Nimrut Dagi

Excerpt from Turkish Diary

Thursday 23rd August.

The van sways and heaves itself up though a small brown village. Everything has been worn down by poverty; the rutted, washed-out track, a scattering of stone and mud brick hovels, chickens and dogs waddling around mounds of dung, pecking and sniffing. Half a dozen chubby children squat in the dirt tossing pebbles at a wall. Two thin, worn women thrash wet clothes against flat stones by a small grey stream.

Further up the slopes we pass stubbled fields, a harvester and a couple of tractors with about twenty or thirty dark and wiry men standing around the machinery. Still further up, a grader digs into the flanks of the dirt road, and an excavator pours the rock into an old truck whose axles and fenders are weighed down with mud. High ahead, on the flanks of the mountain I can see two faint trails of wire, cross-hatched with black support towers and tiny hanging benches. This is a newly developed ski area, and the reason the road is being improved. The work is not being done for the villagers or the summer day-trippers, but for the money that will hopefully pour in during winter.

The Czechs sit in front of us, snuggling as the van twists and heaves over the stones. Achim and I sit up back, legs and shoulders getting close, hands between each other’s thighs. The Czechs turn and smile occasionally, half aware, uncaring. I have no idea whether the driver or his aggressive boss have anything in particular to notice. The road climbs to the summit, the rim of the crater, high above the lake stretching to the hazy eastern horizon. The crater blew out aeons earlier, blocking a river and creating Lake Van, which has no outlet. My heavy morning mood lifts and flies away.

We stop for photos at the rim, and a minute later, another minivan stops, with six passengers ushered out by the garrulous old man who had accosted us in the hotel lobby early this morning. He drones on about the view to a couple of Asian girls. The others in the van appear to be Turks. The view is spectacular, slabs of blue and yellow brightness stretching over the east and south horizons, with softer washes of red, green and violet in the cool scree within the crater. Below us, the large serpentine crater-lake is a metallic blue void, and the smaller warmer one, a muddy moonstone.

It’s eleven a.m. now, and we must negotiate a slow descent to the lake. But first, both vans brake, turn up a steep track and stop at a black outcrop of rock. It’s a steam vent. We all pile out to have a look, and the old tour guide goes on about it for a bit, before we all get back into our vans for the last fifteen minutes of bumpy drive to the base of the crater.

Below us in the distance we can see a large green tarpaulin tent and a wooden, canvas-topped shelter, with a few indistinct figures moving about. Achim thinks it’s a Bedouin camp. But when we get there we see that it’s a tourist camp, with stacks of cans of Turcu Cola and Fanta, and preparations being made for kebabs for those who want to buy lunch. Piles of rubbish and plastic wrappings smoulder in a fire in the gully at the back. A couple of other white vans are parked there, with a few elderly northern Europeans wearing sunbonnets and sensible khaki touring clothes. The two of us manage to escape. Our guide has become less bossy, realising we just want to enjoy some peace and quiet, and sees that we’ve bought our own picnic. He waves us towards the rocks, with “hot spring, hot water, very good.”

The smaller lake, which is supposed to be warm, is about as cool as an Australian lake in summer, but at this altitude – 2600 metres or so – it’s relatively warm compared to the breeze. I strip off, put on my bathers and dive in. It’s briskly exhilarating, then deliciously tepid. Achim strips off to his underpants and dives in too. We swim out to the middle of the lake, gazing up at the ravens and the multi-coloured crags, with tufts of cloud sailing over swiftly, the ragged black doom-birds circling and sinking. Time slows down and I forget everything else.

We swim back, and find the warm pool of water surrounded by a wall of stones, and wallow in it languidly. The water is quite dirty, and from the corner the stream from below is quite hot, stirring up the sediment. A smell like shit wafts around us. I try to imagine that it’s a sulphurous smell, from the volcanic vent.

We hear a cough from somewhere up above; just time enough to adjust ourselves modestly. It’s the Czech couple. The girl sits on a rock, quiet, perhaps a little bit melancholy, and her boyfriend tiptoes over the jagged rocks to reach the water’s edge.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to strip off naked,” he says.

We don’t mind at all. I would have stripped before, but I didn’t want to offend any Muslim eyes that might notice. He strips off, swaying on a steep rock at the water’s edge, and dives in. He is beautiful, with very white skin and fluffy balls like soft white apricots. Achim murmurs his appreciation into my ear as we sit there, nonchalantly not watching, but not avoiding him either. I strip off too, and dive back in. I call out to the girl, “come on, dive in.” But her boyfriend tells me that she is unwell. Maybe she’s having her period.

We swim around, laughing, and as we clamber out, a car comes into view in the distance, bumping along the track. It stops halfway around the lake, and a couple get out and walk down to the reedy edge of the water. The woman is wearing dark flowing clothes and a veil. They might be able to see us, but not any details. We laugh and hide behind some rocks, pulling our underpants on quickly. As I dress and find my socks, I see a used diaper wedged between some rocks at the water’s edge, and a bit further up, a large scab of dried human shit. I’m shocked out of my dreamy day. Why on earth would anyone relieve themselves here, right beside the hot spring?

A couple of other cars pass along the track as well. I guess we could have hitch hiked up here after all.

Achim and I leave the Czech couple to themselves, but invite them to share our lunch if they want. We find a slab of rock to eat our picnic on. We’re busy on some peaches, and a group of locals wanders by. We smile and say hello, and one of the men gestures, showing us his camera. He wants to have his picture taken with us. He wedges his slight, muscular frame between us with a big grin, and Achim and I put our arms around his shoulders for the shot. How amusing, a local playing tourist and we being the exotic ‘colour.’

