The Metamorphosis Part 1

It took us a day to get from the Austrian border to the Hotel Zamecek in the west of the Czech Republic. We had to catch two trains and a bus to reach the town of Kaplice, from where we walked to the hotel. We followed a road out town. The traffic wasn’t too bad but our rucksacks were heavy and it was a warm day.

Late in the afternoon, tired and jaded, we saw it: the Hotel Zamecek.

Our spirits lifted.

It was beautiful, like a small castle. 

It was surrounded open grassy fields and pine forests. 

 

Our room was on the third floor and to reach it we ascended a wide, stone staircase with a high stone balustrade. The original decorations on the ceiling and walls had been freshly repainted. The hotel, obviously old, had been beautifully restored – inside as well as out.

In a large open area at the top of the stairs, there was a polished wooden bookcase with books left behind by departing guests. After putting our rucksacks down and showering and putting on fresh clothes, I checked the books in the bookcase. Anya loves maps and I love books; whilst I was perusing the books, she was in the room pouring over a map of Bohemia; we planned to do some walking in the area.

I found a few books in English. There was one which caught my attention.

‘The Metamorphosis’ written by Franz Kafka.

I grabbed it and put it in our room.

Then we went downstairs to order a meal. We were famished.

 

We sat on the terrace. It was on a low balcony with a railing. It was a fine afternoon and there was a magnificent view of a swift flowing river and behind it, a steep slope covered in tall pines. Anya and I sat down at one of the tables. The other guests sitting around were Czechs who’d driven out from town to have a meal and few drinks before returning to Kaplice. We ordered a couple of red wines and a meal. It was a beautiful setting to be wining and dining; the sun shone above the tips of the pines and lanced on to the large open area between the hotel and the river. The sound of gurgling, crashing water reverberated through the air. Behind it, merging into the background, was the sound of people speaking Czech, underlining that feeling of strangeness, of being somewhere else, which is one of the great attractions of travel.

 

That night, I began reading The Metamorphosis.

“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a revolting insect……´

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Ozymandias

 

All day I travelled through a wasteland: once fertile agricultural lands destroyed by decades of foolishness, now just empty fields filled with weeds and drift sand.

The beaten up bus I travelled in was forced to stop for a few hours. 

´Mechanical problems´. Wouldn’t have been the first time.

At one stop, an area of asphalt, there were the remains of a bus which had been burnt out – or bombed.

I missed my connection to a distant place well known for its historic ruins and had to spend the night in a slum city –  another very different kind of ruin.

A monstrous place, an urban nightmare: rows and rows of flaking, decrepit apartment blocks. Old run down factories filling the air with thick black smoke. Crowded streets pot holed, littered with plastic bags and gaudy foil wrappings. Trucks and old motor cars leaving behind them clouds of dense fumes.

People walking passed like zombies, grim faced, dour.

 

Accommodation was hard to find especially for a foreigner. I walked into a dingy excuse for a hotel only to be dismissed with a wave of a hand. Then another, then another.

Eventually I found a soulless, run down room. A dungeon.

What did I do to deserve this?  

 

 

As the sun neared the horizon and darkness enclosed the city, I walked the streets in search of a meal.

And walked, followed by furtive stares, derisive laughter.

Foreigner.

One of them.

On my part, one thought occupied my mind as I ate a greasy excuse for a meal: 

What it would it be like to live here?

 The country I had come to in search of difference, diversity, had never had a free and fair election. It produced nothing. Beyond its borders, its currency was worthless. Corruption riddled it at every level. Its human rights record was scandalous. It’s prisons crammed with those suspected of not being totally loyal to a brutal dictatorship. Minority groups were living a precarious existence. The role of women was to bear children, cook and submit. LGBT’s didn’t exist. Whilst gladly accepting foreign aid, the same regime blamed the rest of the world for its poverty. There was only one source of information, the state controlled media.

The people were told that they were blessed, never had it so good.

Did they believe it?

Did they have any choice?

The truth was: this  place was hell on earth.

Then again, who was I to judge?

Me, a foreigner, with my ideals of freedom of speech, social justice and human rights?

When I went traveling, I wanted to see another way of life, to experience strange sights, to be disorientated, culture shocked. To escape the feeling of being one of ‘us’.

Well, here it was. I was amongst ‘them’ and the view was ugly.  

What the hell was I doing here?

 

On the following morning I got a bus out to the ruins of an ancient empire. Stone walls, columns, statues chipped and pitted, lines of script which had only recently been deciphered. All of it unearthed and given importance and meaning by foreigners. Now a handy cash cow for the government.

