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Yadi

There’s a point in every solo traveller’s life when you start wondering if you’re going to have a nice funeral.

It’s a question you ask yourself a couple of times a day when the enormity of being all alone in a foreign country hits you right between the eyes and you quietly start imagining about five million ways to die.

Run over by speeding motorcycle taxi, mauled by macaque amidst photoshoot in Monkey Forest, eye-watering dehydration death after  imbecilic “yes” to query of “spicy?”

The most likely end of life scenario while I’m agreeing to go on an eight-hour tour of Bali with a taxi driver I just met on the street?

Murder by taxi driver I just met on the street.

The tragedy here is that I always place a solid last at the Back-Pedal Olympics.

In fact, history clearly shows that I’ve eaten entire meals after eating entire meals and bought some stone cold crap for the price of a night’s accommodation because I’ve never quite grasped the concept of “get the hell out of there!”

My mother knows I’m being an idiot.

Sure, I’m miles and even oceans away but as I nod my head at the cabbie’s pick-up time and price, my mom, via travelling ancestors and witchcraft, delivers a furious and familiar “don’t be a fool!” quite clearly into the ear I tend to tug when I’m uncomfortable.

The problem is the man is delighted.

Like many Ubud cabbies and motorcycle taxi men, he’s been sitting out on the sidewalk, smiling hopefully at passersby while gesturing enthusiastically to his vehicle for the umpteenth fruitless time that day.

Me, I’ve paid 50 bucks for what turned out to be a trip around the corner and another which was no more than a cough in the opposite direction so I’m wary.

The niggling fear could be abated a little if I had any friends to go with me.

Instead I’ve spent the first five days of my trip pretending I don’t speak English so I don’t have any to make eight hours of small talk with in between awkward requests for photos.

I don’t mind that as much as being murdered and thrown into some random tangle of Ubud forest so I do what any rational person would do and agree to meet all 130kg of my taxi driver in front of my hotel at 08h00 sharp.

But not without sending his name, number and photograph to my best friend James via WhatsApp with a full itinerary of where I’m going to be.

At first I leave out the part where I cyberstalk the taxi driver and find out that his name isn’t the name he has on his business card because I don’t want him to worry. About five minutes later, however, I tell him the whole troubling thing because I want the authorities to have a snowball’s chance at justice.

At this point, my thoughts are simply: So people lie about their names. Big deal.

Besides, I’ve cyber stalked this man to within an inch of prosecution so to test his honesty, I ask him if he’s married or has any kids.

His answer is a vehement no and I realise that we would have that in common if he wasn’t a flaming and unflinching liar whose wife and kid I could refresh his memory about on Facebook if I was in the mood to piss off the taxi driver I was currently speeding towards a royal temple with on some treacherous forest-edged road.

It’s clearly time to get a grip.

I allow a shudder of fear, decide that he can keep his secrets and smile brightly at him before saying “oh, yeah? Me neither”.

Look, if I die, at least I’ll die delighted.

The man is taking me to a royal temple, a coffee plantation, a volcanic lake, a rice terrace and a sea temple for less money than I spend on a raucous night out. He’s been nothing but kind, friendly, punctual and accommodating since I met him on the street and I’m in beautiful Bali where I didn’t know a soul until one caught my eye and said:

“Do you want to go on a tour?”

The answer was and still is yes and the man’s name is Yadi.

He doesn’t know that I know he lied about having a wife and kid but by the time he drops me off at my hotel eight hours later, he knows a little about me and I know a little about him and I’ve had my best day in Bali.

Him chain-smoking and wolfing down nasi goreng before showing me the way to Tanah Lot. Me lingering at lakes, trying out this thing called faith and thanking Ganesh I didn’t pick a serial killer.

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Ubud – An Ode to Tranquility

It’s just before 08h00 on a Monday morning and there isn’t a suit in sight. The sullen traffic faces inherent in the hour have been exchanged for smiling motorcycle taxi drivers whizzing towards Monkey Forest; sleepy, awe-struck foreigners brisk in their beeline for Yoga Barn and an assortment of dutiful hawkers offering bright Canang sari as a symbol of gratitude to the gods.

