Elena Part 1

On the train trip there, it began to rain.  

 Anya and I were on our way to a town in the west of Romania where we had booked accommodation in a local house for a week and where we planned to do some walking.

 But the weather didn’t look promising.

 On the horizon, enshrouded in mist, were the silhouettes of mountains.

 In the past, on the plains between those mountains, the armies of Austria, Hungary, and Russia had invaded Romania and for centuries it had remained the property of others. In the bad weather, such thoughts loomed large.

As our train approached the station, we passed abandoned factories surrounded by weeds and dilapidated apartment blocks, chipped and cracked. At the station, we were met by dour faced people, resigned to living nowhere.

 For 45 years Romania had been a part of the Russian communist empire, like the other nations of Eastern Europe and this town, once thriving and a major source of employment, had been left behind by the relentless march of history, like a discarded wrapper thrown to the wayside. 

Long ago, in this end-of-the-world town, people had found hope in a  maelstrom of suffering and chaos.  And so it was with a woman named Elena (pronounced ‘A-lay-na’). It was 6 years ago that we heard about her and whilst I had filed the memory away in one of my diaries, it was only with recent events in The Ukraine that I was reminded of her………

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Schiphol Geese

 

At Schiphol Amsterdam Airport there was a problem with geese.

A decent sized flock of geese in the air can present a real danger to planes landing and taking of, but compounding Schiphol´s problem was this: The Netherlands is a paradise for geese. You’d almost think that centuries ago, when the Dutch began reclaiming their country from the waters, they did so in order to create Goose Paradise: a flat land with a surfeit of water and grass.  

Water where the geese can flock together and keep safe from enemies.

Watery grass they can eat: the richest, the greenest grass in the world which feeds the cows which provide the milk which produces some of the best cheese in the world.

And smack bang in the middle of this flat watery grassy land – Schiphol Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world.

The geese weren’t bothered about the constant roar of jets taking off and landing at one of the world’s busiest airports. What they saw was lots of flat grassy land lying vacant, not being farmed or cropped or used – empty.

As their numbers proliferated, they became a part of our modern globalised world in ways which were truly remarkable….

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On The Nile

In early 2012 Anya and I went on a river cruise on the Nile. 

We went as a part of an organised group.

Normally we much preferred to travel on our own, as individuals, determining where we went and where we stayed. But there was little choice in the matter.

Egypt was embroiled in a political crisis.

Two years before, not long after our first visit to Egypt, a wave of popular protest in the Middle East known as the ‘Arab Spring’ arrived in Egypt and led to weeks of protests and the fall of the dictatorial Mubarak government. Free and fair elections were organised, but this led to the resounding victory of the Islamic fundamentalists – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Party – whose agenda was to turn Eygpt into a Sunni version of Iran. They wanted to base the constitution on the Sharia and furthermore, were equivocal towards Egypt’s ancient past which they regarded as heretical. 

In the euphoria of the Arab Spring, western journalists had failed to see that in Egypt there was a huge discrepancy between the people living in the cities and those living in the rural areas. In the case of the former, there were high levels of education along with the widespread use of social media and the internet; in the case of the latter, who constitued the big majority of the population, matters were very different. The women were burka clad slaves whose prime function was to produce children; illiteracy rates were high and the villages were controlled by fundamentalist imams.

Religion, low education and gender oppression provided the back drop for the spectacular success of the fundamentalists at the elections. 

In the meantime, the army became restive and the very urban dwellers, who had brought down the dictator Mubarak, were determined not to accept government by religious fanatics. The country slid into anarchy as its irreconcilable contradictions rose to the surface. There were strikes, attacks, and violent episodes. Tourism, the life blood of the economy, plummeted.

It was only on the Nile that the safety of foreign tourists could be guaranteed by the army. This was a far cry from the Egypt we were familiar with, where one could travel almost anywhere. Nevertheless, we went, drawn by the lure of the greatest outdoor musuem in the world, a country with a history like no other….

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Third Class Unreserved

 

Third Class Unreserved!!

Who would have thought it?

Me on that living nightmare!

Don’t get me wrong.

I liked Indian trains. Didn’t need First Class or Tourist Class or anything like that.

Second Class was fine.

I mean, Second Class Reserved.

But not Third Class Un – Reserved.

Hell no!

Here’s the deal for Third Class Unreserved: an unlimited number of tickets are sold. Once you have a ticket, you get on the train anyway you can. Your options are: being crammed inside a carriage like sardines in a tin or sitting on top of the roof or hanging off the side of the train along with hundreds of others.  

Third Class Unreserved is for poor Indians (ie, the great majority of India’s billion people).

I got on that train because I didn’t have any choice. Like, none.

How did I end up on it?

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Strays

On the south coast of Crete there weren’t many good beaches.  

Most of that spectacular coast consisted of rocks and mountains.

And so the beach where were staying – an ellipse of sand lapped by clear blue waters – was a rare gem.

And it wasn’t yet overdeveloped.

In the nearby town, about a kilometre away, there were a few hotels and restaurants but out at the beach, there was only one hotel on the beach front and that’s where we were staying.

It was October and we were the only people there.  

 The hotel was basic; the rooms were very small but they had their own cooking facilities – and very large balconies – the idea being that in summer, people wanted to spend most of their time outside. We were on the second story at the front and as long as the weather was sunny, the balcony was a fine place to spend time; we had a view of the beach and the ocean, and the high rocky promontories at either end of the bay.

On the beach directly in front of our hotel was an open-air snack bar under a flat, thatch roof with a floor of weathered planks. it was closed yet it became a familiar fixture in our lives. Late in the afternoons and evenings we sat near the end of the floorboards, where they met the sand, and looked out to sea. We had two chairs to sit on which had been left behind because they were very much worse for wear; loose, wobbly, but nevertheless with a bit of care, possible to sit on, especially if one didn’t move around too much. 

The autumn nights on the beach were too beautiful to miss.

The sea, the sound of lapping waves, a sky ablaze with stars.

And the cats….

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