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Published: February 2nd 2011
The camel’s face contorted into an expression, only achievable by members of its species, which if I had to describe I would label something like “nonchalant objection”. At the same time it brayed nonchalantly and objectingly at a volume which, had the market not been full of camels doing similar things and people loudly making deals over them, would have made anyone nearby jump out of their skin. The cause of the animal’s multi-decibel concern, the six Omanis dressed identically in turbans, dish dash robes that hung from their necks to their feet and ornate silver khanjar daggers on belts around their waists, continued to struggle against its attempts to make them put it down as together they manoeuvred it into the back of a pickup truck. It took several tries and involved non-stop loud, heated discussion of the best way to go about things. Once accomplished, the men and about ten others piled into the back of the truck with the camel. Due to lack of space they all remained standing, holding each other or some part of the vehicle for support as it pulled away from the market area to jolt and bounce its way down the dirt track
that led towards the edge of the desert...
* * *
...The houses of Ushuai, situated in Argentina's Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost city in the world, clung to the bottom of South America as the land behind them rushed up into rugged, green, snowy mountains and threatened to topple them into the cold waters of the Beagle Channel. Nestling close together and covering a remarkably small area for a city of 40,000 they spilled their way down the foothills right up to the water's edge, after which only a scattering of lonely, craggy, snow-capped islands stood between them and Antarctica. In the fresh sea air and quiet streets that led in between those houses I wondered how this could be the same country as crazy, unforgiving, traffic-mauled Buenos Aires where I had been working for the previous five months...
* * *
... The Matses caught the frog by imitating its mating call, a bizarre, seemingly impossible noise made in the back of the throat. They then tied each of its limbs to a twig stuck into the ground and pulled the back right one until the luckless amphibian began to
sweat. For several minutes Faking used another stick to collect the perspiration from its back. When he had enough he spat on it several times and mixed his saliva in. Taking a burning stick from a nearby fire, he then went around the assembled Indians, burning two small marks on each one's right arm and dabbing the poisonous mixture onto them. Seconds after he dosed me my head began to pound furiously. The pressure in it built up over a minute or two until I thought it was going to explode, then explode it did: just like everyone around me I began projectile vomiting until eventually the pain disappeared to be replaced by an incredible feeling of calm. The regurgatation ceased and the melee of conflicting sounds from the surrounding jungle suddenly became clear and distinguishable from one another, my mind now capable of focusing on each one separately and pinpointing its location...
* * *
... The mountains of the M'Goun Massif on one side, and those of the Ait Bou Goumez on the other, ringed the vast, dry expanse of Lake Izourar. The August temperature was enough to drench clothes in minutes even at this
altitude, the barren rocky landscape shimmering in the heat haze it produced. Far below as we descended those mountains, tired from the long day's walk that lay behind us, dust rose in a pillar above two small black dots that crawled across the dried up lake bed, just distinguishable through my camera's zoom as men on donkeys. We headed in the same direction as them and our paths crossed an hour later, just as they were arriving at a low free stone wall that surrounded a small camel hair tent not far from what would have been the lake shore.
"Come in, come in and have some tea," said a terribly skinny woman who had just come out, her hair covered by a black turban, her skin aged well beyond its years and a small blue tattoo running from her lower lip to the bottom of her chin...
* * *
... The all green, jungle-blanketed scenery in West Papua's Yalimo dropped and rose thousands of metres several times within my sphere of vision, no matter which direction I looked in. This fact had made for the hardest trek of my life, with fourteen hour days
involving many near vertical or vertical ascents. I was not the only one who this vicious, punishing, tortuous terrain had given a hard time; in fact, it had kept the entire outside world at bay until fairly recently.
"It was over those mountains there that the first missionaries came," Agus told me as we sat on a rock in the straw-hut village of Waniyok, surrounded by two hundred people who stood and stared at me, their mouths agape but not a sound passing their lips other than the occasional excited gasp.
"Do you still remember it?" I asked him.
"Remember it?" he asked, as if surprised. "I can still see it. We'd heard rumours about white people but never seen them, so you can imagine what it was like for us when they just came into our village. Those first ones got eaten, but still..."
* * *
The uma, (long house) in which five families lived was about twenty five metres long and raised on stilits to a metre above the jungle floor. Around the entrance its front was decorated with drawings of animals and strange patterns etched in with a light blue
ink while monkey skulls dangled above the door.
The Skery (medecine man) led me down a plank that stretched from the door to the ground and took me deeper into the jungle on the island of Siberut, 150 km off the coast of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean. We walked through endless mud, rivers and knee-deep swamps, the Skery occasionally disappearing off into the deep gloom brought about by the density of the vegetation to return with a plant or flower he had somehow known to be there. Some, he told me, were for medecine, while others were for poison.
"Do the young people still study to become Skerys?" I asked while we walked.
"Yes, lots," he said, turning to face me. Despite his cheeriness I found him somehow disconcerting: every tooth in his mouth was sharpened into a fang and his body, naked except for a tree-bark loin cloth, was covered in tattoos, right to the bottom of his legs. On top of this I had heard a conversation between him and a friend about an occasion when they had tried to kill each other over a woman in their younger days...
... Immediately after Siberut I spent a year in Russia before I began writing on Travelblog. I arrived without any interest in the place and not knowing a single word of the language. The only impressions I had managed to glean from the Western media of a country that spanned eleven time zones were such that, had I been asked to give the three words I most associated with Russia, they would have been "mafia, vodka, cold." It was only later that I discovered the vast tracts of untouched wilderness unmatched by any country on earth, the forty plus mountain ranges including Europe's highest peak, the fifty plus ethnic groups with their own languages, religions and cultures, the dazzling array of outlandishly coloured churches, mosques, buddhist temples and shamanic shrines to be found in many cities, the people who take misfortune and extreme conditions with good humour and a pinch of salt while retaining rock solid values of hospitality, etiquette and compassion...
* * *
The rest of my travels, after that first year in Russia, are written up in much greater detail on this site. Check them out!
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