Sunday, September 11, 2016

Nepal 1982

Bangkok 1982
So there I was sweating buckets at the old Bangkok Airport, standing in front of a photo counter in the duty-free zone that I hoped sold slide film. Earlier, I had checked my travel pack in, got my boarding pass and had passed through security and x-ray machines. I was getting ready for the trip of a lifetime to the mountain kingdom of Nepal, and had been counting on buying slide film at a duty-free shop.
Some experienced traveller I was.
I had been told earlier by more ‘learned’ Aussie traveller that I would be able to find Kodachrome 64 and 25 ASA film at the Duty Free shops. However, upon asking this shop keeper for any slide film, the blood drained from my face when he said he didn’t have any.
Now what to do?
Some professional photographer I was too!
Dreams of taking incredible shots of the Himalayan trek were dissolving.
What’s the point of going to Kathmandu and doing a trek if I don’t have any slide film?
I hummed and hawed for a few minutes as the reality of not having slide film weighed heavy on me—me a photographer no less.
I was reminded of something that my old Winnipeg Tribune photo editor told me just two years earlier: “You can run out of time on a photo shoot, but under no circumstances, come back here and tell me that you ran out of film—always carry extra” he said chomping on a stale stogie. Well I had flunked that one, hadn’t I.
I looked at the time of departure—Christ I still had two hours to boarding time and I already had my boarding pass. I had to make a quick decision.
Could I find slide film outside the airport?
I decided to go for it.
I had to show my passport and boarding card and plead with the Thai army security guys to let me go back out and try to find some film. After a bit of persuasion, Canadian style, they allowed me to go, but I had to leave my boarding pass with them.
I ran like hell out to the Arrivals area and crazily flagged down a taxi that had just dropped off some passengers. I jumped in the passenger seat and yelled at the guy— “I need to find a place where they sell film!”
Luckily he understood some English as Thailand had recently experienced a boom in tourists—this was 1982 after all.
I looked at my watch and realized I only had an hour to find a camera shop.
Just as we pulled away, I yelled at him, “If you get me back here in less than an hour, I’ll give you a $20 US tip on top of the fare,” I said waving a fresh $20 bill at him.
He seemed to like that, mind you twenty bucks was quite a nice chunk of change back then and a hard currency at that.
He drove like someone out of Mad Max, honking at everyone that blocked our path, careening all over the road. He took me to the first shop with a Kodak sign, but they only had colour negative film—no good for me. Then to another shop, but they only did printing.
You would think I would be a little more organized what with being on the road for eight months.
The clock was ticking. I got fed up and just asked the shop keeper where I could get slide film. He muttered something in Thai to my driver and off again we went and eventually came to another shop with a huge Fuji film sign. It was a professional camera and film shop. This time I was in luck as they had a few Kodachrome 64 (without mailers) but mostly Ektachrome slide film—the supposed professional film.
 At this point, I didn’t care anymore and was just happy to find any slide film. I bought all he had (15 rolls). The film wasn’t cheap either and I cursed that fellow traveller for leading me astray.
We had an equally scary ride at breakneck speed back to the airport and arrived with 10 minutes to spare. I paid the cabbie the meter rate and gave him the $20 dollar bill. I thanked him profusely. I hurried back through security, saw the security guys again and showed my passport and retrieved my boarding pass. I was all sweaty again but relieved to have film.

