I’m actually enjoying Covid lockdown. I have the best of both worlds; I’m still going out to work three days a week, and the other days, since I can’t really go anywhere I’ve established a vegetable garden, resurrected my much-loved fruit-bread recipe, and started playing the piano again. I’m extremely fortunate.
But I have been thinking of the people of Sanjay Colony slum in Delhi. I toured the slum back in January this year. It sounds voyeuristic, but the tours are conducted by residents, no photos are allowed, and 80% of the fee goes to Reality Gives, the organisation that runs education programs in Sanjay Colony and the much larger Dharavi in Mumbai (made famous in the movie Slumdog Millionaire). This article describes the total lockdown of Dharavi, home to a million people, but I have not heard what is happening in Sanjay Colony so I can only try to imagine.
Sanjay Colony is home to around 45,000 residents. It is a bustling place with people working in different industries or running shops. Goats roam the outer roads, jumping onto carts, chewing on bits of paper or scraps of food. People seem happy enough on the surface of it, but their existence is precarious. At any time the government could decide to bulldoze their homes to build a new road or some other infrastructure. The forest that grew near the colony was cleared for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
I think of the women I saw, seated on the ground sorting through scraps of fabric from a nearby factory. The fabric is sorted for recycling. These women work out in the open in the blistering Delhi summers and freezing winters, seven days a week for round INR 200 a day. If they can’t work they get no money. I try to put myself in their position but the sheer relentlessness of it makes me feel exhausted and fearful and my mind runs from the thought.
I think of the men working in the printing factory housed in a large, dark, airless shed. We visited in the winter and even then the fumes from the ink were overpowering. Summers must be brutal. The only ventilation was from a tiny window high up on one wall, in which a fan sat still and coated in dust.
As Hema, our guide, led us through the narrow alleyways, where grey-green water ran along drains on either side, she was greeted by everyone. Barbers, bakers, clothing sellers, jewellery sellers, all waved and smiled. Children scooting out of the school gate high-fived her and, after staring curiously at us, ran off. Hema grew up in Sanjay and told us how much she loved always having family around, despite the cramped living space. There was much to envy about the community cohesion in Sanjay. Hema showed us a mosque, a church, and a Hindu temple. She said she celebrates all festivals from Christmas to Eid.
We entered one house and climbed the narrow, brick stairs to the rooftop. From here we looked out on the jumbled collection of houses, clustered together, all rough, red brick, and rusted tin roofs, some with satellite dishes attached. One house had a sink and a toilet cubicle on the roof–a rare luxury. The residents of Sanjay used to have to go to the toilet in the woods, a particularly difficult and often dangerous prospect for women. Now there are clean shower and toilet blocks.
Hema then took us to the health clinic. We pushed open a glass door and entered a room the size of my bathroom. Seating for about five people was arranged along the walls before the counter, behind which sat the doctor. He grew up in the slum and had been working there for the past twenty-two years. There was a bed on a raised bench against the far wall with a curtain that could be pulled across and a couple of cabinets full of medicine. As we sat chatting with the doctor a patient came in and the consultation commenced at once with all of us sitting there. Fortunately for the patient we didn’t understand Hindi.
If Sanjay Colony is in similar lockdown to Dharavi then all of this activity must now be silent as the inhabitants sit in their cramped spaces and wait for the virus to pass. In Dharavi, meals are being delivered to most inhabitants, so I can only assume (and hope) the same is happening in Sanjay Colony.
So when I catch myself thinking life is much easier and more serene for me in lockdown I remind myself of Hema and her family and friends and hope for their sake things return to normal as soon as possible
What I didn’t realise when I set out for Lo Manthang was that I would be visiting Tibet. I may have read that Upper Mustang was culturally Tibetan, that they speak a dialect of Tibetan, and practice Tibetan Buddhism, but it was only visiting the monasteries day after day, hearing their low chanting from somewhere in the village, and being blasted out of bed at six am by horns and clashing cymbals that really brought home that this place was not Nepalese. But being in Nepal is what has saved this small pocket from the Chinese.
I think it was when I showed my photos of Mustang to our guide in Tibet (on the side of a mountain, far from the ears and eyes of anyone else, in one of the few places not under constant surveillance by cameras) and he exclaimed, “This is Tibet!” that I fully realised.
No doubt Mustang, so close to the Tibetan border (Lo Manthang is just 20kms), is under some influence from China. People report being forced to remove pictures of the Dalai Lama in exchange for food; there are rumours of Chinese spies; the Chinese installed a (now defunct) solar plant in 2015. But these Tibetans are still free to practice their religion and to travel because they are Nepalese citizens.
