Friday, August 5, 2016

From ‘Pole to Pole’ by Michael Palin

Greenland is a part of the kingdom of Denmark – a massive, almost uninhabited ice-cap over fifty times the size of its mother country.

Not that Odd is unusual in Tromso, in fact its one of the most common surnames. Should you ever wish to stay unnoticed in a Tromso hotel, check in as Mr and Mrs Odd.

…..a truly surreal piece of Same culture – a joiking ceremony. A joik (pronounced yoik) is an improvised chant, delivered in a semi-yodelling waver. It has no beginning, middle or end. It is musical but not actually a song. It contains the essence of a feeling or a character or an emotion that is wholly personal and cannot be transferred except possibly within a family……It all feels very Irish, or perhaps Indian, and later I find out that joiking is very much part of an international folk tradition….

We cross the Norway-Finland border at a sleepy hamlet called Karigasniemi. The Japanese couple, who have been clutching documents for the last half-hour, cannot believe that no one wants to see their passports.

……our hotel in Ivalo also sported a full-blooded disco which set to work around midnight and was conveniently located beneath the bedrooms.

There are only five million people in Finland, and they enjoy the second highest standard of living in Europe. They also share a long border with a country that is cracking up, and one of their great fears is that Gorbachev’s reforms will one day lead to a flood of Russian immigrants.

….Neil says that in the north of Finland the girls are very direct. At a dance or disco they will always make the first move. ‘Even the old and ugly ones,’ adds Lassie.

The Finns, it seems, are egalitarian, eschewing formality and anything that smacks of class. They have a sense of humour, but not much sense of irony. Humour is introspective and personal; there’s no tradition of getting together in a theatre to laugh communally.

It’s hard to overestimate the contempt which Finns seem to have for all things Russian.

….[Leningrad] …a visit to two contrasting food sources. One is the private market, to which people can bring their home-grown produce to sell. It looks much like any big covered market, thought the standard of hygiene is low….According to ….our interpreter, the average Russian would not be able to afford to shop here. Even her parents, who are quite well off, could only come here maybe two or three times a month, for a treat….the alternative is the State food shop…..It is clean, well lit, hygienic and almost entirely devoid of food….there is no wine on the shelves as Gorbachev’s anti-drinking reforms have resulted in enormous cuts in production. Apparently sixty per cent of the Georgian wine crop was deliberately destroyed.

…..Edward…he’s Jewish, one of the ‘nationalities’ for whom travel is difficult. He is about to go abroad for the first time…..but his passport will still make specific mention of the fact that he is Jewish…..He laughs a lot. He says the Russians all do. They couldn’t survive without laughter.

[Novgorod] …..If only I had been able to spend more time with the Mayor….I could have asked him why, in a city of 250,000 people, there are only five restaurants.

….we pull into Kiev, capital of the Ukraine, third-largest city of the Soviet Union. The station is packed solid. I’ve seen nothing like it since India.

Soviet restaurants exist for one purpose, and that is to keep the customer out, and if by chance he or she should get in to make life so uncomfortable that they wish they hadn’t. ….Its very depressing and is, I suppose, just the Soviet system in microcosm – unwieldy, paranoid and impersonal.

During the time the Nazis occupied Kiev – from October 1941 to October 1943 – 400,000 people were killed, either in the city or in extermination camps, 300,000 were deported to forced labour camps in Germany, and eighty per cent of all residential houses were destroyed. ….If the prevailing wind had not been blowing from the south on 26 April 1986 – the day the reactor blew up at Chernobyl – Kiev, only fifty-five miles away, would have been a dead city…..The Ukrainians claim that 8000 died as a result of the accident. The official figure is thirty-two.

Romanians occupied Odessa in the war – Hitler had promised their leader Antonescu large stretches of the Black Sea coastline. They burnt 20,000 locals in an arsenal and hanged 5000 from trees around the city to frighten the populace. Today the major problem is severe industrial pollution. The Sea of Azov, a huge area east of the Crimea, is so badly affected that its beaches have been totally evacuated.

We have seen the petrol queues and the empty shops, the shabbiness of the surroundings and the hard face of privilege, but we’ve also seen spontaneous delight in the countryside…..happily packed beaches…..All you can say is the Soviet Union is never quite what it seems. We have eaten old, tasteless bread in hotels, but found, here in Odessa, a shop around the corner selling fresh baguettes. We have seen one bag of fruit costing over twenty per cent of a weekly wage and country gardens groaning with produce. We have looked into stony faces but never been hugged as hard.

