Sick

Where to start .. the beginning almost doesn’t make sense because it’s so far away and so many personal layers have been uncovered and shed in a process of sickness and rebirth which sounds cliched and overly dramatic and was, or rather is, a reality I never expected.

I’ve experienced different levels of pain in my life.  Numerous bicycle and equine related  accidents, a hole in a sacral disc, accompanied pinched sciatic nerve … but nothing prepared me for the stress of a pervasive, claustrophobic, slow suffocation of sickness that enveloped me in Varanasi, India at the very start of my time there.

Varanasi was supposed to be a positive time.  My parents had booked a 5 week tour of India including the Golden Triangle and between sections of their tour had arranged to come to Varanasi on the train to meet me.  Having only recently left my brother, Ben, behind in Shimla after nearly 2 months of cycling together, India had become an unexpected pit stop for family and the country that had been on my mind for so many years had changed its focus to accommodate these visits

It was coming up to the 3 year anniversary of my departure from the UK and I had reached the famous city on the Ganga River which had been a dream for me since I had first learnt about the Hindu religion as a teenager and become fascinated by the drama, the colour and the apparent paradoxes of life and spirituality, blending in ways which say ‘of course’ rather than ‘no’.

Varanasi had become a focal point for friends and family as I had told them that this was ‘the’ point on the map, the destination … and the act of telling people this, whilst not my actual belief, had become a real point and the crux of many parts of this journey – saying something enough times it starts to take on that life, words consciously or unconsciously creating or moulding a mirror reality.

I had planned to stay in Varanasi for at least a month and soak up the atmosphere, learn some Hindi beyond my usual basics and perhaps take some music or dance classes … after all Varanasi is famous for its love of the Arts as well as being home to in excess of 3000 temples and shrines.

However the city, which positively oozes the spirituality, colour and drama I had fallen in love with (albeit the sanitised versions) between the pages of dusty text books, in the burgeoning Fair Trade and hippy shops of sleepy Exeter and harmonising with the notes of quasi-spiritual Hindu/Buddhist/New Age musical collaborations through the ‘90s, had other plans for me.

For all the talk of spirituality Varanasi, like the rest of India, is a very ‘real’ place.  It is a place where these other worldly concerns, concepts and emotions are held in the same hands that hold birth and death, sickness and solitude.  Life among the streets of this city winds, mandala like, in crazy patterns and daily I found myself happily falling over the dogs, rubbish, cows, food stalls, children, adults, temples and shrines and in love with the city itself time and again.

Its a place that is easy to get lost in, metaphorically and actually … time passes and Death sits, contentedly … knowing that inhabitants of the city and visitors alike will all reach their roads end at some point.

Spending time in a room I had found behind one of the larger ghats was peaceful and gave me a ‘home’ whilst I visited my parents in their guesthouse.  We enjoyed time with walking the ghats in the morning only to be beaten back to the shade of a coffee shop out from under the glare of the beating sun.  We all got involved in Holi, India’s famous festival of colour.  They over on their side of the city and I down on the ghats with the gyrating, colour throwing masses and on the roof top of my neighbours house – the young children being more fierce in their intent to change my skin colour from white to Avatar blue than any of the teenagers on the streets.

Unfortunately following the festival, Jan (my mother), experienced ongoing chest infections which continued throughout her time in India and then into Nepal and Terry (my father) had problems after … India is a place that can be physically and therefore mentally very challenging!

Time flew by and our 8 days together was quickly over.  They departed for the next part of their tour, which coincidently involved Varanasi again so we knew would meet again in a couple of weeks.

I moved to a more social, hostel space which a friend had suggested.  A hostel where a space on the roof cost 50rs and a room 250rs.  A place where the street dogs came for shelter and food and where the local monkeys hung out, visually pinpointed food through open shutters and darting in through unattended, open doors with laser like precision and a ferocity born from recognising and capitalising on the fear of Westerners unused to such antics.

It was also where I had my initial experience of the violent, debilitating double-ended body explosion I would not wish on anyone and the start to a physical drama which has yet to play out its final act.

The initial stages of sickness lasted for 12hrs and after a night of mostly sleeplessness on the balcony outside the washroom, a room magically became available and I was able to move my kit from the roof, regaining some of my lost sleep and throwing an inordinate amount of disinfectant around in what now seems like a vain attempt at ensuring no-one else would fall prey to this nasty parasite.

