Monthly Archives: October 2011

Bedouin weddings and desert sunsets

10.06.2001, Wadi Rum: Jordan

Desert hospitality

The drive up to Wadi Rum from Aquaba is spectacular. There are huge, towering, pink mountains on either side. The arid desert seems to only support tufty scrub to the untrained eye.  Camels greet you at the town’s entrance with their lazy eyes and ornate saddles.

At the café, I met my new ‘best friend’ Aodeh. After enquiring after my marital status he arranged my entire stay in Wadi Rum. Visit the town spring with me, join my desert tour, stay in a desert tent, sleep under the stars, watch a sunset, come to my cousin’s wedding, watch a camel race…there’s a 3 day party in Wadi Rum!  Does Aodeh have an ulterior motive?  Should I be suspicious?

Wadi Rum is special for many reasons, but I will tell you of two – the Bedouin people I met at a wedding, and the sunsets. Bedouin weddings are different. Very different to ours. The men and the women are separated; there’s no drinking; no party dresses; no table settings or seating plans; you eat with your hand from a shared platter on the ground; and the guests take the leftovers home. The more sheep you slaughter, the better wishes for the marriage.

I was ushered into the ladies part of the celebration. Aodeh introduced me to his sisters and then rather quickly scarpered (no boys allowed!) and I was on my own.  Everyone welcomed me – despite my bare head and lack of language. (This was my first day in an Arabic speaking country!) I danced with the teenagers to Arabic pop songs from the tinnie trannie in the corner. The girls clapped and practiced looking coy. I taught them the “under the bambushes” song and clapping game which was a hit! The older women gossiped, their traditional tattooed chins both surprising and reminding me of the mokos the Maori women have at home.

Dinner was served on the largest round platters I have ever seen. About 10 women surrounded a heaped plate of mutton and rice and squatted on the ground. With our right hand only we all scooped the greasy and slippery concoction into our mouths. It was well flavoured with spices, super tender and rather delicious. But damn, it was hard to eat! I watched the ladies’ technique and succeeded in spilling far more and feeling decidedly gauche. Then suddenly the platters were picked up (still heaped) and divided into containers for the visitors to take home with them, thus extending the hospitality of the wedding.

After dark the wedding joined parties, the women veiled all in black, kohl eyes shining brightly. We sat in a large black tent made of goats’ hair, expectant and excited. The clapping, singing and dancing began. Whole songs are clapped and the women make a high-pitched yodelling type sound from deep within their throats. The men respond by linking arms and clapping, making equally unusual guttural sounds accompanied by rocking and pelvic movements. Dancing women twirl temptingly in front of the line of men. The turn-taking continues through the night.

Aodeh sheltering from the heat under the Rose Bridge

Wadi Rum sunsets are gorgeous.  Silence pervades, the wind has died, even the birds and insects quieten out of respect for the sunset.  The rocks and crannies that capture the final rays turn pink, as if they are blushing. The glow moves across the desert valley, chased by the shadow. The mountains tinge blue before it’s the sky’s turn to blush with hues of pink, turquoise and blue. The temperature plummets. Millions of stars come out. The turn-taking continues through the ages.

I’m glad I trusted instead of being suspicious.

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Scaling the greatest wall of all

Beijing, China: 19.8.98

Today we went to the Great Wall of China at Simatai. It was really fantastic! After breakfasting at the bar with the very Chinese meal of  club sandwiches, we got on the bus and of course waited ages for it to depart, which it did half an hour later. Despite being a rickety old thing, it got us there with seemingly little problem. We drove for at least an hour before we got out of the city – it’s so huge.

Shelter in a station

I was tired on the bus from a late night and lots of stories – Stephan from Quebec told us how he climbed Mt Everest!! He wasn’t prepared and had little gear – all unbelievable,  but yet also totally believable. You couldn’t make that shit up!

