Fishing in Troubled Waters

(Written in 2006, recently revised)

Thirty years on and he knew the coast of south-west Cambodia like the back of his hand. And what a coast it was. Lush jungle covered islands of different sizes and shapes, some of them no more than big outcrops of rock, others taking minutes for our boat to pass.

On the horizon behind the islands was the mainland, wild jungle covered mountains sweeping down into long stretches of white beach lapped by aqua blue ocean.

He pointed out each island, told me its Cambodian name, and gave a short explanation about it.

See that one over there?

You could stay on that island for as long as you like, there’s plenty of water and fruit.

See that one there?….yeah its big ok, but there’s not much water on it so you know, you could only stay there a night or two.

See that one there, the one that sticks up like a building?

There’s a big reef alongside it, under the water, but you’d never put a net down there, the bottom’s real bad you know, lots of sharp rocks and potholes, tear up your net like knives…’

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The Inland Sea

 flinders

In 1802 a ship called ‘The Investigator’ captained by a young man named Mathew Flinders left England on its way to Australia.

Flinders was assigned with a special mission: to find out what Australia was.

No one knew.

All was speculation.

No one had ever circumnavigated Australia.

A hundred years before, the Dutch had mapped the long western coast of Australia. James Cook had mapped much of the eastern coast.

But there were still many bits of the puzzle to be filled in, the major one being the enormously long southern coast stretching from the tip of present day Western Australia to Melbourne: 2000 miles of unknown coast.

The reigning theory at the time was that Australia (or as it was then known, New Holland), consisted of two big islands divided by what was termed an ‘extensive straight’. Either that or there was a huge river – a Ganges, an Amazon, a Nile – which connected up to an inland lake. 

 For nineteenth century Europeans, the notion of a land as big as Australia with no major rivers or lakes, no water, was beyond their frame of reference. The experience of the Europeans in the other parts of the world – India, Indonesia, Africa and the Americas – supported the idea that big continents and big tracts of water went together.

It  never occurred to anyone that Australia might be one big land mass and have no rivers and no lakes and no ‘inland sea’. It was as unbelievable as the existence of such Australian animals as the platypus and the wombat, the kangaroo and the koala….. 

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Travels with Stephen Part 2

 

Leaving the portal, we entered the monastery grounds.

There was no one about. The silence hung heavy in the air.  

An early morning sun glanced over the perimeter wall.

What was once a fortified monastery built in a time of war and inhabited by hundreds of monks was now more like a museum.  

There was a wide area of grass on our left, whitened with frost. On our right, there was a church with high turrets. We went over there and circumnavigated it slowly like two children making a new discovery.

In these precious moments of solitude, it was possible to reimagine the past and the generations of monks who had lived and died there over the last 5 centuries.

Then the silence was broken.

Someone yelled.

The sound echoed in the cold air.

It took us a while to identify where the yelling was coming from: in an alcove next to the wall was an old monk sitting in a chair basking in the early morning sun. Dressed in black, a grey beard and a walking stick. He motioned for us to go over there

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The Secret – Australia

Early in the morning of Friday August 25, my mother fell out of bed.

She was 88 years old and she was in frail health. She had lived in a high care nursing home for the last 8 years.

A member of the staff found her on the floor of her room (she had a necklace-beeper but true to form, refused to wear it) and called an ambulance. She was taken to the nearest hospital, where she was sedated and then x-rayed. The nursing home phoned my brother Dave. He was at work. He had a busy job as a senior accountant at British Aerospace. He was in a meeting and had his phone turned off. When he turned his phone on during a mid-morning coffee break, there were two missed calls.

He drove to the hospital, where a doctor told him that our mother had broken her hip. The doctor had quite a lot more to add:

‘The break is serious. A piece of her hip has entirely broken off. We can operate and pin her hip together. But this is a high-risk operation. Her heart is very weak, her kidneys are barely functioning, and she has a serious chest infection. If we go ahead with the operation, I would strongly advise you to call your siblings and ask them to visit her now. It might be the last time they see her. ‘

Was it an option not to operate? Dave asked.