Istanbul is a very noisy city, much of the noise from a huge construction programme.

As a result of climate, history and geographical position, Istanbul is the quintessential trading city. Russia and the Mediterranean and Europe and Asia meet here….There are Azerbaijanis, Iranians, Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians and Afghans….

[Rhodes] ….In his opinion it had a better sewage system 400 years before Christ than it does now. It also had a population of 300,000, now shrunk to 80,000.

…..Egypt, where confusion seems an essential part of everyday life. There is no feeling here that life is a series of problems to be solved, rather that there is a human state, which is chaos, and that peace, calm and order is a heavenly state to which, Inshallah, we wretched mortals may one day aspire.

Egypt offers no gradual assimilation into Africa, no comfortable cultural transition. The strangeness of everything begins at the coast and doesn’t let up.

The Egyptian theory of driving is simple – everyone else on the road is in your way.

A statue of Rameses II, ninety-seven feet high and made from a single piece of granite, weighs 1000 tons. Cranes nowadays can only lift 200 tons, yet this massive statues was brought to Luxor from Aswan overland, 3000 years ago.

The temple of Abu Simbel, further south, was, he tells me, aligned by the ancient Egyptians so that the sun shone onto the face of Rameses twice a year – once on his birthday and once on his coronation day. When Abu Simbel was re-sited in a forty-million-dollar operation to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, all the calculations of the world’s experts could not enable the sun to shine on Rameses’ face more than once a year.

…..the dam at Aswan is 650 feet higher than Cairo and Alexandria, and if it were to burst Egypt would be virtually wiped out…… Some people question the wisdom of building the dam at all, pointing out that the yearly flooding of the Nile provided vital fertility, which now has to be provided artificially; this is expensive and destructive. The Nubians question why they had to lose seventy-five villages and have thousands of their people resettled to make way for the lake. But Eltahez is adamant. The Aswan Dam saved Egypt in the nine years of drought between 1979 and 1988. ….the only project in modern Egypt to rival the works of the Pharaohs.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa…Foreign visitors are not encouraged.

….the rule that the more forms you have to fill in the less efficient the country is likely to be….and any country that has a Ministry of Information must have something to hide.

…..the diversity of these big African countries – there are 270 languages in the Sudan alone.

[Sudan] ……the Muslims of the north (comprising about seventy per cent of the country) and the Christians and non-Muslims of the south….Its one of the puzzles of history that such hardship and poverty can exist in a land which over 2000 years ago was renowned for an iron industry and a rich agriculture.

As happens in Africa, there are people walking in the middle of nowhere….

….Gondar…..this sizeable town, 7000 feet above sea-level and for 200 years the capital of Ethiopia….

…..Ethiopia’s curious history. It is unique in Africa in having been ruled by a direct line through forty-five generations….

…..the Blue Nile Falls, or the Tissisat (‘Smoking Water’) Falls …….look down on one of the greatest natural spectacles I have ever seen….

Graham says that there are few wild animals left in Ethiopia now. They have been hunted to extinction.

…..Addis Ababa, at 8000 feet, is one of the highest capitals in the world. ….Addis Ababa was chosen by Emperor Menelik II to be his capital in 1887. The name means ‘New Flower’ in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, which is a Semitic language, closer to Arabic and Hebrew than anything African. It is a nondescript city set handsomely in a bowl of mountains but reflecting no great sense of civic pride.

There are twenty-five million Christians in Ethiopia out of a total population of forty-five million…..

Most Ethiopians are farmers anyway – ninety-two per cent of the population, in fact. Of these, eighty-nine per cent are subsistence farmers, growing only what they need for themselves.

…..the legendary Ethiopian butchers’ shops in which you can order a slice of raw flesh off the carcass and eat it then and there.

…..the soaring bulk of the Mount Kenya massif. The highest of its ragged peaks, Batian, rises to 17,000 feet. It is the second highest point in Africa, after Kilimanjaro……Even from the hot plain beyond Isiolo one can make out the glaciers and ice-fields at its summit, which ensure that there is always snow at the Equator.

….Ngorongoro Crater, the second largest in the world…..the rim of the ….Crater, almost 6600 feet above sea-level….twelve-mile-wide crater with trees around a small soda lake at the bottom….

Twenty-five per cent of Tanzania is apparently turned over to conservation, a higher proportion than anywhere else in Africa.

Lake Tanganyika, the second-deepest lake in the world (after Lake Baikal), set in the centre of the African continent……

Tanzanians don’t intrude, they aren’t curious or reproving or obsessive starers.

