Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

THE INDIA JOURNALS 2004-A shambles of recollection

September27

Plane to Dubai -heart scattered from Cape Town to Durban - why am I doing this? Oh god what am I doing!

Gather thoughts -remember that night at the view sight in Durban -alone -with a bad majut joint -where the moon was full and beckoned me on this journey. Remember why you taking this trip Neil. Remember too that you are falling alone and the darkness seems sinister and unwelcoming and that if you trust in the universe enough then it shall provide ,stretch out its long henna painted hands to catch you-I’m pleased to report it has

Clarity -seek it in the chaos ,the filth, seek it in the up and down -you’re on your own now cowboy and that’s as magnificent as it is terrifying.

Dubai in transit, I cry a lot here - tears behind the dark glasses- from the air this place looks like an intricate micro chip, an alien jellyfish -freeways - illuminated tentacles that wind and tangle themselves across one another.

This is the land that the sheik built. A product of too much oil and fuck all sense. The sun coast casino looks like an architectural masterpiece against such a sight. This mighty plastic pleasure zone .plastic cards, plastic lips, tits and other jangly bits. Money thrust into oily palms at alarming rates .I vanish into a designated smoking zone, sleep deprived, toes tingling. Arabs eye me through the cancerous haze and stroke their beards. I’m wearing a Gary Holmes burning cross print on my t shirt . ‘Oh god they might think I’m a Christian fundamentalist- fuck!!!’ move out fast back into the bright lights deciding that there is nothing more torturous then my paranoid overactive imagination!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Pakastani woman befriends me on the plane, her son is an actor and she a TV presenter .She begs me to join them in Pakistan and work with their theatre troupe. She has large moon eyes -chameleon lids licking their circumference. She offers me soothing eastern mama wisdom while the sun outside bleeds into the black night .I feel less afraid of the darkness now,less afraid of facing New Deli at six that morning.

A man wearing a Punjab- Salaman Rushdie look alike with his twirly moustache-smiles from the down the isle -I know ill be fine.

Touch down, clouds part, well actually a grey haze to reveal Deli from the air. The humidity is worse then Madagascar and Durban combined. It knocks you off your feet. I thought it was winter in this hemisphere?? Sticky, hot, oppressive -bad start -just wait till the touts and lepers, beggars, thieves, porters- the ‘everything’ people warned me about- the infamous Deli airport-attack! The departure gate is empty-we sail through untouched. I was kind of made to expected the entire population of India to be surging outside, grubby palms outstretched- no such thing. I am denied my dramatic entrance. God Dubai airport is more daunting then this -with its sheer overwhelming pretentiousness and bustling, buying ,bitching masses

Which really goes to show that 99 percent of the things we worry about never happen-and that the lonely planet travel guide is responsible for propagating more fear then the Bush administration.

My introduction to Deli is alongside a 65 year old granny van Pretoria- Marie. She to is visiting Deli for the first time to buy clothing stock for her little hoek winkel back home. Marie I soon find out is a reborn Christian and racist -having got the Mugabe boot off her Rhodesian farm a few years back she relocated to Pretoria where she now lives as as (her own words) a ‘poor white’. Now this lady is not all together in the head but she’s a feisty and rather adamant old girl and when she offers me a free bed in her three star hotel, having not booked or planned a thing, I decide to go along for the ride.

Now three stars in Deli is more like a Maputo Slum , all dirty perspiring paint jobs and mango trees that sprout from derelict wall cracks.

We retreat to the air conned hotel room - Ouma Marie and I lying on the bed eating her awful home made fridge cake and watching Bollwood movies on TV. I kind of expected to hook with an attractive French back backer at the airport (as you do)-but in India beggars most certainly can’t be choosers and I’ve always had an affinity for old gals as you well know. But Marie proves through the course of the evening that she is not too kosher in the head and is in fact a bit of a pathological bullshitter-which I know you will think puts me in perfect company.

Whilst shopping in the Deli Markets she wears a disguise, a hand sewn black Muslim ninja outfit-so as not to be seen as a westerner and hopefully bargain cheaper prices from the traders. She goes to the extent of painting her exposed skin- brown in the hope of been considered an Indian. I don’t have the heart to tell her that Hindu’s don’t dress in such attire-nor speak in thick Pretoria accents and that she’s now more likely to be harassed for looking like a the wealthy bride of a sheik then a impoverished local.

I attend many shopping trips with her into town - Deli is shopping heaven and a theatrical spectacle like no other. In the Kashmir rug store we sip on jasmine tea whilst the salesmen perform a perfectly placed choreographic unveiling of the hand woven carpets. So precise that one would swear Mr Baz Luhrman had a hand in its orchestration.

One afternoon we stumble (for my sins) on a Christian prayer celebration out on a school field. Over ten thousand Indian worshippers have gathered and sing hymns in Hindi whilst waving their hands in unison. Ol Marie nearly platzed ‘ I never knew these blaady hindians even knew who Jesus was!,I just hope they don’t think he’s some blaady blue elephant god with six arms!’

Now there’s an interesting looking crucifix, I muse but dare say. Marie begins to take my hand and pray, tears rolling down her cheek while I sway along awkwardly and wonder how in gods name I’ve ended up at a Christian festival.

That night in Deli it rains, hot monsoon rains, lightening cracking. I escape the garrulous Marie and smoke a cigarette on a balcony over looking the city. It feels like Durban, It’s funny I don’t feel so far away from home here. It kind of feels like staying around the corner in Sparks Estate

I left soon for Manali after that .A night bus ride from hell, clinging to my saint Christopher, while the bus tumbled down the mighty Himalayan passes.

The city roads are an inspired chaos-cows trawl casually through rush hour traffic whilst monkeys rob pedestrians from their fence posts.

Indian drivers are either supernaturally spatially aware or just plain lucky. We put our trust in their hands. Their hands on the wheel. The wheel guiding us towards certain death and then back again. Each Rickshaw taxi trip is a religious experience. I have been reborn many times- officially stared god straight in his mighty and fearsome eyes.