One of the other women in the hostel was just coming round after experiencing the same symptoms a few days earlier and I assumed that I was going to have the same prognosis, after all she bounced back pretty much unaffected and was happily eating, drinking and sleeping normally again. I had no idea that this was the start of a much larger and longer lasting problem for me.

As it was I was lucky to have my own space because as my health nose-dived into a turbulent sea of nausea, discomfort, diarrhoea and eroded mental and physical energy I split most of my time between lying horizontal on my bed wishing and waiting for a time where I could feel ‘normal’ again or in my private washroom fervently grateful for a small room I could call my own, have immediate and unrestricted access to and use at will and at all hours of the day and night.

The truth is … ‘normal’ never came. I am lucky …  I have never experiences such levels of vulnerability and physical loss.  6 weeks of sickness with long stretches of not eating, 10kg of muscle weight burnt away by my body as a means to keep me together, limited activity in the city and sporadic forays out into the back streets with rapid retreats as my guts became the internal enemy were my experiences of Varanasi. In spite of that my impression of the city are still filled with my amazement at its beauty in the face of so much duality.

Lying on my bed I was regularly visited by a range of wild animals.  Not so much in the vein of Snow White taming these creatures with her sweet nature and more a realisation that they had taken the measure of me and saw me with a distain derived from my weakness and inability to move fast or prose a threat to them.   Watching geckos chase each other across the walls and ceilings became one of my few past times whilst wishing the washing machine behaviours of my stomach would subside.  Dark ring tailed chipmunks and the ever watchful monkeys saw the same aspects of my vulnerability.

Keeping my door locked and myself cocooned inside became a daily occurrence.  Without this my door could be flung open by teeth baring, opportunist monkeys intent on riffling through my shelves for the single lime or Bael fruit they had previously spotted.  Bael fruit is the food most recommended in Varanasi for those individuals with gut issues and whilst initially I liked its honey stickiness after a time I grew to associate it with the sort of sickly, headachy mustiness that nausea can create over any food.

Time ran forwards, fast paced and equally stood still in that strange dynamic which long term sickness can provoke.  I felt the most vulnerable I have ever been.  My sense of ego, my strength, my physically, my ability to manage everything alone … destroyed by this constantly creeping fog of nausea and by my body’s attempt to keep me going by eating through all my reserves and beyond.  Throughout the sickness the loss of 10kg, mainly of muscle, has had a long lasting impact on this cycle ride and has changed my internal and external structures, emotionally and physically.

I feel that a lot of my previous psychological structures, interwoven as they often are with my physical bearing, have been broken down in ways that were only possible through longer term, pervasive sickness which is less about putting up a fight and more about a fluid, dynamic level of acceptance.  In more traditional western concepts these could be categorised into masculine and feminine aspects respectively and I throughout life have favoured the masculine aspects of myself for my assumption that they will keep me safe … but not here and not now.

The sensation of my body being at war with an internal enemy, a new and unknown experience, was profound.  My body, a place I have both berated and been proud of in its capacity to endure, was at a loss with how to handle this unwelcome intruder.

It’s name was Giardia.  A protozoa parasite infection carried in water and/or food. A microscopic organism with the capacity for eons of destruction.  At best an undetected, asymptomatic visitor which passes ‘harmlessly’ through the system and onto the next unwitting host.  At worst it fixates, attaches itself to the host and starts it’s rapid destruction of the gut wall .. replicating to ensure its dominance and then proclaiming mastery.  Vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss, persistent nausea, erosion of energy and dehydration are its physical symptoms.  Futility, malaise and depression are close kin to such nasty, home companions.

Hours spent in my own company watching the drip of a tap onto the washroom floor and no trust for the safety of the water around me.  That lead into … days of initial energy and the brief possibility of respite followed by a quick return to an immobile Savasana that never feels positive. That lead into …  weeks of personality eroding malaise, nausea and a forgetfulness of who I am at a core level and what I am doing.

3 visits to the local hospital, 3 courses of antibiotics and numerous weeks of bouncing along on the bottom of the ‘wellness’ axis, under the (ever diminishing) illusion of ‘I can cope’, I finally manage to book a train ticket to Dharamshala.  It was an unexpected and desperate move – geographically backwards – to friends, where I had stayed with my brother in the previous November but I need stability and some feeling of nurture which familiarity and friendship can provide and which I finally admitted I was unable to sufficiently self-generate.