Yes, it was an option. Then she would certainly die and it would be long and painful.

 

None of us – Dave, my sister Lyn or I – knew anything about our mother’s weak heart, failing kidneys or chest infection. Our mother was an obstinate woman. She had grown up during The Great Depression and the Second World War. She was a proud, stiff upper lip kind of person.

Dave was placed in a quandary. It was going to be a long day.

He phoned my sister Lyn, who was living in Melbourne and had a busy job managing a pet supply business. Her son was battling cancer. She had a lot on her mind.

Dave then tried to phone me. Anya and I were in Southern Queensland and, on that very day, out in the bush on a bike ride. We had a phone with us, but it was out of reach. Dave phoned a few times and then left a message. We didn’t get it until late that afternoon, when we arrived back at the caravan park where we were staying.

Dave and Lyn consented to the operation. It took place in the afternoon. My mother survived it and was then placed in recovery, where she drifted in and out of sleep. Dave was informed that he would be able to speak to her at around 7pm that night.

He went home. He needed a break. He had been sitting around in the hospital waiting-room all day and he was exhausted.

 

When Anya and I arrived back at our tent, the sun was nearing the horizon. We knew we had to move briskly. During the day it was in the low 20’s, but at nights, the temperature plummeted to a few degrees above zero. We took off our bike bags, locked the bikes, went to the amenities block, showered and then gathered up our pots and pans and bags and packets and head to the communal kitchen area. There were bench seats and tables, a fridge and microwave and hot plates. Whilst I was cooking a meal, Anya retrieved our phone and began checking it for incoming calls. She yelled out to me and irritated, I came over.

‘Your mother has had a fall and broken her hip and is in hospital.’

Ambush!

Anya took over the cooking and I phoned Dave and Lyn. Following that, I consumed my meal, barely conscious of what I ate. The arrangement was that when Dave went back to the hospital and spoke to our mother, he would phone me afterwards.

I waited. And waited. The cold moved in, relentless.

Anya and went to sit in our old car. It was warm there. The night sky was stunningly beautiful: a blaze of stars, some close, others far distant and forming fine gossamer clouds.

 

Dave drove back to the hospital at 7pm.

As he walked towards recovery, a doctor asked him to come into a separate room – where Dave was told that minutes before, our mother had died. Dave went to recovery, looked at our mother, held her hand, and cried.

Then he phoned me.

 

What a bizarre scene.

Sitting there in our old car on a cold clear night somewhere in a rural area of Southern Queensland, head spinning around and around: ‘my mum’s dead.’

No sleep that night. No sleep for many nights afterwards.

There was no grief involved. It was shock.

None of us had expected our mother to go out like this.

In the past, she had come close to dying on at least several occasions and she had invariably staged a dramatic recovery. Twice I had flown back from Europe to be next to her in what the doctors predicted were her last hours – and like the metaphorical Lazarus, she had defied the odds and bounced back.

She was a tough old bird. 

As Dave, Lyn and I often joked: ‘The old bugger will probably outlive us!’

Behind the joke, was a shared conviction that our mother would live for at least another five years.

But the old bugger confounded us all.

She died suddenly.

Puff! Gone!

 

On Friday night she died. Early on the Saturday morning, Anya and I packed up our tent and loaded our bikes on the rack and started the drive back to Adelaide. There were things to be done; mum’s belongings cleared out of her room, a funeral to be organised, probate begun etc. But most important of all: to be there with my brother and sister.

The drive to Adelaide was a long one, especially for us: 2000 kilometres.

We had departed Adelaide at the end of March and for 5 months had driven short distances – on an average, 2-3 hours – before stopping in a small town, setting up our tent, and spending at least a day or two, sometimes a week, doing long rides over unsealed back roads and tracks. In this incremental fashion, we had made our way to the south-east of South Australia, across the border into northern Victoria, up through the west of New South Wales and then into Southern Queensland.

Now we were confronted by something we had never done before: drive continuously, for hours on end, all day.