On to Nepal.
A few weeks later in Kathmandu, between myself and American fellow trekkers, Dan Callaway and Brian Stern, we had organized a 31-day Annapurna Circuit trek along with a host of Nepali guys from the Tamang tribe.  Our guide, Kalam Singh Tamang, had worked as a cook on larger Sherpa-led expeditions, but now he wanted to form his own trekking company employing his in-laws as porters.
Also, I didn’t want to be encumbered anymore with the finicky Nikon Nikonos camera I had bought in crazy Tokyo just eight months ago. I thought I was being smart buying an underwater camera that would be dust proof and water proof—silly me! It had knobs for guessing how far away someone was and another for the light meter, it was unlike my OM-1 and OM-2 that I had stupidly left back home.
I had checked out some camera shops in Kathmandu and had chatted up the Nepali Hindu guy at the counter to swap my underwater camera for a used Olympus OM-1 he had on sale. The picture quality on the Nikonos was good, but not as sharp as a 50 mm Zuiko lens on this old OM-1. I swapped, thinking I had got the better of the deal.
It wasn’t until I was riding on the top of our crowded Nepali bus to Pokhara and in trying to take a picture, that I realized that the light meter didn’t work. I checked to see if the battery had been put in wrongly, but then was horrified to find—no battery at all.
Good grief now what to do.
Neither Dan nor Brian had an extra battery—who would carry such a thing?
It just so happened that on our crowded bus also rode two fellow Canadians that I knew from Banff. Earlier, I had run into Booby and Roki Bernstein on Freak Street as they were stocking up on clothes, trinkets and whatnot for their groovy import shop called “The Source”.  I hadn’t seen them in almost a year and in chatting with them on the bus, I told them of my plight of not having a battery for the light meter. The camera still worked, but the light meter didn’t.
Before I could say anymore, Roki kindly offered me her battery from her camera, but when I tried it—no luck. So there I was, in a smoke filled bus, heading off to where we would start our trek, with my x-ray bag full of slide film, but with a camera that had no light meter—Geezuz!
Not a great way to begin the trek of a lifetime.
Despite the bus taking over an hour, we had only managed to go 50 kilometers from Kathmandu. I had to make a decision. Above the din of the bus, I talked with our guide Kalam, then with Brian and Dan again about me returning to Kathmandu in the hopes of finding a battery for my light meter.
As it turned out, Dan had picked up a stomach bug and was feeling proper poorly. It was agreed that our gang could hold up at Dumre just for today, pitch camp while Dan recovered, but would start off on our trek tomorrow morning bright and early—with or without me.
We were only half way to our starting point at Dumre and since it was midday, there was the likelihood that I might still be able to catch a bus returning to Kathmandu from Pokhara. At the next bus stop, I left my heavy Lowe Kinnikinnik travel pack with the guys and was lucky to catch a bus heading back to Kathmandu.
Once back in the Kathmandu bus terminal, I grabbed a taxi and off to Freak Street, back to the shop where I had swapped my camera.
Unfortunately, the guy did not have any batteries that were new or would fit my OM-1, nor did any other camera shop for that matter—bugger! What options did I have now? I decided I could guess at the exposures or ask someone else with a working light meter for their exposures. What a pain in the ass I would be on the trek now.
In the fading afternoon light, I hurried back to the bus station hoping to catch a bus back to Dumre. Unfortunately there was no overnight bus service to Pokhara, but there was a bus that was heading to Pokhara that would stop for the night along the way.
Luckily, I got the last seat on that bus.
One has to bear in mind that darkness sets in early here in the Himalayas and after an hour or so, we pulled into a guesthouse for the night. At a roadhouse in Mugling, I ate some tasty daal bhaat tarkari (rice, lentils and curried vegetables) by hurricane lamp then a Nepali police officer and myself were the only customers to go upstairs to sleep. Unfortunately, our sleeping area was nothing more than a row of army surplus cots in a huge dorm with a cheap tin corrugated roof which reverberated when a sudden downpour came. We were up around 4,000 feet so it was quite chilly and all I had to keep warm was my Helly-Hansen fleece and my Gore-Tex MEC jacket and some flea-ridden wool blankets. To add to this chilly encounter, there was a plague of rats that crawled on the roof and on us which made it quite a fitful night of sleeping.
The cacophonous bus horns woke us from our crappy slumbers and after a quick breakfast, we were herded back onto the bus and off again on the next part of my sub-continent adventure.
The Nepalis love their cheap cigarettes and I was soon feeling nauseous because no one opened their windows. At the next bus stop, I’d had enough and fought my way past the throngs on this crowded bus and climbed the outside rickety metal ladder that led to the roof. Once on top and with the cold Himalayan air buffeting me, I quickly donned my Gore-Tex jacket over top of my fleece as it was a tad nippy here in the mountain air. I had just come from balmy Bangkok after all.

