Tag Archive: Stories


Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik! “A place that will be at the front your memory for weeks to come”. Dubrovnik! “The pearl of the Adriatic’. One of the most prominent tourist destinations on the Adriatic, one of the many astonishing places on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites… Having read so much about how its dazzling streets would remain in our memories for days to come, we had very high expectations when we eventually arrived. “Eventually” as in it turns out that outside of Turkey, the shortest hitches have become the hardest.

Dubrovnik is lovely, but we have to say, not really up to all the hype. The main problem with the town, in fact, is all the hype. Foreigners (of the moneyed type) are increasingly buying up the Old Town, and while some locals do still live there, the area is clearly tourist orientated. Rather, “tourist-oriented” is an understatement. Everything in the Old Town is focused around tourists – the sights, the restaurants, the pizza slices, everything has a tourist-oriented price tag, and there are hundreds of tourists there ready to buy. So while the place, with its marble streets and tiny back alleys certainly has a charm, you have to muster the ability to see past a lot of stuff to really appreciate it.

We only had one full day there, which is probably enough, and spent the first half on a pebble beach to avoid the height of the daily guided-tourist influx. Similarly to Montenegro, cruise liners seem to think it’s their right to take up the bay and so instead of having a view of the islands, we had a view of eurgh. When you swam, you could even hear the noise of the monstrosity. On the plus side, it was some of the clearest water that Lucie has ever swum in, and she was thrilled when the fish came to dart around in the water next to her.

Split

On the other hand Split, the second largest city in Croatia, exceeded all of our expectations. It is a very lived-in city unlike Dubrovnik which is much more of a holidayed-in city, with an almost perfect old town and vibrant marketplace. One afternoon we took a free walking tour around the Diocletian Palace. The enormous palace is the retirement pad for “one the most legendry Roman emperors” (that’s what the guide claims), Diocletian, who has a rags to riches story. Never destined for more than farming, he managed to claw his way through the ranks to General, and one day was appointed emperor. That’s the story anyway. The longer version has boars and prophecies and hand-to-hand combat, as you would expect from this sort of life story… He was also the first emperor to retire from emper-ing.

One of the answers for why a retired emperor needed such a fortified palace (the complex has a huge wall surrounding it on all sides), is that he was harbouring one of the first textile factories in Europe. As the palace was situated a little south of Salona, which was one of the Roman’s largest and most fortified cities, Split was very well protected, which is one reason why so much of it still stands. Another reason for this is that Diocletian was scared of earthquakes and so ordered that the walls be built in a way which allowed the rocks to move slightly in the case of tremors. This left the palace much better off than the Old Town in Dubrovnik, which was almost entirely wiped out by the 1667 earthquake, one of the worst to date since records began.

In fact, Split remained pretty well protected throughout its earlyish history. Following the decline of the Romans, the Avars and Slavs (or “barbarians”, as our guide called them) attempted to lay claim to it having conquered Salona. However, because of the handy sea by which supplies could enter the town, the attackers were unable to starve the residents into submission as they had elsewhere. So they made Split an offer it couldn’t refuse. Officially, it would be part of their empire, but they would have autonomy. So Split was protected both by the declining Romans and by this new power, yet they had autonomy from both.

It turns out that Diocletian also had a thing against Christians, primarily as he saw himself as a god and they didn’t. He therefore murdered thousands of them – more than any other emperor. After his death, the Christians came to power in the area and got their revenge the only way they could – by turning Diocletian’s mausoleum into a church. Burn. They also destroyed as many artifacts documenting his existence as they possibily could to attempt to erase him from history.

Our guide seemed more interested in the Romans than really any other period, so every other period was much briefer, and the 20th Century was basically covered in a couple of sentences – “and then Yugoslavia…”.