It was incredible. I walked around as if in a dream. I was suddenly transported miraculously, as if on a magic carpet, to a time long ago, when a civilization, an empire, rose out of the earth like a vigorous plant, bloomed, and then died.

Yesterday I´d wondered what the hell I was doing here, in this hell on earth, and today, that question was far from mind.

Overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of being alive, I knew why I was here.  

Walking amidst stone relics, some of them bearing the symbols of a strange script, Percey Shelley’s famous poem echoed in the desert:

 

‘I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert…..Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round that decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

 

 

War Junk Part 2

 

 

It´s a fair bet that when Harry started his basic army training course, he did not think of himself in terms of ´war junk´. He was 18 and a voluntary recruit. It was during his training that they offered him the job of forward scout. He was a good shot, had quick reflexes, and good eyesight.  He jumped at it. No second thoughts, no doubts. He knew he´d end up in Vietnam and he couldn’t wait.

He was given a tough job to do and it was an honour for him to do it.

´Our unit was based in Nui Dat. From there we could be sent out anywhere. After every mission we went back to Nui Dat to rest, but most of the time we were out on patrol.’

On patrol: Harry’s unit was flown out over the jungle in helicopters (the legendary ‘Hueys’) and dropped into it like men being dropped into the middle of a wide ocean, an ocean of green and death.

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War Junk Part 1

(Originally written in 2003 in Laos/recently revised)

I met Harry in a basic ‘restaurant’ in what was then the small town Xan Neuau in the east of Laos, close to the Vietnamese border. He was a big man with short blond hair parted in the middle, blue eyes, and a square jaw. He was a little overweight but certainly not fat.

He was sitting on his own at a rickety wooden table near the open front of a local bar/restaurant sipping a beer and gazing at the traffic: bikes, buffalo pulled carts, a few motor bikes, the occasional motor car.

It was near sunset and the jungle covered mountains on the horizon had turned a deep green, almost black.

I sat down at his table because I didn’t have a choice. The other tables, further back inside, were occupied by locals. We started chatting.

Little did I know that I was going to be there for much of the night, listening to one of the most disturbing stories I had ever heard from any human being.

 

As two foreigners – Australians – alone in a far flung town, it was natural that the first thing we did was swap stories about where we had been and where we were going. He had come over the border that day from North Vietnam. I was headed in that direction after staying a few days on the Plain of Jars.

Harry and I were travelling in Indochina at a time when the region was opening up to tourism. In the 1960’s, the U.S. had gone to war to stop the advance of communism in Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It had lost that war and the communists, backed by China and Russia, had won. For almost 3 decades, the entire region was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.

In 2003, tourists needed a visa and obtaining it was a long winded process and there was a strict time limit on how long one could stay (often depending on where one applied for a visa).

Harry and I discussed the ins and outs of applying for a visa at the Vietnamese border. During our conversation, I found out that Harry was an Vietnam veteran. Done two tours of duty. Not a conscript.

The man had been a professional soldier committed to the anti-communist war.

Later in the night, I discovered that there had been more than duty involved…..

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Singing in the Rain

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I followed the trail up through a pine forest towards a peak, when it began to snow.

The snow became so heavy that I was forced to descend. 

Battling wind and cold rain, I came to the outskirts of a village. 

On an unsealed road, wet and muddy, I saw water flooding down channels between the houses; the sound filled the air and voices seemed to come from nowhere.

 

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Rounding a bend, I passed a small shop.

Opposite was a blunt looking concrete hall, communist- era heritage. The door was open and the air  filled with the sound of men singing. I peered through a window and saw 20, 30 men sitting either side of a long wooden table, tankards of beer in front of them.

They seemed to know the words and tune to the song by heart – they sang in near perfect harmony.

 

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A little later, I was brought to a halt by another kind of singing: a loud clacking and honking.

Spanning the road was a large flock of geese. They were white geese, with orange beaks. They looked elegant in the grey and the rain.

They seemed strangely excited.

There was no one around. No one seemed to be leading them or herding them (herders are a common sight in Romania). But they must have been domesticated geese. Wild geese would never choose a village backstreet to land in.

Had these geese escaped from their compound?

Irresistibly lured outside by the rain and the sound of the swelling waters in the nearby creeks?

I stood there and watched them, engulfed in their music.

I edged around them.

They stayed where they were, in no mood to go anywhere.

Singing in the rain.

 

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