Our bossy tour guide wanders over too, quite mellow now. He asks if we had our swim, and we both look up at the sky and smile. He smiles. It’s become obvious that we are gay. “We go at three, OK?” He stands before us for a couple of minutes, silent, inscrutable, solemn, with his hands plunged deep into each pocket, his fly bulging. We pretend to notice nothing.

After lunch, Achim and I wander over the shrubby trail to the larger, deep blue lake, walking hand in hand. We find another hut, by the water, and two more white minivans parked nearby, with a dozen or so men, the guides and drivers, eating a substantial lunch. Further on amid the rocks and shrubs, families of locals are loudly enjoying their own picnics.

At half past two, the day ends, and we return to the van. On the return journey down to Tatvan, we see the field workers moving slowly through the dry mountain grass. Closer to the road two men carrying guns stand watching them. Why, I wonder? Are they out shooting foxes? Or are they guarding the workers in case they escape?

. . . and the Big Men Fly

A brief foray into Aussie Rules, for North American readers.

Melbourne 2007

Late Friday night I’m at the old Royal Hotel in Richmond with Andy. It’s crowded. I manage to push my way through the throng and get to the toilet to pee. There’s a drunk punter pissing copiously at the other urinal. He looks over, red faced, tubby and happy. It’s as if he wants to grab my eye and take it where it doesn’t really want to go, down to his frothy splish-splash. He gazes over, grunting proudly, “tike a look at that! That’s pure fucken’ alcohol that is. Pew-er fucken’ alcohol…” He’s got his left arm propped against the tile wall so he can’t fall in. Everyone’s just come from the footy, and Richmond has just won.

My poetry comrade took me by surprise when he invited me to tonight’s game. I’d thought Andy’d be the sport-shy type, being perhaps a tad intellectually superior (maybe this is why we get on well). He teaches Indonesian and writes wisps of cerebral verse. I’ve known him a few months, and had him pegged as a Young Fogey of the High Melburnian sort (as yours truly once was). But he says he’s been a Richmond (“the Tigers”) supporter for years. It was my team when I was a kid up in the country. I went for them because of the yellow diagonal stripe on the black jersey, manly, yet elegant. My brother Norbert has been a loyal Carlton (“the Blues”) fan ever since he was little. And tonight they’ve come together. Norbert, up in Sydney, has forbidden me texting him the score as he wants to catch the replay at 11pm.

Australian Rules football is played by two teams of 18 players, with interchange players in reserve. It’s ferocious and fast, with spectacular leaps as the men compete for the ball. To begin, a coin is tossed, and the winning captain selects the end of the field for their goals—and this will alternate every quarter. Players disperse across the relatively large oval—up to 200 yards long by 160 yards wide. After the first siren, the umpire bounces the ball hard in the center of the field, and the two ruckmen battle for it high in the air on its way back down.

Four banks of bright arc lights hover over this huge steel and concrete stadium, squatting on the banks of the Yarra River like a mother-ship convertible, very Spielbergian. We’re high up under the eaves of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, built for the 1956 Olympics, used for cricket in summer, football in winter, and recently remodelled with new stands, lighting and electronica for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Tonight the crowd is a bit over half capacity, at 55,000. From way up on the North East side the oval below is a grass galaxy scattered with fast moving stars, tiny molecules of men. To a blind man unaccustomed to new light, the first minutes of play seem brilliant and exciting. I have never been to a big game. I barely dealt with football at school, always picked second-last or last, trotting around the periphery trying to keep my self, my left foot and my wire-rimmed spectacles out of the way.

The object of the game is to score goals between two flagpole-tall goal posts. A goal is worth six points. Outside the two goalposts are two shorter “behind” posts, and getting the ball through either of these is worth a point. If a player touches the ball before it crosses the line, if it hits a goal post, or soars over them it’s only worth a point. Aussie Rules differs from other football codes in having no offside rule. The offside rule delineates an offence in which an attacking player is closer to the goal (thus interfering with the defense and making scoring too easy) than any two defenders—usually a goalkeeper and one other.

There are no limits on ball and player movement, but players must bounce or toe kick the ball when running and must hand-pass the ball by punching it. Throwing is forbidden. Running with the ball is allowed, provided it is bounced to the ground every ten paces or so. Bumping and tackling is allowed, and when tackled a player must get rid of the ball, or risk a penalty (at tackle points, the crowd erupts, roaring “ball”). If a player marks the ball after more than 15 yards in the air, the game pauses and he gets a free kick from that spot. Apart from those rules, the ball is fair game. Fast, ferocious and often confusing play with high balletic leaps, tackles, and spinning scrums of wrestling men is the result. The game is played without body protection, although these days all players wear mouthguards, as boxers do, to protect their teeth. Bruised ankles and battered knees get taped up. Bones are occasionally broken, but there’s rarely a serious injury.

When my friend extended the invitation I suggested smuggling in a bottle of Pinot Gris and a chicken salad hamper (and, fished from the back of my cupboard, a couple of pairs of opera glasses, with which to analyze the form). “Don’t you dare, you’ll be killed” said he. I’ve brought the two pairs of binoculars, but play is far too rapid on this vast field to follow the ball. I get some beers and fries between the first and second quarters.

