where no one had gone before and they made 2.5 miles and checked into a local hotel.  Somewhat chagrined, they lightened their loads and set off, still determined, the next morning.  Even after paring down the weight of their packs, they were carrying 40-50 kilograms each:  at 2.5 lbs/kg, that came to around 100 pounds apiece.  Ed was 6'1" tall and was in good condition, but his companions were not quite so strong.  Oz, a local guide, was short and skinny and, soaking wet, barely tilted the scale to 120 lbs.  Luke Collyer, another experienced expedition leader had agreed to go along even though he wasn't in quite as good shape as Ed.

The three toiled up the Andes, overlooking some of the deepest canyons in the world, sleeping outdoors for the most part, and enjoying the meals prepared by Oz, who turned out to be an excellent make-shift cook.  Tiptoeing their way through a recent rockslide, they noticed a few mummified Incan corpses that were first seeing daylight after some hundreds of years:  hopefully not accurate prognosticators of future events.  The trio walked through small villages quite frequently and in one of them they were able to rent a donkey to carry some of the heavier gear.  Eventually they topped out on Nevado Mismi, a mountain overseeing the true starting point of the Amazon, 200 kilometers and three weeks from Camana.  The Apurimac river begins with a small spring on the mountain slope and trickles north, joining with many tributaries and increasing in volume until it becomes the Amazon.

By the time the party reached Cuzco, disagreements and arguments over routes and rates of travel were beginning to proliferate between Ed and Luke.  It wasn't long before Luke decided to leave and left Ed to carry on with his guides and occasional walking associates:  figures from sponsoring bodies and local interested persons.  One of the latter started out as a guide and ended up accompanying Ed all the way to the Atlantic Ocean even though he often iterated that he needed to return to his wife and children.  This was Gadiel Sanchez, known as "Cho", without whose aid and psychological support, Ed would very probably not have finished his walk.  Route-finding was occasionally problematical.  In its lower reaches the Apurimac rages through a series of narrow canyons that are impossible to walk through, therefore paths on one side of the canyons or the other needed to be traced.  Several times they became uncertain of their location and suffered torments of thirst before they happened upon the right track.

Approaching the low lands, local denizens warned them not to enter the "red zone", a section of the river that was occupied by hostile indians and controlled by gun-toting drug runners and belligerent loggers.  But with frequent offerings - presents of food and pocket knives and the like - as well as picking out pathways that avoided well-known dangerous areas, they managed to pacify the local indian chiefs and reassure trigger-happy drug lords.  All this time they were traveling through dense jungle, hacking their way through with machetes and commonly having to retrace their steps due to impassable swamps or flooded regions.  Shotgun traps were common.  The indigenes would set up shotguns to kill any animal that wandered through;  a sort of lazy persons hunting scheme that could be disastrous for the casual stroller.  They did a lot of wading through boggy areas in which they were up to their necks in crocodile and snake infested waters.  At one point it took them ten days to cover 25 kilometers.  When they were lucky, they might find a small islet to camp on and cook some food, but only if they shared it with spiders, bugs, beetles, millipedes and ants by the million.  Not to mention the savage hordes of mosquitoes and piranhas.  And the occasional anaconda.

When a year had passed, Ed and Cho were by themselves, making their way via Google Earth, as all three of their GPS systems had died.  They lived mostly on farine (pasta)and fish:  smoked piranhas were a delicacy but not always available.  Cho was a genius at making do.  He once made a fishing line out of a pack of needles that he heated over the fire and then welded together by pounding on them with a rock.  They were excited one day, after seeing no other person for weeks, by coming across the tracks of another couple who were apparently traveling just ahead of them.  It was some time before they became aware that they were walking in a circle.

They finally arrived at Manaus, where the Rio Negro joins the Amazon and took a break for a week.  Ed had been depressed for weeks because of loneliness and anxiety.  Cho had helped him break out of his self-imposed melancholy, and he became better after awhile, learning to live one day at a time, and even one minute at a time, and to experience and enjoy his surroundings, seeing the true miracle of the living forest around him.

They ran out of money and had to live off the land.  Sometimes they traded fish for farine, or the rare isolated farmer would feed them gratis.  But they kept on keeping on and at the end of their two-year hike, began to realize that they would probably make it.  Things still went wrong:  following the wrong trail, blundering into swamps and marshes and snakes, dealing with pugnacious miners and loggers, having to sneak around official check points (they had far outstayed their visas and were actually in Brazil illegally) and were forced to bribe the infrequent country policeman.  When they saw, at last, that they were getting close to the end, they began to drive themselves harder.  On the final leg, they covered 85 kilometers between midnight and 4 pm the next day, appearing like ragged ghosts from the green jungle and falling into the Atlantic Ocean like stained wraiths from some sort of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious labyrinth.

Ed calculated up some of the numerical features of the trip:  they had walked 9,000,000 steps, suffered 200,000 mosquito bites, walked 8,000 kilometers, received 600 wasp stings, 12 scorpion stings, lost 10 video cameras, worn through 6 pairs of boots, destroyed 3 GPS units, and set 1 world record.

