On the line between tourist and local

I am slowly going deaf.  There is a tell-tale ringing in my ears and a new-found tendency to shout; definite symptoms of graduating from tourist to local.  Most foreigners only last a few days here and leave with nerves rubbed raw by the never-ending noise.  I have been in Cairo long enough to develop hearing loss.  This city is adopting me. 

My taxi has ground to a halt amid downtown’s traffic grid-lock.  Looming above this pandemonium are the architectural relics of a bygone, quieter era.  Khedive Ismail’s ornate baroque facades now slouch under the weight of years of grime.  My taxi driver lets out his frustration in the only way he knows how. He makes noise. Two million cars fight for space on Cairo’s woefully inadequate roads every day and all of their drivers have their hand firmly placed on their car’s horn.  The city’s relentless soundtrack is a cacophonous symphony of bass honks and baritone beeps that ring out from the overcrowded streets.

Up in front of us a panic-stricken police officer, cheeks flushed from blowing a piercing whistle, attempts to be heard above the racket.  It is a hopeless task.  Ambient noise levels in Cairo were recently revealed to average 85 decibels; comparable to standing 15 metres away from a freight train, and the same level that causes hearing loss with extended exposure.  We are all sinking into deafness in this city.  My driver turns up the volume of a scratchy Om Kalthoum tape to drown out the drone.

“Masnoon,” he mutters under his breath.

“Kuula masnoon,” I agree. 

Yes it is totally crazy – a perfect summation of this traffic Babel.

Outside an avalanche of rubbish slowly bakes in the sun.  With the window wound down the cab reeks of the city’s petrol-tinged perfume.  A group of shopkeepers are laying down make-shift mats of cardboard on the street corner.  They stand quietly reverent, while the traffic howls beside them.   It is nearing time to pray.

The mosque’s microphone clicks on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin begins the song of faith.  The first notes reverberate in the air and in the distance another muezzin joins in, and then another, and another.  Soon a hundred voices seem to be duelling above the streets of the city; blending together into a distorted roar that drowns out the clamour of the cars below. 

Even in prayer Cairo is deafening.

As the call to prayer reaches its dizzying crescendo I realise that the unrelenting din of this brash city no longer jangles my nerves.  Cairo broadcasts its frustrations, anger and even its faith at top volume, and I am slowly learning to survive amid the surrounding uproar. 

Traffic is still grid-locked, and my driver slams his hand onto the steering wheel in frustration.  

“You need a louder horn,” I say. 

“Aywa,” he nods in agreement.  Yes. 

I sit back in my seat and smile.  I have begun to belong.

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This post was first published as part of the World Nomad’s travel writing competition in 2009 and a much shorter version also appeared in the UK Independent as part of their ‘On The Road’ Footprint Guidebook author blog.

Images of Luxor

A Pharaonic playground of the highest order, Luxor is a tale of two shores severed by the sinuous curves of the Nile. Bite into a slice of provincial Egypt among the east bank’s frenetic sprawl of souqs before chewing your way through the ostentatious magnitude of Luxor and Karnak temple complexes. On the west bank the languid haze of adobe huts, donkeys and jagged desert cliffs is lorded over by the world’s greatest open air museum. You’ll walk among a roll-call of schoolbook-famous kings and queens as you explore this vast necropolis of tombs and temples.

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Shaman, Swami, Sadhu, Sham

The sadhu had been squatting in the shade of the courtyard archway since I woke up. It was my second morning in Orchha. I sat on the low stone wall, listening to the rumbling barks of the monkeys sheltering unseen in the trees overhead. Looming over the view, Raja Rudra Pratap’s over-decorated cake of a palace burst out of its forest wrapping. The umbrella-shaped palace domes glinted in the sun. The sadhu shuffled over to where I was sitting. His frayed lunghi, tied around a wasted frame, was the only scrap of clothing he wore. Thick, long and matted, his dreadlocks were knitted together with twigs and leaves.

Head half-cocked to the side, he perched on the wall casting darting, curiously bird-like glances in my direction. The smell of wood smoke and hay, peat and fecund earth vibrated off his skin. He drew the tiny satchel, tied around his body with a piece of twine, in front of him and brought out a crumpled beedi packet. It was empty. I offered him a cigarette. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes, just staring up at the palace.