The Tigers and the Blues seem to be playing quite different styles of game tonight. The Richmond players employ rapid hand passes back and forth, zigzagging around the Carlton players, and trying to get enough room for a decent kick. The Blues are playing a much more spacious game, and more often than not during the opening half hour their players are where the ball is falling. At the end of the first quarter it seems the Tigers, trailing by 19 points, are getting creamed. But for the rest of the game they manage to push ahead.

“Aussie Rules” originated in Melbourne in the 1850s as a game to keep cricketers fit during the winter off-season. It borrowed elements of Gaelic football and Rugby, both played by British and Irish immigrants pouring into Victoria during the gold rush. It may also have been inspired by a local Aboriginal game, Marngrook, which used a ball of stuffed possum hide. The local native term for a high leap to catch the ball was “mumarki,” from where the term to “mark” the ball may have originated. The first code of rules was drawn up in 1859 at the Parade Hotel in Richmond, close to where we are at the MCG.

By the 1870s there were a number of competing teams in the inner districts of Melbourne: Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda and South Melbourne. The Victorian Football League was established in 1896. The game soon spread to other towns and Australian colonies, then New Zealand and South Africa. Major league football has always been a Victorian game though. In New South Wales and Queensland rugby is king. There used to be few interstate Aussie Rules matches, but in the 1980s several Melbourne teams migrated to other cities, and the Australian Football League was established in 1989. If you want to see footy in North America you’ve got the Ontario Australian Football League, with a dozen teams competing this year.

I begin to notice how messy the performance is tonight. Rapid, with bone crunching contact, and high arching leaps to mark the ball, but the ball gets dropped enough times for me to become aware of the clumsiness of play. I’m excited to be here, but there are groans all around at the mediocre level of tonight’s game. Carlton hasn’t been good in a decade, and Richmond in more than two, says Andy. They were gods when my brother and I were young, but they’ve both been on the bottom half of the ladder for the past few years. The level of play seems to be infuriating a lot of the spectators. There are a few good precise, difficult kicks from both sides, but a lot of easy goals get missed. What the hell is going on?

The crowd is good-natured, there are plenty of women along, and kids with oversized football jerseys, clutching half-size red leather balls, wear team coloured war paint on their bright and shiny little faces. Booing and roaring erupt from all quarters. The jesting is rarely hostile (it’s ironic that cricket, the gentleman’s game, has lately been marred by racist taunts toward visiting African and Asian players). I’ve developed a high piercing finger whistle that gets angry winces from the guys in front of us—Carlton supporters obviously—so I better stop it. There’s not much noise from Andy though. He murmurs indignation at Richmond’s poor show, perhaps a sigh of resignation, or an occasional approving nod at a reasonable kick. I roar with red-faced plebeian gusto along with the rest, having a blast. Finally, I register a genteel yell from my friend, “pick em up you fucking idiots.” The game is getting slaughtered. In the end, Richmond stumbles forward to collect an undeserved win: 12 goals 20 points (92 – a goal being 6 points) to Carlton’s 11 goals 18 (84).

Two and a half hours have gone by fast. It’s raining as the crowd empties out of the stadium like water pouring through holes in the bottom of a steel drum.

And now, back to where we are at the Royal Hotel. It’s the pub where Richmond footy club was founded in 1908. It’s got topless barmaids now. The mostly male crowd is very loud, mooing and rumbling in beery satisfaction. I manage to get myself back to the bar without having been sprayed with “pew-er fucken alcohol.” Andy’s got a sparkly-eyed grin. Maybe the look on my face is just as boyishly callow as the look on his, as if the steel-smiling English backpacker barmaid just dipped her nipples into our pints of Kilkenny and proffered her frothy tits for us to lick.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Two Dozen Hearts

your heart is a crust of words.
yours is nailed in sentences.
your heart is a fist of sand.
and yours, a steel glove full of curds.

your heart is a throne of suds.
yours is champagne down the sink.
your heart’s a bottle of bitter beer.
and yours, a glass of frozen blood.

your heart is a cardboard cock.
yours is a shot of poppy-seed.
your heart is a rosebud welded shut.
and yours, a highly polished lock.

your heart is a demon playing nice.
yours is a saucer of milky plea.
your heart is a fig that has been bruised.
and yours, a smile at half-price.

your heart is a toad on an angel’s arm.
yours is a bird on an empty box.
your heart is a topaz hidden in turd.
and yours, a feather billowing balm.

your heart is a cherry that swallowed a worm.
yours has become your lover’s pram.
your heart is a mutating psalm.
and yours, a prayer book stuck with sperm.

Note: Relax. None of these are you. I wrote the above in response to the work of two dozen writers I heard regularly at a poetry venue in Melbourne a few years back.

Travels North

I’m on the Gold Coast just north of Coolangatta staying with family friends. Refreshed, well washed, well fed, with the car fitted with a roof rack, jerry cans for petrol and water, spare tires, radiator hose and fan-belt, ready to resume my travels in a day or two.

The “Gold Coast” is the most American looking region I have been in outside the United States. Vast prefabricated shopping malls of the neo-Etruscan order, motels and hi rises flank the ocean beaches, as though suburban San Diego had been bred with Waikiki beach. This mess stretches from Coolangatta on the NSW border, thirty kilometers north to Surfers Paradise. Another fifty kilometres north of that, Brisbane is hilly, clean and friendly, with a cluster of Victorian buildings and shiny towers at its center, on a bend in the river. I was in a sunny version of Seattle. The Gold Coast is mostly owned by American and Chinese business interests, which accounts for the urban style and the plethora of Asian gambling clubs and restaurants. But some old Aussie charm remains.