The journey to the train station was relatively uneventful. The final loading of Tilly into the baggage carriage, frustrating (‘keep the bags on, get them packaged, pay 100rs for them to be stitched onto the rack, no they cannot stay there, take them off’).  However the final hauling of 6 items of luggage up and down 2 flights of stairs, across a platform and finding space to be wedged into a narrow gap between scores and scores of jostling, sleeping or picnicking families triggered an utterly horrific reaction and sent me into a near physical but definitely psychological mess.

Sitting, head bowed to my knees, upright but otherwise foetal I have to concentrate hard for long, long minutes for the all too familiar rush of salivation and dominant nausea to subside and for me to control the involuntary ‘desire’ to vomit everywhere.  Sweat is pouring out of every pore.  My clothes are saturated and the only reason I’m not in tears is the awareness of the eyes of every Indian ‘Auntie’s’ within a 100m radius on me and the fact that their well-meaning fuss, should I cry, will disintegrate the last vestige of my emotional strength – at which point I feel that I will be lost.

By this point the weight of being alone in a country without the level of healthcare and immediate support has taken me to breaking point and whilst still a stubborn bull am considering giving up and returning to the UK to bathe in the glories of familial attention and the NHS. However as I mentioned … I am stubborn, to several faults.

The tide of nausea finally subsides.  Looking out across the hordes on the platform I lock eyes with a nearby octogenarian Auntie, who immediately rouses her family and prods bananas and water in my direction, neither of which are desired but I manage to placate her by slowly swallowing and keeping down a mouthful of fruit.

The train is thankfully only an hour delayed and when it arrives I slide into my bunk and sleep for most of the journey, grateful to be out of the city and physically and emotionally making changes to my situation.

A short bus ride at the other end, a brief reunion with my friends in Dharamshala and breakfast in the morning is followed by projectile vomiting, which gets me 2 more hospital visits and a further, final course of antibiotics.

This final course denotes the beginning of the end for Giardia, but it doesn’t go without the drama of a final fight.  Jaundice, dehydration, an enlarged liver, toxic hepatitis and a week in hospital follow on from a bodged antibiotic prescription which finally kills the parasite in my guts – along with any of the good flora and fauna which was conceivable left after the injustices of the past months.

This final course is like Nepalm going off in my body and leaves me wide open to infection and attack.  In a final act of injustice the last of an immune system which I have been merrily developing since (pre) birth and which has served me through countless years of life happily grubby and assured of my internal strength and immunity, is wiped out and I am bereft.

As usual, however, at the time I believe I will be back to ‘normal’ within a matter of weeks and so it is a surprise to me when a month on I am still not ‘well’.

Varanasi – River, religion, ritual

Varanasi, Benaras, Kashi …

City of a thousand years.  City of the Sadhus. City with a list of names as long as it’s list of attributes. The city of Temples, Religion, Art, Culture, Tradition and Education … one of the oldest, still very much alive and very vibrant, living cities in the world.

The famous Ganga (Ganges) River flows through the city and it is the aim of every Hindu to die in this city and receive good karma through this final act which will confer salvation on their transitioning soul.

It is estimated that the city has over 3000 individual temples and having seen just a fraction of these in my immediate locality whilst spending time there it is entirely possible.

Time spent in Varanasi was unfortunately plagued by sickness but nonetheless the city has left me with solid, impression of an immense, vibrant city with a historical, artistic and spiritual core.

Walking the maze of alleys and following the ghats beside the river it is easy to become metaphorically and actually lost.  Within the city can be found vices for every temperament. Hashish … bang … try it with the local lassi. Opium, ketamine, alcohol … everything is possible here. Masala chai and milk sweets.  A local shop keeper was initially happy dealer to my raging sugar addict, scoring dominating my waking hours and India fuelling the urge through its socially sanctioned past time of sitting for conversation and sweet drinks and snacks at any and all times of the day.

Start the day with a full throttle caffeine, dairy and sugar fix.  Maintain with regular refills of raw and refined sugar masquerading as local delicacies and end with more of the same.  Easy to slip into a languid, opioid-appearing, smiling, sweetened food coma.

If, however, you want to gorge on a buffet of artistic and spiritual delicacies (the 2 heavily interrelate) there are opportunities for observance and expression of all kinds and classes for every interest.  More shrines and temples to visit and rituals to observe or bells to ring than is surely possible in one lifetime.  Flute, sitar, tabla, raga singing and temple dancing to learn and practice.  All can be easily arranged by the shop keepers selling both knowledge and equipment and if they don’t have it in stock or provide it directly then their cousin definitely will.

