The world is not enough

prabhu ghate | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on September 11, 2015

Work of art: The Karos use red ochre and/or chalk to decorate their bodies -- Shutterstock

In celebration: Tourists on camel back at the famous Singing Sands Mountains in Dunhuang. The picture wastaken druing the 2013 Golden Week, a seven-day national holiday in China -- Reuters   -  REUTERS

By Thumb, Hoofand WheelTravels in theGlobal SouthPrabhu GhateNon-fictionBloomsbury₹299

Brushes with local culture add to the thrill of journeys through Omo Valley, Ethiopia, and Dunhuang, an oasis-town on the edge of Gobi Desert in China

Rounding the Horn (of Africa)

It is ironical that Ethiopia, which in most parts of the country is so unlike the rest of Africa, contains a region which is more defiantly “African” than almost any other on the continent. The lower Omo Valley in the extreme southwest is home to at least two dozen colourful ethnic groups each with their own language. Here, in this sparely populated wilderness, there is little history, and life carries on much as it has for millennia. Our small plane from Addis droned on over a spectacular series of lakes in the rift valley, which stretches south all the way to Mozambique, to land on a grassy airstrip in the regional outpost of Jinka (after the strip had been cleared of a game of football). Most of the seats were taken up by an Ethio-Israeli film crew doing a series for the Ethiopian Jewish, or Falasha, population back in Israel. Jinka must be the world capital for documentary film units racing off to catch it all, before it goes forever. It was good to be surrounded by lush greenery, after the brown, rocky landscape of the north.

The next three days were spent squeezed into the cabin of a Toyota pick-up with Getachew, my guide and Meles, the driver, bouncing along rutted mud tracks for about 300 kilometres. Not too far beyond the horizon lay the tri-junction of Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya. The Mursis, on a patch of high ground in a swampy forest, had got it all worked out. The women ran into the little low huts to insert their famous clay plates into the pouches cut in their lower lips, and don other accoutrement, while the men surrounded us, laying down the rates for everything — parking, group photos, and individual photos, before we could even turn the engine off. They knew we weren’t going to drive 60km back to Jinka. Their chalk-striated torsos bore the traditional marks of scarification indicating prowess in battle, although AK-47s had largely replaced the spears. It was mayhem when we got out, people pulling us in every direction to be photographed. I felt sorry for the less photogenic, who got left out. Getachew said they had tried fixing a very generous rate for the whole village, but it hadn’t worked. Flying visits like mine were the major source of income for the village. Without it, the Mursis would have abandoned this swamp where they practice flood cultivation in the retreating waters, and with it, a way of life. Yet tourism was changing their behaviour too, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I wondered what the answer was — restricted contact to the government and development NGOs and perhaps a few anthropologists to help understand the culture? Is this what the Mursis would want?

We had even worse luck with the Karos, considered the masters of body painting, and great improvisers, who incorporate ball points, nails, and cartridges into their jewellery. We were planning to camp outside their village overlooking a magnificent bend in the Omo River (for a fee of course, and employing them as guards, cooks, and helpers) but the whole village had come running out alerted by our little cloud of dust, and surrounded us before we could park. As we got out, the kids started clamouring for ball pens and chocolates, while the grownups prodded and poked us for money. Getachew tried to humour them and persuade them to give us a little space, if not privacy, but to no avail, since most of them did not understand his Amharic. Meles kept a beady eye on our stuff in the cabin. We soon recognized we would not get a moment’s privacy here, and Meles was lucky to be able to surprise the Karos by making us jump back into the cab on a prearranged signal, revving the engine up to a roar, and doing a full circle as he made a quick getaway. Getachew told me darkly “there is not a single government servant here, no school, no clinic, no one to turn to help if something happens. Well, let’s go and visit the Hamer people, they are very different”. I was saddened at our having to flee, and began feeling even more like a cultural pollutant.

It was a long way back to the main track, and we got stuck in the ooze twice. The locals bargained furiously before lending a hand. Getachew and Meles while trying to work the winch also argued furiously, and would each take me aside for moral support. Getachew said “Meles, he has a psychic problem, he should rush the inclines. You see he has only driven for an NGO.” Both of them pretended not to notice that the tyres were absolutely bald. “You should be able to buy four new ones from the money you have earned from me,” I joked with Getachew. He said “What is the use, they never send the sanctions.” The jeep belonged to a government department of which he was the resident anthropologist, when not freelancing.

The Hamer village of Omorate, with its fenced-in compounds and shaded houses, seemed like Paris when we finally got there, not least because no one took any notice of our arrival. Getachew introduced me to Galti, sitting patiently in a corner of the roadside restaurant. An extremely attractive woman, she was dressed in textbook Hamer fashion, her hair set meticulously into coppery strands with ochre and animal fat, with iron torques around her neck indicating she was married, and a goat skin decorated with cowries and metal rings hanging loosely from her neck, like a bib. She made the models on Fashion TV look like guests at the vicar’s tea-party. Galti offered us a unique tour of her own. We followed her through the corn and jowar fields (the Hamers are agro-pastoralists) until we came to a mango tree where she lit a fire and started roasting corn. Her mother, identically dressed and who looked not a year older, sat down shyly next to us and pulled a yam out of a matka. Then her brother walked out from behind the corn stalks, dressed in a flaming red check, knee length lungi, and a brilliant necklace of turquoise beads. As we left our little picnic I told Galti meant mistake in Hindi, and that her parents had misnamed her.