Arriving in Brissie, I parked at the Brunswick St. train station and shopping mall. The biggest space in the mall is a tatty looking bingo hall, the size of a large empty supermarket that looks as though it is about to be demolished. Hundreds of retirees, mostly old ladies with cups of tea and plates of biscuits and scones were busy, heads down, checking out the numbers. When I returned to pick up the car after an afternoon sightseeing there were still a few clusters of oldies waiting around for the suburban trains to take them home. It’s better than sitting on a recliner lounge in front of the television hooked up to a saline drip.

Eagles

Two weeks earlier, after a few days with friends in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, I fired up the old wagon and headed North West to Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town on the edge of the outback.

Spent the first afternoon driving north west on the road to Gunneda and Narrabri, undulating hills with low rugged mountains in the middle distance, and at dusk, turned off the main road at Narrabri, and headed up to the Mount Kaputar National Park, and found a quiet spot to sleep. A cold frosty night, and next morning got ready for a hard hike up to one of the rocky outcrops, remnants of old volcanoes, as many of the small mountain ranges in the eastern part of Australia tend to be. These ranges are similar to the Warrumbungles, which my former partner and I visited a few months back, but about three hundred meters higher. Decided to hike up to the Yulladunida crater, through dense eucalypt, and tall bushy “blackboys” dark stumpy prehistoric looking plants with a big tuft of spiky green grass on top, to the base of the rocky escarpment, where there’d be a one hundred and fifty meter scramble up the steep rocks, with lots of foot and hand holds. The rock resembled the dark crinkly folds on the back of an elephant’s neck, and closer up, patterned and plated like the skin of a crocodile, or Stegosaurus.

About half way up these rocks, I saw a couple of eagles wheeling around the main peak. Ahh, my favorite bird – from a distance. Pretty soon they noticed me, and more had wheeled into view, proceeding to sail over to where I was rather gingerly perched. Birds and feathers have always left me queasy, and in a moment, I grew giddy and un-nerved as eight big brown wedge-tailed eagles wheeled and flapped overhead, and around me, close enough for me to see their eyes. An irrational fear of being clawed to death descended, and I scrambled down a couple of meters to a safer foothold, from where I could look up and around in all directions, wishing for once that I were not alone up there.

I then got a hold of myself and realized that I was more in danger of slipping and falling in a moment of panic, than I was from these curious but wary birds. They soared off towards the summit, wheeled around its rocky mount a few times, and then flew back towards my perch again for another look, lazily wheeling around each other, a couple of them “dogfighting” in mid-morning play, each time getting up the courage to fly a bit closer; though I am sure they never got closer to me than twenty meters, it was stomach churning nonetheless. I could hear the whoosh and crackle of air through their great bronze splayed wings as they flapped and adjusted, much like the crackle of breeze in a flapping sail.

Managed to allow my racing heart to calm down, and after five minutes or so, they wheeled and flew back to the summit for another circuit, and finally all headed west for the day’s hunt and forage. After that, it was an easy scramble up to the topmost ridges, for a full view of the hills to the east, and the great flat disc of the Australian plain to the North, West and South, like a dead and dusty ocean, with the faint blue Warrumbungle mounds and ridges a hundred and fifty kilometers away to the south west. Panglossian ecstacy, after such turbulent emotions.

A late-coming eagle flapped over and soared around me, checking me out for a few minutes, me still wary but not so freaked out, before it too headed west to join the others.

It was now a glorious morning, after having had a good chance to take a look at one of my phobias before the hike down to the road again, coffee, and the rough drive back down to Narrabri for petrol, and the road to Wee-Waa and Lightning Ridge.

The void is dripping with stars. There is enough light from a crackling fire to scribble by.

Lightning Ridge

I spent a day in Lightning Ridge, a dusty collection of trailers, tractors and mounds of opal tailings, like a broad brown tablecloth scattered with the crumbs and rubbish of a good meal. A few streets intersect, with general stores, opal outlets and shanty cafes. There’s a section of town where those who struck it rich have build large bare suburban homes. There weren’t many folks around; a few lean, leathery looking men and women in big hats, and some urban oldies in shiny new 4-wheel drives checking out the opal displays in the rather pricey and touristy looking shops. Opal is not my kind of stone, though I did see some gorgeous blue and purple “black” opals, for rather more money that I would have thought, out here.

I met a big ruddy German fellow living in the local “Caravan Park” as trailer parks are called in Australia. Ollie was trying to get his visa extended before trying his luck digging for stones. He’d spent time in Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, dreaming about finding gold there, but then moved east. He told me I could probably find work helping small claims holders with the laboring brunt of digging, but that it would take a few days to build up trust with anyone I might meet in the local pub. No one admits to finding anything and few make a living at it – the piles of rock and rusted abandoned equipment littered around the town attested to that. Ollie seemed a bit nervous of me. The caravan park lady with whom I’d been chatting about life had introduced him to me. Perhaps he took me for an itinerant immigration agent. He reiterated earnestly that he was studying mining techniques, and didn’t plan to make any money at all. Fair enough I thought, but I was obviously welcome company over black coffee in his hot little caravan. His English wasn’t good, and relaxed and candid company hard to find in this hard bitten, wary place.