Anyway… it was such a jiggly and noisy, rickety bus and there was no way I was going to get any sleep. So I was entertained by the Chinese countryside, traffic and villages. Not much forest or forestation and some really old looking houses – it’s amazing what the Chinese live in. You would think that the countryside would have progressed with the kinds of technology you see in the city. But no, only the cities get these things – the country folk remain as poor as the proverbial church mouse. There were so many old ladies on the streets selling dried god-knows-what, all the colour of the dust around us. The roads here are good in parts, I was surprised – we travelled on some beautifully sealed tarmac, some not so.

Finally after three hours on the bus we arrived – wow – it was so amazing! So high, so awesome.  It cost 20Y to get in and then tickets up the cable car. People said that the wall at Simatai was still in it’s original condition, almost no work has been done (not sure I believe this, below pic of me looks as if that part was restored).  It was a really clear day and we could see for miles and it marched over the hills. We were so lucky as the weather hasn’t been great lately.

There were, of course, lots of people up there trying to sell us stuff and it was really really hot.  We decided to take the cable car as the mountain looked so steep. It was so peaceful on the car, smooth and quiet, with stunning views of the wall. The cable car didn’t take us all the way up the hill so we got off to do a whole lot more walking up the hill. By this time it’s about midday, it was a hot walk!

Accompanying us were these two older Chinese ladies, we saw them scrambling up the slope as we glided in our cable car. When we got out they followed us and tried to have a conversation which we couldn’t make head-nor-tail of so we just smiled. They ended up following us around. They kept saying, “go up, come down”. They weren’t sweating or puffing like we were, they were super fit – I bet they climb this hill all day, every day.  They were also wearing the silliest plastic shoes you have ever seen!

At the top, we flipped a coin and went left down the wall. The ladies still pestered us. Finally another tourist told us to tell them to go away – so we bought postcards from them and convinced them we didn’t need a guide. At this point we were on a very steep, very crumbly part of the wall, so we were trying to come to some kind of deal with them in high winds, on the ridge and the most precarious part of the wall at Simatai. Ridiculous! Finally they were gone. That’s what they meant – “go up, come down”, they wanted to guide us. God, I felt completely dense.

We carried on our way and stopped at the stations.  People were living in some of them. In one they had a generator for a TV and fridges and freezers. A man had his young child up there and had built a lean to from canvas and plastic.  Some parts were so narrow you couldn’t walk on them, some was just one narrow step after another. We could see the wall stretch out for miles and miles – amazing.

The story behind the Great Wall stretches through the dynasties and is really interesting. It started as a whole bunch of fortresses way back in BC times. Then in the Qin and Ming Dynasties it was connected together. It was heavily guarded and built with great human cost. It marches over a huge part of northern China and is in all sorts of states today. Most people at the time went to Badaling to see it, where it is fully restored for the visitors. And, it’s a myth that the wall is visible from the moon.  We came all the way down the section of Simatai and had lunch in a small restaurant around the car park.

Me on the Great Wall '98

It was a real buzz for me being on the Great Wall, standing on one of the greatest sites of the world (along with the Pyramids).  I loved it! It made me want to see more of the world and these wonderful places I had only heard about or seen in books. It was the start of many other journeys to see architectural and cultural wonders.

There were very few tourists at Simitai back in 98, although I hear its different now. I went back to a different part of the wall (the Wild Wall) in 2000) and stayed the night. But that’s a different story.

Shocking thoughts and genocide

A monument to mass genocide

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: 11.04.00

Just came back from the killing fields. It’s a shocking story. It has happened within my lifetime. It will happen again. It is probably happening somewhere now. Why do we humans do these things to ourselves? Why do we create enemies with our fellow countrymen? Why do these atrocities continue to haunt the world? How can we prevent it from happening?

By moto taxi I travelled through Phnom Penh and was struck by the dichotomy of things here. Poor, and a little bit of rich. There’s some wealth, people with nice cars and cell phones, yet mainly the others are all squashed on to a moto gripping their kids or their precious cargo for dear life, while navigating a death trap. The main boulevards are lovely, wide and paved, lined with magnolias and other trees but every street leading off from it is muddy and dirty. The smell is terrible.

The people here seem to relate to each other with the easiness between strangers and the opposite sex which reminds me of Indonesia. There are smiles everywhere and bantering. The people seem happy enough. Which is weird considering their recent history.