The air was bracing and the mountain scenery unforgettable, but I had absolutely no idea what ranges and peaks I was looking at. One of the gigantic burlap bags I leaned against had broken open probably caused from the lads flinging them up to the roof. The bag was full of little sealed bags of bite-sized chevda—a spicy mix of peanuts and other tasty fried things—the Indian equivalent to our nuts and bolt, but with a little chili heat. I munched on a packet to pass the time of day. I was the only brave soul riding the roof and I felt like a pasha up here surveying all I controlled.
The bus eventually arrived at our starting point of Dumre in the early afternoon. Thankfully, Kalam had left one of the porters, Osman, behind, so we headed off at a fast pace in the hopes of catching up with everyone by dinner time. We had only walked a couple of kilometers when I heard some voices yelling at me up ahead. It was Dan and Brian who were sprawled out on blankets either writing in their journal or reading a book, but apparently waiting for lunch to be prepared.
Thankfully, I had made it here after all with or without a light meter.

The real trek would begin tomorrow.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Stagnight: Shela style


Stagnight: Shela style

We’d been told that there were going to be weddings in Shela this week, but I had forgotten about it. There were actually three: two Swahili style and the other “western” style with karaoke put on by Peponi’s only for the well-heeled and well-oiled. We chose to attend the former as that was the only ones we were allowed into—the other “western” one would require formal attire of which I foolishly left back my tuxedo back in Doha—and rightly so!

We did not get formal invites to the Swahili stag, but it seems most of the folk of this small village were attending—at least the majority of men.

You could hear the polyphonic rhythm of the drums before you actually saw the event. It was stag venue just behind where we were lodging in a maidan or open area that had been roped off and a makeshift wooden fence had been constructed around a sandy square. It seems like this was a familiar venue as many other such events were likely staged here. Edward and Milton (whom I call Abote) led Jeremy, Lynette, Beatrice, Jessica and I to the venue where the fierce drumming and shouting was emanating from.

As Quay Lude, lead singer and front man for the Arizona glam rock group The Tubes would say— “the place was jumping”, well here it was literally. Two combatants squared off in the traditional stick fight in the center of the dusty square. This display was something that I have come to associate with the mini Haj, or Maulidi festival that celebrates the Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday that is held every year in nearby Lamu.

The stick swingers are dressed in the usual garb of tailored shirts or t-shirts and kikois which are similar to the Yemeni futa or what most would say are lungi. I prefer the Swahili word kikoi since we are in East Africa after all. Many local men were wearing the traditional Swahili cap called kofia which is white with gold and silver embroidering with flowery Arabic script—maybe from the Koran. Just behind us were a bunch of young miraa-chewing lads who were sitting atop of an unfinished concrete building oblivious to nasty rebar that was jutting out at weird angles.

At one point, a wayward chicken got into the act, sorry buddy, but this wasn’t the time for the funky chicken dance, just the funky Swahili guys and their moves and feints.

The stick fight is more ceremonial than actual battling, but the younger Turks take it more seriously and there is also a group chanting from the home side and howls when someone lands a blow. The left hand is used to parry the blows with the right hand swinging the stick down hard on the opponents stick or feinting a blow. I am not particularly sure if there is a winning side or how someone would or does win the fight.

The wedding party or special guests are just down the fence from the drummer and they are seated at a long table covered in a flowery kikoi. The best man has what looks like a Remembrance Day wreath with garlands of yellow flowers draped around his neck. It is all makeshift as they have to set up chairs and the table in the sand. A stainless steel tray is brought in with a decanter of what looks like a barium shake—pink in colour. Glad they are drinking it as I fear they have infused this pink, milky concoction with dreaded rose water. Naturally, Arabic coffee is offered to the party of six—all men. There are a couple of kids sitting with their legs swinging in the high wooden chairs.

After a while, a member from the wedding party or an older stick swinger comes and taps one of the younger fighters on the shoulder and after grabbing the stick, he throws the stick to the next willing opponent. At the end of the event, two elders from the wedding party step into the ring and they mostly dance pretending they are fighting and members from the audience run to them and carefully slide 50, 100, 500 shillingi notes under the kofia making sure the notes don’t fall in the sand.

But what really moves this noisy scene is the drumming.

Just in front of me is the drumming section right up against the makeshift fence. The drumming group is made up of two types of drums, two the size of congas, two other drums similar to the Indian dhol drum that is associated with Punjabi bhangra music, and another two smaller conga drums and some wild man wailing away with two thickly knotted hemp ropes at what looks like an aluminium pie plate on top of another larger pie plate. These drummer guys sit at the back of the square facing the stick swingers. The drummers keep the beat going and the stick swingers’ move to it, so to say, much like the Thai boxers do in Lumphini stadium in Bangkok.