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Canang Sari

For all the activity, Ubud rarely escalates above a hush.

Noise restrictions temper daily Balinese dance performances and Bob Marley-loving live bands a little after 11h00 and the loudest sound you’ll hear all day is a short, sharp whistle sporadically ripping through muted hours as hotel guards usher tourists across the street.

The tourists scrambling past hotel guards and navigating what sometimes passes for sidewalk come from everywhere.

They set out from home to the verdant upland rice paddies of Bali leaving behind smirks citing ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (2010) to do the very thing.

Eat babi guling, spicy rendang, crispy duck, grilled ikan and eye-watering sambal in unpretentious warungs scattered around town or indulge in the often organic best of both worlds in eateries like Indochine, Manisan, Gelato Secrets, Kafe, Habitat and Café du

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Cafe du Monyet

Monyet.
Pray in large stone temples or in front of Ubud’s many shrines long after the palm leaf baskets of flowers, incense, sweets and a little money is laid gently on the ground, both locals and tourists will step gingerly around for the remainder of the day.

And love. Though mostly in terms of learning to love themselves.

For this, some will seek spiritual healers and wise ones.

Balinese udeng-wearing old men who beckon from within doorways who may soothe your soul or lift your spirit. Others will simply

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Kafe

immerse themselves in yoga at one of the various studios the town has to offer in between solitude, sunning and meditation.

Surrounded by bright green rice paddies, focused on food, yoga and meditation, it comes as no surprise that Ubud is also famed for its art and crafts.

Solitary and centering pursuits sold from roadside stalls, out of various galleries and retrospective in the sprawling Agung Rai Museum of Art and the eccentricity of the Blanco Renaissance Museum.

Amidst all this, there are the wellness centres and spas.

Many introduced every time you walk by in smiling queries of “massage?” as pamphlets are pressed insistently into palms, others down little roads facing newly-sprouting rice fields as in the serenity of Kayma and still more housed in luxurious hotels and sold as cleanses, detoxes and retreats.

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Kayma Spa

To experience it all, the living is easy.

From authentic Balinese homestays to more western style and budget lodging such as Evitel Resort, Ubud has accommodation for every pocket radiating from its centre around the bustling art market and outwards encompassing its 14 villages.

Quaint, quiet and entirely obsessed with Monkey Forest where a kingdom of mischievous long-tailed macaques pose for pictures and portraits at the end of one of the town’s three main streets, Ubud exists as an antidote to much that occasions vacation.

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Monkey Forest

The stifling suits that don’t have a patch on the colourful batiks that ripple in the air as locals rush by on scooters, the fast bland food the town jettisons for fresh, affordable explorations of authentic Indonesian flavours and spices and the personal and spiritual neglect this hub of serenity irons out in gentle yogic movements and meditation in between decadent beauty and healing journeys.

An escape and an adventure set largely in the unchartered waters of the soul, Ubud is where travellers go to discover Bali beyond the ocean. To indulge in song and delight in dance in this enchanting ode to tranquility.

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Hallo, Bali

24 Hours in Kuta

Explore Alaya

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The Logical Reaction

There’s no Israel on the streets of Bangkok at 4am.

The bombs are made with Jägermeister, Arabs have long since closed their restaurants and hookah joints and, if you look up at the stars, you don’t think of people being shot out of the sky because the lurid neon lights blink persistently in a reality-expunging promise of sex, spanking and depraved distraction.

James says it’s the only logical reaction.

We’re sitting at a sidewalk bar near Nana Plaza. Nothing more than a few lengths of wood hammered together, a string of fairy lights and three barstools and we’re throwing some cheap tequila down our necks before he has to catch a plane to Malaysia and I have to catch one of the same to Chiang Mai three days after flight MH17 rained down on the Ukraine.

As I cringe through the tequila shudder that runs down the length of my spine and curls my toes just short of breaking, I realize that he means Nana Plaza is the only logical reaction.

He means the three-storey red light district with all its booze, sex and impenitent hedonism, its endless parade of lady boys swinging their asses past men with girlfriends, mistresses and wives and its big fat finger held erect in a fine fuck you to morality is the only sober reaction to reality.