Met a Canadian guy from Vancouver - also traveling alone. A mad adventurer, music lover-working on perma culture farms around India. We’ve decided to do a bit of missioning together sharing the price on a hotel room in Manali. He’s just like one on my cats back home-feels like I’ve known him forever.

Old Manali,the hash is good, so good. A place of apple orchards. Indian boys climb their branches tossing the fruits to delighted Hindi school girls. French Hippies wonder about with thirty year hang over’s. Elderly Tibetan woman, hobbling artifacts, faces sewn tight with wisdom serve ginger tea, with toothless smiles. Alpine forests clinging to the hems of the Himalayas great white skirts. Three mighty rivers pour from alternate glaciers. The guest houses balancing on muddy hillsides. To think that the gush of monsoon ,the insidious heat on mountain snow, could cause us all to sink ,so much deeper in our sleep, and wake the following morning in the Indian ocean.

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Isn’t expectation the worst thing? Everything the fucking lonely planet leads me to expect ,it’s the complete opposite, and in a good way. Nothing is how I thought it would be. It’s always better. So I’m learning to not to hold onto any preconceived ideas. The world is constantly surprising me ,inspiring me ,bowling me off my feet. It’s exhausting, I’m in a place known as little Tibet-Ladakha(kashmir). I feel as if I’m wondering the most ancient of lands . Its’ just surreal, the drive here was unlike anything I ever seen before. It took eighteen hours of the most impressive -diverse landscapes I have ever seen. Temples of Himalayan stone cut by ice blue rivers. I listened to Bjork Vespatine -a perfect soundtrack -

Climbed five hundred stairs yesterday to a Buddhist Temple perched on a mountain top to watch the sunset. Felt like I had found heaven. The views, the views. There are no words to describe.

All I can say dad is that this terrain makes Lesotho look like a sandpit or zen garden-and that you are not a certified land rover man till you’ve conquered these passes (the highest motor able ones in the world might i brag)

It’s off season ,autumn here. The valley I’m staying in is an oasis situated in a stark dessert basin All the trees burn with orange, lime and lemon yellow. Tibet is a few hundred kilometers away.

I’m in a really good state of mind, always surrounded by fascinating people that wonder in and out of my travels. I’ve never really feel alone and when I do its rather refreshing -just to be able to read and write and put thoughts together.

Dear Jill
If only I could find the words to describe the colour of the Ladakha leaves in Autumn
A ripe burning orange, dashes of yellow and lime.In a valley of temples and mountains
and further beyond that the mighty Himalayan peaks. Late afternoon light dances on the many corners and crevice casting cold and beautiful shadows. People walk the village swinging prayer wheels. Bells are always in the air. Cows can be likened to stray dogs- scavengers wondering the streets, chewing on any rubbish they can find, occasionally on some Ladakhis lovely Autumn nasturtiums. Prayer flags intercept ones vision as frequently as telephone lines do in suburbia.I saw an old monk today, his maroon robes tattered and torn, his face weathered like the surrounding hills. He counted a few measly coins in his hand- exactly how I imagined the character of the old lama to be in Kiplings ‘KIM’. Its a beautiful thing when a character leaps from the page of a book and into real life. Took a drive through the highest motor able pass in the world head and eyes popping from a combination of AMS and AWE

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We start the journey up the pass at two o’clock in the morning - early snows have closed the road but I’m adamant to do this trip and manage to arrange a ride the one and only day they open the pass to transport military provisions to the Pakistan border. Every morning in India starts with Chai-ahhhhhhhhh, sweet chai that warms the soul and hands -cinnamon and saffron scent.

At this time of the morning the moon is still up and we begin to traverse glaciers that glow fluorescent under its light. Sometimes it looks as if the earth has plunged several kilometers from itself -leaving gaping crevices of ice-or that a giant eagle has ploughed its talons into the mountain side .Its a stark, inspiring moonscape-Temples ,totem poles, towering pillars of stone cut by ice blue rivers.

At a border post I climb out the vehicle and fall over -disorientated ,legs weak , head and heart pounding, a combination of AMS and Awe - AMS =improper acclimatization- (although is sounds suspiciously like something to do with a menstrual cycle).

A Tibetan woman walks me to her tented camp and serves me rice and vegetables which grows cold within seconds. The wind whips through layers of fleece , cutting the skin , burning the lips. Try to sleep for the rest of the journey but the magnificence of the scenery and condition of the road renders this impossible.

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I walk in ancient times
where the man in the field sings throaty songs of praise to his yaks.
Yaks who pull stubborn ploughs through stubborn ground.

I walk in ancient times
where elderly monks unlock secret doors to temples that have existed before
Christ and his crucifix
Shakespeare and his quill

I walk in ancient times
where mankind survives , trusts , prays upon
the Indecision of his god

Where dusty bound prayer books
collect history
in monastery corners

Where smiles are genuine- hard earned- offerings of joy

Where saffron is gold
and silk, elusive and essential as silver

Where prayer flags intercept ones vision as frequently as telephone lines

Where rivers turn wheels

and sun bakes bread

Where apples and apricots drip off valley trees
and children loose sleep in anticipation of the first harvests

I walk in ancient times
times of the drum and song

Of wood and hay
stone and clay

I walk in ancient times
where silence unveils secrets

I walk in ancient times
eat- sleep
rise- weep
by the journey of the sun

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And Jesus was a Buddhist!!!!!!, according to the book I’m currently reading -who preached along these eastern hills of Ladakha. I saw his donkey today -tied to a post -sad old mule he was. Can donkeys ever look happy? Even with the knowledge he had of carrying the very woman who bore the Messiah! Maybe he regrets the burden of that journey. The burden that birth has had on time and history.
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Golden God
stuck his head through the temple roof
away from the low hanging veil of incense
the warm glow of candle light
and generous worshipper offerings
Golden god wanted to gaze upon the state of his world -his culture
and once he had done so
wept great golden tears of sadness
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I had a blade held to my throat this afternoon. I nearly stopped breathing, head propped up in what appeared to be a makeshift dentists chair. Then it scraped the surface , my eyes squeezed tight ,so as not to see my execution played out on the several mirrors placed about the shop.
Cool steel slides over skin, bull dozing the frothy lather as it goes along and to think one slight move, wince , grimace would mean blood on the barber floor. After several days of trekking it appears a particularly hirsute animal has crawled onto my face and died and this encounter with the blade is in fact a self inflicted luxury. Yes I agreed to place my life and hairy chin in the hands of the Abdulla scissor hands- the local barber- a diminutive Indian man who’s small but nimble hands can barley reach me in the chair.