I remember Japhet on the boat telling me that whichever side won the election there would be ‘no violence ….Zambians are not like that’. Paul sees this as negative quality. There are eight million Zambians, anything can grow here he maintains, but the economy is in ruins because the people are too easygoing and acquiescent.

[Zambia]….David….who farms in the south of the country and is as level-headed as you would expect from a graduate of agricultural college, respects witch doctors and has used them. He saw with his own eyes, a witch doctor make his way down a line of farm workers, one of whom was thought to be guilty of stealing. He touched each man on the shoulder with his stick but as he applied it to one man the stick burned into his flesh and stuck fast. The man confessed.

[Zimbabwe]….This country has a most un-African obsession with tidiness.

…..South Africa ….One third of the country’s export earnings comes from gold, and the proceeds from coal, platinum, uranium and other minerals found in these rich seams raise this to almost two thirds…..mining is a tight, white-run operation.

Western Deep Mine is in The Guiness Book of Records for the deepest penetration of man into the earth’s crust – 3773 metres, that’s nearly two and a half miles. Within the next year that will be surpassed by a new shaft which will be sunk beyond the 4000-metre mark. …..I have seen no black faces yet, apart from the gardeners. I presume they’re all underground.

…..the barman Matt ….comes up with the surprising information that the noisiest tourists he deals with are the Swiss.
‘Swiss people are noisy?’
He relents a little. ‘Well, not noisy, but they’re happy drinkers.’

…..Table Mountain, a sheer cliff rising 3500 feet above the city of Cape Town.

… 10,000 feet …..It had never occurred to me that besides being bleak and inhospitable and pitch dark half the year, the South Pole was as high as an Alpine peak. …..Mount Vinson – at 16,000 feet, the highest point on the continent of Antartica….

The main dangers in Antartica, she warns us, are the cold and the wind and the snow. Exposed areas will get quickly frostbitten, and snow-blindness is painful and easily acquired. A snowstorm can come down at any time so ‘always move in a party of people’.

I’m surprised… find how few people have ever been to the South Pole. Higher, colder, less accessible than the North, it remained unvisited for forty-four years after Scott left in January 1912. The US Navy landed there in 1956 and scientists have worked at the Pole ever since, but few outsiders have visited. Anne estimates that in six years of operation Adventure Network have taken no more than twenty-five or twenty-six people all the way to the Pole.

Unlike the Arctic – a moving ocean covered with ice several feet thick – Antarctica is a landmass, covered with an ice-sheet 12,000 feet thick in places. It is larger in area than the USA and yet there are probably fewer than 4000 people on the entire continent.

The dangers of Antarctic life begin as soon as you set foot on the ground. It is an extremely slippery continent …..

Away from the coast, there is no life, and therefore no bacteria; no disease, no pests, no beasts of prey, no human interference. It is a clinical environment ….It can only be compared with life under the ocean or in space.
I read this description of Antarctica, from Roland Huntford’s book The Last Place on Earth…..

No waste of any kind is allowed to be left in Antarctica. Any effluent, human or otherwise, will make an epic journey, not via some dark drain and sewer, but by Bruce’s Douglas DC-6, 1700 miles back to South America to be finally disposed of……Men are allowed to pee on the ice but only at a certain spot, marked by a red flag, which gives vital wind direction information as well. Anyone who thinks they can get away with a quick one outside the tent is in for a shock, as urine turns the snow bright orange.

……There are no polar bears in the Antarctic…..

From this spot all directions point north. At this spot I can walk around the world in eight seconds. I am on the same longitude as Tokyo, Cairo, New York and Sheffield. I am standing at the South Pole

From ‘A Journey with Elsa Cloud. A mother and daughter odyssey through India’ by Leila Hadley

When you have leisure,
Wander idly through my garden in spring
And let an unknown, hidden flower’s scent startle you
Into sudden wondering –
Let that displaced moment be my gift,
Or if, as you peer your way down a shady avenue,
Suddenly spilled
From the thick gathered tresses of evening
A single shivering fleck of sunset-light stops you,
Turns your daydreams to gold,
Let that light be an innocent
[Rabindranath Tagore, Gift]

“I miss Western art in India,” she says. “Indians don’t go in for paintings all that much. Why do you suppose that is? Is it because their life is their art?”

The artist’s spirit is as much a presence in the object the artist created as everyone who is important in my life is present in me.

My meditating is not the same as her meditating. She lets her images come and go. I cling to memories, want o decode them, give them a framework, set them in order, know what’s what, get to the root of things. No just recollecting, but re-membering, an active, purposeful task of reconstructing, different from the fragmentary, flickering images and feelings that drift along like flotsam and flottage in the flow of consciousness.

