Monday, 15 March 2010

Of Football and Pakora

I once had a picture in my head of what I would find in Kolkata. It involved poverty, noise and a sense of unimaginable intensity. I was wrong. It is so much more, more horrific than can (willingly) be described, but also so wondrous and friendly it has shocked me to the very core of my soul.

I was invited into an Indian family home to eat a traditional Bengali lunch within hours of arriving, lucky? Indeed. It is something that will take time getting used to, eating with ones hands. It seems like the most obvious implement a human should be sufficiently apt at eating with, not so in my case. An embarrassing struggle with a plate of rice and various curries caused much hilarity and sly chuckles from the mother, three uncles, four brothers, one sister and various other people whom had been called to spectate the white man eating. It was an incredible privilege, although did tend to make one self-conscious.

I cannot fully describe how soul destroying it is to see some of the things I have seen. There is a hell far worse than that in the fiery underbelly of the world, it's on the streets of this city. My heart has been utterly destroyed and healed a hundred times over. I have been here two days. But every action has a reaction right? And there is no better place to prove this. Out of utter chaos and anarchy comes complete order and tranquillity, bizarre to say the least.

Tonight my friend Nick and I went on a mission. We set out armed to the teeth with mountainous paper bags containing various Pakora, Samosa, Roti, Chapati and Baji. Our mission was to find those who lived in complete desperation and give them something to smile about. To see someone grin is not usually such an incredible moment, tonight the feeling was that of pure joy.

We found ourselves led through gloomy, dank back-streets of Kolkata by an ancient old man. His body had been broken by the terrible hardships of his life but his mind and soul were still full of vitality and joy. He led us on a winding journey to the centre of a place cleverly named 'New Market'. Now, this New Market may once have been new, but in reality I think it may have seen better days, maybe in or around 1812.

So, have you ever played a wild game of football, barefoot, with a gang of Indian slum children? An invitation like that can never be turned down. Off come the shoes (although not a necessity, it does provide some ego coverage when you turn out to be useless... "shit sorry about that, if only I'd had shoes on" etc.). We are ordered into teams on opposite sides with a barrage of excitable Hindi and very enthusiastically greeted by our fellow team members.

Kick off begins the most exhausting 20 minutes of my life. Although 10pm the temperature is still grotesque. A crowd has gathered to cheer the game on, the entry of two Westerners has sent out a shock-wave of excitement from the locals. The pressure is on, feeling good and confident in my abilities to provide for my team. A burst of energy here, a sprint and leap there. Dizziness hits, heart pounding so violently I can hear it radiating throughout my head, sickness looming, need to sit down. "OK" says the local policeman "So are you ready to start?".

The battle fought (and sadly lost) it is time for a drink. I ask my new friends where I can buy water, they say to follow them. I am led to "where the tears of the Goddess Shiva come up from the centre of the world". It is a well and hand pump at the side of the road. The Goddess Shiva provides life for 14,700,000 people in this city. I wash my grubby face and feel totally insignificant.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The epic of 'Siam Defeated' and the eternal legacy of Jayavarman VII...

Snort the salt, lemon in the eye and furiously slam that Tequila. Those are the rules and we all know and live by them, at least so long as your local Cambodian/ Mexican restaurant owner says so. Luckily for most reading this there are, surprisingly, few of these said owners within any distance from anywhere. The Mexican food is incredible and the subsequent Tequila hangover just as much so.

Happily neither the hangover nor the aforementioned Mexican Tequila fiend exists, which wonderfully has resulted in two of the most delusionally beautiful and photogenic days since records of such things began.

Siem Reap is an oasis in the sand. A town named by the very gracious victors of a battle long since forgotten (at least that's what the Thais will tell you), it translates to Siam Defeated. Simple yet to the point, no nonsense etc. It's surrounded by paddy fields and cows all the way 'till your soiled red feet set down in the madness of Phnom Penn.

If you've ever watched Indiana Jones or spent endless months, square eyed and enraged playing Tomb Raider you will know of the incredible Temple ruins. Lost to the world for countless centuries, overrun with an army of monkeys led by giant ginger cats riding stray dogs. Not sure which movie I am recalling. Back to the point, the ruins, yes. Well the point I am trying to make is this, they exist, minus the giant ginger cats.

Yesterday morning I woke up, thankfully this happens most mornings.

After a breakfast of Khmer Lok Luk and a healthy dose of moving, my friend Natalie and I were comfortably seated on our motorised hire armchair whizzing through the red dusts of the Cambodian jungle, the sight of which put 'Paint It Black' ringing in my ears.

First stop, Ta Phrom and the most incredible example of Man conquering Nature only to be brutally slapped back into place. A building so at one with its surroundings its surroundings have decided to move in. Trees are the master of this jungle palace, they twist and twirl their way over sacred statues, immense archways and just about everything else that just wasn't designed to sustain the enormity of their bulk. I was told Angelina Jolie shot a movie in this particular temple, she has since vacated the premises, I looked hard.

Back in the moving sofa, next on the agenda was an amalgamation of temples built by a man rather over zealous in his efforts to be remembered, King Jayavarman VII supposedly the greatest king of Angkor. He managed to build eight vast temple masterpieces in his life time, including the gargantuan Angkor Thom which is a monstrous 3km from side to side. What's wrong with writing an autobiography?

I once built a small clay pot in a sink, is that enough for my legacy to be remembered?

So, my journey to see the 7 Wonders of the World has now hit a serious high point. I can now officially tick off the mighty Khmer legend that is the epic Angkor Wat.

At 5am this morning I watched a red Cambodian sun burst through purple clouds to engulf the temple of Angkor Wat in liquid gold. Can something, a moment, so beautiful truly exist? Well now I know. The magnificence of it defies words so unfortunately this is a bad medium to express it. Maybe the pictures will help but I doubt it. As the plump Australian girl sitting behind me aptly put it "This is probably, like, one of those life experiences".