So that original journey, to see the mediaeval city of Lo Manthang, has morphed into an exploration of Tibet, or “Tibetaness” and the question that keeps coming to mind is: what is the real Tibet? Is it a place or is it an ideal existing in the hearts of those who identify as Tibetan or who practice Tibetan buddhism and venerate the Dalai Lama?
Having seen how Tibetan’s must live in their country after “liberation” by the Chinese, constantly under surveillance, being unable to trust anyone, even other Tibetans, with no access to the internet, unable to obtain passports, and severely restricted in their movement within Tibet, I decided I needed to see what life is like for those who have managed to escape. So two weeks ago I went to Dharamsala to witness the main Tibetan community in exile.
Unfortunately, it was a short visit; I plan to return and spend some time, but I was able to speak to some about their experience of leaving Tibet and how they felt about their country. I asked the young men working in the restaurant at my hotel whether they were born in Dharamsala or came from Tibet. All of them told me they had fled at varying times, more then ten years before, taking the treacherous journey across the mountains. I asked them if they wished they could go home. I thought they looked nervous when I asked this. Maybe it was my imagination, but having come from somewhere where anyone can dob you in to the Chinese I expect paranoia is hardwired. They said no. They were happier in Dharamsala. Some were hoping to move on to other countries.
One man told me how he hid in his uncle’s truck. His uncle was a business man, able to cross the Nepalese border. The man was just five. He told me he was happy in Dharamsala too. I asked whether if the Chinese left Tibet whether the Tibetans would still want to return. He said that of course this was “the dream” but they aren’t naive enough to expect this to happen, certainly not in their lifetime.
I met with a man named Yeshe Lhundup, who founded Tibet World, an organisation that provides education to Tibetans in Dharamsala in languages and various skills like computer programming and film-making. It provides a sense of purpose and community to those who have fled and helps them settle into the Tibet in exile.
Yeshe fled Tibet in the late ‘90s, walking across the Himalayas with a group. He went back to Tibet couple of years ago to visit his family (everyone I spoke to has left family behind in Tibet). I asked him if this wasn’t risky. He said the Chinese are allowing anyone who has been gone for 18 years to return in safety, but he knew there was a risk he could be detained. He kept to his village, avoiding Lhasa, but told me of his surprise at how the Chinese police constantly patrolled the village, stopping to question him and two friends talking in the street. He said he was surprised he wasn’t detained, having been part of protests before he left, and had written anti-Chinese content. I asked Yeshe if he was happy in Dharamsala. “It is an oasis,” he said. He missed his country and his family, but he too was realistic, saying, “We have lost our country. But there is hope,” which is what our Tibetan guide told me when I asked him about the future of Tibet. I asked Yeshe what he thought would happen when the Dalai Lama died. He agreed things would then become uncertain.
The walls of the hotel where I stayed in Macleodganj were covered in scenes from Tibet. They are the idyllic Tibet: the muscled nomad leading his wife across a stream as she rides a yak, surrounded by mountains; the Potala palace as it was before it became surrounded by roads and buildings and Chinese monuments. And without the Chinese flag perched aloft.
Perhaps this is the only Tibet that will survive, an idealised version, gone forever.
Lately I’ve been hating my job. Yesterday I sat and stared at my computer wondering how with a Masters Degree I had ended up with a crappy call-centre job? Hell, when I was back in high school I wanted to be a sound engineer! But when I approached my mother with the idea she said flat out ‘No!’. Her idea? Come home (from boarding school) and get a job in the bank. Ugh! Studies in English and French instead. (My mother openly told people she and my father hoped I’d find a husband at university, someone to take me off their hands finally. She said this in front of me. I remember being surprised. Was I not capable of looking after myself? I hadn’t realised.)
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I set off on my first travel adventure when I was three. I blame my sisters for reading and re-reading to me a book about a kitten that went off to see the world. At the age of three I clearly didn’t see a problem. If it was good enough for the kitten… The danger of books!
Now I feel a similar desire to flee. My next trip is planned for February but it’s only for two weeks then I’ll be back sitting in front of that computer feeling defeated. Why don’t I just take off? I can afford it. But there are those ties that bind: my husband, my sons, my ageing dog, even to a tiny extent my immortal chicken (Sylvia is 14 and still going strong!).