The rest of our time in Split was very similar to that of Kotor and Dubrovnik. Sun, sea, walking and eating great lunches sourced from the local market. We also went to Trogir where we did exactly the same…

Zagreb

Maybe it’s just the fact that we are, by now, kind of tired of sight-seeing and trying to find the interesting parts of otherwise uneventful or uninspiring places, but Zagreb is probably the most boring capital we’ve been to on this trip (other than Pristina which we are trying to forget about). It has lots of galleries, but you have to pay for all of them; plus our CouchHost’s partner was a curator and thus clued-up on this sort of thing, and she had no suggestions to make for us while we were there. Our plan to walk up the mini mountain near the city was thwarted by the weather, so we ended up going to see Pirates of the Carribean 4 in 3D(!), which was truly terrible, following this with a mediocre gypsy swing gig and drinking mediocre croatian beer. Croatia isn’t famous for its beer. Now we know why.

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Animal’s People, by Indra Sinha

Another book review for you – don’t worry, we’ll get back to writing about what we’ve been up to in the next blog…

“This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead is entirely coincidental.” This is one of those standard disclaimers that stops people from suing the author. As is often the case, it isn’t really true when it comes to Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People.

Animal’s People is written as though transcribed from real tapes recorded by its narrator. Its ‘Editor’s Note’ explains that “information about the city of Khaufpur”, where the novel is set, “can be found at http://www.khaufpur.com.” It’s a real website: it looks like any other Indian city’s slightly cheesy site, and it comes complete with photos and contact numbers for governors. Thing is, what khaufpur.com is describing is the city of Bhopal, because that is what Sinha’s novel is really about. Kampani (company), factory, absent lawyers, birth defects, respiratory problems, grief, multiple losses, memories of chillies to the eyes and running desperately and all, this is the fictionalised story of Bhopal.

Eighteen years after That Night, Animal is a young man (“I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one”) bent in half:

feet on tiptoe
head down below
arse en haut
thus do I go

Shortly after the disaster, his spine twisted until he could not stand straight, so now he walks on all fours. We saw that man when we were in New Market recently. His situation is representative of so many people crippled and otherwise affected by the gas leak, and of almost hopeless hopes – he tries to hide the hope that maybe some day he will walk upright. Animal, symbol of the victims of the disaster, is no hapless victim, however. Foul-mouthed, mischievous and frequently distracted by thoughts of sex, Sinha has created an amazing mouthpiece for his tale. Animal’s often scathing view of the humans around him is allowed to also carry a great love and passion for the people of Khaufpur. His ability to hear voices no-one else can hear gives him compassion for people like Ma Franci who is insistent that the “Apokalis” will soon be upon them and can only speak French. Not only that, but it draws you ever deeper into his way of viewing the world, which, while scatological, and while it needs a glossary to explain some of the slang (although some words, like Jamisponding, are left up to the reader to work out – hint, think 007), it has a beautiful poetry to it.

Furthermore, its a celebration of the strength and weaknesses of the people who live in the slum areas here. By addressing himself to the “Eyes” reading his story, and through Sinha’s introduction of an American character, Animal sheds light on many elements of life in Bhopal (sorry, Khaufpur…). It would be silly to say that I now have a greater understanding of life in the bastis, but it has been interesting to apply his logic to what I’ve seen around me for the past three weeks.

Sanjay had taken us to the second, larger waste dump from the Union Carbide factory. By the afternoon, it is a playground for children and pasture for the cows and goats, but in the early morning it is the place that people come to take a dump. This is one of the things into which Animal offers some useful insights –

” ‘You foreigners talk as if the sight of a bum is the worst thing in the world, doesn’t everyone crap?’
‘Not in public, they don’t.’
‘There’s a lot to be said for communal shitting. For a start the camaraderie. Jokes and insults. A chance to discuss things. It’s about the only opportunity you get to unload a piece of your mind. You can bitch and moan about the unfairness of the world. You can spout philosophies. Then there’s the medical benefit. Your stools can be examined by all. You can have many opinions about the state of your bowels, believe me, our people are experts at disease. The rich are condemned to shit alone…’ ”

His views on religion, being in the midst of such a mixture of Muslim, Hindu and smaller traditions, are also interesting –

“If religions were true there wouldn’t be so many of them, there’d be just one for everyone. Of course all say theirs is the only one, fools can’t see this makes even less sense. Suppose people talked of beauty in the same way, how foolish would they sound? Times like this I feel sorry for god’s being torn to pieces like meat fought over by dogs. I, me, mine, that’s what religions are, where’s room for god?”