“You have to expect that in grungy, tenement areas like this,” Vernoica says, as a woman in an iridescent saffron and purple sari edges by, and then another in a marvelously risky color combination of magenta, electric blue, and orange, balancing a burlap sack on her head with graceful ease, a woman from some outlying country district, the light scintillating on her silver ankle bracelets, her wine-jar hips swaying as she walks. Then a man in a lime-green turban, another woman in a fire-bright orange-red, a man in a turban the color of a robin’s egg.
Tenement area? Elsewhere in the world, poverty is gray and brown and seems far more dangerous, unrelieved by dashing color, flash and sparkle.

“To ask how many cows a man owns is as rude as asking him how much money he has in the bank,” a Zulu chieftain had told me in Africa.

She has the look of many Indian women, an expression common to nuns, of women deprived of sexual pride. The sensuality of stone-carved faces in Indian temples and museums is rarely visible in the flesh.

In India more than anywhere in the world, I am aware of hands graceful in motion, gracefully poised with beautifully shaped nails and delicately spoked tendons. Here in the market, hands silent as paintings, hands stretching, reaching, holding, hands pinching vegetables and fruit for the feel of freshness, these hands possess the sensuality that the faces lack.

Trijung Rinpoche projects goodness and serenity the way an electric fan creates coolness.

To feel pleasure and to be able to share that pleasure is the only antidote to loneliness that I know.

The Indian gift for giving beauty to commonplace objects charms me. The simplicity of artistically embellished cow dung cakes comes as a relief after exposure to architecture that is massive and immensely intricate.

With the extraordinary hospitality offered to strangers travelling in India, chapattis are given to us….

A fire-tailed sunbird comes to perch almost within arm’s reach….I’ve never seen such an extraordinary bird that close, that still, in all of my life. In India, small birds and animals seem to have no fear of human beings. Perhaps they know they are protected by the Indian policy of non-injury toward birds, animals, and snakes, particularly if they’re the vahana or vehicle of one of the gods.

In his Memoirs, Babur, the sixteenth-century founder of the Mogul dynasty, fretted that the country of Hindustan was “greatly wanting in charm.” Among other things, there were no good horses, no first-rate fruit, no ice, no cold water, no hot baths; no candles, no torches, no candlesticks, no walls to the orchards, no running water in the gardens or the residences. The residences and gardens were constructed all on the same flat plane, he dourly observed, and the residences were without fresh air, regularity, or symmetry.

Mulk [Raj Anand] once told me that Hindus never possessed the innate need for extravagance flaunted by the Moguls.

… [Alwar museum] …Some day, I hope I shall come back to see the Memoirs Babur penned, the emerald cup, the jeweled swords of Akbar, Jehangir, and Shah Jehan. There is no end to India’s glamorous ghosts.

Mulk [Raj Anand] told me that anthropologists claim the Rajput rulers were very close to the Scottish Highlanders in temperament and in their clan loyalties….

Night falls with the suddenness it does in the Far East.

In India, the strange duality of the ascetic and the erotic is glorified in the worship of Shiva.

Nothing in the world is as freshly green as a rice paddy, not even a Scottish lawn after a morning shower.

“’Poy, Sala!’ or ‘Hoy, Sala! (Stike, Sala!),’” his followers shouted to Sala, legendary head of the Hoysala Dynasty, as they urged him to kill a menacing tiger. King Sala struck the tiger, felled him with a single blow, and this heroic act became the emblem and the rallying cry of the Dynasty.

On my first visit to India, I couldn’t understand why there should be such a plethora of erotic stone nudity when the only live nudity to be seen was among celibate holy men and beyond-the-pale international sunbathers.

As I look at passing monks and lay Tibetans, my first impression, formed ….. that Tibetans have faces that might be American Indian, Mongolian, Indonesian, Chinese, Burmese, Eskimo, Filipino – seems as fatuous to me now as it did then, but no less true. There is no definitive Tibetan look except for a pleasant and serene cast of expression, and a way of moving without wasted gestures or motion. Even children no taller than my waist seem to have a degree of this inner control, this concentration on whatever it is they happen to be doing. Nothing seems to disturb their parents’ poise, to unsettle their capacity for absorption, their deftness of movement. Other than the most discreet of passing glances, they betray no interest in us.