What is interesting about the drummers is their nationalities. The main drummer on the conga, maintains and changes the rhythm to accommodate the stick swingers. It’s the same size as a traditional conga drum, but with a zebra skin drum head. There is no drumstand to support it, he just has his legs around it and beats the bejeezus out of it with a huge stick that looks like a rhino or hippo tusk. This drummer is African—the only one there.

Even though everyone here except for us wazungus is African—the majority are Bajuni or Swahili folk, but this main drummer probably is originally from the mainland. As I say, he changes the rhythm with rim shots, missing a beat or speeding up the beat and the others follow as do the stick swingers.

It sounds like the rolling thunder of a train.

 Seated on the right beside the African guy is a local guy whom I called Mister Turtle since he is always trying to get me and the family to go see turtles hatching. I guess he does this drumming in his spare time. He merely wails away at another large conga keeping a steady bass drum beat. To the left of the African guy is one guy seated playing the dhol drum and he doesn’t look like a local either— he looks Indian to me and he plays a different rhythm from the others and quite nicely I might add.

Next to him is another dhol drummer—a local guy. The final chap, who is set off from these drummers, is the aluminum pie plate guy who is wailing away with his thick hemp rope drumsticks while another guy facing him makes sure the plates don’t fly off. The sound is much like someone flailing away on an open high-hat of a drum kit. Nevertheless, it is quite hypnotic, if not trancey.

I felt like I could join in if asked to, but I didn’t want to upset proceedings. The whole concert, if that is what we can call it, went on for an hour and a half. In the end the groom and the best man then were obliged to do their part of stick fighting and more shillingi were tucked under their kofias.

On the far side is where you can find the Swahili womenfolk leaning against the makeshift fence. There are also women looking on from the safety of 1st and 2nd floor balconies of nearby Swahili houses. Most of the local women are dressed in their finest chintz and floral kangas and there are a few BuiBui peeking out from under their black chadors. There were a couple of beauties in amongst them, but mostly covered up.

Naturally, I should have been taking shots and filming this with my digital camera, but someone (who shall remain guilty) had dropped that into the salty Indian Ocean—pity.

Day Whatever

Day whatever

Shela is a small labyrinthine Islamic village—actually it was settled before Lamu by those people who came here after abandoning the small town of Takwa on nearby Manda Island. First timers to Shela could quite easily get lost here. Odd that, the kids know there way around here better than their mom. On our frequent forays out of our Swahili guesthouse, we have managed to find a dozen different ways of getting back to our lair.

Most days we go down to the beach, and mind you that can be 5 times days depending on if: the kids and Gracie go running, we go to see if it is low tide, we go to check out the resident dogs of Peponi’s, go for a treat at Stop and Go cafĂ©, we take a boat to Lamu or go to check out my email at Peponi’s patio. During those times, it is not unusual to pass by a small herd of braying donkeys, some mangy cats howling at each other, some noisy school kids off to the madrassa, some Rasta dhow boys smacked out on miraa who want to know if we want sunset cruise, Mr. Turtle drumming up business, or some fishermen hauling a freshly caught 25 kg yellowfin tuna and leaving a trail of blood on the concrete, another man carrying a very small baby hammerhead shark and some red snapper off to market, or a reed basket of mud crabs trying to pinch us. We usually see the new version of Ali Hippy either sitting on a step outside Janataan Guesthouse or down on the concrete ledge next to Peponi’s. His name is Ali Samosa and he is always looking for customers to buy his famous samosas.

Being that as it may, there is something liberating about being in a place where there is no vehicular traffic and only tame donkeys to avoid, and their associated donkey doo. Back in Nairobbery, the kids are rarely allowed into the open parking space in our compound for fear of cars coming and going, they are never out of the security compound by themselves, and god forbid, never allowed to walk down our road to nearby shops on their own. The roads where we live in Nairobi have cuckoo matatu drivers, many whacked on miraa, who are dodgy drivers at the best of times and quite dangerous when stoned.

Here in Shela, we have no such fears.

The kids know their way down to Peponi’s and the beach right next to it, they even know the different routes to get from the beach back to our accommodation—Baitil Aman. So much so, that the other day when we were on that beach, one of Gracie’s workers had just arrived by dhow from Lamu with some antibiotics for me and I instructed him to take it up to our place here. I figured that he would probably want to banter in Luo with the “aunties”, but in asking him, he had no clue of where our place was.