His cut-the-crap attitude is what guides you through the suspicions, paranoia, trust, love, despair and hope of campaigning for justice in Bhopal.

Read this book. It might break your heart a little bit, but read it.

Visiting the Union Carbide site

Having spent almost a month in India and the majority of that at the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, my thoughts are confused. What strikes me most is the poverty and powerlessness of the people. This may be highly unoriginal, but it is one thing to read about it and another to be surrounded by it. People live in abject poverty. In Bhopal, it is all the worse due to ongoing consequences of the gas leak and Union Carbide’s subsequent negligence.

Last week we went to the Union Carbide site and on our way there and back we walked through the communities who live a throwing distance from source of the greatest industrial disaster ever. A site that 26 years ago leaked 40 tonnes of MIC and Phosgene (better known as Mustard Gas), as well as at least 18 other toxic gases, killing thousands of people. It is impossible not to feel a cocktail of emotions as we walked through the bastis (local communities). On the one hand, you have to have absolute admiration for these people. They continue to fight come what may. But the problem is, they don’t have a choice. They fight, because the alternative would be to die: something which has become all too normal in these areas.

Resting in the shade on the way back – we stupidly decided to go to the factory during the hottest part of the day – we chatted to some local residents. The government states that the communities around the factory now receive “non-contaminated” water. For those that don’t know, Union Carbide dumped all its toxic wastes in its virtual back-garden: in other words, on the doorstep of thousands of people. They claimed this was totally safe as they put what can best be described as a massive tarpaulin under everything. However, unsurprisingly, this did not work and so deadly toxic waste leaked into the soil and groundwater, leading to the solar evaporation pond (a smart way of saying liquid toxic waste pool) now commonly being known as the ‘Death Lake’. The government currently holds a fundamentally contradictory policy, but the important part is that they toe the corporate line, claiming there is nothing wrong with the ground water or soil. They therefore have not attempted in any way (other than by collecting some of it together in a big warehouse on the site) to clear up the toxic mess. Saying this, after mass public pressure they now claim all the communities now receive “non-contaminated” water. It’s called “non-contaminated” rather than “clean” water because the civil and sewage lines often get mixed leading to obvious consequences. How the government can say any of this when they simultaneously claim the water was never contaminated is confusing. However, from talking to the communities we discovered that the claim that “all communities get water” in reality means that they are meant to receive half an hour of “non-contaminated” water every other day. This week they hadn’t received any. As a result, they go to the old groundwater pumps which years ago were painted red by the government to indicate their contamination, and pump for hours to get the poisoned water to drink, cook and wash in.

As the old women were telling us their stories they also asked us what we were doing here. Which was followed by, “What are you going to do about this situation?” What could we say, “write a blog”? “Make a short documentary”? “Just observe your suffering then piss off back home”? Maybe add to that, “Oh, and no thanks, we don’t want that water you’ve just offered us, we don’t want to be sick like you!”

So what set of emotions does one express? Pity? Anger? Astonishment both at the situation and how they continue to survive..?

Our guide, Sanjay, told us a joke as he was taking us around the Union Carbide site. The day before we had all had to go to the Collector’s Office for a dose of Indian bureaucracy (another blog to come). We were on time, but became late due to someone being “helpful” and so Sanjay (one of the few Indians I’ve met who turns up on time) waited outside for us. While there he spoke to the official bureaucrats who laughed at how little he was wearing given it was “only” 25 degrees. They joked that he must have hot blood, being young and all. He responded claiming, “It’s the MIC, it thickens the blood”. Everyone laughed.

He told us this joke shortly before he told us that on December 2nd 1984 he had a mother, father, 3 sisters and 2 brothers. On the 3rd December 1984 he had 1 brother and 1 sister. Now he just has a sister. This type of story is not uncommon. 25,000 people have now died from the leak, so many people you speak to tell us a similar tale…

On the way out of the factory we spoke to the men who are meant to guard the place, but they recognize that given there are numerous holes in the walls, people will come in and graze their cattle, pick up firewood and dry their clothes. They asked us, How had we found it? What did we think?