It starts to feel like I’m being operated on .What with the countless bottles, ointments, perfumed concoctions and preparatory lathers that are splashed across my face. The barber( however small) takes great pride in his work and I allow him free reign to sculpt his own little facial masterpiece. The retreating afternoon light makes things difficult to see in the mirror( electricity is a spontaneous and rare blessing in these parts) .God I hope he can see or I might leave ala Van Gough -minus an ear.

On facing my reflection, a good hour later –I’m a little shocked- I resemble a very camp New York fashion designer- very Tom Ford -or perhaps a seedy seventies drug dealer. I dunno, but I start to think o’l Abdulla Scissor hands has been inspired by one to many bad facial hair carnations from Chuck Norris movies (common to all remote parts of the world). It takes much repair with my own razor a little later to create the more grungy back packer look that seems to be the fashion of these parts. That’s the joy of been lost in the Himalaya for a week -complete lack of an encounter with the external reflection. Except as a contorted blur reflected in a frozen waterfall encountered along the way. Admittedly the trek was the toughest amount of walking I have done in a very long time. Six to ten hours a day - camping in cheaply hired summer tents at heights of 6000 m on a route ,that we were advised not to take due to the early and bitter arrival of winter. Alone in a kingdom of stone and ice .Last signs of autumn thriving in the unlikeliest of places

On a mountain pass -that was
I kicked a single stone
that collided with another and carried it on its journey down the pass
and as they traveled-the rolling companions ,the rolling stones
began to convert further stones along the way
until eventually the entire pass moved as a single thundering congregation
and soon the pass that was
was no more
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I saw a woman -along the way
in yellow skirt and head scarf
who vanished (camouflaged) amongst the yellow autumn fall
tugging a reluctant yak-by a chord attached through a ring in its nose

and every time -Colwyn- I encountered one of these yak’s (there were many). I made a point to stop and stare it deep in the dancing eye and then utter thy name proudly -three times
- Colwyn Thomas -Colwyn Thomas -Colwyn Thomas
so forever you shall be imbedded in yak consciousness
(as per your request)

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The team ,we assemble comprises of a two Dutch folks, a jolly Oirish couple and a completely disinterested young geologist graduate from Cambridge, Who ,whenever asked anything about the fascinating stone formations surrounding us ,would grunt and refuse to divulge any of her sacred stone secrets-( To me that’s a bit like taking an art graduate to the 16th chapel-and them snubbing the ceiling by burying their nose in a Mills and Boon novel)

Now due to budget constraints, I end up sharing a tent with the newly engaged Irish couple. I think you can imagine where this is going! -what, with the late night chaffing of sleeping bags and inhibited moans- ( I’m constantly amazed at how people having sex at a close proximity- never think they can be heard!!) Anything to keep warm - I must admit, that sleeping at minus twenty degrees, I was hoping they might invite me to join their late night fire starting escapades-
but alas I froze on the parameters and stuffed big pink reams of toilet paper in my ears to block out the unsettling sounds.

(For pleasure I have learnt - to the jealous and reluctant voyeur- can sound like such painful torture)

Sleeping at these heights is further made impossible by the altitude- fresh bursts of mountain air does strange and wondrous things to the head and dreams….oh the dreams .I cant begin to describe but I know that there are people who pay a lot of money for drugs to produce similar (yet inferior) effects. Nights plagued by glorious yet disturbed visions. Maybe the Hindu prophets dreamt on this air and thus blue gods with eight arms and elephant heads were conjured up and written of. I figure I should try bottling some of it -lucrative little business on the side-‘Hey man… you got any fresh Himalayan air on ya??’

So days passed walking from snowy pass to snowy pass-and the people who sold me those expensive hiking boots -Lied! Feet a mangled, blistered, contorted mess -and when plasters run out- masking tape has to suffice. Walking this much- in such a vast, inspiring lonely space allows one to think thoughts until there are no more thoughts left to think and just when you think you’ve thought-well- everything there is to think you recycle old thoughts (rethink them) and thus certain profound revel elations, delirious little epiphanies occur .So I’m a changed-deranged -slightly re-arranged man since my week in the mountains .Refreshed –inspired. Exhausted and Invigorated. We went to a restaurant in Leh , on the night of our return-( the second great trek-respect to the forefathers!) to celebrate our survival of one of the coldest camping sights this side of the Himalaya- a few shots of whisky at this altitude goes a very long and drunken way-and so stumbling home that night, to our guest house( With the Irish couple- I’m starting to sound like their adopted son!) we happen to hear loud jovial singing emanating from a Community Hall. Upon investigation -peeking through a frosted window- we suddenly find the doors swung open and an excitable group of Ladakhi women in traditional dress surround us -take us by the hand and pull us inside. In a drunken confused blur, I make out the lettering on a large red banner strung across the hall rafters. It reads -’THE LADAKHI WOMENS ANNUAL LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE’ Before I know it -John (the Oirish bloke) and I are dancing in a big circle about the room, the only two men in a hall full of hundreds of Ladakhi woman aged 19 to 90- ( the older ladakhi women resemble the Triplets of Belvue -with their wrinkled faces and braided plats) singing traditional songs and attempting to maintain a bit of our masculine integrity by not falling over in the process!