My husband is finishing up at his job soon and is planning on an Eat, Drink, Walk adventure on his own for a month. How stupid that until yesterday it had never occurred to me to do the same, minus the walking. (Do I still believe what my mother said?) Eat, Drink, Write but where? If only I could take dog and chicken with me. We could all set off to see the world.
When I first saw the Potala Palace I cried; firstly because I had long dreamed of making the high-altitude train journey to Lhasa and seeing the Potala, and secondly because it was obvious Lhasa is rapidly being turned into another Chinese city, replete with identical high-rise apartment blocks.
We were met at the station by our guide who greeted us with “Tashi Delek!” and the traditional silk katas, which he draped around our necks. Close by was a Chinese soldier armed with a large rifle. Once in the car we were told that we would see many police and soldiers on the streets of Lhasa but that we must not photograph them. Sure enough on the corner where we stopped and were led to our hotel, several police with full riot gear ready to go stood surrounded by Tibetans going about their business. In front of the stony-faced police, smiling Tibetan faces said, “Welcome to Lhasa!”
We followed our guide through the narrow winding streets of what is known as the Tibetan area, as though the whole city weren’t Tibetan. It is the original part of Lhasa and surrounds the most holy of Tibetan Buddhism’s monasteries, the Jokhang. Women in traditional Tibetan dress–a wrap-around pinafore over a blouse and with a colourful striped apron at the front– and some men wearing the traditional Chuba–like an over-sized dressing gown worn with an arm in only one sleeve–walked in a never-ending stream fingering their prayer beads and murmuring prayers. At each corner a camera watched them.
A welcome lunch was provided in the dining room after we stowed our bags and had time to catch our breath. My head was swimming after the jump from 2200m in Xining to 3800m. We were advised to rest that day and not to shower to give ourselves time to adjust. I didn’t need any encouragement to rest although I did try to shower and found the hot water refusing to arrive so gave up.
As we sat at lunch two well-dressed Chinese women came in. My first thought was that they were office workers on their lunch break; they didn’t look like tourists. But it occurred to me that it was strange that such women would come for lunch in a boutique hotel dining room, tucked away in the Tibetan area. I looked at the man behind the bar and saw him looking at them. His face was serious. There was a young couple also having lunch. They looked like backpackers. The barman didn’t stare at them. So my next unsettling thought was, were these plain-clothes police?
And so began nine days of guarded conversation and careful photography. The oppression of constant surveillance cowed my usually adventurous husband. On every other trip we’ve done he strides out early in the morning, often before I’m awake, to explore the area and get his bearings. He made one furtive foray that afternoon and afterwards was too afraid. He became sick and twitched nervously every time I took my phone out to take a picture in the street.
I, on the other hand, was not the slightest bit afraid. I was instead angry and sad that people as gentle as the Tibetans obviously were, had to live this way and that I too had to be intimidated into pretending that China isn’t systematically undermining Tibetan culture. It continues to make me angry because for fear of endangering our guide, I still can’t speak freely.
What I can say was that the Dalai Lama is conspicuous by his total absence in conversation and by being the only high lama whose picture is never seen. Photos of the previous, 13th Dalai Lama, are displayed in the monasteries, as are the Karmapa Lama and controversial, Chinese appointed 11th Panchen Lama, but the only reference to the present Dalai Lama was when we saw what were once his living quarters in the Potala.
I saw the ruins of old houses next to where new buildings were going up. People picked through the rubble. We drove past the new “education precinct” where boarding schools are being built for Tibetan children from other areas of Tibet. Here they will be educated away from their families, taught only in Mandarin from as young as grade three. An enormous portrait of Xi Jinping greets the students at the entrances.
At each entrance to the Barkor, the area that surrounds the Jokhang, police are stationed. All bags must be screened and once we had to produce our passports and were asked which hotel we were staying in. The Tibetans have to produce their ID cards and were frequently questioned. Once inside you step into the clockwise current that sweeps around the monastery, clockwise being the traditional, respectful direction. Shops and restaurants line both sides so you can break off to do some browsing. Police are stationed at regular points and in the square outside the entrance to the Jokhang are firefighters sitting ready. There have been several self-immolations by monks in protest against Chinese controls. Lighters and matches are forbidden in the Barkor.
The Tibetans ignore the police in riot gear, the armoured vehicles, the soldiers marching in formation, and continue in their clockwise pilgrimage. Some perform prostrations as they go, lying face down, getting up, walking a couple of paces, then lying face down again. They wear knee pads and blocks on their hands. The police look on, faces impassive.