We organised it like this: each of us drove for a maximum of two hours before changing drivers. At each driver swap-over, we pulled over and got out and walked around for at least 15 minutes. There was a long stop for lunch.

We drove south, across the border into western N.S.W, before turning west and heading towards Broken Hill and from there south-west to the border of South Australia.

It was a trip the likes of which I had never been on before. We drove through desert, the heartland of a big, arid country. The horizon was like a line ruled across a page. Small hardy trees and stunted bushes basked under vast skies. Sometimes there were no trees, just a carpet of small leathery plants and stones. ‘The tyranny of distance’ was a familiar phrase, but we were confronted by the tyranny of space, a tyranny of Nothingness. Sometimes it was impressive, other times, monotonous. Sometimes I got the feeling we were on another planet. Driving across Saturn maybe.

During our stops, when we got out and walked around, a strong icy wind, blowing out of infinity, chilled us to the bone. The same country that during the long summer months was so hot it was like Hell on earth.

The road was a long straight shimmering line.

You had to watch that line. Keep your eyes peeled.

Road trains thundered past, mechanical monsters almost as high as they were long. Dead kangaroos lay strewn all over the line and you knew that if your concentration failed or you fell asleep, you would join them within the blink of an eye.

 

 

A day after arriving in Adelaide, Dave, Anya and I went to view my mother’s body.

Formal identification had to be made before it was released to the funeral director. We arrived at the entrance of a typical large and busy hospital to be met by a Chaplain. For a moment, I wondered why he was there. We were not religious and didn’t want a religious funeral. He was dressed in normal clothes; trousers, shirt and jumper. He could have been a cleaner except for the plastic ID card hanging around his neck. We stood around in the noisy hallway talking. We had to wait for the arrival of two police; they were required to officially register our identities and, that of my mother.

‘They’re always late’ the Chaplain said.

He was there apparently as a grief counsellor and not a representative of any particular faith. Evidently some people went to pieces when they viewed the body of a loved one.

He was a nice man, chatty, affable. We talked about grief. I explained to him that on my part, there was no grief. It was, rather, a sense of disorientation; of shock. Grief was something different. I remembered a man we had met on a caravan park in Victoria who had lost his teenage son in a motor bike accident; his stories about grief counselling, of being in and out of institutions; of days when he couldn’t get out of bed.

That was grief.

The police arrived; a young woman and a middle- aged man. I felt sorry for them having to do this job. Must have been boring. We walked upstairs, navigated our way passed nurses and doctors and orderlies, and entered a small, dark room, furnished with comfortable chairs, a lounge suite and lamps: bizarre in the context of a large hospital, where sterility, disinfectant and harsh light was the norm. At one end of the room was a closed door bearing the innocuous sounding sign ‘Viewing Room’. It seemed to take forever before the door was opened. We sat there in the lounge staring into space whilst the Chaplain chatted to the police.

I didn’t know how I would react on seeing my dead mother.

I had seen bodies many times in India.

But this was different.

This was my mother, a woman who had raised me and who had been an integral part of my life. Who I had loved, sometimes hated, often pitied; who had alternatively made me laugh, driven me to distraction, and on occasions, confided in me in a way she had never done with anyone else.

On seeing her lying there on a hospital stretcher, would I cry, lose my self -control, yell, faint, or rush out of the ‘viewing room’ in an emotional fluster?

It seemed unlikely. I never cried. But I wasn’t sure.

The fact was, the only reason I had accompanied Dave and Anya was because I thought I had to; they had told me that I didn’t have to come, but I was worried about looking weak. What kind of dumb macho was this? Why didn’t I stay back at Dave’s place? Lyn had refused to come along, why didn’t I follow her cue?

There he was Mr. Macho Man. Nervous as hell.

Shit! Open that bloody door and let’s get this over!

How long does it take to take a body out of a freezer?

 

The door opened. The three of us filed in.

A long sigh of relief went through me.

This wasn’t my mother. It was her body, but it wasn’t her. It looked like an Egyptian mummy with the cloth unwound. Or a corpse in India floating on a river.