This was truly an amazing story.  Ed's singlemindedness  was incredible, and i've never heard of anyone persisting to the end like he and Cho did in this adventure.  The writing was good and descriptive and easy to follow, if occasionally harrowing in some of the incidents that transpired;  Ed still is interested in conservation and helping people in the area.  He gives inspirational talks around the globe and so far as i'm aware, has not returned to some of the places he struggled through.  This account recorded perhaps the most extreme feat i've ever come across between the covers of a book.  recommended...

Friday, March 6, 2020


Dervla Murphy (1931-...)

In the 13th century, Russia and Siberia were over-run by the Mongol hordes who decimated the population and the countryside, but left the church untouched by order of Gengis Khan, on the condition that they offer up prayers for the Mongol leaders.  This instituted a tyrannical style of government that united the indigenous peoples for the first time, and established a cultural acceptance of dictatorship that lasted until the present day.  Under what eventually became the Orthodox religion, the vast majority of the population became peasants laboring for the welfare of the few religious figureheads, who lived lives of luxury, dealing in trade goods, establishing laws, and dominating the daily activities of the kulaks.  Toward the beginning of the 19th century, revolutions against the czarist government (which grew under the aegis of the church as a sort of political bureaucracy) became a serious concern, and fervor related to the eradication of the totalitarian regime became widespread, culminating in the 20th century Russian Revolution that offered hope for a few years until political infighting resulted in the repetition of the old pattern:  a single leader of the country who acted as a king, the ultimate authority and ruler of the country in all its aspects.  As we know, Mr. Gorbachov changed things once again in 1992, but the pattern repeated itself, with the current power-mad figure dominating once more the entire country from the Ural mountains to the eastern edge of Siberia.

The above is just a note describing in part the world that Ms. Murphy entered when she left her native Ireland to go for a bike ride in Siberia, north of Lake Baikal.  In September, 2001, she caught a plane to Moscow and arranged for a BAM train-ride to Tynda, near the fore-mentioned lake.  BAM stands for the Baikal-Amur-Mainline, an alternative to the Trans-Siberian line that ends in Vladivostok.  Conditions on the train were a bit primitive, the coaches being divided into large rooms in which several families or collections of strangers shared food and spent the five and a half day journey talking or playing games.  The average speed of the train was about 20 mph.  As the passengers came closer to the destination, Dervla suffered an accident:  she slipped on a wet floor and ripped some tendons in her right knee.

This incident promised to cancel or limit her proposed bicycle route, so she resolved to spend some time in the area, sight-seeing and getting acquainted with the locals.  After exploring Tynda, making friends, picnicking and partying, she entrained again to the Lake itself, curious about the largest fresh-water lake in the world.  It's longer than the country of Ireland.  Once more she made a lot of friends even though she didn't speak the language, and became familiar with the uncertain lives of the people living there, who often lost their jobs or weren't paid due to political maneuvering in high places.  One of the most impressive observations she made was the common sight of giant cranes, tractors, bulldozers and other heavy equipment littering the landscape.  Apparently when the Communist state ended in "92, wages for the contracted workers vanished, so the equipment operators vanished as well, leaving all their tools and machines to rust where they stood.  Consequently almost all Siberian cities are decorated with monstrous brown preying mantis figures hovering over the often crumbling and partly constructed ten story apartment buildings.

Lake Baikal itself, in the northern region, has pure water.  It is home to myriads of microscopic animalcules that clean the water of pollutants and contribute to the rather unearthly blue glow of the lake.  Swimming, boating and fishing are the main activities of the citizenry, in addition to whatever remaining government, social or technical positions they might hold.  This part of the lake is only lightly populated, being surrounded by high mountains filled with bears and other wildlife.  Unfortunately, the lake is probably doomed to die in the future due to the heavy contamination introduced by saw mills and developing industries in the southern part of the area.  Environmental regulatory laws exist but are ignored in practice by enthusiastic and greedy business persons.

Dervla had another accident:  she rented a little cabin by the lake and one night decided to go for a swim but she stepped into a four-foot deep hole on the way, spraining her right ankle and re-damaging her knee.  So she gave up the idea of bicycling entirely and took a boat ride instead, up the Lena to Yakutsk, a large city in northern Siberia.  She had more interesting and informative experiences on the way, noting in particular the extensive drug trade that permeates the culture, and the lack of reliable transportation of all types.  Engines for cars buses and trucks are antiquated and unreliable, requiring experienced do-it-yourself mechanics to keep them running.  Returning by bus from the northern city, she recorded the five breakdowns along the way that were repaired by the driver and his helper with either baling wire or parts scavenged from the many abandoned vehicles alongside the rubbly highway.

Finally arriving safely back in Tynda, Dervla went on a few more visits and excursions, then rode the BAM back to Moscow.

This was the second book i've read by Ms. Murphy.  She remains a very intrepid person, the only human i'm aware of that actually bicycled across Afghanistan.  Of the account i've read of around the world bike rides, all of them either detoured around the country or crossed it by airplane or train.  It's a dangerous place.  In spite of leaving school when she was fourteen, she is an excellent and informative author and has, indubitably, the Irish gift of gab.  She's spent her whole life traveling and observing the world's peoples and her comments and opinions are well worth the reader's attention.  I liked the book a lot - it was packed with information about the little-known area - and i plan to read more of her work:  she wrote at least 25 books...