As wonderful as it was to go inside the Potala and the Jokhang and wander the narrow streets of the Tibetan area, it was hard to enjoy being in Lhasa, and even as we journeyed south, where the surveillance was only marginally less (we had a camera in our car!) we could never relax and began longing for escape across the border to Nepal, like so many Tibetans who will never have that opportunity. It was like an inevitable punctuation to the end of our trip when our China Lonely Planet guide was confiscated at the border. We bought it in Australia and had used it throughout our three weeks in China but they took it at journey’s end. No books, no maps to be taken out. Paranoia and stupidity combined.
Nevermind. As we walked across the bridge to Nepal, which can’t afford bag screening machines so instead has a quick feel of your bags outside a rough hut, and climbed into a jeep for the bone-jarring ride on the roughest road imaginable to Kathmandu, we still had our Tibet Lonely Planet guides and Pocket Maps stored in our iPads.
I confess I don’t know what to think about Julian Assange. Clearly the Ecuadorians were as tired of him as anyone would be of a house guest who had overstayed their welcome by some six years. Is he just a narcissist as the judge claimed, or is he truly a martyr to free speech?
I’m only thinking about this as I am about to undertake a journey about which I plan to write but about which I am loathe to publish anything beforehand lest it jeopardise the trip. We’ve already had to engage in subterfuge to get our visas so we can then gain permits to access where we really want to go. In one of the books I have read about the place, the writer describes his experience:
As I jotted thoughts into a small black notebook, another official approached.
“What are you writing about?” he asked.
“It’s just my travel journal,” I explained, and smiled weakly.
“Are you writing notes about the train?” he pressed. “It would be better if you did not write while on the train.” He stood there until I closed my book and tucked it away…
Great. So I’m wondering whether I will have to just remember everything as I’m travelling and then get it down once the coast is clear.
I would never have pictured myself as a subversive writer, but to write is often an act of subversion. Writers, particularly non-fiction writers, write to find the truth. About people, about places, about motives, about events. Dervla Murphy is not welcome in Israel because of her books about her time with the Palestinians (A Month by the Sea and Between River and Sea). She spent a month in Gaza and several months in the West Bank. She was seeking the truth about the daily lives of the Palestinians. She was so disturbed by what she experienced that for a long time after she came home to Ireland she couldn’t bring herself to write about it. Fortunately her friends encouraged her to do so and naturally it upset the Israeli government.
I have a standing invitation from a friend to visit with her husband’s family in Iran. I would love to do this, but would then have to sacrifice never being allowed into the US again. Which is hardly an enormous sacrifice, but I know some time in the future I will want to return to New York at least.
And unfortunately Freya Stark’s (rather politically incorrect now) tactic when travelling where she knew she shouldn’t, wouldn’t work as well now as it did in the 1920s:
The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.
In her later years, Dervla would plan to blame the onset of dementia if she were caught straying into forbidden territory. I don’t think I’m quite old enough for that one.
I’ll be setting off in five weeks. People ask me if I’m excited about my trip. I’m not. But I am looking forward to the challenge. And to eventually writing about it.
In honour of International Women’s Day I have decided to write something about the women I most envy: the explorers.
Remember learning about Magellan? Columbus? Sturt? Flinders? Cook? The thing they had most in common wasn’t only that they explored the world, it was that they all had penises. And having penises also gave them the means to embark on their expeditions because they had wives at home to take care of all that meaningless stuff, like raising children, cooking food, and making sure the house wasn’t coated in dust or covered in mould.
Meanwhile, some very fearless women were undertaking their own journeys.
The first female explorer I heard of was Freya Stark, and that was only because she was British and I was in London at the time of her death in 1993 at the age of 100. At the time I was surprised I’d never heard of her before and the thing I remember being most reported about her was not so much her travels, but the fact that she’d been almost completely scalped at the age of 13 when her hair was caught in a machine.
I feel some affinity for Freya because, like me, she was a sickly child and therefore, like me, did a lot of reading. After reading One Thousand and One Nights she became obsessed with the Middle East and spent her life until her retirement in the ’70s travelling in the region on and off.
I have a similar obsession with the Arctic after reading about Iceland as a teenager. But unlike Freya I have not learned Icelandic or any other Scandinavian, Russian, or Inuit language. I can however say sorry in Danish and Swedish (Unskyld and Förlåt) and now automatically reply with Tak and Ja because I watch too much Scandi Noir. (Too much? Not possible!)