This wasn’t my mother.

The face was like a macabre mask. The skull was covered in a thin, translucent layer of skin. The eyes were closed and sunk in their sockets. The mouth open and looked like a deep dark hole.

A week later, when she lay in a coffin in a chapel, she had been made up and was wearing clothes. Then she looked like a mannequin doll. But on this viewing, there was no pretension, no intervention by the make-believe industry.

My fears dissipated. I was free!

This wasn’t my mother.

The enigma of the life force had flown – where to?

Wars have been fought since time immemorial over the answer to that question. I didn’t have any answers and never would have.

 

We left the viewing room. Anya was crying (but she had been adamant that she wanted to take one last look at my mother). The Chaplain spoke comforting words to her. Dave stood with the police, filling in forms and testifying that the body in the adjoining room was our mother.

No it wasn’t!

That was my secret.

My mother had vanished into thin air. Flown away, like a night owl.

In the following days, a funeral director was consulted and preparations made for a ceremony.

I wrote the eulogy. That was my task: after all, older brother Pete was a ‘bit of a scribbler.’

 

See following blog: ‘Eulogy for My Mother’

https://serioustravelblog.com/2017/09/24/eulogy-for-my-mother/

 

‘Big Walk You’ – Part 2

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For a good 20 minutes, we drove down that road, dense forests either side of us.

The view was amazing.

Well, it was the same view we had seen close-hand during our frantic descent from the mountains, only now it was different because we had the luxury of sitting in the back of a car and looking at those forests as spectators. And when you saw it from that perspective, you could appreciate its sheer extent, the beauty of tall trees and autumn coloured leaves, seemingly endless.

This kind of wilderness – you didn’t see it anymore in Western Europe: the kind of wilderness which offered sanctuary to bears and wolves and packs of wild dogs.

 

As we descended, the forests receded and in places, there were fields. In one we saw a shepherd with a flock of sheep. Nearby was a rough low hut and smoky little fire.

Then a little way further, on our left, we saw them, a short way back from the road and near some tall trees: a big group of gypsies in two open, horse-drawn wagons. The men had long beards and the women were dressed in very colourful long dresses. The wagons were packed with people. Some of them were walking next to the wagons.

What were they doing there?

We tried to ask but got only: ‘gypsies!’

They looked like something out of a dream.

We had seen gypsies before in Romania, some of them living in houses, some of them begging, some of them on the move.

But this was bizarre: out here in this wilderness, in this cold.

 

At 7pm we came to a village.

The air was heavy with dust and smoke. In combination with the twilight, everything seemed other-worldly. Scenes rolled before my eyes, images which I could not believe I was seeing, which reminded me of travelling in India, not Europe.

There was a long unsealed road and on either side of it, small houses. Most of the houses consisted of weathered, vertical wood palings and long, sloping, red tile roofs; the roofs were warped and looked like a painting from the hand of Van Gogh (only without the colours). In some places, there were groups of people sitting on bench seats at the side of the road.

Then I noticed it: there were no cars. No cars on the road and no cars parked at the side of the road. No one could afford a car. Many people rode bikes. Others were on horse-drawn carts. Some of the people I saw were gypsies or of mixed heritage; others were Romanian.

In a field, I saw women wearing headscarves and woollen vests and long dresses raking piles of dead grass into heaps. In another field, I saw people scrabbling in the dirt to find potatoes, which they put in to an old sack.

We passed a small church and graveyard. Behind it was forest. There was no fence or wall around the church and graveyard. I watched a group of people carrying implements like rakes, spades and hoes, walk through the grave yard, passed the small headstones; death and dying was a part of village life. It was like a scene from medieval times.

We came to an intersection where there were several horse- drawn carts pulled up at the side of the road. There was a group of people standing in the middle of the intersection talking. The car edged slowly around them and a little later came to a halt because a shepherd was bringing his herd of cows down the street. We drove a bit further before having to stop for another herd of cows, this one far bigger.

 

With the flood of impressions which greeted me as we drove through that village, the physical exhaustion I felt after we first got into the car seemed to vanish.