I am pleased to report, The Ladahkhi Sisters are well and truly doing it for themselves in these parts

Leaving Leh- it makes me all a little sad. All the stores begin to close for their winter hibernation- the streets empty and lights now remain off. It’s time now for the winter to claim back its passes and I leave with the knowledge that my insignificant footsteps will be filled with snow in a day or two. As if I was never here! What little regard the mountains have for ones memory. There’s comfort in the knowledge, that when it is time the summer shall seek its rightful place on the great turning cycle. Farmers return to their fields, festivities to the calendar, flowers to the pots. Ice will melt and rivers will recall the joy of their previous summers journeys and rush uninhinited towards the oceans. I’m learning, out here, that our souls too experience these seasons and cycles .Only on my travels I seem to experience all four of them in single day

So guru Neil advises -on parting: No matter the chill ,dear friends never-NEVER- forget the prosperous Summer’ our souls are all capable of experiencing

too much fresh air? - I think so-
Love with five fingers splayed
Neil

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New found Vegetarianism
New wave Humanitarianism
Coca- Cola Buddhism

Studying palms
Graft on self sustainable farms

I’ve heard organic veggies reach supernatural sizes!
Feed the monkeys
Kick the misers

Comb the stars
(when the city smog hasn’t stolen them)
then slouch in bars

find love in Buddha
-and the back of parked cars

Finger yoga on my remote control
wash in dirty water
to cleanse a dirty soul

open your book
your legs
your mind

… excavate the find

Converse with god
then gutter dogs

Preach the light
Pray in shadows
kiss the step
I may not kneel upon

live my faith
with covered face

- forgotten-

Sing the praise
and gag on cotton

Free Tibet -(where’s that?) on my bumper sticker

levitate on dope
meditate on liquor

and I wonder
can natural healing?
Stop internal bleeding?

Or restore the loss of feeling?
to these fingertips?

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I Visited T.I.P.A today -the Tibetan institute of Performing arts .Buildings collected commune like around a central courtyard and performance area .Been the wrong season, I was dismayed to find the Spring Opera (lhamo) Festival was….well not on. So I enquired for special permission to view the opera museum, which at this time of year is also closed. Luckily I managed to convince an old Tibetan door keeper to unlock the doors to the museum

He turns a switch to which fluorescent tubes flicker to reveal glass cabinets placed around the room. Waking the ghosts-who open button sewn eyes. Deteriorating dummies dressed in rat nibbled costumes -centuries old, confront me. This theatrical burial ground ,this smell is instantly familiar.That musty Prop Shop damp that I now understand to be a universal scent and to the wondering actor and his craft a strangely homely and comforting one.The walls are adorned with peeling yellow Lhamo posters announcing fantastic tales of gods and demons, fisherman and miracles. Love –betrayed, swayed ,strayed. Emoted through shrill song and grand gesture. The beheaded masks of rituals, gaze (through cobwebs) from the wall -flared nostrils ,three bulbous eyes, curious as to this western man who beams at the recollection of his childhood. When the illusion of the theatre stood still (at the NAPAC Open day-in glass cabinets similar to this) still enough for the boy to decipher the source of all that deceptive theatrical trickery.

Outside, a young girl practices her lyrical dance (as if submerged waist deep in water. Her fingers brushing imaginary ripples across the surface). Another girl strums on a sitar like instrument oriental and angelic it sounds and seeps through the windows into the museum. Stirring now the artifacts and their memory. Who yearn to woken again with a furious dance one to set motion to their robes and shake free the settling dust. I contemplate -in a spontaneous second placing one of the masks on my head and dancing wild sudden circles about the room .Placing on this act-the same necessity a man has to walk his boisterous dog every once and awhile. These archives house the dusty bound books of Indian and Tibetan set design and paging through them -reminds me of lying on your bed -in Woodstock (turning similar pages) recalling the stories of our childhood (which were in so many ways- one) .Our building block set imaginings, quality street sweet wrappers as gels over torch light -to achieve the desired lighting effect of course!

I have no doubt, the art inside us both Matthew may just (one day soon) set the very world alight.

Shrinegar-Kashmir

Through muffled hailers ,men sing an anthem, a prayer- distorted camaraderie. They sing all night on Ramadan. Fierce -like an army preparing for battle and it drifts into the valley and over the Dhal lake, mingling with the low hanging fire smoke. Creeping in like a lethargic ghost. Ramshackle house boats doorsteps deteriorate into the swampy lake surfaces -Noah’s ark one was aptly titled). Gondolas wind through absent minded canals, oars pulling through a tangle of gunk and weeds. Mosquitoes and bats- eaters and eaten -the pink evening haze summoning their arrival with a hue. And it is both horrific and magical out here .A magic with a certain loss of innocence or perhaps that’s just me, carrying the burden of pre conceived -press propagated ideas of this war torn state. Constantly wondering whether its leprosy or landmines that left that beggar on the street corner without his hands?

The prevailing political itch or more like prevailing gaping wound that clumsy politicians attempt to stitch closed with infected knitting needles. For sure as a telephone pole, a tree, a freshly carved cricket bat will appear (to the passing eye) at regular intervals, so too will an Indian soldier with his gun. Stern men -bunched behind sandbag bunkers, their fingers tapping impatiently on triggers, waiting for that moment of crisis .Chicken littles’ waiting for the Pakistan sun to fall from the sky. That crucial moment that will allow them to assert themselves as a necessary (if not vital) addition to the Shrinegar landscape. And most of the time its boredom that is responsible for the firing of that first fatal bullet. Peace processes put men out of work, men out of worth. Guns were not created with the purpose of sitting smug beneath smelly armpits or strung across shoulders in the nature of a handbag .Why that would be belittling to both arm and armored.

I saw a building in the centre of town with its facade blown off, like a doll house hinged open -revealing the inner workings, wires and rooms. Barbed wire- an ubiquitous ivy, strangling every possible wall and fence. I visited the mosques, one in particular is alleged to house a single beard hair of Muhammad. A single thread of human chin hair and pilgrimages are made. Men and women in their thousands pour to this place of worship every year to weep and rest eyes upon the prophet’s holy stubble! Faith is indeed both a fearsome and fantastical thing.

At this same mosque, a man prays aloud from his Koran, in army uniform and beret, gun resting obediently by his side. A woman with face covered in black veil wails like a lunatic possessed proceeding to kiss a dirty step repeatedly. A step, she is not,due to her gender, permitted to pray upon.