Gertrude Stein similarly spent the early part of the 20th Century wandering about in the Middle East. I read on Wikipedia that “History was one of the few subjects women were allowed to study [at Oxford], due to the many restrictions imposed on them at the time” and that “she was the first woman to graduate from Modern History with first class honours”. A terrible movie was made about her, starring Nicole Kidman. Pretty sure Gertrude didn’t emerge from the desert with flawless skin and clean, matching outfits, but I do hope she spent her evenings sitting at a table writing by candle-light with a pen dipped in ink.
My great heroine, though, is the Irish explorer and writer Dervla Murphy. Dervla was pulled out of school at the age of 14 to come home and look after her mother who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. She continued to care for her, drinking a lot of whisky and chain-smoking to cope, until her mother died. By then Dervla was 31. She closed up the house, got herself a gun, and got on her bike and rode. All the way from Dublin to India. For the next 50 years she travelled by bike, on foot, on mule, with and without her daughter, and wrote 26 books. Her last Between River and Sea about her time living in the West Bank in Palestine, was published in 2015. She resigned herself, at the age of 84, to staying put. Since a hip replacement she can no longer ride a bike, she used to love swimming but now her shoulder is no good, and all those cigarettes have given her emphysema. Still, 84!
Many of the places these fearless women travelled are no longer accessible because the inhabitants are all fighting with each other. I want to go to Timbuktu. The official advice says Do Not Travel, the Lonely Planet says Mali is great but not safe to travel there at the moment, and you can’t get travel insurance (as though any of those women ever did). I actually called a guy named Phil Paoletta who runs Postcards from Timbuktu in Mali’s capital, Bamako. He told me you can’t get near Timbuktu; the soldiers will turn you around if you try. He did however suggest stowing away in a boat on the Niger river. Yeah, that’d work.
So for now I must content myself with my previous–rather pale in comparison–expeditions to Lo Manthang and the Arctic Tundra, (Inuvik! You’re welcome kids!) and look toward my next journeys into the somewhat unknown. If only, like Dervla, I could happily sleep in a puddle of freezing water!
Yesterday, I spoke to a client who casually mentioned she used to be a lawyer.
“At the age of 70,” she told me proudly, “after completing my eighth degree, I was admitted to the Supreme Court as a solicitor.”
“You must love studying,” I said.
“Well it’s better than housework,” she replied. She had gone on to practice for six years before retiring.
I thought of my own neglected house, and the tumbleweed of dust and fully formed cobwebs clinging to the corners. I, too, have better things to do than housework.
Such people are inspiring to those of us who were too busy working and raising children in our younger years to achieve other things. I marvel at anyone who is able to write and wrangle a family. Raising three children took all of my energy at the time.
A character in a book I’m currently reading—Mallachy Tallack’s The Valley at the Centre of the World—talks about growing older and how looking back starts to take the place of looking forward. I don’t like the thought that you stop having things to look forward to. Perhaps you do, but they just grow smaller.
My mother gave up at the age of about 70. She decided that she’d lived her biblically prescribed “three score and ten years” and said No to every opportunity that came along after that. “My world is finished,” she would say when we suggested she try something new. My father, on the other hand, retired at 80, bought himself a computer and found someone to teach him how to use it. He also took a flight down to Antarctica. Had my mother not been such a wet blanket, they could have had great adventures. They had money and good health, but my mother simply sat down and said No to everything.
When we were in Bali recently, I found myself thinking often of my father. Like me, he loved seeing and learning new things. He would have loved to come to Bali. If he ever saw someone interesting in the street, he would go up and talk to them. He told me about a time when he and my mother were in Moscow. He saw a queue of people so he stood on the end to see what they were waiting for. Ice cream. So he bought one too.
It was my father who bought the set of beautiful encyclopaedias called The World and Its People that I used to pore over, sitting on the cool linoleum in his office. It was in those I first read about Iceland, leading to an obsession that finally saw me stand on the streets of Reykjavik in 1993, long before the hordes of tourists that now invade. I wonder what my father would have made of my travels in Nepal. Sadly, he had died before I went there. My mother’s only two questions were “What do they drink in Nepal?” and, “When are you going to get over going to these places?”
In May I am travelling to China for the first time. Another adventure. I have many others in mind after that. My hero, good old Dervla Murphy, published her last travel book in 2015 at the tender age of 84. She has finally accepted gracefully that her health is not strong enough for further travels, but having published twenty-six travel books in fifty-three years, I think she’s earned her retirement.
I’m starting a bit later but I have a good few years left yet.
It’s the wet season here in Bali and every day we get some rain, either a light shower or a torrential downpour. Water rushes in the deep gorge below our villa, lulling us to sleep at night, along with the frogs and the geckos. This morning I woke up with something wet on my neck: a small worm. I don’t know how it got into my bed.