All sorts of thoughts raced through my mind. I felt alive, excited, curious and at the same time, there were questions I was grappling with.

Approximately 50 kilometres away was the city of Brasov – where we had stayed only two days before. It had a beautiful old historic centre and it was one of Romania’s major tourist attractions. The busiest area was around the square and an adjoining street – closed-off to traffic – called Republika Street. On either side of Republika Street were elegant buildings constructed during the 19th century and early 20th century when Romania was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the street level of these buildings were upmarket shops, some of them orientated towards the tourists, but most of them towards the local middle class youth. Brasov was a university town and there were crowds of students among the tourists. In the front windows of these shops were slick images of sophisticated, cool people wearing the right clothing, the right jackets, the right watches, the right jewellery, the right perfume; you felt old walking along that street if you were over 25. The sons and daughters of the newly emerging Romanian urban middle class were the ones who had money to spend – much of it black. Here we were two days later driving over brutal roads passed villages where no one had a car, which in many ways were living in a time belonging to a distant past.

This was a country of compartmentalized worlds, involving not only rich and poor but also city and country, ethnic Romanians and gypsies, the legal economy and the illegal. It was a country of gross inequality and endemic corruption. There were enormous differences between different areas of society co-existing side by side. Somewhere in a part of my brain I was wrestling with the issue: would I want Romania to be Scandinavia? Would I want to level this society and thereby also remove its colour, its differences, it’s all too vivid contrasts? I suspected that there was an unequivocal connection here: poverty and culture, prosperity and sterility. I hoped I was wrong but I’d seen it before – many times.

As a progressive human being, I would want to level the entire world, to reduce the economic inequality within nations and between nations; to create a world society in which everyone, the poor and the rich, men and women, gays and trans genders, had equal opportunities in life. Ideals were precious to me. Yet as a traveller, honesty forced me to admit that the last thing I would want to do is turn the world to one big antiseptic ball park. As a traveller, the very last thing I wanted was to live in a world without differences, a world sterilised into a kind of decent mono-culture where everyone lived as a consumer. In the drive from the mountains down through that village, I felt a surge of exhilaration, of wonder, of intensity; my eyes feasted on the scenes outside the windows of that beaten up old Opel. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking about what I had seen in Republika Street only two days before: the ugly reality of some people, an arrogant elite, living the Western Dream and many others, in grinding poverty.

How many of the people in these villages would be worrying about their appearance, about what was fashionable and cool?

I could not resolve these contradictions – and so I gave up and just went along for the ride…….

 

After that village, came another.

By that time, night had fallen and it started raining.

This village was, in any case, somewhat more developed. There was a typical, blunt communist era apartment block, chipped and cracked. In the light of a street lamp it looked like a massive, gaunt, tombstone. Near the apartment block there were a few old communist era cars and, a few wrecks of cars. In unsealed side streets, I saw pools of water and rows of wood and tile houses with light glowing from their windows; they looked like lanterns. We drove through a town centre where there were a few small shops, a communist era statue of a hero, and an old, stately looking building hailing from the Austro-Hungarian times.

We crossed a railway line and finally reached a sealed road.

We told the driver to drop us there and we could hitch back to Baile Tusnad.

The driver said: ‘No…not possible…. we take you to Manpas Bai. There you get train to Baile Tusnad.’
Shortly after he said that, we realised that the road we had turned on to was not the road to Baile Tusnad. It was another road entirely. It was deserted. There was no traffic.

Once again, I ran the scenario through my mind about what would have happened if we hadn’t been picked up by these men. We would have walked all night, got to the road the following morning very much worse for wear – and then discovered that it wasn’t the road we wanted.

That we still had a hell of a long way to go – with no hope of a lift in sight.

 

In the dark and wet, the car drove up a hill, back and forth around sharp bends. There were forests all around us. The drive to the station at Manpas Bai seemed to take forever. It was a hell of a distance. The time ticked by.

At 8pm, we turned left down a pot- holed side street and there it was: the little railway station at Manpas Bai.  