One afternoon I see a crow floating past our house boat stoep, on the bloated corpse of a sheep and feasting on its surfaced eye .At this point I start to feel like that poor old sheep .The last remaining tourist corpse left for the Kashmiri carpet crows to feast upon and feast they do.

I got stoned on the first afternoon on the lake and a kindly gentleman offered me a free boat trip to see the sights. A sundowner cruise of sorts, why not! I hop on excitedly -innocence of a child -show me the world kind man of the river!

But as we begin, I realize I’ve been duped- and that this aint no free sight seeing, this boat is in fact sailing straight to a Kashmiri carpet store. And so the kindly old boat man turns into the archetypal salesman from hell and takes me to a little island far far away- where I can run but certainly cant hide and swimming is not an option.

It’s a part of the lake that resembles a haunted o’l Mississippi swamp and I begin to think ( once can of course put this down to hash inspired paranoia) that if I don’t buy one of his god damn rugs then he’ll wrap me up in one of them and end up as a fish food in a swampy grave .I’ve seen movies like this!

’No I don’t want a rug!’ - but he persists- not even two hours of shaking my head sweetly and saying no thank you can begin to quell his persistence .’No thank you sir ( subtext: now please take me home and don’t kill me!) does nothing to curve his technique . He continues to unroll hundreds of them, one after the other until eventually I get to the point of mad delirium - laughing hysterically at the utter absurdity of his brutal barge pole tactics .Pitching and punting, in the hope that my credit card might suddenly replenish itself and leap from wallet to curl itself ,like an affectionate cat, on one his rugs. Three hours pass and the man is still going at it. A psychological terrorist breaking you down- until you want to weep like a frustrated coward and buy a rug just so he’ll’ row you safely home. What makes it worse in Shrinegar - is that the salesman and their stores are all on mobile boats. In the mornings you wake to find your house boat under house arrest. Taken siege and circled by over twenty water hawkers - ”Saffron , Saffron sir?’ Vegetables? Paper Mache pots? Hash,Hash? ‘Fuji film’ ‘Fresh flowers’ .Floating pawns we’ve become. Prisoners to the buoyant businessman and his cunning, insistent ways.

On the way out of Shrinegar to Jammu, a bus accident leaves corpses strewn across the road in front of us. Saris seep- wet crimson silk on tar. The traffic piles up for miles. Small tea stands, nestled in obscure patches of jungle , do thriving business off the delayed commuters who sip (impatiently) on copious cups of chai to pass the time while a circus of police men and fools fumble about to clear the mess. In India and life, someone’s physical end is another’s financial beginning and so it goes. Go round again -the great merciless turning of the wheel

In Jammu - the supposed major terrorist state of Kashmir-our bus breaks down for four hours - in a bad part of town - and I start to worry cause the locals on the bus grow deeply concerned
’Sitting ducks’ they say ‘to those terrorist bandits! They’re fond of the night busses in these parts’
Christ….the fear grows so enormous -that I scribble my eulogy- my epitaph on a piece of paper
and say a little prayer that if I perish tonight , then at least ‘my last words’ may have a chance of finding their way safely back to my family. It’s too pitiful to try remember what I wrote
but I recall requesting Geoff Buckley ‘ Hallelujah ‘ at my funeral- Which in retrospect was not such a bad choice
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I see my life come shining
from the west unto the east
any day now
any way now -
I shall be released

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I started to feel a little lost here in Dharmshala- an orphan abandoned by the universe. It’s usual array of angels and omens absent but they came, they always do in various fantastic forms
like yesterday..

I bumped into David , the Irish guy I met and traveled with in Malawi (two years back) - the one I bumped into ( by fluke) in the Pavilion shopping centre in Durb’s a few months later- the guy that came to jodys 21st b- day in Zinkwazi. Well there he was- clear as Bostik super glue- standing on the streets of Dharmshala and we feasted last night on great Indian food and fate

Oh omens the great cosmic showmen that point the way with the tip of a hat
and twirl of a stick, saying ‘welcome to your life, turn left (or right) at the next junction

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Deli has bookstores and men in Gandhi glasses that work behind the counters
and screen printed Children’s story books that made my tears smudge the paint

ate at the vegetarian MacDonald’s yesterday (they’ve got Mac’currys’)
George Micheal’s faith playing and Bush /Kerry showdown of the TV.
Unsettling

Watched a Bollywood movie last night with Ted. Made more noise then the locals then talked to drunk varsity kids about joys and woes of Indian porn and Indira Gandhi .Then one of the kids threw up on Ted’s shoes and we decided to call it a night.

I have returned from my month long expedition into the wonderland that is Nepal and am proud to announce that the first Coppen to have reached Everest Base camp is alive and well and recuperating in Varannasi

It was too big to describe (quite literally) -the mountains were too big , made my words embarrassed, dwarfed them in their monstrous shadows, either that or they froze along with the ink in my pen but it’s enough to move a grown man to tears and sob did. Rejoice I did, exalt through cold, cold, cold bursts of Everest mountain air.

Now not to blow my own heroic horn and attempting to avoid the Huisgenooit story of the week style of writing, I will quickly try to recapture my one heroic deed achieved on those god forsaken slopes.

The date I dunno-but its a few days away from Everest base camp , I’m with two crazy cats ,Kim the Belgian /Indonesian stoner (with a grin as wide as the Ganjees) and Marty the Ozy whose face could quite easily be used as an endorsement for bully beef commercials. I met these guys in the glacial lake region and we are now attempting to cross the Cho Long Pass .Cut to Ariel shot of ominous Mordor type mountain location, mist trailing off peaks-you get the picture. The Cho Long Pass it must be told is not advisable without mountaineering experience and especially not after 12 o’ clock due to unpredictable, unforeseeable weather conditions.

Of course we don’t plan and stupidly ignore the warnings .To cut a long story short the three of us end us crossing the pass after two o’clock that afternoon .On reaching the summit one then has to cross the most precarious looking glacier, following the faint markings of footprints in the snow to see the way down the mountain and avoid (ala touching the void ) plummeting down a gaping crevice. By the time we Summit the pass the clouds have swept in and a fuck off snow storm is brewing. The footprints on the glacier have been snowed over and we can no longer see where to go or where those sneaky little crevices are hiding.