…the Chinese….atrocities ….One monk told me that he had seen his mother and father swaddled in cotton, crucified, and burnt alive. Another told of his grandfather, a high lama, forced to eat bowlsful of human and animal excrement. Another told of public trials in which each member of the crowd was ordered to kick the victim’s teeth, pull out the victim’s hair, pull the victim’s nose until it was broken, or pull the victim’s ears to the point of tearing them from his or her head.

To have suffered and witnessed torment, torture, and destruction and still to believe in the invincibility of the human spirit, that is what endears the Tibetans to me. That, and the faces of the aspirant baby monks who are now gathering on the verandah, enamel mugs and plates in hand, waiting to be served their evening meal. For a moment, their maroon robes, their shaved heads, and their solemn mien distort their reality…..But…..the moment their teacher’s back is turned, they stare at me with mischievous dark eyes, smiling, giggling, and free-spirited, irresistibly lovable because they appear so openly ready to love, to have fun, to play. One of them runs across the dusty path and up the steps to give me a hug that is strong enough to last a lifetime. Then, embarrassed, he runs away.

Veronica …..reminds her of a holiday she once spent in Crete, in a village near Knossos, where she could never wander in the thyme-scented hills without shepherds following her. “When they found I wasn’t available,” she says, “they just stuck a sheep’s hindlegs inside their boot tops, and used the sheep instead.”

[Savoy Hotel]….. there is a pervasive smell of dampness in all the rooms except the bathroom, which smells of Dettol, the way some bathrooms do in English country inns.

In India, perhaps as nowhere else, there still exists a devotion and compassion between master and servant, servant and master.

British Victorians were inclined to be contemptuous of other cultures, and often took it for granted that any custom different from their own was wrong, barbarous, or even wicked. The standards of their youth – honor, decency, truthfulness, cleanliness, doing everything “properly” – were those they adhered to, and a century later, among the dwindling old guard European community ambered in the hill station preserve of Ooty, these standards remain.

Parvin says that Kangra really means kan gara, ear shapers. During the rule of the Sikhs and Moguls, he explains, a common form of punishment for criminals and unfaithful wives was to cut off their ears and noses, and for centuries, Kangra has been a center for plastic surgery. A British traveler in the mid-nineteenth century described the procedure. The patient is rendered senseless with a quantity of wine, bhang, or opium. “They [the surgeons] then tap the skin of the forehead above the nose, until a sort of blister rises, from which a piece of skin of the proper shape is then cut and immediately applied as a nose, sewed on and supported with pieces of cotton.”

Veronica says that the Tibetans use only minerals ground to a powder with millstones for their thangka paints.

…..Dilgo Rinpoche says.
“There is a ritual meaning and significance to man’s last hours on earth, and Tibetans place special emphasis on the conditions of consciousness at the time of death. In the Tantric system of Buddhism…..there is a vague indication that appears near the time of death as to the nature of one’s rebirth.”
“The hours preceding death and the hours after death affect the journey to Bardo, a dreamlike state that is the transitional stage between life and death. A dying person’s emotional and mental state will influence and, to some degree, control, his afterlife and rebirth pattern.” ………
Dilgo Rinpoche goes on. The nature of the Bardo experience is influenced not only by the degree of enlightenment attained by the dying person, but by the supportive services of the attendant family members, friends, and lamas as well. The rites of passage are very important. In the act of dying, the departing spirit must have peace and time to leave its physical house…..and the dying are urged to make a mindful effort to assure that this is so, to meditate so that their individual consciousness is better able to let go its hold on that forever in-flux state of human life and to experience the clear light of the void. A person who dies without much physical deterioration will remain in the state of the subtlest mind, the mind of clear light, for about three days. Some people can identify with the deep nature of their mind and are able to realize it or recognize it, and remain in it for a week or even a month. The living and the dead are divided by only the most diaphanous of veils. All living things are perfectible. Just as life begins slowly in the womb there must be the balancing state of Bardo at the end of life…. The act of dying, not just passively letting life ebb away ……but actively participating in one’s own death, is a new idea to me, and I find it strangely comforting…..

They [Tibetans] tell me that the Hopi [Indian] word for “sun” is the word for “moon” in Tibetan, and the Tibetan word for “sun” is the Hopi word for “moon.” …..Hopi Indians once used dry-sand painting in their ceremonies, the only culture outside of Tibet to do so, but the Secretary says he understands that the Hopi taught the Navajo the technique, and now the Navajo excel in sand painting and the Hopi seldom make sand paintings any more…….Tibetan Buddhism accommodates Bon, and Bon is not unlike the shamanistic practices of the Hopis.

“Tibetan monks radiate mildness and yet have wills of iron,” Veronica says.