Even now, as I sit in this cafe near a bridge I can hear the water rushing below. It makes me forget how dry everything is at home. Temperatures are soaring everywhere and fires burn in Tasmania of all places. The farm animal sanctuary near home is having to buy in feed. And my old wooden Queenslander sits empty. I know a fire will eventually consume it. As much as I love it and the bush that surrounds it, I know one hot, dry day, the bush will turn angry and take my home.
But here, in this tropical paradise, where everything is green and lush, it’s easy to forget. Which is partly why we go on holiday isn’t it? To remove ourselves from the mundanity of daily life and pretend for a while there is nothing to worry about. But that removal also allows one to gain some perspective. Far from the distractions of work, housework, animals, cooking, the important things are able to rise to the surface and remind us why they are important.
The day before I left to go on holiday, I did a workshop at the Queensland Writer’s Centre about making a writing plan for the year and sticking to it. I thought leaving home straight after might make me lose resolve, but it has given me the perspective I needed. I won’t be happy while I don’t move forward with my writing and the only way to do that is to commit to making it a priority.
So if I gain nothing else from my time in this beautiful place, it will be a renewed sense of commitment to the things most important to me. Just as the downpour at the end of a hot, humid day cleanses everything to start anew, this holiday will make me fresh to take on the writing challenges I have set myself for the year.
Next morning while Susan took the boys out for one final dog-sled, Neville and I drove into town for a look around. We ordered coffee in Inuvik’s only cafe, Cafe on Mackenzie, and sat looking out at the dark street. The full moon shone bright above the lights strung across the main street spelling out Merry Christmas, while a shooting star hung above a sign flashing first 10:54 then -18C. Car headlights lit up the white road. People, hunched under heavy clothing hurried between cars and buildings. It was the best coffee we’d had in Canada so far and I told the man behind the counter. He smiled and looked away.
In the silent gift shop next door I looked over the beautifully carved soapstone sculptures. Forbidden to touch the delicate stone, I had to ask the assistant to pick up each one so I could get a closer look. If I made a comment she replied with, “Mmhmm,” but gave me no information other than the price.
“Do people go crazy here in the winter?” I asked.
“They’re used to it,” she replied.
“What do they do?”
“Some people go up to their cabins and go hunting. Do you want these gift-wrapped?”
On our first day, when we dashed into town to find lunch, we sat down on the hard plastic seats in the eating area with our KFC wraps while the locals around us gave us mildly curious sideways glances. In the post office, I asked the man behind the counter how much to send a postcard to Australia.
“One dollar,” he answered with the barest hint of a smile.
Walking around Inuvik it was as though I were followed by a small child who, tugging at my clothing, kept asking, But why are the shops open at night-time? It’s not night-time, I told it, over and over.
But it did feel like I was in a post office at night, and now, having posted my card I had to go back out into the dark. No one wants to be outside in the dark. We want to be inside, where it’s light and warm. Shelter is the only thing that can protect us from the air. But it’s not actually the shelter, but the heat inside it. If this were to shut down, that air would slowly but surely seep in through the pores of the building and find those huddled inside. Perhaps it is this that takes everyone’s attention. Perhaps it’s not that they’re unfriendly so much as distracted. If you were trapped in a building under siege, you would have no time for pleasantries. Pleasantries belong in comfort and ease, two things that cannot exist for long in an Arctic winter.
Everyone seemed drawn in on themselves and I wondered if they were only like this in winter. “Not the cold but the oppression” is how Barry Lopez describes it in his book, Arctic Dreams. Warmth and light draw people out of their houses and out of themselves, but that lethal cold, I felt, and the instinct to withdraw when the dark of night descends kept the people of Inuvik turned inwards. I wondered whether if I returned at the height of summer, when there is no night, people would be more open and friendly.
“We don’t sleep much and get all pumped up on adrenalin,” Susan told us excitedly, about the days of endless sunshine.
That sounded to me like some other kind of hell.
