From ill-advised dips in volcanic lakes to dis-pleasure cruises on whaleboats, Neil has suffered for his art. Check out some of his yarns here.


For the archived blog of Neil's Afghan trip click here

Thaipusam scene from The Ink Bridge

(inspired by events) Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, 1984

This scene takes place after Omed meets Puravi, the Indian taxi driver. They join Puravi's wife, Ambuvali, at the Thaipusam festival on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The scene was deleted from the novel as it was considered a little long and irrelevant to the storyline but it is a favourite of mine because is so closely follows my own experience as a wide-eyed eighteen year-old at this incredible Hindu festival in 1984. Photos are by Derek Haught a fellow student at the International School of Kuala Lumpur.

Ambuvali took Omed's arm. He could feel her nails as she pulled him back. He was drenched in sweat and the clouds of thick camphor and the sour smell of bodies writhing in the dark. The man was barely human. A monkey with his tongue split open by a knife and thick rinds of blood darting into the crowd. Vel… vel… vel… vel… He leapt, his eyes were wide, twitching, his teeth bared, smeared with blood. Vel… vel…Behind him, the lights strung into the hillside and the weaving line of people rising to the cave. Vel… vel…vel…

            'Hanuman, the monkey god,' whispered Ambuvali into Omed's ear. 'He is possessed.'

            Omed fell backward over torn husks of coconuts. Ambuvali laughed. 'It is okay. He is a man.'

            But Omed was not sure. The way his head swivelled like a monkey's. And the blood, the thickness of it and how it came in ropes from his thin pink tongue.

 

Hanuman Baba. Photo by Derek Haught 

            'He is a man.' Ambuvali shook Omed by the shoulders. 'He is showing off only. Do not be misunderstanding. These are the true ones.' She pointed to the rows of devotees with their milk jugs, some with their tongues pierced with small silver spears, some with the grand kavadis chained to their bodies, others with nests of limes hanging by fishhooks from their backs. They were swarming up from the river, their eyes fixed on black mouth of the cave two hundred and seventy-two steps away.


Pilgrims swarming up the 272 steps to the Cave Temple

Photo by Derek Haught 

            'Look, there is Puravi.' Omed followed the pink glow of her nail to a man chained to a massive kavadi - a tower of beaten sheet metal, feathers and small brass bells. Each chain swung down to Puravi's back or chest and was fixed there by a small hook. His cheeks were pierced by a thick metal spear tipped with the heart shaped head Omed had first seen on the statue in his taxi. His neck was draped with strings of beads.

 

Devotee with hooks and chains. Photo by Derek Haught 

            Omed touched his arm but he did not look at him. The chanting got louder, vel…vel…vel…vel…vel…Omed swallowed thick gasps of camphor smoke. Puravi moved with the crowd towards the steps.

            'Come,' said Ambuvali. Her hand on Omed's arm again.'We will following.'

            As they walked, Ambuvali whispered into my ear. 'All this Thaipusam, carry kavadi is because of one man called Idumban who had guru called Agasthya. This guru told him to carry two hills of Lord Murugan to him for test of his loving for guru. Lord Murugan thought to make bigger test and changed to small boy on one hill which made very hard to carry. Idumbam said to boy, "Please be to getting down you are making much heavy." But boy he shake head and so Idumban he get angried and smited naughty boy. So small boy then change back to Lord Murugan. "I am much happy with you because you much good and loving to guru", he said. "You shall be my guard and have my blessings." Now everybodies get blessing who carried kavadi. Kavadis mean to be mountain like Idumban mountain.'

            They began to mount the first step. The stairs were steep, chipped concrete, slightly uneven, waxy smooth from the bare feet of a million pilgrims. As the devotees slipped or faltered the chanting got louder, vel…vel…vel…

 

Devotee has the vel inserted through his cheeks

Photo by Derek Haught 

            Ambuvali pulled Omed closer. 'This is faith. Is loving. About believing. This keep us going when things are too hard.' She pointed at Omed and tilted her head on one side. Her arrow-shaped eyes were ablaze with the light of the camphor fires as she smoothed her hands over her swollen belly. 'We must be believing in something.' Ambuvali looked up to the cave at the top of the steps, which was now glowing with light. 'If we not believing then what it reason for life.'

            They climbed and climbed, and as they climbed Omed focused on the smooth back of Puravi - at the points where the hooks entered his body and the thin rivers of sweat that ran to his waist. The climb was hard even for Omed with no kavadi, or hooks, or vel; some found it too hard. One woman with a vel through her tongue begged for water, her thumb turned into a spout, pointing at her muted lips. Her helpers shrugged and chanted, pushed her further up the steps. 