“Where are you from then?” he said.

I turned around to stare him in the face. Trying to search out the English man buried under the dirt-encrusted surface.

“New Zealand,” I said.

“Ahh, never been there. I travelled everywhere, but everywhere was nowhere.” He sucked on the cigarette. “Have you been to South America?”

I nodded. He grinned. His teeth were smeared rusty brown from chewing betel nut.

“I went to Peru. I went to Brazil too. Wonderful. How about Mexico? Did you go?”

I nodded again.

“I went to Mexico once. Great drugs in Mexico. Fantastic parties back then. Wonderful.”

His name was Steve and he was from Wigan. He told me he’d been in India since about 1987.

“Have you ever left?”

“No.” He shook his head and laughed. “Why leave? Wonderful.” He stretched his arms out in front of him and waved his hands at the palace. The long threads of his veins bulged against his skin.

“Don’t you miss travelling to other places though?”

“I went to the underworld last year,” he said. “That wasn’t wonderful.” He drew the burnt down butt of the cigarette to his lips to suck out the last embers. “Not wonderful at all.”

Steve had slipped down the rabbit hole too far to ever come back up again. I’d noticed that India seemed to have a peculiar effect on some travellers. Before I finally got here myself, travellers I met on the road always treated it as if it were another planet, not just another country. “Indiaaaaah,” they sighed. It didn’t need any other embellishment if you’d been initiated into their private club.  “In India, anything is possible,” one guy tried to explain to me. But, I thought, wasn’t that the entire essence of why we travelled anyway.

Travelling was the un-chemically enhanced ecstasy of possibility. Like the last pill you swallowed late on Saturday night, and had given up on actually working, suddenly coming on with a fireball explosion in your brain as you waited for the night bus home from Brixton. Unlike ecstasy though, this buzz came without the downside of suddenly finding yourself sobbing over your computer for no good reason on Monday afternoon’s come-down. I tried to ask Steve about it as we sat together on the wall. “India is just…different,” he said. “It just is.”

I didn’t buy it. It wasn’t India that was different. It was the way travellers seemed to want to react to India. You could run into shaggy-haired dropouts and modern-day hoboes across the world but nothing like the flood of oddball pilgrims and seekers who seeped into India’s cracks and seemed to get stuck there. Here, it wasn’t enough for travellers just to come and see and touch and experience. They came specifically to transform; to mould themselves into better people. As if the country – the Indiaaaaah of their imagination – was itself the chrysalis from which they would be reborn.

India as a place of redemption and refuge had been hard-wired into our travelling consciousness by the hippies. Ever since The Beatles burst into Rishikesh in 1968, its lure of cheap drugs and eastern spirituality has kept up a steady flow of young western travellers into the country. They had flocked in with wide-open saucer eyes, dirty hair, and few possessions on the overland route from Europe. Many arrived on buses which stopped off in Istanbul, Kabul and Kandahar along the way. Ironically, this rag-tag army of dropouts were paving the first steps of the modern overland tourism industry, just with less organisation and way more drugs. India has never quite escaped from the perception the hippies stamped on it.

When I was in Kerala, every lost child, seeker, and hipster on Varkala beach seemed to have just strolled out of an ashram. With their Thai fisherman’s pants tied carefully at the perfect hip-line point, the younger travellers spent a lot of time trawling the cliff side shops for trinkets to decorate their newly put together bohemian-chic look. Toe rings to set off their Birkenstocks. Plastic bracelets layered over sunburnt arms. You weren’t cool in India unless you jingled as you walked. Strung-out, skinny hippies lounged in the cliff top cafes. Someone was always trying to strum Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here on their guitar. Everyone was signing up for yoga classes and Ayurvedic treatments. Snoozing on the sand during the day and flooding into the restaurants to watch pirate DVDs at night.

Swami Claude and Shaman Julie stayed at the same guesthouse as me just off Varkala cliff. Swami Claude’s room was across from mine and if I was in when he was going out I would hear the jiggling click, click, click, of the multiple strings of prayer beads looped around his neck as he walked down the hall. Over them he wore an open shirt which exposed a layer of crispy chicken tan. Women loved Swami Claude. They fell over each other to talk to him.