Before going back to the Chalet, we drove down to the Ice Road for another look in the now dim light. High above the frozen water-line sat a ship. It was once used in seismic data collection as part of research into the feasibility of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean. Since 1990 she has sat beached above the banks of the Mackenzie river and Ben, one of the volunteers at the Chalet, told us in the summer it is known as being a notorious crack den. He also told us that Inuvik had the highest rate of drug and alcohol abuse per capita in Canada. I couldn’t find statistics to back this up but the fact that in tiny Tuktoyaktuk (Pop: about 950), on the coast at the end of the Ice Road, there is a centre where people can find help for alcohol abuse, speaks of a people desperate for escape. Suicide rates are higher than in southern parts of Canada as are rates of smoking and teenage pregnancy. The findings of a government committee into the health of Canadian youth in the north found “Substance abuse problems in [these] communities are deeply rooted and of long standing. People are beset with feelings of hopelessness, despair and impotent rage. From this comes violence, suicide and sexual abuse.”
As we waited at the airport we watched two police officers in flack jackets shepherd two men in handcuffs onto a plane. As we flew out, I looked down on the chain of frozen lakes and rivers and wondered what could make me return.
Before we left for the cabin, I’d asked Susan about going snowmobiling as the boys were keen to have a go.
“Well, we could snowmobile up to the tundra to see the reindeer herd if you like,” she said in her southern drawl.
And so at midday next day, nine of us, our family of five, volunteers Ben and Hans, Susan and Bjorn, set off on snowmobiles down the road and onto the ice road. Featured in a season of the TV show, Ice Road Truckers, the Inuvik ice road is the Mackenzie River. It freezes over in October and is then groomed and maintained for vehicles to drive on it up to the Arctic Ocean. It was in its final year of operation when we were there as a land road had been almost completed that would provide access to the coast year-round.
I found the snowmobiling hard from the outset. I’d never even ridden a motorbike before. It was pretty simple, just hold the throttle down to go, press harder to go faster, but the ground was hard and rough, and at times I bumped so hard I feared I’d fall off and I had to go fast to keep up. Although Susan stopped at intervals to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone, I still feared being left behind and getting lost. At first I was right behind her, but when we rode down onto the ice road, which was much wider, the others were able to get ahead of me. The constant noise of the engine meant you could hear nothing else, I was breathing fumes from the exhaust at my left foot the whole time, and it was cold. It was bitterly cold. The exhaust outlet happily kept my left foot warm, but that vicious cold bit hard at the rest of my extremities. Despite the hand and foot warmers, the thick socks, gloves, mukluks, and beaver fir mitts, they still rapidly grew cold. The thumb of my right hand, stuck out on its own, pressed against the throttle, became painful and then went numb. I tried to endure it but just couldn’t and signalled for help. Hans ran up and we changed gloves, him giving me his warmer inner glove and and extra hand warmer which he told me to shove into the thumb of my glove, right against the skin. That worked, but the constant worry about my fingers and toes would not leave me.
It would take two hours to get to our destination, we’d stop for lunch there, and then two hours back; we’d be out for about five hours in -30 degrees. I wanted to just relax and enjoy the experience, it was once in a lifetime, something I’d always wanted to do, but the anxiety wouldn’t let me. After about an hour, we stopped on a lake to gather everyone together. By this point I was desperate for the toilet.
“How much further, Susan?” I asked.
“We’re just over half-way,” she replied.
“I really need the toilet,” I said. I got the only reply I expected.
“Well your gonna have to just take off whatever clothes you need to and squat down behind the last snow-mobile.”
The others drove off the lake and up onto higher ground leaving Neville and I alone. He helped me pull off my thin wind-cheater, heavy coat, and down jacket, so I could then undo my overalls, pull them down and expose my bare arse to the frigid Arctic air. My yellow piss drilled a hole in the ice next to my snow-mobile and I laughed at the thought that it would stay there now for several months. Then it was back on with the layers and we joined the others.
The snow-coated trees gave way to stunted snow-coated bushes which grew more and more stunted until the landscape opened out in one breathtaking 360 degree expanse of ice right to the horizon in every direction. We stopped our snowmobiles and wandered, turning our heads from the tiny full moon hanging just above one horizon, to the hard orange edge of the sun just above the opposite one. Olav told us this was a mirage, the sun reflecting off ice crystals in the air, cruelly teasing. The sun had disappeared below the horizon two weeks ago; it wouldn’t return for another two. At intervals across the expanse, fish had been pushed tail down into mounds of snow, frozen markers to show the way, and we now followed these, pushing on to find the reindeer.
After a short time we came across a small cabin with smoke pouring from its chimney. I hoped we were stopping here so we could go in to thaw out, but we just sat waiting on our snowmobiles while Susan disappeared. This, it turned out, was the reindeer herders’ hut where they live some of the time. Susan had gone to ask them where the reindeer were. She eventually reappeared, remounted her vehicle, and we were off again.