To the news, to that perpetual sense of helplessness, to death and the shocking realization that you can be the kindest, youngest, most religious and moral person on the planet but you can still be unemployed, disenfranchised, molested, kidnapped, raped, murdered or blown to bits as a casualty of war a world away.

It’s easy to believe him.

I’ve read the news and grappled with the helplessness I feel about the girls kidnapped in Nigeria, the homosexual people being persecuted in Uganda, the women endlessly battered and bludgeoned in Namibia and the Palestinian and Israeli children being laid in coffins that will be lowered into the land that has cost them their lives and it all seems like fiction.

As though it’s happening in another world far from this one where people don’t fill their lives with food and booze and sex and meditation.

They call Thailand ‘the land of smiles.’

Two months ago, I arrived amidst the happiest coup I could ever imagine and even the junta is quick with a grin at Tha Phae Gate, with directions and when asked to broker a monk’s viewing of a dragon on a ferry to Surat Thani.

People here just seem content.

From the lady selling you fried bananas from a road side stall to the Thai stripper teasingly whacking a man with an oversized foam glove in a club called Spanky’s.

For most people, the motto seems to be live and let live but as I look around at the moral and sexual liberty a women weaned on Western ideals, patriarchy and the Old Testament can only balk at, I still feel fleetingly superior to everyone within a 500m radius.

But only until I think of home.

Home where we’d get drunker if the liquor was cheaper and we’d stumble out of cars and bars more frequently if we didn’t have to get up to go to work at jobs that pay too little to put both food in our stomachs and a roof over our heads.

Home where women are selling themselves too but for the small sums of cell phones and Brazilian hair and with far more cloak and dagger than the Thai women walking around Nana Plaza half-naked at night but who send thousands of Baht home to their families living in houses bought for them by foreigners trying to escape their own lives in some where far flung, Christian and crumbling.

And only until I think of myself.

Cowering behind my sense of morality for 29 years and so fed up with myself so tightly shackled to myself that I have flown the coop to the oasis streets that for a split-second I am looking down on – the quintessential hypocrite as I tremble after my third tequila of the night turned into morning.

Like I said, it is easy to believe him.

Spending the rest of your days drinking, fucking and turning a big, blind eye while the world burns is certainly a reaction. And maybe it’s even a logical one.

Because people have guns and people have money and most people don’t have either to fight the people with guns and the people with money who are fighting other people with guns and money.

I suppose this is where plenty of people find themselves when they emerge from the fog of life, booze, sex and their fine-tuned diversion.

Wondering where they fit in.

Wondering about the best reaction.

The existence of continents and countries has made it a little easier on our conscience. There is a large chunk of international tragedy, injustice and inhumanity we feel we can summarily dismiss because it isn’t happening within our borders and our apathy feels excusable through sheer geography.

But what about what’s happening within our own borders?

In Namibia we don’t fear bombs raining down on our heads but we do fear thieves sneaking into our houses at night.

We fear graduating from high school and being slapped with the label of ‘adult’ in a country where less than half of us will find jobs and, despite this socio-economic reality, we will be looked upon as failures incapable of scaling the most unlikely odds.

We fear loving men who will see us as possessions. We fear getting into taxis whose aggressive drivers will charge us double the price and some of us fear hunger and the time of night when we will need to find a place to lay our head because the streets have become too cold to call home and any alcoves are filled with things far more wretched than ourselves.

For many of us, our reaction to all this is selfishness, denial and sanity-saving loss of sensitivity while drowning the guilt or horror of our circumstances in booze, religion or whatever we find is adept at gouging our own eyes out.

Maybe this is the only logical reaction.

Maybe we are too cruel, too jaded and too far gone. The truth is it feels great to forget the headlines, the reality and our responsibility in it all and it’s easy to rationalize and see the problem as too big for you, the next guy and a thousand of the next.

But maybe some inkling about our true nature and the beginning of the right reaction happens when you’re sober, when you’re walking down a street in Bangkok and a beggar asks for your bottle of water and you give it to him without thinking, without a hesitation and your friend says:

“He looks like he knows you. Why did you give him your water? Do you know that guy?”