On the road leading east out of town there’s an artesian spa, with hot water pumped up from a depth of fifteen hundred metres or so. There’s a big circular pool with shower stalls built to cater to locals and visitors. Had a great soak in the hot sulfurous water, and a couple of smokes in the sun waiting for my shorts and towel to dry. The late afternoon light got some color to it, and the breeze got cooler, so it was time to head back through town and onto the highway north to Queensland.

Desert Night

I needed to find a quiet spot to camp before sundown. I’d been driving North West for a couple of hours through unfenced land; flat, red and ochre earth with eucalypt and pine scrub. After slowing several times for a likely hideout during the last half hour’s drive I chose a dusty track trailing off to the left and into a scrubby waste of abandoned mining claims. Big red kangaroos bounded out of the way through white mounds of quartz and small scabby trees.

The cirrus clouds began shading to pink. It would grow dark quickly and I had little time to waste. I managed to gather enough dead wood for a decent fire next to one of the piles of gravel, and settled in for a good dinner of curried veggies, bread, and wine. Over the next couple of hours the fire died down. The piney blaze, bright and chattering, began to nod off and slumber in its soft warm glow. As the night stretched westward the stars awoke and began to blaze.

In the quiet intensity of solitude, you begin to feel very small in the face of the universe above and around you. At first the sensation was peaceful, perhaps a kind of thanksgiving. But then from the road half a mile to the east, I heard the sound of a vehicle slowing down and stopping. Had someone seen the glow of my fire between scrub and the trees? I could see no headlight, nothing at all. In the moments of silence, before the vehicle (I imagined it was a pick-up truck) started up again and drove south towards Lightning Ridge, fear crept into my sense of peace. Had a passenger, or passengers, got out of that vehicle, perhaps to sneak up on my camp?

In Lightning Ridge that day a local store owner and her husband had insisted I stop for no one on the road, as there were occasional dangerous characters prowling around. She made a blunt reference to local aboriginals.

“Some of em’ll hit you on the head for anuff money furra bottle a’ booze”.

When I started up my innocent urban mutterings about what a shame that was, and that one really mustn’t judge people, the woman gave me a dusty and patient look with her much older and experienced eyes.

“Yair, it’s sad,” she said, “but it’s a fact of life out here Love.”

Her prejudice aside, I knew I should heed her warning. The papers we full of stories about a murderer who had flagged down a couple in their Kombi van north of Alice Springs a couple of days earlier. He was still at large; having most likely killed the English traveler, and tried to kidnap his girlfriend. She had wriggled free from her bonds at night and fled – the killer had tried to track her with his dogs, but failed, and she had reached the road and been found the next morning. The police were hunting for the killer with heat seeking helicopters, and for the remains of her companion using aboriginal trackers.

So there was incident and story to inflame my fear at night. A cold curl of unease licked down my back. Something told me with icy clarity “get out of here within ten minutes or you’re done for.”

I sat a while longer, aware of my shadows, the fear pouring out of me and dancing in the blackness between the dimly lit bushes and pine scrub. I’m aware enough of these things now to realize that intuitions and insights are sometimes misleading. All I could do was rest with the fear for a while, and let the fire die down to the coals. With only the leaky little kerosene lamp for light the car loomed, a flickering bulk a few yards from where I sat.

But what about “discernment” I thought. What is really going on?

Nothing was going on.

“Stay alert,” said common sense.” If you notice anything unusual occurring out there in the dark, then you have reason for alarm.” I then remembered that the vehicle I heard an hour or so earlier had pulled up, stopped, and driven off; sounding quite distinct in the semi-desert silence, but with no sound of any doors opening or clicking shut.

But shadows of fear continued to reach in to this little circle of warmth and light.

I had to get up and walk away from the fire, treading quietly over the gravel to sit on one of the cold piles of quartz. Looking up at the thick wads of stars I felt much safer in the darkness. I was hidden from the firelight by the car’s shadow. The smoke rose from it in a thin blue column. It spread out as a broad, drifting platter of silver fog at treetop height; that and the soft glow of fire and coals on the foliage, and the intensity of the Milky Way above, rendered the scene unearthly, almost ludicrous.

Fear vanished into absurdity for a while, over an hour the two sensations flickered back and forth like red light and shadow across my face. I slept in the car with the doors locked.

A few hikes, nights spent sleeping by a campfire, another thousand kilometers of narrow sealed highway slowing for numberless kangaroos, emus and mobs of sheep have been followed by well-laundered rest and a visit to Brisbane. I’m ready to head up the coast to Cooktown, or at least Cairns for some sun, and maybe a bit of snorkelling, before making my way across to the tropical North to Darwin, where I will have a chance to freshen up at my uncle Terry’s place, before taking up any seasonal work that might be available, and heading to the Kimberleys, and the arid wilds of outback Australia, of which I have had the first dusty taste.

I hope that in forty years I’d want to end my days camped under a tree, under the stars by a warm fire, age having faded my fears of being stalked and attacked by dark-hearted strangers, or big, curious birds.

Lorentz Lossius

June 2004

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

On Time and Death

Time

  1. Time is entirely dependent on movement.
  2. Space is entirely dependent on outward movement, from a non-space-time origin to the dimensions resulting from outward movement.
  3. If there is no movement, there is no space and no time. Even if there had been movement, and thus space-time, when movement stops, our ability to comprehend it will cease also.
  4. Our experience and comprehension of space and time is based on the regular occurrence of natural movement, the repetition of movement: the cycle of the sun, and the cycles of the moon, the length of the day, the steadiness of the resting heartbeat.
  5. If movement were chaotic, and irregular: a stream of ever changing movement, we would not be able to measure or comprehend duration, because a sense of duration depends on the yardstick of regularity. Without being able to measure duration, we would not have a sense of space either.
  6. If there were no movement at all, there would be nothing to compare with anything else, nothing to measure, and thus there would effectively be no time. Non-time cannot be comprehended, but it can be experienced as infinity.