The three of us to put it mildly -panic - wild, wind swept panic. We get more and more lost on the glacier in the ‘cant see your hand’ in front of your face visibility. I expect one of us to be swallowed up at any minute by the hungry glacial monster and vanish without a trace .At this point I start looking around -wondering who we are going to have to eat first!!! Our happy little hike quickly transcends into a B- grade tv miniseries mountain tragedy of the week disaster!

Sadly this is only the beginning of our troubles ,cause just when the nightmare is beginning I must now (unfortunately) introduce a new character

Cut to long shot shot-through the terrible blizzard- appears a blue jumper, a man moaning and stumbling towards us. He approaches. Close up: his face- blue, His lips blue- a long snot icicle protruding from each nostril , foam from his mouth. He mumbles in Italian and falls over.

the stranger, the Italian it turns out has been lost alone on the pass in this storm, teetering on the edge of the ice berg, so to speak for some time. He is in the grips of bad altitude sickness, hypothermia, no co- ordination , slurring in limited English. He battles to stand for longer then a few seconds before toppling over. He’s lost his gloves and his hands have swollen to three times their usual size , fingers like fat blue shivering sausages. I try to lend him mine by they wont fit over his finger tips.

So Kim,Marty and myself , have to carry Mr Muddles (as he will now be named) through the snow storm for the next four hours , trying to find a way down the dreadful mountain and trying to keep Muddles conscious by calmly singing ’snowflakes that stay on my nose and eye lashes…these are a few of my favorite things’. Yip in the crux of death I turned to Maria van Trap songs (worrying …i know!).

We end up slipping all over the place, screaming at each other. Crying, Arguing, seeking shelter in a cave trying to find a solution. Dividing up mars bars and the (now) frozen chapatti I had in my pack

‘We have to leave Muddles’ says Marty ‘He’s not our problem, he’s slowing us down, we could all die out here!” But I can’t bare the thought of eventually finding a bed and knowing I abandoned a fellow human being to become an ice sculpture on that mountain. ‘No …he’s coming with me’ -Declares Neil in heroic rhetoric ‘I WILL NOT DIE TODAY AND NEITHER WILL MUDDLES’ .Movie music swells triumphant, the string section soaring.

In the end, as all stories with happy endings go, through the blizzard,we carry Muddles into a remote village, shining like nightingales lantern through the storm. Here we manage to find Muddles his much needed medical attention and blankets as well as warming our own shattered nerves over Chai and a hot Nepalese stove.

Cue the credits ……….

The End

The following story is the first in my Everest travel Triology- the collection is called……..

Marigolds ,Mountains, Maoists (and the red string)

MARIGOLDS


The nepali girl appeared from out of the mustard fields and intercepted the boy on his path-it was a welcome interception
a brown skin and twinkling eyed one.
the girl smiled -the boy returned the gesture through dehydrated gasps, what a picture he must have seemed - white skin- pink and ill prepared - backpack clutching his shoulders like a pertified child-
the girl took a step closer as if she might kiss him -kiss him to resuccusitate him -to breathe the air that the steep mountain path (and his cigarette consumption) had stolen from his lungs. Her lips looked sweet and he leaned forward unsure but thirsty to taste them-

she reached out, not with lips, nor face , but hands and strung a string of marigolds around his neck -a wreath of burning orange, its perfume instant - sweet and suffocating- (reawakening a distant memory of Mitchells Park as a small boy in the spring )He bunched the flowers to his nostrils and breathed deep. the girl bowed and giggled before wading -yellow dress deep- into the daisies and out of sight.

the boy continued his walking , fingering the delicate petals….musing

He was stopped again and again that morning-children burst from behind village doorways baring simillar wreaths which they strung around his neck till he resembled a walking boquet- a deepwali boquet

flowers sprinkled on his head , flowers behind the ears,up the nose, round the neck -squished between the toes - flowers that fell like monsoon rain and collected in big petal puddles at his feet- that inoxicated, seduced and delighted

maybe im a God! he mused, haha a Buddha incarnate!
he released his boisterous imagination and it played wild mischevious games with poor long suffering logic -until for a second he actually believed he was a GOD!
a giant one!
pebbles became mountains under his boots , a trickle of water turned into a raging glacial river
and he walked proudly over all the earth
singing i am a god , i am a god-im so much bigger then you!

a butterfly landed on one of the flowers around the boys neck-battered its wings coyly , thankfully, as it sipped on marigold nectar, and then another and another- not only am i God, im fucking mary poppins! -he quipt.
‘bless you’ the boy said -adorned now by butterflies-their light flowery wings tickling his face

I AM A GOD !!-see how they worship upon me! -he felt suddenly as if he possessed some enchanted control over the natural order of things -that if he tried really hard he could alter the seasons , or the weather, simply by clicking the cosmic switch of his fingers

It is imporatant to note that at this point our boy -the one in the story- had forgot that India has the capability of doing funny things to ones head-that he had travelled from a land where worshippers pray to eight armed gods - blue ones that ride the backs of wild tigers , ones with elephant trunks for a nose-

land of gurus and living godesses,pseudo saddhus and saints-land of reincarnation (dont kill that fly it might be your great grandmother!!!) and ressurection -Our boy forgot that it is possible to get severly stoned on such mystycism ……..

and now he was stoned! -swaggering confident- god like strides up the mountain path -he remembered the day- back in Dharmashala where a Tibetan Astrologer had told him that he had been a Tibetan holy man in his previous life-and he entertained this thought.
-what was my name? he mused -’and what the fuck did i do wrong in that life to be reincarnated as a white kid for the Durban suburbs!!!