Anya and I travelled often by train in Romania. It was far more reliable than the bus service (which is why hitch-hiking was so widespread in Romania).

Some of the train stations were big, like grand halls, with high ceilings and waiting rooms and upstairs lounges; they were relics from the communist era when few people had cars and most used the trains. Others, like the one at Manpas Bai, were very small, like the forgotten forward posts of a once great empire. Manpas Bai consisted of a rectangular, flat-topped, white-painted building; there were no platforms let alone sheltered platforms. A train arrived and you walked over there and literally, climbed aboard – quite an effort with a heavy rucksack.

The next train for Baile Tusnad left at 9 pm; we had a long wait ahead of us.

 

The trout fishermen made their way back to their car.

We insisted on giving them money – 150 lei or around 35 Euros. This was a large sum indeed for the locals. We were not in the habit of handing out this sort of tip but in this case, it was different. These men had gone out of their way to drive us to the station; we had been in their car for an hour and a half. Without them, we would have been in a very sorry, not to mention, dangerous situation. If someone had appeared at 6.30 that evening and offered to drive us to safety for 200 Euros, we would have paid it – especially if we had had the slightest inkling of what lay in front us.

The men refused to take the money.

We refused to let them go without them taking it.

In the end, they did take it and we were incredibly glad that they did.

We owed them a debt which could not be put in monetary terms – still, money was as close as we could get to say ‘thank you’ and it didn’t strike me that these guys were exactly wealthy.

 

By the time we reached Baile Tusnad – 9.30 – the rain had become a torrential downpour.

Our guest house was situated at the end of town (not that Baile Tusnad was very big), high on the mountain side, amidst pines. Normally it took around 20 minutes for us to reach it from the station – during the day. At night, with the heavy rain however, it was a different matter.

At the station, we put on our ponchos and walked up to the main road. This was well illuminated, but the streets which we had to follow up the slope after that had no lighting. We kept losing our way and had to retrace our steps several times. It was so frustrating. As if the day hadn’t been long enough. We were so close and yet so far.

Finally, we got there.

Then the next little hurdle: getting the key to our room.

That morning, we had just got out of the door when the owner of the guest house came running after us, yelling out ‘You! You!’

The ‘You!’ annoyed me. It sounded rude. Then I remembered that he knew only a few words of English (about as many words as we knew in Romanian).

‘You!’ was his way of catching our attention.

He asked us to give him the key to our room so that it could be cleaned. We didn’t want our room cleaned and preferred to have the key with us so that we could get into our room when we liked.

Did he not have his own set of master keys?

Given the communication problem – and that we wanted to start walking instead of wasting time – we just went along with it and gave him the key.

At 10.30 pm at night, wet, cold, and exhausted, we opened the front door to the guest house. There was no one at the reception desk.

I was not amused. The last thing I wanted to do was knock on doors and get the owner out of bed to get our bloody key.

Why had we given that moron our key in the first place?

Hearing a booming TV set coming from behind a door directly opposite the reception desk, we thought we might as well try and knock on the door and find someone who was awake – and might be able to locate the manager.

I knocked loudly on the door a few times.

The manager appeared. He was an elderly man with an aquiline nose and a head of thick grey hair cut short.

He beckoned us inside.

I’d thought that behind the door was someone’s room. It was much bigger. There was a bar and some tables and chairs nearby. We didn’t even know this bar area existed.

There was no one there, only him, drinking a beer and watching TV.

On the surrounding walls were the hides of bears. It made me sick. All that hunting stuff was pathetic. If it wasn’t bear hides it was deep antlers.

When the owner grabbed the remote and turned the TV off and turned the lights off and head towards the door, I realised that he had evidently waited up for us.

I forgot about my anger at seeing the bear hides.

Closing the door behind him, he handed us our key and said:

Big walk you!’

Was it my imagination or was this a classic example of dry understatement?

 

See also Serious Travel Images:

A Weekend in Bucharest – Saturday (Romania)

 

A Weekend in Bucharest – Sunday