Hard Land



On the shores of Lake Albert, where we pitched our little dome tent, water birds were in abundance– pelicans, water-hens, ibis, and black swans.  Lake Albert was big. Standing on the shore and looking out, it seemed like an inland sea rather than a lake. The flat watery horizon was endless.

It wasn’t always like this. 

When drought came, as it always did in this country, Lake Albert, so vast, turned into something more like a pond.

Those luxuriant waters vanished.

It was a land of extremes.

A hard land. 

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No Reason

At first light there he was, that old man

Peanuts piled on his trolley

In preparation for the holiday to commemorate God

When street vendors could expect to make extra rupees

 Standing behind his tiny bicycle-wheeled trolley

With its iron scales and weights and a stack of paper bags made from old newspapers

The mound of peanuts before him


Promise of extra income for a man used to

Surviving on nothing.


Watched him that bent old man in his cotton kurta

Surveying his means of his survival at the start of the day

To commemorate God.


What was his story?

How had he ended up here?

He and the millions of others like him?

Every one of them had a story

None of which I would ever hear, separated as we were

By language

By place of birth

The difference between a temporary stay in a strange land

And a lifetime spent on the street.


In the evening when it was cooler

I saw him again

When I bought a bag of those peanuts

The street was noisy, crowded, a seething mass of faces and voices

Illuminated by the few street lights which still worked


He had been standing there twelve hours after I first saw him

That old street vendor.


The air was foul with fumes and smoke, like a low hanging mist,

As I handed over a few coins for a bag of peanuts,

Watched him carefully weighing up the peanuts on his scales – he was an honest man – 

I saw he and I, each of us standing on one of the iron dishes of the scales

and I tried to work out why those scales tipped

So crazily in my favour


Maybe he believed in karma, in God, in some kind of design

Behind it all.

Me, I saw nothing, no justice, no design, no intent,

No Reason

The Game Part 2

The anecdotes Than related to me over the following week, snippets of information shared over the breakfast table, were often related with guffaws of laughter, as if he was telling me his favourite jokes.

Possibly it was a precaution. The walls might have long ears. The state was never far away. But possibly it was also a form of emotional defence. He had triumphed over formidable odds. He was a survivor – and there was a price to be paid for that.

‘When I was a boy, the French were in charge. I worked with my father, he sold and repaired bicycles and scooters. The scooters were Italian, but some Japanese motor bikes were appearing.’

Than had happy memories of his childhood.

‘Sure, we knew there was trouble. Out in the countryside, where the villagers lived, it was dangerous especially at nights. But we never went out there. We lived in Saigon. Why would we go to the countryside? To look at stupid rice paddies!’


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The Game Part 1


We got the recommendation for the guest house in Saigon from a traveller we met in Cambodia: a small, family run place that wasn´t far from the centre of that frenetic city, yet in a quiet back street which was closed off to traffic. We were, at the risk of understatement, sceptical: we had stayed before in Saigon and the traffic was appalling –  especially the tens of thousands of ubiquitous Honda motor bikes, a seething metallic mass which totally dominated the streetscape.  

We wrote the directions to the hotel on a scrap of paper. Arriving in Saigon late one afternoon, we walked out there, the noise of the Hondas filling the air. Then we reached it. It was hard to credit, it was like an oasis in a desert: before us, on either side of a long street, were rows of two story, attached houses with sloping tiled roofs and French louvred windows – they were obviously built during the colonial era.

The street had been blocked off at either end with a high iron railing with a gate. People walked and rode bikes. There were no Hondas!  And there were more surprises on the way…..

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On a bus trip in the Andes mountains in Northern Patagonia, there was a short stop at a village called Santa Lucia.

We´d been a couple of hours on the way, the bus was cramped, and it was good to get out and stretch the legs.

The bus stopped near the local church.

It was a fine sunny day, the first in a week.

I took a photo of the church and besides that didn’t do much.

It was the first sunny day in a week and it was good to just stand around a luxuriate in the feeling of warmth and light……

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