From Phnom Penh we travelled down a pot holed road (what roads aren’t potholed here anyway?) to get to Chong Ek. This is the site of the mass genocide committed by Pol Pot and his clique of devils.

Cows were grazing in the killing fields adding a peace to the otherwise horror housed within. On entry there is a large pagoda containing skulls and bones and a few dusty clothes It was really tall– perhaps 8 or 9 levels high – skulls as far as you can see, shelves and shelves. The fields weren’t as expansive as I had imagined – fields being a euphemism for mass graves. The earth had sunk in, so the hollows and holes of the mass graves were all around. Some had pieces of cloth sticking out and I saw a few bones in one. I thought that the cows in there grazing was funny – but i guess they have to eat too. Are cows holy in Cambodia too? I didn’t think so.

Cows grazing in mass graves

One of the trees has a sign on it that said this tree was used to bash kids heads against to kill them. There were bones around it. Another tree had teeth around it. This gave me really strong images of someone’s head being bashed so hard that the teeth fell out. Shocking thoughts and mental images. As bad as the babies being thrown up and bayoneted from the S 21 museum. I have seen those pictures and I believe the stories to be true. I don’t think my imagination could be so gruesome.

These killing fields were only dug 20 years ago, and the whole thing happened 25 years ago. So recent. It’s hard to believe this happened in my lifetime. This country was stripped of its pride, and its educated people. Just like the heinous crimes of the cultural revolution – and about the same time too. I think i need to know more about what went on here. I’m really interested now I have seen it.

I’m also interested in Cambodia – I’m meeting people who have been all around to all these crazy places and I’m regretting my decision to skip through. I didn’t think there was so much to do – I was wrong. I guess I can come back. It sounds as if there is heaps of illegal logging of the jungle. The wildlife sounds great – no promises for the future with their homes disappearing. But I don’t have anyone yet who’s keen to go and I don’t think I would enjoy doing it by myself. Everything takes a large investment of time due to no public transport and the dangers of bandits.

Last week bandits boarded the boat that runs between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. They boarded the boat which takes the tourists up and bound and gagged them, then put a paper bag over everyone’s heads while they robbed their backpacks. What a reminder to be safe. I’m going to take extra precaution on the mini bus tomorrow although I am sure I’ll be fine. I just met two kiwis from Christchurch – I’ll add them to the short list. They didn’t seem the type to be here – but I guess there really is no ‘type’ as such – it’s a personality thing.

Dear reader…

Why am I here? Why should you stay? Whoah! The path to consciousness is a big call.

You could be pointing in the right direction, yet still not know the way to go

I’ve been keen to write up, embellish and make stories from my remarkable travelling life. I thought I might use this to explain environmental issues and solutions, consider the impacts of our choices on people and how it all winds up in social justice. Self exploration and identity? Environmental and humanitarian consciousness? A decade long field trip? This will be a second, interesting and enlightening journey. I will be sharing my big thoughts about little things.

I’ve been travelling for a while and I hope I always will. I always get good feedback from my letters and emails to mates from all over the world. I know I am a good communicator so I thought I’d use this space to capture what I have done and what I have learned. Most of this comes from my journals written along the way, or perhaps random tangents and reflections written with the benefit of hindsight. It’s interesting as I read them to see how much environmental and social observation and description I note and ponder. I can see in hindsight how’s I’m influenced and why I am so suited to what I do (environmental policy and strategic planning).

My reason for doing this that it has been a major influence on me and I don’t want to lose my stories, my memories and my vividness. After pulling my diaries out of a box that had been in the basement for years I can see damage and harm so I thought I’d try to capture what I could while it was still relatively fresh in my mind.

I make no excuses for completeness or correctness – I am who I am, and I think what I think. I’ll just dip and dive into my journals and bounce around to reflection. I hope to also learn from you and see where it takes us. I hope I can make sense of it and I hope you get sense out of it.

I know that this sort of perspective is difficult to achieve if you haven’t done this sort of thing, so I encourage you to do it for yourself.  You don’t need any experience and you apply within yourself.