And you say:

“Sure I do.

He’s a human being.”

@marth__vader

To Mourn in Marble

We see it from across the water and it doesn’t look real.  Its white marble dome glistens in the midday sun, winks at us from the main reflecting pool and seems to have sprung massively to life from third grade textbooks and half-watched documentaries on the Discovery Channel.

The stiffness in our bones, courtesy of the four hour mini-bus ride from New Delhi to Agra, graduates into just enough ache and pain to remind us that we are not dreaming.  That all that separates us from Emperor Shah Jahan’s elegy for his dearly departed third wife is an immaculate Mughal garden and a hasty stop to wrap our shoes in soft material so as not to scuff the 350 year old marble of the Taj Mahal.

I am joined by five other journalists who blink just as rapidly in a dual fluttering against disbelief and double-vision.

We have escaped the Indian handicrafts fair we have been invited to report on to visit a city with almost as many people as there are in Namibia’s entirety and who each seem to have sauntered into the street to stand, sell or simply stare.

Though we know majesty awaits us somewhere in this mire of humanity, what we see of Agra is a slum.

Its faded billboards lead the way through its shabby streets and the greenish brown water that edges its buildings and roads is made of something we prefer not to imagine, though comfortingly there is no smell.

Our mini-bus surges forward.

It races past numerous Coca-Cola signs featuring the same long-haired, light-skinned model that I imagine is a well known woman of adolescent dreams, pale aspiration and relentless refreshment.

If it is all told, there are also cows, monkeys, bicycles, rickshaws and vendors selling everything from pomegranates to cauliflower but most of all there are men.  Mustachioed and mellow, they seem to be everywhere and nowhere as they stand idly on roadsides and in doorways engaged in quiet congress.

Perhaps it is this abrupt ascent from Agra’s chaos to the spotless hall of the red sandstone Darwaza-i rauza (The Great Gate) that makes our first glimpse of the astonishingly opulent Taj Mahal seem so surreal.

This feeling of fantasy begins to trickle into reality when our green-shirted and garrulous guide takes me by the shoulders and places me in an opportune spot which causes the Taj Mahal to move slowly towards me as I take ten steps backwards.

“Stand here, lady. Stand here.” he says. “Let me show you the magic.”

His name is Dharmendra Kumar. He owns a small tour guide outfit called Fly India Tours and he busies himself with the task of whispering wonder into our ears while taking larger than life tourist photos of the Taj Mahal reflected in our sunglasses, suspended from our hands and squared around our shoulders like a photo frame.

The walk from the Darwaza-i rauza to the base of the Taj Mahal is a contemplative one.  I think of the 20 000 artisans and 22 years it took to build Mumtaz Mahal’s tremendous tomb and I wonder about the might of  a love that must be immortalized in marble and has the power to draw over 3 million visitors to its resting place every year.

Like anything as priceless, this love is cosseted.

Armed guards watch us put a protective layer over our shoes and as we enter the tomb hastily stowing away our cameras, which are forbidden inside, they press their whistles to their lips and let out a series of sharp blasts to hurry us around the piercework Jali screen surrounding Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaphs.

It is after a particularly insistent whistle blast that Dharmendra, our guide, jumps into action. Shining a torch light on the red carnelian stone of a lotus flower, he shows us how it glows before pointing out the rich blue of lapis lazuli both worked in the ancient inlay technique of lapidary work.

Though there is still much to be said and seen, Dharmendra looks at us helplessly as another whistle blast rips through the dark tomb and an old man steps suddenly out of the crowd and points at the ceiling.

He seems to have appeared from nowhere and even though we are part of an exclusive tour, he gestures for us to listen as he shouts up into the ceiling.

His brief bark scares a black bird out of its resting place and out the archway and his voice seems to dance across the interior of the dome in a way that makes a simple song out of his scream.

I turn to thank him for his advice on the acoustics but he is gone and in his place a guard looks down on us sternly and I feel Dharmendra’s hand on my shoulder pushing me purposefully forward.