Time and Death

  1. Towards the point of death, human body functions slow down. As functions slow down, the sense of time changes. The sense of time speeds up, relative to the slowing of psycho-physical functions.
  2. But concurrently with this effect, the innate sense of time slows as well, relative to the speeding up of the dying psyche’s experience of phenomena.
  3. Which is why those reaching the point of death seem to experience everything (“my whole life raced before my eyes”), as well as sense of “timelessness.”
  4. At the ultimate moment of human life, the last microsecond of consciousness everything is experienced, and it is experienced infinitely.
  5. The nature of this total and infinite experience depends on the psyche either accepting everything experienced, or resisting something that has been or is being experienced.
  6. This is the difference between the “yes” of “heaven”, and the “no” of “hell”.

My personal take on point 6, is that everyone gets to experience the “yes” at the very end, even the “worst” humans.

Why do I think this? People who subscribe to religious belief have their own ways of explaining this: redemption after a single life, the final end to the cycle of illusion after many lives, and so on.

Unity

  1. Having been invited to stand outside and embrace the entirety of existence, which is huge, but also, infinitely small, (the universe is space, but this dimensional space is contained within “no space”) and
  2. having observed dispassionately the entire workings of what we consider good and evil – and in my experience, on approaching the experience one fights against it, thinking “I cannot be dispassionate in the face of evil and suffering and I fear the moral outcome of being so”, but then the experience is granted again, and one allows oneself to say “yes” to the unity of all experience – then,
  3. everything we so rightly as humans judge as good and bad (we must, innately make these distinctions, in order to be human), is, at a non-human level, seen as the “way things are.” Not seen coldly, but seen with an accepting but non-emotive empathy.
  4. So, as our human existence slips away, we experience an infinite moment of this unbound acceptance.

Note: The approach to this experience is terrifying in its implications for a human mind. The experience itself is inexpressible other than in vague terms, and whilst still being alive, on returning to normal human consciousness, shattering to contemplate after it has passed.

Night Train to Konya

Haydarapaşa Station looms over the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The gateway to the East, this elephantine Prussian castle was built by the Germans a hundred years ago as part of the Kaiser’s Berlin to Baghdad railway, intended to bypass the British-controlled Suez Canal. The grandiose sandstone pile shadows a huddle of railway platform kiosks selling packets of biscuits, bottled water, cans of thick, sugary peach juice and bread rolls stuffed with cuts of processed cheese and wilted lettuce leaves, tightly bound, like Egyptian mummies, in bandages of plastic film. I stock up on water, and find a kebab stand grilling a dripping cylinder of chicken pieces, and fill my stomach with a couple of cheap tavuk döner sandwiches. The waiting room is imperial and dingy, and the restaurant expensive.

The Meram Ekspresi to Konya leaves at 19:20. It’s another hour’s wait, but there’s a cafe serving tea by the ferry dock. The sun sets behind distant slabs of cloud, and the sky glows mauve and sooty over the domes and minarets of Istanbul across the water.

Turkish train carriages are sleek, white and narrow. There’s room for three seats abreast, two on one side, and one across the aisle. The ticket is cheap, only 23 Lire for a reserved seat in a Pullman car. Another 30 Lire would get me a bed in a couchette. However, nearly everyone smokes in Turkey, usually harsh, dark tobacco, and there’s no guarantee, even in a non-smoking compartment, that someone won’t light up in the middle of the night.

On my way to my carriage, I pass a row of compartments already full. Youths sprawl across the padded benches with their feet up on each other’s seats, joking, talking, smoking. The couchettes are filling up fast with families, groups of friends, and baggage. I step into an empty one for a minute. The brown velveteen-covered seats are pocked and burned, and the air is flat, a whiff of floor cleaner and dead brown smoke. For the moment I feel lonesome.

My seat in the open car doesn’t recline properly but it’s not so bad. After I’ve settled in and spread myself out a bit, a pale, black-clad young man passes and turns back, grimaces carelessly, and flops down next to me. He seems irritated at having to share, and we ignore each other. The train rolls out of Haydarapaşa, smooth and heavy over the regular meter of clicks and jolts, surges ahead and slows down again as it skirts the coast, the Asian shore of the sea of Marmara, through miles and miles of suburbs. We pass by a ridge of five- to eight-floor blocks of flats, with docks and jetties on the seaward side, small and rusty freighters, fishing vessels and large cargo ships lining the shore, and many more out at sea as well.

The light fades to grey beyond the glass. We leave the bright outskirts of the city and the train turns inland. The world of exterior things fades away, the shifting stream of the world disappears.

*****

A small, dark, wiry-armed man runs down the trembling carriage aisle with a large tray of simit, crispy bread rings dotted with sesame seeds, and plastic pots of ayran, a salty yoghurt drink. Down by the front end of the carriage a raging child chokes on his indrawn breath, and then explodes in sobs and wails. His mother murmurs wearily. Another snack vendor runs down the aisle, with tea, Nescafe and small packets of biscuits.

The young man next to me gets up and heads off to the vestibule at the end of the carriage. When he sits down again he reeks of smoke, and clicks his teeth in annoyance at the wailing baby.