Jessica volunteered to show him and I had no trouble letting her show him the way something we would never have allowed her to do in Nairobi. Besides most of the shopkeepers, local guides, salon owners and artists, know the kids by now and keep an eye out for them.

The kids have the run of our Swahili house with its spacious three floors, endless rooms and open rooftop. Outside our room, there is a sheltered sitting area like a verandah that looks out over a garden, there are concrete benches with thick cushions to recline on, a heavy mangrove coffee table to put your feet up on or play 52 card pickup. At the other end of this sheltered verandah is a dining table that can seat 12 people and this is where we eat breakfast, sometimes lunch and dinner. We usually eat the Swahili version of a lightly sweetened cardamom/coconut flavoured dutchie called mandazi. This along with copious cups of sweet milky tea and followed by either fresh passion or lime juice. The kids and I often take a break from the mandazis and opt for a dry cereal with milk. A late lunch could be pilau, chicken curry, or a large plate of samosas. Dinner often is grilled snapper, broad beans or mung beans cooked in coconut milk with chapatis, or as a treat—deep fried or grilled chicken and chips.

The kids often come out of our house to go to neighbouring dukas or shops to buy sodas, water or phone credit, and to watch and pet the numerous donkeys and their babies who frequent the area. It’s like the kids have a personal petting zoo.

Day whatever

Despite taking the normal precautions of travelling and living in an equatorial zone known as the malaria coast, one by one our extended family is succumbing to the #1 killer in the world—malaria or falciparum plasmodium.

We started taking the prescribed malaria prophylaxis, Meflaquon, back in Nairobi before starting our journey. I took 500 mg per week each Thursday and the kids are on 250 mg. per week. I assumed the maids, or as the kids call them “aunties”, were taking it, but you never know as they didn’t seem to be bothered about taking them—maybe it is a mzungu thing? In Africa, getting a disease seems to not be a big issue or even trying to prevent getting one—I guess that is why AIDS and HIV took off here as no one likes using condoms—still!

At any rate, after being here for two weeks, Auntie Lynette felt loagy and tired—we just thought it is some flu virus, but then she was running a temperature. So we got the Coartem treatment stuff for her and she is still not 100%, no appetite, but better than before. Next, was Jessica who sat wrapped in a fleece, another fleece on top and two towels and she was still feeling cold at sitting on our verandah. Mind you the evening breeze coming off the Indian Ocean these days is decidedly cool compared to the muggy days we spent here on the malaria coast, but surely not in need of a fleece. She had succumbed to malaria and we took no chances and got her on the treatment as well. We had gone to the island clinic with Lynette, but could not do the blood test for malaria since we were all on prophylaxis.

This would not be such a big deal with Jessie’s condition, but we were reminded that Gracie’s younger brother Josie had succumbed to malaria in Lamu years ago which eventually turned into cerebral malaria—the most dangerous strain, which nearly killed him. The fact of the matter is that both Gracie’s dad and aunt had died from it, so we weren’t going to take any chances. Neither Gracie nor I slept well and we couldn’t wait to see what the treatment would reveal in the morning. Thankfully Jessie was OK in the morning, but Lynette was still quite out of it—no appetite and sleeping all day.

We thought we were out of the woods, but next up was the youngest—Jeremy. He had no symptoms until one night he leaned up against me and he was like a boiling pot next to me. I told Gracie, because unlike Jessica who had the chills two nights before, Jeremy was boiling. I laid some cushions on top to keep off the mossies and keep him warm. When I took them off, so he could be carried to bed, he had soaked all his clothing. We woke him up and gave him treatment and then sent him to bed.

The upshot of this is that Gracie didn’t take any prophylaxis and says she thinks she is immune from it as perhaps her body has built up a resistance to the strain of malaria here on Lamu. One wonders why there is such a bad strain since the majority of the island is desert with sand dunes, and I haven’t seen any standing water where the malarial blighters can breed. Having said that, my old African hand, Bill Curry, just succumbed to dengue fever a few weeks back and he got that in Mombasa area just down the coast from here, so who knows.

When we told our chef about our ailments, he just shrugged and said it was just “Lamu fever”—whatever the hell that is.