Every morning I’d wake up to his yoga class puffing their way through pranayama exercises. The low reverberating Om – exhale as slowly as possible, drawing out the ‘o’ as far as you can with your breath – rolled through my open window and I lay under the mosquito net listening to his soft French accent encouraging the yoga students to stretch into their pose.

When they got bored of yoga they could always sign up to Shaman Julie’s spirit guidance ritual. She was freshly pressed out of the Osho compound in Pune and before that she’d spent four months in the Peruvian Amazon guzzling Ayahuasca. The notice she’d stuck up in restaurants along the cliff face said she’d been initiated into the South American shamanistic tradition and was fully qualified to help you find your spirit animal guide. Over breakfast one morning she told me that my animal guide was probably an eagle which, I supposed, is better than having a chicken or a wombat to lead you through life but I never found out for sure because the rest of the information could only be revealed by signing up, and parting with my cash, to take part in one of the rituals.

After she left me and my toast alone, she’d sashayed through the restaurant, waving at various groups of backpackers, and then began performing a set of sun salutations between the tables. As I finished off my coffee Shaman Julie stretched her arms wide out above her head in a dramatic finish and shouted ‘Accha! Accha! Accha!” as she ran out of the restaurant and onto the cliff path.

In Varkala I ate fresh fruit on the beach, my hands sticky fly-traps of melon and mango juice becoming encrusted with sand. I read books while swinging on a hammock in the afternoon heat stupor and wandered the cliff path at dusk. It was an easy life and I knew it; a time-out from the hustle of India’s city streets where the rickshaws drove in knot loops to weave their way through the traffic weft lines, and crossing the road was a catch-me-if-you-can lesson in karma. Even the helium-voiced temple chanting seemed to blast out at a lower decibel here. I could understand how the hippies had seen India as nirvana, though they grumbled now about the tourists moving in on paradise.

Old-timers bemoaned the march of concrete which had gobbled up their old haunts of Goa and parts of Kerala. The pot-bellied package tourists, and their two week resort vacations, which had nothing to do with the Real India. They seemed unable to accept that they were the ones who’d set the tone for what was to come. When the hippies descended in a free-love swarm upon India they hadn’t cared about what the Indians thought about their open drug use and free-for-all attitude. They’d simply strolled in flaunting their bell-bottomed hedonism in India’s face.

Everyone I met seemed intent on searching for something. There was a pervading virus-like belief that India would cure all our ills with its plethora of religions and pantheon of gods. We shopped for spirituality with a greedy enthusiasm which confused most Indians. Just like the good consumers we’d been taught to be in the west. We had managed to turn it into a competitive sport. A spirituality Olympics where the gold medals were won by those who managed to memorise the most mantras, visit the most gurus, and perfect a no-wobble headstand. But the Indians themselves were shuffled onto the periphery of the India story; footnotes in their own country. They were the waiters, and hotel-boys, and souvenir touts; the crazy rickshaw driver who nearly killed you in Agra, the companions in your 2nd-class sleeper train carriage, and the people who lived in the dusty place outside of your ashram. We came to dredge India of its wisdom but ignored the Indians themselves.

Steve wasn’t a great talker. We sat on the wall in silence while I pondered the underworld that he’d been travelling to. He had hung up his backpack and found the trailhead onto the overgrown path of the inner-journey which so many travellers here seemed to be seeking. He cleared his throat, as I said goodbye and got up to go.

“Are you going to Khujaraho after here?” He asked.

“Yes maybe in a few days.”

“Not today? I’m trying to find someone to share a car.”

“Sorry, I’m going by bus from Jhansi anyway.”

“By bus? There are some French people who might be taking a car today. Maybe I’ll go see if I can tag along.” He slid off the wall and straightened himself up.

“How do you have money to afford to hire a driver?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m not going to pay. Maybe the French people will let me ride for free. Wonderful. The bus is awful. If you change your mind and decide to take a car let me know.”

“And I’d have to pay?”

“Sure. Wonderful.”

Steve pulled his pouch across his shoulders and walked across the courtyard out to the road on a mission to find the French people. If even wandering ascetics weren’t above wanting a comfortable seat on the road to enlightenment, what chance did the rest of us have?

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