I get out my dictionary and find the words, “tren, dolu” (train, full). He responds immediately with a smile and a shrug. Yes, train full. Then I find, “bebek bagirmak, yok uyumak” (baby cry, no sleep). He shrugs again. He speaks as much English as I do Turkish. But we exchange a bit of information. His name is Husayn and he is going to Eskişehir, a couple hundred miles inland. I tell him I am going to Konya.

“Konya, Mevlana, Sufi.” I say. He nods. The Mevlana (or Rumi, as we know him) is a famous poet and everyone knows he lived in Konya.

I show him the book I am reading, by Yashar Kemal, and find the words, “mükemmel yazar, Kurdçe yazar” (good writer, Kurdish writer). He frowns and waves his hand in disagreement, replying in English, “Turkish writer.” I try to find the sentence on the back cover, about how Kemal is from the Kurdish part of Turkey, then remember where I am and reply tactfully, “peki, evet, Turkçe Kurd” (OK, yes, Turkish Kurd). Kemal is Turkey’s most famous novelist, and Turkey does not recognize Kurds, preferring to call them Mountain Turks.

*****

The train rolls on. Hours pass. I manage to sleep. Husayn dozes next to me. Next time Husayn gets up to smoke, the fellow in the single seat opposite asks me, with a few words of English, if the seat next to me is taken. “Yes,” I nod, “it is.”

Husayn comes back, and the fellow in the lone seat across the aisle joins the conversation. He’s a mathematics teacher going home to Kayseri, another day’s ride beyond Konya. I find out through him that Husayn works in IT in Istanbul, Microsoft stuff. They want to know all about me. “Where are you from?” “What are you doing in Turkey?”

I tell them I am going to Konya, Kayseri, and maybe over to Dogübayazit, to see Agri Dagi, Mount Ararat.

“Why do you wear that gold ring on your finger? Are you married?”

I tell them I am divorced. There is laughter and merriment in our row and a grizzly fellow in his fifties two rows behind us chimes in and sighs, “wish I divorce…”

A ginger haired fellow, also in dark business pants and a white shirt, comes along and squeezes into the single seat with the mathematics teacher.

They’re friends, both teachers heading home to Kayseri. It’s sweet to see them tucked in there so close. I’ve heard and seen that Turkish men are comfortable holding each other as a gesture of friendship. But it turns out the ginger haired guy bought a ticket, but only his friend got the seat reservation, things are that tight. So he has to make the whole twenty-four-hour journey finding whatever seat he can.

The train remains full the whole night. As soon as a family alights at some tiny rural siding the empty places fill up again. The seats around me are full of sleepy young men. Further down, a couple of bubbly babies stumble around, laughing, wailing and laughing again.

I doze under the train’s soothing rumble and clack, my face pressed to a cold window, sour dirt moulding the hard aluminium corners, lulled into soothing dreams, a spaceship slicing through nothing, a whistling sword of light plunging into black rock, speeding toward sunrise, or death.

I wake after we’ve passed Eskişehir. Husayn has gone. The ginger haired man gets a bit of rest in the seat next to me. He looks crisp and clean but exudes an agreeable, nostril-pinching stench of sweat and tobacco smoke. It seeps under the lid of my half closed eye, and the sweet puke of vanilla rose cologne mingles with the dried brown mildew of spilt tea soaking the worn carpet.

The children are asleep now but the overhead lights stay on. The grey-stubbled man two rows back snores into the upturned lapel of his old flannel suit jacket. Sometime after midnight the train rattles slowly past more concrete blocks of flats and warehouses and stops at a large station. Is it Afyon? I hope it is Afyon already. But it isn’t Afyon, it’s Kütahya. The journey is going to take longer than I thought.

*****

A slim, delicately-built young man arrives at our row, wondering why the seat next to me is taken. He rouses the ginger haired teacher from his sleep and politely asks him to move, and ginger squeezes in with his friend across the aisle once more.

The new arrival is speaking to me in Turkish, and I respond with “Ingiliz, yok Turk.” He manages a few halting words of English to me. He is a student at the University in Kütahya, studying Physical Therapy. He is going home to Diyarbakir, but will stop in Konya just for a day, to see his girlfriend. His face is dark and solemn. His slender brow is crowned with flowers of black curls. His name is Ihsan, and his English improves rapidly as we speak. And he speaks in a lovely, lilting whisper, about Kurdistan.

“I cannot speak about Kurdistan to Turkish people. Trouble with police.”

“Yes,” I reply in a half joking way, “but talking politics to me in English you’re quite safe. I am not a Turkish policeman, as you can see.”

I show him the Yashar Kemal novel. We find the original Turkish title inside the front cover, “Ince Memed.”

Ihsan is delighted. “It is Kemal’s best book.”

Ihsan gets up several times to smoke, and invites me to join him. I smoke with him in the draughty vestibule. He’s quiet, curious, and serious. I’m employing my usual half smile, a slightly dry shyness. It veils the intensity of the empathy and attraction that is growing as I get to know him. Back in our seats, Ihsan shares his biscuits with me, and I fill our empty plastic tea cups with fingers of Raki, and cloud the pungent and sugary liquor with warm bottled water.

We talk for most of the rest of the night, occasionally delving into my little dictionary for Turkish or English words.

“I do not like to be lonely,” says Ihsan. To respond, I find the different words, “kimsesiz” (friendlessness), and “yalnizlik” (solitude). He agrees that they are indeed different experiences.

“And I do not want to be married or have children. I need to be free to work wherever I am needed.”