Witnessing history in China

You have to keep a hawk’s eye on the calendar since train tickets can be booked only ten days in advance. Although I tried to, I couldn’t get a ticket for my first leg along the Silk Road, through the narrow Hexi corridor that used to be China’s only opening to the west, between the ranges that separate Inner Mongolia to the north and mountainous Qinghai to the south. The summer holidays were at their peak, colleges students were going home, and whole Chinese families were setting out to participate in the great “cultural regeneration” movement and re-discover the art treasures, forts, and stretches of Great Wall strung along the Silk Road. Finally, the cadres had bagged all the seats through what we call the VIP quota in India, or so people grumbled. (The man behind the counter had his own interpretation — the government did not want people to visit Xinjiang because of the unrest there. I was surprised sometimes by the outspokenness. A t-shirt I saw, announced, albeit somewhat safely in English, “Anarchy is Key”). So I had to take a flight to the next stop on my own journey west, to Dunhuang, a small laid-back oasis town on the edge of the Gobi Desert and at the foot of a range of perfectly rounded sand dunes, which were a major tourist attraction as the Singing Sands (after the wind that whistled through them and kept them perfectly rounded). More importantly, it was the site of the Mogao caves, one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist arts in the world.

Our small plane landed under brilliant starlight in the cool desert air and I shared a taxi into town with Kevin and Isabel (their English names the Chinese adopt for dealing with foreigners). I was very impressed by the hostel they were staying at (a lot of pine woodwork, unisex dorms consisting of four bunk beds and lockers, very clean common toilets — young Chinese backpackers are hitting the trail in a big way) but anticipating language problems, stuck to the Lonely Planet’s “top choice”, which was the Dune Guesthouse, reached through the fruit orchards at the foot of the dunes. I had lost my phrase book, which was quite comprehensive, and covered even such impossibly optimistic social situations such as being in a position to ask someone “shall we go to my room”. Although I was beginning to get the hang of sentence patterns and the structure of Mandarin, which seemed straightforward enough if you stuck to the basics (it has no tenses, genders or numbers) no one could understand my pronunciation, and I would frequently be cut short with “sorry I don’t speak English”! Although Mandarin is also written in the Roman script (as Pinyin), I still couldn’t get anyone to understand me, except occasionally when I had the word written down before I left, in Devanagari, which replicated the sounds the best.

Kevin and Isabel invited me to dinner at a restaurant packed with tourists that specialized in donkey, the local specialty. Piles of discarded bones grew under the boisterous family groups seated on large round tables. The sweepers would move in as soon as they left. One sees sweepers and cleaners everywhere in China, in buildings, on the streets, in the trains, and they are generally better equipped, better dressed, and more successful than their India counterparts. One of the things the Chinese know about India is that it is plagued with garbage. Kevin also knew that we “respect” monkeys, which I thought was a nice way of putting it. Like many others, they both liked “Three Idiots”. Apparently, Chinese education suffers from the same problems of rote learning as we do. A French engineer working in the Renault factory said he wished his workers had played lego as kids. Kevin was Isabel’s cousin. I rather tactlessly asked Isabel how many siblings she had, forgetting for a moment the One Child Policy, and I thought she looked a little sad when she explained she was single. She was having a hard time getting a visa for further studies abroad, which is something else we have in common. We decided to take a cab the next day to the Mogao caves together.

The huge flow of visitors was as usual very well controlled, but the time spent in the few caves we visited was limited, and most of it was taken up by our guide, a young woman in high heels with a parasol and a lot of costume jewellery, on such matters as how a particular figure of Guanyin (a Bodhisatva, the Chinese “Goddess of Mercy”) had the perfect Mona Lisa smile, and so on. I kicked myself for not carrying my own torch. The roughly 500 caves were sculpted and painted at different times over a period of a thousand years, starting from the 4th century, and I was keen to try to detect the Indian influence in the earlier ones. Interestingly, as diplomatically correct as the Chinese usually are with foreigners, she made no mention of the nationality of the British, French, and other archaeologists (among them prominently, Sir Aurel Stein, crossing over the Khunjerab pass from Kashmir) who between them carted off over 20,000 priceless manuscripts in the early 20th century, including the 4th century Diamond Sutra, which is the first book ever to be printed (in the 9th century). I resolved to learn more about Mogao when I next visited the British museum (and our own National Museum. We need to be careful when urging others to return our treasures!).

(Prabhu Ghate, a researcher and journalist, has also written several books on microfinance and informal finance)

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Published on September 11, 2015
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