The light had already begun to dim when we came up a rise to see a vast grey blur in the distance, a thin fog hanging above it. 3000 reindeer huddled in a mass, grazing on the straggly bits of snow-covered growth. They are wild, but the herders protect them from bears and arctic foxes in exchange for their meat which is sold in Inuvik. As we sat huddled around the fire that Bjorn had hastily and skilfully conjured on the ice, one of the herders rode up on a snowmobile, a rifle slung over his shoulder. Susan introduced us as her visitors from Australia who’d recently come from 30 degrees above zero.
“You’re lucky there’s no wind today,” the herder said with a short laugh. “Wind is cold.”
As the cold seeped up through the reindeer pelt I was sitting on, through five thick layers of clothing, and frigid air poked at every part of me that faced away from the fire, my mind stalled trying to imagine the cold being colder, tried to imagine what it would be like to be out there in a polar wind. And leaving us with that thought, the herder sped off down to the reindeer and we soon heard, one, two, three, four cracks of the rifle.
Susan had packed several toasting irons with cheese and tomato sandwiches and we sat toasting these over the roaring fire. She then handed out paper cups and produced a thermos of hot chocolate. And it would have, should have been, cosy, all huddled around the fire with our hot lunch, but the light was fading fast and the cold pressed at my back and all I could think was that I still had to survive, with all fingers and toes intact, the two-hour ride back to the Chalet. Having finished eating, Susan stretched herself out by the fire and smiled.
“Couldn’t you just lay here for hours?”
By the time we reached the herder’s cabin again it was completely dark. Again we stopped while Susan disappeared. A small pile of severed forelegs lay on a patch of bloody snow; Susan had gone to ask the herders if she could have them for the dogs. I watched the smoke still pouring from the cabin chimney and felt like crying.
When I saw the lights of Inuvik in the distance I thanked God that we were almost there, but we rode on and on. Finally we rode down and onto the ice road where Susan stopped everyone and hopping off her snowmobile indicated that we should line up next to each other. She walked up and spoke to each of us in turn so she could be heard over the engines.
“We’re gonna be kids again,” she said with glee.
And remounting her snowmobile, she dropped her hand and we were off and racing. I pressed my thumb as hard as I could on the throttle, more because I just wanted it to end than out of any desire to win, but I was quickly left behind. As we approached the turn off I slowed to make the corner. The others had already ridden up the slope and were stopped at the top. As I went to ride up and join them, my snowmobile stopped, and no matter how hard I revved it, it couldn’t gain any traction on the ice. I waved my hand to signal that I needed help. No one moved. I went to get off the vehicle so I could walk up to them, but as soon as my foot touched the ground it started to slide out from under me. I sat back on the snowmobile and waved both hands furiously. Still no reaction. Then they all remounted their snowmobiles. I screamed at the top of my lungs. It was like in dreams when you’re trying as hard as you can to call out or stop something and you just can’t. And then they were gone, and I was left sitting in the dark, completely alone.
I turned to look behind me and up and down the ice road; all was still. I crossed my arms on the handle bars and rested my head on them. “They’ll come soon,” I thought, but seconds had become hours and no one came. I felt myself shrinking as the dark and cold pressed in on all sides. Then a small truck came driving down the ice road and, to my horror, turned to drive up our road. I thought they wouldn’t see me and I’d be hit. I gave the snowmobile another vicious rev, but it wouldn’t move. The truck pulled up alongside me and a man got out. “I’m stuck,” I said redundantly, almost apologetically. And as the man was trying to push the snowmobile forward, the gang reappeared. Bjorn strode down and taking hold of the vehicle, yanked it hard to the side. Then he indicated I should ride back, circle around and then gun it up the slope. I did and roared across the ice and up onto the road speeding faster than I had all day, turned into the Chalet, pulled up next to the others and killed the engine. Then I climbed off, stamped up to my husband and shoved him as hard as I could in the chest before running inside and slamming the door. It was petulant, it was unreasonable, it was embarrassing and it was an overreaction to what was probably not even five minutes left sitting there, but the tension of those hours of trying to stay warm, trying to keep up, sheer exhaustion, and, I suspect, a primordial sense of vulnerability in such a hostile environment, bubbled over and my poor husband became the target. Because of the headlights on the snowmobile they couldn’t see me waving, and the noise of the engines meant they couldn’t hear me screaming, he tried to explain, over and over.
After much swearing, crying and recriminations that no amount of reassurance from the bewildered man could stem, I calmed down enough to realise that what I really needed was a drink, and we set off for town in silence.