Sitting or lying in Munna Hostel for hours on end, sweat pouring out of every pore from the early summer heat and a nasty water borne sickness I watch the ebb and flow of the River Ganga as she is toyed with by the tides.  The banks of the river slowly changes shape and will change back again over time.  Boats filled with the faithful crossing the river to picnic and pray on the other side, adapt their crossing routes as befits the time of year.

The river is at the heart of the city.  Cremations happening daily, if not hourly along the banks.  The physical debris of this practise being washed from the shore, further on into India, eventually out to sea and en route to near atomic disintegration and the enlightened Hindu/Buddhist age old tangent on physics as we all eventually become part of the universal whole.

Sunrise and sunset rituals are of such extravagance and populated by vast numbers of people who come to Varanasi on personal, often large scale, family pilgrimages.  The religion business is booming in the city.  Individuals with a blanket on a well-trodden thoroughfare and shop keepers alike are able to sell candles, incense, marigold garlands, red powder for a tika on the forehead.  Brass figures contorted into the shapes of deities; printed laminates, postcards and fabric banners or flags depicting your families’ favourite deities.  Ganesha, Shiva and Kali (both with and without consorts and familial entourage) are all readily available for a few rupees.  A walk on any of the side alleys can furnish you with offerings for any of the thousands of temples and shrines you could easily fall over on a short wander in the city.

Goats, cows and dogs are everywhere – which means an incessant supply of smell and shit, to mingle with the explosive amount of rubbish that the human inhabitants of the city produce.  In the early summer, as the temperature soars, the air in the alleys becomes fetid with rotting matter.   Unfortunately static due to being trapped by the high walled, narrow nature of the alleyways, breathing the air becomes an unpleasant necessity and the sensation of the city invading the body through the unguarded, open pores becomes an undesirable reality.

Given the size of the population of this city my thoughts turn to concepts of recycling and of ‘improvement’.  I see it as a danger to consider how to situations can be ‘improved’ in ways that might work well under different circumstances and to try to impose them wholesale.   There are systems in place here, flawed but available and local people are deriving a level of finance from sifting and collecting plastic, metal, paper and fabric from different sources for repurposing and recycling.  I sort my limited waste and add in some of that from the hostel so one morning when I spot the young local man who has started sifting through a waste mountain outside I am able to mitigate some of his initial sifting with a bin bag of plastic.

By doing this I am actively choosing to support a specific individual and not his companion, who on arrival has no chance to get involved in the sifting, since its already been done pre-contact – nothing is without impact … it’s always how I choose to (consciously or unconsciously) direct that impact.

Given the level of veneration that the local bovine population are given I briefly find it amusing and bemusing to see an older woman squeal in fear at the sight of a large cow blocking her path.  I take charge and escort her past only to realise the common sense of her angst when the truculent cow turns her head and butts me hard up against the alley wall, almost winding me.  Being crushed by a large beast is not on my agenda and and (again) I make a mental note to be more cautious of what appear to be local ‘idiosyncrasies’.

The love of the arts professed by Varanasi’s inhabitants stretches to the sharing of musical moments where the houses are so close together that the playing of religious mantras is an experience that the neighbourhood shares.  I confess that listening to one particular mantra (3 minutes on its own, eons in total) on repeat did take me near to insanity.  Undertaking flute or sitar or singing practise cannot be concerned with other people’s impressions or ideas … or would never be undertaken. There is very little concept of ‘private’.  All experiences are shared ones in places where all the aspects of living (and dying) happen so close together.

Animals and children are not given the sort of protection that I am used to in the West. Yes, thats a generalised statement but its more about the general concept than the individual reality.  In Varanasi (as in other places) I see children, ragged clothed and dirty, begging for money, sleeping rough both with and without families … I see cows and dogs with any number of ailments and injury, evidence of broken bones badly ‘healed’ and sickness and sores on every and all bodies.  It’s traumatic and the things I see are not even the tip of the iceberg.  There is no way to convey the amount of need that there is here in the city.  The inequality as evident here in India as it is in any other country.  The middle class of India exploding over the past 10 years and the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ expanding in proportion.  That is not to say that I don’t see happy, well fed or apparently contented animals and children … but these are less in need of visibility.