Deep in such thoughts , he never felt the bees collect -a whole swarm gathering the pollen from his marigold wreaths-great generous basketfulls on their busy hind legs. His ears failed to register the distinct harmonising Buzzzzzzzz-which by now had grown louder then a deli rushour traffic jam-he did not hear for he was playing the songs of his own praise -loudly and on repeat -in his head!

then the first - a sting -slight and swift ,then another -as if his holy wreaths had become serpants-sinking their poisoned fangs into his tender neck. He tore the blessings from his neck in horror- snapping the strings and scatterring the burning flowers on the path below.

replacing the flowers was a garland of swollen marks , a tatoo of pain-neatly and perfectly formed , he battled to breathe for his neck was so inflamed- and the heavy lump- that was his pride- was now, not so easily swallowable.

but despite the agony
-the painful reminder -
its taste was not bitter on his tounge
but lingered more with the sweetness of honey

There’s a new sport called dung skating .Slip sliding away on the excrement of holy cows, down the narrow alley ways of Varannassi (the holiest and oldest city in India) and out onto the edge of the Ghats. The holy Ganjees with its great big grin- still carefully concealing its rotting paan stained teeth. Several bodies burn on open wood fires, one woman must have died petrified cause the look has remained on her face and as I watch them set fire to her corpse it’s unsettling From her frightened expression it appears that she can still smell her hair singe , feel her skin blister and pop as the flames engulf her - cremate her into a gray smoke ghost that chokes the setting sun. The air is full of such ghosts-as well as multi colored paper kites. Sometimes up to five hundred kites at one time, like a permanent flock of gaudy, excitable birds.

A man at the sidewalk perfume shop reveals a little glass container of fragrance .He spills a drop on my arm ‘Go on Sahhh, smell’ he urges ,I do, ‘What is it?” I ask. ‘Ahhhh Opium’ he smiles
A woman on the street passes me wearing a purple sari , a sari that bursts into several purple kites that steal into the air -as frightened butterflies do-laughing at the end of their strings
leaving her naked and blushing in a similar purple hue.

It’s a competitive sport-this kite flying. The aim is to intercept and destroy the other kites, like mating eagles, kites seduce and attach to one another before tumbling earthbound to their certain doom.

Today I met Babu, well Babu met me. A streetwise seven year old Varranassi kid. Babu insisted he accompany me on my adventure through the city and that I buy us both kites and coca colas, and together we sit on the edge of the Ganjees and fly them. This we did and what a meditative humorous morning it was. Little Babu, the Biggles of all kite fliers ,insisting I purchase the longest cotton string possible and the brightest fiercest kite we could lay our hands on. After the lengthy preparations and a hefty hundred rupee outlay, our kite was launched.

We watched as it danced wearily into the blue beyond. Babu displaying great skill and patience in the tugging and maneuvering of the string. ‘Our ones going to be the highest!’ he declares proudly but before our fluttering hope has found the joy of its wings, tasted the sweet air that accompanies ones first flight we’re tagged by the pesky kite gangsters from the rooftops. Our kite goes wheeling into the Ganjess river! Babu scolds me “I told you, you should have brought a stronger string stupid man’

As usual I bring my over excitable imagination to events and returning to the cremation aspect of Varranassi- the actual fact is that the Ghat cremations are surprisingly unaffecting-or at least less impacting then one would initially imagine. Varranassi and India is a macabre and chaotic circus full of such side shows. Employing the miracle workers , Saduhs, dancing girls, the acrobats, healers , undertakers, vendors, freaks, marching bands in it’s daily line up.

Roll up , Roll up
something for everyone
-delight and enthrall
-repulse and appall!!

Neil

Jodphur
The blue city
an indigo cubist oasis amongst desert hills
blue calms
the chaos of India has never been so calm
blue in every colour ,on every wall and in every sari-in every possible blue hue
All this blue should make me melancholy
I’ve never been this alone in my life
I am so alone out here -deserts make me feel that more then anywhere -all that space and silence and a blue desert! well I should be finding myself in a suicidal predicament-not so?
One would think I would be drowning in the blue silence- deep and sinking
but I’m buoyant surprisingly buoyant

and I’m me
just me
no frills
or spills
or hills
or drills
just me- and I just be in this crazy blue Indian fairytale of mine

neil

Vulture Man

on a tour of the palace museum today (im in Rajastan -the desert town of ‘Jodhpur’) I’m told a tale of a leper on the streets of Jodhpur - many, many hundreds of years ago- a leper who was regarded with sheer disgust by his community.

a desperate man who found his pitiful requests for a rupee or two , answered abruptly by the ends of broomsticks-wielded by the horrified housewives of the town, who hid their children and shrieked ‘be gone you rotting monster-be gone from this town!!!

and the pitiful,deteriorating beast -surely the Quasimodo of all India -only without a bell tower to hide his shameful face behind-crept into exile-finding solace in a vulture colony in the surrounding desert hills

And out here the Vultures soon learnt to trust the leper- even love him -for when fresh carrion was hard to come by, the leper generously offered a small piece of his own rotting flesh to the birds as a substitute. Thus a unique exchange began, a bond was formed and the leper was eventually declared king of the bird colony-King of all the vultures.

One day a Maharaja arrived on the very same hill and swiftly declared it the site for his new palace .The King of the vultures tried in vain to defend the colony but the Maharaja was unflinching in his plans and held no qualms in removing the pathetic bunch from their roost and abruptly beginning construction on his prodigious new fort.

The King of the vultures was never seen again but upon leaving the hill accompanied by his scavenger troops he swore a bitter and cruel revenge on the palace.

The vulture king may be a featherless forgotten bird
but the vulture king has spoken
and now the vulture king keeps his word’

Now as a tourist three hundred years later, I amble through these palace halls, epic in size and history .The story of the vulture man plays constantly in my mind. I’m in a tour group of about six people, mostly impatient Indian tourists who keep pushing to the front of the exhibits flashing their camera’s and ignorance.

’How does it end?’ I implore eventually from the back, impatient for the Tour guide to finish her fantastical tale of the Vulture man.She glances at an ancient crib that rests behind a red rope chord. We are now in the Nursery exhibit of the palace, the crib is ornate, two royal peacocks carved into a cradle, velvet red pillows with gold brocading, gathered at its centre.