What could we say? When Sanjay asked us the same question a few days later, I had an answer: Surreal. What can you think when you walk around what is basically a toxic waste dump covered in trees with even a bee hive in the structure of one of the MIC tanks? How can you comprehend that this actually quite calm place had 26 years ago led to the death and suffering of over 100,000 people? Also, why the fuck is it still here? Other than the last question, it distinctly reminded me of Auschwitz. But when the guards asked us this question I did not know what to say.

The guards told us how they had no desire to work there, but they needed a job. They knew they were getting ill because of working there, something their employer (the state) did not recognize, but what were they supposed to do, they needed a job. They told us how they felt helpless to change anything and laughed when Lorraine suggested their employers should come and guard the place instead of them.

My emotions were only made more complicated when we interviewed some of the victims of the gas leak. I asked them if they were angry at Union Carbide and the government. They responded that they couldn’t be angry as it was “God’s will”. Talking to some of the staff here, it seems that this is a common response. What are you meant to do when someone says this? “No, it’s not God you irrational fool. And if it were why would you believe in such a wicked god?” But it’s not their fault they believe this nonsense. Education is for the rich and they are not rich.

Those that are angry burn effigies of Warren Anderson and want him to be hanged. Compensation they claim will not bring back the dead. It will not stop their suffering. In fact, after they have paid off the corrupt middle-men they employ to write their documents because they are illiterate, it might not do anything at all: they are often worse off. One man we interviewed today told us that those responsible should be brought back to Bhopal and be put in front of the victims, who should be allowed to do what they wish to them. The implications were clear.

While we were in Nepal we read/heard quite a few nice stories which we would like to document and share.

A Taxi, a Fence and a Bowl of Ice-Cream
or
How to Empty Your Bank Account in Under 12 Hours

One evening, Ben, a young volunteer, was returning home after an “exerting” night out. So far, the day had gone well, but things were about to change.

Deciding that the distance home was too far for his weary legs, he flagged down a taxi for the 100Rs journey. However, the taxi driver did not think it was a 100Rs journey and insisted on 300. Considering the other option was walking, Ben agreed to this inflated price and off they went.

It was after 45 minutes of what should have been a 10 minute journey that Ben asked the driver if he knew where he was. In a similar fashion to how many Nepalis answer questions, the man waggled his head from side to side.

“Yes yes. No problem.”

Unconvinced, Ben started looking for landmarks and by the time he recognises one he asked to alight here. By this point, Ben’s taxi had gained an extra passenger who seemed to be a friend of the driver.

“500Rs,” demanded the driver.

“Look, its not my fault if you got lost, we agreed 300.”

The man in the back of the taxi, who up to this point had remained silent, leaned forward.

“You pay 1000Rs.”

Feeling like this might be an opportunity for him not to get mugged, Ben reluctantly paid, and walked the rest of the way. First unpleasantry of the night.

Unfortunately, when Ben returned, all the doors and windows, some of which he had deliberately left open, were now locked. This he only discovered after scaling the fence and the building and in the process ripping his trousers. Unpleasantry number 2.

Number 3: having recently moved houses, Ben returned to the empty old one, which he had previously had great success in “breaking” into. But, to Ben’s dismay, the doors had been replaced and the windows had all been locked. He had nowhere to go.

It was now 1am. He collected his thoughts and returned to town in the hope of finding a room. To no avail. All of the reasonably priced places were either full or closed, so Ben turned his sights to more luxurious destinations.

After checking various Ritz-like hotels, Ben was forced towards the 2nd most expensive hotel in the whole of Nepal.

“The only room we have available is the Ambassador’s Suite.”

“How much is that?”

“800 dollars.”

Ben proceeded to give the man a made-up sob story involving girl friends, abandonment and volunteering, and the man at the desk agreed to give him the Suite for just under 200 dollars. Unpleasantry number 4.

Slumping into his 200 dollar bed, Ben had that feeling that we have all had at some point after a night out. He was hungry. So hungry in fact that there was no way he was going to get to sleep without eating. This, he thought, called for room service. A bowl of ice-cream was delivered, which Ben later told us was “remarkably reasonably priced”.

An expensive night…