My time in the city, mediated by the distressing behaviour of a broken body and molten, messy mind, is punctuated by various religious festivals.  I experience the joyful colour of Holi, the riotous noise of Hanuman’s birthday along side the ghats and the cultural delights of a music and dance festival at Sankatmuchan Temple.  Its the sort of music that wrenches the soul from the body and transports you to another place – the sound is often alien and the syncopation of the type that I am not used to but perhaps this helps in the transportation!

The sounds emanating from the city during festivals are of the normal kind but with the volume turned way beyond the usual maximum and with intent and purpose …  spanning greater localities and crossing water from dusk to dawn, no actually from dawn to dawn.

The ritual proclamation of daylight from hundreds of households across the city with the tinkling of a tiny brass bell becomes magnified and a tide of sound sweeps through the area with the light.  The city, home to vehicles of all imaginable shape and size, wakes fast and the noise from a thousand horns, buzzers and bells increases from a dull, night time rumble to a fully-fledged roar which permeates even the most protected, walled off nooks.

During festivities it’s entirely normal to round a corner and be confronted by a wall of sound from a top heavy sound system.  Or to see and mostly hear a small boat with an enormous, impossibly stacked set of speakers, decked out in red and gold flags and ribbons, motoring its way up and down past the ghats, supported by a large ensemble crew of fist-pumping locals all madly gyrating to music more at home in the local club than temple … but then India is more competent than any other country I know to fuse the religious with the ‘real world’, the numinous with the ‘normal’.

As a result of Life, Death is, of course, the counterpoint and a daily occurrence in this city, as any and everywhere else.  However, death here is a very much more public event than in many places.  Death on the banks of the River Ganga, within the city of Varanasi is a much desired (we all have this aspect of being human in store for us so why not create the ideal version) end for Hindus who believe that their location will assist them in attaining some karmic points and achieving a positive transition for the soul.

Varanasi can also amongst all its other names be considered a city of death since this is an aspect which so many desire, here of all places. Walking in the city can involve the sound of one (or more) cremation entourage chanting its way up and down alleyways, which deceptively bounce sound off their high, narrow walls, and into the midst of which I often inadvertently found myself.  Pinned up against the walls, often at the same level as the barefaced, marigold bedecked, body on its way to Manikarnika or Harish Chandra ghats (aka the burning ghats), I was neither disgusted nor afraid.  A body is just that, no longer the person it once was … for me, just a shell.

Time spent walking past the ghats … the smell of burning wood, the acrid smoke in my eyes and lungs, the flames, the charred remains of the pyre which I can’t decide are either body or wood (often deciphered as views of both), the dirtied, bright orange/yellow of the marigold wreaths and the burnt red/gold of the material used to cover the body … the starkness of the metal cradles holding the last vestiges of life, the shoreline black from hundreds and thousands of previous gatherings which remind me that we all end up the same way in the end … these sensations all gave me the gift of foresight … not that I often use it.  They reminded me of my own mortality and of that of those around me.  Life is seldom, if ever as long or as positively eventful as we desire it to be. Whilst I remain aware of it, being reminded of this is a grateful gift.

Life and death intertwined outside, lying in sweltering sickness on my bed inside, some days I hear the sounds of a death ensemble enroute to the ghats one moment and then the shrill annoyance of a local housewife screaming at one of the monkeys who has stolen some fruit or the batch of roti’s she was just baking, the next.  The revolving cycle of life is in visual, auditory and emotional technicolour.  Here, moment to moment, it is more tangible than any place I have ever experienced it, perhaps due to my sickness induce vulnerability but possibly because of the thousands of years and millions of people that this city has seen come and go.

Attending the morning and evening aarti’s on Assi and Dashashwamedh ghats is an intense experience.  In the morning the sight of the sun rising over the river and the sound of the singing would be peaceful and reverent aside from the creeping sensation that its mainly the tourists who want to be up that early.  In the evening there are several thousand people sitting on amphitheatre style steps stretching down to the river and boats filled with people, rafted up and stretching far out into the middle of the Ganga, all watching the bright, visual spectacle of a highly choreographed religious ritual.

The beautifully dressed priests, wearing cream and gold clothing, perform the ritual swinging of brass lanterns and peacock feather fans, methodically ring brass hand bells and liberally throw holy water and rose petals around all the while moving to the beat and intoning of their musician companion’s voice, drum and hypnotic harmonium.  It was impossible for me not to be swept away in the visual and musical drama of the moment.