’The vultures came from out of no where’ she continued –‘They took the Maharajas first born ,the Prince of the palace ,they stole him from this very crib and he was never to be seen again. All that remained was a scroll which read’

’The vulture king may be a featherless forgotten bird
but the vulture king has spoken
now the vulture king keeps his word’

at this stage a rotund woman in luminous sari scoffs loudly in disbelief and pushes defiantly past the red museum rope. Promptly plonking her equally plump baby into the peacock crib ,snapping photos excitedly and cooing ‘ Ah Maamies own little Maharaja! Smile for your mammy Vishnu….smile for Mammy….smile!”

I can’t quite recall how or what next happened! A combination of horror, awe and disbelief clouds my judgment of this afternoons peculiar events. I remember the stained glass widows of the nursery shattering, the sudden gush of daylight and dust poring into the dimly lit nursery. The air filled with feathers, screams and squawks . A frenetic flapping of wings. Large wings ,Vultures wings!

Once the birds had departed - the cradle stood empty again. Little Vishnu had vanished! All that remained was a small scroll. I know this for I held it in my own trembling hands and read it’s dreadful bold lettering out loud……..

The vulture king may be a featherless forgotten bird
but the vulture king has spoken
now the vulture king keeps his word!

India worships myths
is built on the very foundations of myth
It is in itself one great relentless, never ending, myth

the sooner one resides themself to this fact (and stops asking so many pesky questions) then the less confusing or strange such abnormal events become.

im going to bed -its been a hell of a day

with love
neil

dear familia

i arrived in Udaiper two days ago (famous for its lake palaces used as featured locations in Bonds Octorpussy )

Was firstly accosted by a mad japanese woman and then by an elephant-the elephant (as oppossed to the mad jap) i will linger on for a second-
An elephant!!!
that casually strolled down the main street-through the traffic, past the cows,past disinterested store owners- stuffing its trunk into the peanut vendors carts. No one raises a brow , or troubles themselves with paying any attention to the beast-
even when it proceeds to shit on someones car bonnet - This I gather to be interpreted as either karma or excessive dollop good luck.
which i love about this country-you never in the shit -only blessed by it -Holy shit !they call it

Initially i thought the animal to be a fugitive circus act -but the Indian elephant -when not playing the pink headed god ganesh -is a valuable form of transport and to locals about as surprising as your average lorry ( and only a little more curious)
————————————————–

a young girl dances out in the desert sands
her dance is furious, dust swirls round her bell adorned ankles
her orange and red sari blazes behind her
swoops
gathers
flails
flames

here i recall the line from a ryan adams song
-dancing like a fool set on fire-

as well as the lyrics from a John Adams opera ‘El nino’ - where they sing about a little girl who carries a desert star-

‘people shout at her
she wont let it go , she wont let it go
her hands are covered with flames
she wont release the star….she wont release the star
….although her chest ,although her hair
are on fire…..
are on fire.
….are on fire

they try to take it away
but how can she live without her star’

Im moved by the girls dance-
but im saddened at the same time - manipulated -like a puppet -only ever bought to life by strings - the strings of her fathers suitar -thats plays each time a tourist ambles past.

this image is further enhanced by the thousands of marionettes that hang from every available store

-Waiting sadly, heads hung limply, maybe in prayer
for fingers to find the ends of their strings
for fingers to tug some life into their weary limbs

Rajastan has an ancient tradition of string puppetry- (a particular fascination of mine)so im in heaven.

India,for me has restored that feeling of been a kid in a giant, dazzling toy store. Its the feeling i hoped i would rediscover out here,the wonder and awe i had started to lack before my departure.

i attended a puppet show at the cultural museum the other night-
the Rajastani puppeteers are master manipulators - who breathe the most impossible life into their puppets-
particularly enthralling was a marionette named- ‘The Magic Man from Bengali’ who removed his head halfway through his dance and tossed it-nonchalantly- from one hand to the next, even bouncing it on one foot like a hakkie sack. Unreal

and i relate to this man more then any -for like him ( out here) my head has been juggled about-at dizzying speeds and too alarming heights!

i must now rush to catch my Bombay bound bus -bollywood dreaming has got the better of me -off to the Indian metroplois-land of sin and celluloid- as you know two of my favourite past times

huge dollops of love
THE MAGIC MAN OF COWIES HILL
Neil

i arrived in Udaiper two days ago (famous for its lake palaces used as featured locations in Bonds Octorpussy )

Was firstly accosted by a mad japanese woman and then by an elephant- Who i will
An elephant!!!
that casually strolled down the main street-through the traffic, past the cows,past disinterested store owners- stuffing its trunk into the peanut vendors carts, and no one raised a brow , or troubled themselves with paying any attention to the beast\

hello

a young girl dances out in the desert sands
her dance is furious, dust swirls round her bell adorned ankles
her orange and red sari blazes behind her
swoops
gathers
flails
flames

here i recall the line from a ryan adams song
-dancing like a fool set on fire-

as well as the lyrics from a John Adams opera ‘El nino’ - where they sing about a little girl who carries a desert star-

‘people shout at her
she wont let it go , she wont let it go
her hands are covered with flames
she wont release the star….she wont release the star
….although her chest ,although her hair
are on fire…..
are on fire.
….are on fire

they try to take it away
but how can she live without her star’

Im moved by the girls dance-
but im saddened at the same time - manipulated -like a puppet -only ever bought to life by strings - the strings of her fathers suitar -thats plays each time a tourist ambles past.

this image is further enhanced by the thousands of string puppets that hang from every available store

-Waiting sadly, heads hung limply, maybe in prayer
for fingers to find the ends of their strings
for fingers to tug some life into their weary limbs

Rajastan has an ancient tradition of string puppetry- (a particular fascination of mine)so im in heaven.

India,for me has restored that feeling of been a kid in a giant, dazzling toy store. Its the feeling i hoped i would rediscover out here,the feeling and wonder i felt i had started to lack before i came over.

i attended a puppet show at the cultural museum the other night-
the Rajastani puppeteers are masters-highly respected men - who breathe the most impossible life into their puppets-
particularly enthralling was a marionette named- ‘The Magic Man from Bengali’ who removes his head halfway through his dance and tosses it-effortlessly- from one hand to the next, even bouncing it on one foot like a hakkie sack. Unreal

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“THE INDIA JOURNALS 2004-A shambles of recollection”

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