He wants to help his people as a Physical Therapist. I hunt for the words, “adama” (dedication, or vow), and “meslek” (career, or vocation), but he does not seem to understand what I am trying to say with these words.

“I would not want to raise a child into a difficult life.”

“But someone like you would be such a good father,” I say.

He shrugs his shoulders. Later he tells me that if he were to marry, he would be expected to marry a Kurdish girl and settle in his parents’ home in Diyarbakir and look after them. Marrying anyone else and moving away with her seems out of the question.

A thin, ascetic-looking teenage madrasa student in baggy black pants, loose beige shirt and large knitted skullcap sitting in the row ahead glances back at us now and then, coolly, through the delicate prisms of his wire rimmed spectacles.

“I do not like religion,” says Ihsan.

I find the word “ruh” (soul).

“But we have a soul,” I say. “And there is God, and the relationship between the soul and God is not dogma, it is a mystery.”

I get all of this language out slowly, flicking through the pages of my dictionary for the big words in Turkish. Ihsan nods in appreciation. I tell him briefly about my Christian background. That it is a language in my heart, and not a dogma.

“Yes,” he says, “I have Islam in my heart too, but I don’t like the religion.”

I point to the Madrasa student. “Let’s hope he gets a chance to fall in love, and be broken hearted, and experience sin, before his mind closes up.”

Ihsan smiles.

I do not question him about it, but wonder how he thinks about his need for independence, to not be encumbered with a wife and child (never, he insists strongly) contrasts with his statement about the fear of loneliness?

*****

One by one, throughout the night, men shuffle along the swaying aisle to smoke and talk in the vestibule. Do any of the women get up to smoke or stretch themselves? Do women actually have lungs, or legs? The wives and mothers stay sleeping in their seats until morning. If they move about at all, it’s so no man will notice.

It seems Ihsan and I have both managed to sleep. I wake with a backache, a crick in my neck, and my left kneecap hammering away from the inside. The dawn glowers over the plain like a red-hot poker. Through the windows on the other side dry white peaks have risen. The jagged peaks sail past slowly. The dawn looks as hot and dusty as a desert sunset does. We have reached the beginning of the great Anatolian plain, and Konya is a few hours away.

I need the toilet, and leave wet footprints on the floor as I squat over the shit-flecked stainless steel hole, filling an empty juice can several times from the small brass spigot and balancing precariously in order to splash and clean up properly.

*****

I want a decent breakfast, and invite Ihsan to eat with me in the dining car. He is a student, with no money. It takes a while, and some persuasion, but he eventually accepts my offer. So we get fresh bread, boiled eggs, and a dish each of cheese, olives, a shriveled slice of tomato, a fresh slice of cucumber, butter, jam, honey and cups of tea.

We talk about Northern Europe, about financial opportunities, versus the coldness of the cultures up there, about capitalism and communism. Ishan’s father was a communist, and he is too, idealistically, but acknowledges the difficulty, of dogma versus human nature.

A low grey wall rises out of the haze, ringing the dry yellow hills to the South East. As we get closer, the wall morphs into concrete apartment blocks, the outer suburbs of Konya, shadowed by tall, belching factories producing cement, asphalt and beet sugar. Konya has become a sulphur dioxide-choked boomtown, as well as having been, for millennia, a place of pilgrimage, a city which grew rich on woven carpets, processed cotton and silk, mined salt, cinnabar and chrome. It was once Iconium, where the apostles Paul and Barnabas preached, first persuading, then angering the population of pagans and Jews, before getting themselves kicked out of town. It became the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rome (Rum, in the Turkic tongue), the city of Celaluddin Rumi, the Mevlana, saint and mystic poet of Sufism. And there were nearly as many Christians as Muslims living here before the upheavals that erupted after the end of the First World War.

The train shudders slowly into the railway station. Exhausted and elated, I invite Ihsan to stay in touch, and we exchange email addresses. He’d like me to visit his hometown, Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish South East. We wish each other farewell, and he heads north to meet his girlfriend at the bus station.

It’s 10 am, and the air is not stifling as I’d feared it might be, though the sun burns my face and neck. It’s a mile and a half walk north and east along wide but busy streets, past shops and apartment blocks, to the old part of the city. I am comfortable stopping people and gesturing a request for directions. An older fellow helps me out. He speaks German. He’d worked and travelled all around Europe in a trailer. I understand enough to respond. To his delight I manage to say, “teşekkür ederim, hoşçakal.” Many thanks, and goodbye.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

On the Greyhound From El Paso

The cowboy falls asleep across me,

his blue jeans slung low, red belt buckle

thick over long bones and wrangler’s muscle,

his tooled boot eases onto mine, his sharp shoulder

caves in, the curve of the road drags his head down to my collar,

rolling heavy, so close, oh! the risky odours

of tobacco breath, the rank musk of hair, Sierra Blanca salt…

I want to spiral swiftly down to his lips

spread full like a raptor’s wings soaring over his earth-stung face

his lips are driving me dizzy, before I turn and fall

my eyes control the dive and catch the hands asleep between his thighs

swooping to kiss his copper veins, to lick the hard belly of his palm

half-cupping his crotch; it stretches in his sleep

like a man’s arm reaching out under the sheet

bearing a heavy load, or maybe dreaming about the next ride

bucking hard to the rhythm of the Texas road

I get to hang there for hours til Abilene takes him,

to slip a knot and lock his hands to his bronco

then throw a line to tie his falcon’s wing to mine.