Beside this river live numerous Baba.  Religious Baba who have left all worldly possessions and social ideas behind them.  Baba who have found that they can carve out a living by creating/fulfilling religious necessities and duties for individuals who will pay for the privilege of being blessed or having their fortunes told, or essential rites being performed on behalf of their families (living and dead).  Baba who can also cater to the masses of domestic religious tourists and international cultural tourists by fulfilling the stereotype and by providing the necessary photographic pose.  There are also Baba who are living beside the river and whilst waiting to die keep everyone plentifully supplied with cups of hot, sweet chai or honey lemon … after all its just another way to make ends meet at the sunset of life.

Varanasi. Alongside the river all manner of  life and death is possible.  Everywhere there is a photo. Every alley twist and turn produces iconic images and every moment is decisive.  Every second here is filled with sensations and colours, textures, smells and sounds which threaten to sweep me away into a hedonistic oblivion.

Varanasi may well be the oldest city in the world which remains in current, lived existence.  The layers of its past, present and future are all evident moment to moment and the interrelationship between what might be seen as distinct aspects are blended to form a place as cohesive and (sometimes sickly) sweet as any dessert I happily, if intermittently, enjoyed there.

 

The (he)art of travel

 

There is no ‘correct’ way, no predetermined route … I make Plan B (for backup!) and Plan A evolves as I meander my way across the face of the globe!!

The fear of missing out (FOMO!!) on something or someone or somewhere is still within my psyche but as I have travelled my philosophy of ‘I go left I see left, I go right I see right … I cannot be in both places at the same time so every choice is a good one and will lead me somewhere’ has helped me to manage this.

If I didnt have this philosophy and I made and stuck with plans I wouldnt have met the amazing people I have met or ended up in some of the most wonderful and random situations … places I had never expected to be.

Seizing offers and opportunities always lands me some unexpected and often gives me insights previously unthought and ideas previously untapped.

Related Book recommendation “The Art of Travel” Alain de Botton …

Views of Osh, Kyrgyzstan

My photographic impressions of Osh city, the largest residential area outside Bishkek (the capital) in Kyrgyzstan.

The city is situated in the south of Kyrgyzstan, in the Fergana Valley and close to borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  It is home to various different ethnic groups including Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Russians, Turks, Tatars and other nationalities.  The size of these groups changed radically in 2010 as a result of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic groups which was precipitated by disatisfaction with the government of the time and complex economic difficulties that continued from the time of the disolution of the USSR in 1991.  In turn a massive refugee crisis in the Fergana area of Uzbekistan occured when ethnic Uzbek’s fled their homes in Kyrgyzstan for safety.

Osh was a major feature on the Silk Road trading route for 100s of years and as such continues to have an enormous, outdoor bazaar, packed with areas for anything you can imagine! Osh is also famous for it’s ‘mountain’ in the centre of the city.  Suliaman Too (a UNESCO site) is an important sacred place within the Muslim community as well as being a popular tourist attraction.  The peaks, caves and tracks surrounding the sites are thought to cure all manner of illness (unfortunately not my stomach issues!) and children are encouraged to slide up and down grooves in rocks worn smooth with the beliefs of the faithful.

Osh appears very conservative compared with Bishkek, I would guess as a result of the closeness to Uzbekistan and conforming to more conservative Muslim values regarding appropriate attire.  It has felt much more (socially) comfortable to wear trousers, t-shirt and a loose scarf around my shoulders … solidly reminding me of places I visited in central Turkey … however women throughout the city can be seen wearing varying levels of clothing coverage/ethnic dress alongside the men wearing their traditional hats and swimming in the river.  The difference in attitude towards the genders is marked.

The daily summer temperature is scorching (35+) and the nights are not much lower, sitting as the city does on the valley floor (at about 600m) … this has been tough for me and I have had various health/stomach problems I think as a result of the change in weather, heat and also location/topography … not just because I am a grubby cyclist!

During an enforced period of resting/waiting for health to improve and visa’s to be completed I have remained in the garden of TES guest house, a fantasic place to recuperate not only because I can camp for 450com/night but because this includes a wonderful breakfast in the morning … and I have been in a position to meet a lot of other cyclists, overlanders and travellers all sharing hints and tips on this part of the world.  Its a very relaxed, communal guesthouse with great facilities that make resting up a positive experience … but I’m very much done with that and am furiously hoping that I will be back on the bike in the next few days!!  Fingers firmly crossed … we shall see …!