We walk out of the octagonal inner chamber and into more hallways just as cool and beautiful as the last while marveling at the intricate effort that engulfs us.

From the outside the Taj Mahal’s beauty graduates into the realm of the ethereal.  Its minarets jut high into the sky and the mausoleum’s walls are an artisan’s vitrine of elaborate  flora motifs and arabesques worked flawlessly in stone inlay, paint, stucco and carving; each element adhering strictly to Shah Jahan’s insistence of symmetry.

Standing there in the blinding marble white there is much to see and even more to feel but what can be put into words is the sensation of being desperately dwarfed by the utter size, beauty and the unbridled outpouring of emotion that is Shah Jahan’s dirge for Mumtaz Mahal.

After taking a few photos we make our way towards Darwaza-i rauza. And as each step takes us further from the stone sadness, we do not laugh and we do not talk like we did before.

Instead we glance over our shoulders at intervals, quietly carving the crown palace onto the back of our eyelids to be seen again in sleep…and silences.

@marth__vader on Twitter

A Guest is God in India

I’m sitting in the back of a cab amidst the thirty minute drive from Indira Gandhi International Airport to the Double Tree Hilton in New Delhi and I am pretty sure I’m about to die.

I know this because my liaison has seen fit to have me collected by a lunatic cabbie who is currently cutting in front of rickshaws, dodging cattle and darting between the parade of heavy vehicles going Ganesh knows where in such abundance on a Sunday night.

As my life flashes sepia across my eyes, Tahrir, the cabbie, inquires as to whether I am American, married and happy in my profession, quite unaware that his queries take on a sinister hue as the incessant Hindi music transforms his gregariousness into the grotesque.

When I finally come to terms with the fact that Tahrir is fighting an accomplished and winning battle against the complete chaos that is New Delhi traffic, I gradually begin to relax and take in my surroundings.

Though I cannot see the stars in the sky or any of the buildings the city is famous for, New Delhi takes on a bustling beauty that I am sure will soon steal my heart.

Slowly I begin to see that in and amidst the madness there is a racing rhythm.

Its notes resound in the discord of an auto-rickshaw all but crashing into a Tata Indica on the left while the tail of a beautiful woman’s bright pink sari flies high into the sky as she envelopes a motorcyclist deftly weaving his way in between massive trucks, humble bicycles and silent sedans.

Suddenly it is a harmonious cacophony and though I have been gripping my bag and silently beseeching my creator, I eventually feel so safe that I give in to the hours spent flying nervously over Africa and across the Red Sea and wake only when we pull up in front of the Hilton.

At this point is hard for me to distinguish between dreams and reality because though  a glance in the reflective surface assures me that I am myself,  everyone seems to be bowing and smiling as if I am well known and highly regarded.

This strange behaviour continues as I check in, as I stagger into the elevator and as I carefully close my door on a bellboy whose ceaseless beaming is doing much to exacerbate my mounting migraine.

This is the start of my great Indian adventure and as my time there stretches into hours and days, I come to know that the outlandish, grinning hospitality I feel self-conscious enough to pay 200 rupees for at the Hilton is simply an omnipresent manifestation of the Indian idea that ‘a guest is God.’

Things remain just as godly when I venture out to go shopping and I find that the practice involves being led in off the street and seated on the most comfortable chair in the building while a salesman brings me clothes and cloths in every colour and creation I can fathom.

The same is true when I find myself braving the New Delhi Metro and I am all but melting in a stew of ten thousand men, many of whom inquire as to my well-being after I forego ridding someone of their seat.

This is the way of things.

Though people warned me that skin as dark as my own may be subject to ridicule in a country that has practiced the caste system,  the feeling of welcome and indeed some kind of worship is almost uncomfortable in its abundance.

In-between this deluge of decorum, I visit India Gate, the Taj Mahal,  Chandni Chowk, Delhi Haat and Connaught Place.

And when my plane finally returns to African soil and I am greeted by a sleepy clerk at the international transfer desk who never cracks a smile and does his utmost to make me feel like a fugitive of the law my thoughts are simply this…

“Oh, Africa.”

@marth__vader on Twitter

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