Ambuvali looked at Omed. 'The Wheel is moving now. It cannot be stopped. This is important thing to keeping going. Forward is the only way.'

            As Puravi reached the top of the steps, he stumbled with exhaustion. His eyes were still fixed on the temple and he moved slowly and gracefully towards his target. The rows of beggars nodded and spoke to each other as he passed.

Each beggar sat on a cloth, surrounded by neat stacks of coins. Ambuvali drew a pile from a fold in her sari and began depositing some at the feet of each beggar. The temple was off to one side, nestled into the limestone face of the cave. Above, startled bats careered through the dark funnel and into the camphor-choked sky. Lord Murugan stood inside the temple, garlanded with marigolds.

As Puravi approached, he was received by the priests. Slowly they began the task of unhooking Puravi, smearing his wounds with grey ashes. Finally the large vel was pulled from his cheeks and he sunk to the ground in exhaustion. Ambuvali poured a little water into his mouth and smoothed his hair. She muttered something into his ear and he looked at her and smiled.


These small fears

Kabul, Afghanistan 2009

I call my mum while I am watching a game of football at Ghazi Stadium. It is curse to be two places at once. I picture her sitting looking out at the Towamba Valley, the cragged face of the Jingera bearded in mist. She is drinking coffee and doing a crossword. Eleven down, A supporter of extreme doctrines or practices. She pencils in extremist. An impending feeling of danger, evil or trouble. Resting her pencil on her lip she looks up to grasp the word. Fear. Quickly the spaces fill. Kidnap. Bulletin. Anguish. Her pencil tears through the paper.

What can I tell her that I haven't already said? I am okay. I will be okay. I am sitting watching a game of football. Two local teams. Yes, it's true the Taliban used the ground for executions. I am glad I didn't show her the photos of amputations - how the Taliban used surgeons and anesthetic to follow sharia law. Or the fuzzy videos of beheadings, stonings and shootings that took place in front of families watching them as pre match entertainment.

Those days are gone.

I smile at the man next to me. The right leg of his trousers is folded, pinned at the knee. His arm swings over an aluminium crutch.

I turn away and squint at the pitch. Kabul is at nearly 1800 metres and there is no refuge from the heat. The blinding, searing, phosphorous light tears the skin from the backs of my hands. Under my four-month beard, I am tired and sun-fucked; full of dust and worry. I don't tell my mum this. She has been praying for me. She has her own personal god who listens to her long lists with patience. Much like my father.

I think of my own kids and all the dangerous things they may do. I think of the fear that hobbles a parent. How you want to cry out when they hang by their legs from the monkey bars or freewheel down that long, tar hill. It begins somewhere there and I suspect it never ends.

The letter I wrote to my son sits in a drawer in my sister's house. It was directed at his future. I was whispering to the man I knew he would become.

I hope you live a life without fear; that you are not afraid to take chances, to be brave. I don't mean this in a reckless, daredevil sense. I am talking about the acts of people who believe in themselves and their abilities do things that matter to them, and to the world. Do not listen to what others say, trust yourself.

Bye, Mum.

I hang up the phone. There is nothing left to say. The sky is blue. I am eating well. The streets are broken. There are women in torn chadors begging in the parks. Guns are not allowed in the ballroom of the Intercontinental.

The man with the crutches takes my hand, then presses his own to his chest. His name is Rafi.

'Kabul Bank is khob [good].' He aims his crutch to the team in blue. Giant portraits of bearded rulers stare down at them grimly.

'How did you lose your leg?' I ask.

He shrugs. Maybe he doesn't understand my English. Or maybe he is saying, it doesn't matter. There are thousands like me.

When the team finishes their star jumps, their sprints and backwards runs, they crowd around the centre mark. Twenty-three heads follow the coin into the thin, dusty air. It flashes a warning at me as it goes. Be careful, it says, even here you are not safe.

When I was young I was never allowed to go to football matches. I was born in Glasgow and my team was Rangers. It was the nineteen-seventies and sectarian violence was a team sport. Celtic was the Catholic's choice and when the teams came together at Ibrox or Parkhead (Parkheid) blood would flow. It was not uncommon for fans to carry chibs, small knives, and to attack anyone they saw wearing the wrong colour. At eleven years old, I was bailed against a wall by two classmates who accused me of wearing a crucifix. It was a plastic knife pendant I had pulled from the pages of a comic book.

But my best friend was a Catholic, the poetically named Gino Celino, whose family ran a fish and chip shop in Partick. We fought over the inattentive, solemn Audrey McInnes, sitting in cold Scottish puddles on the promise of a kiss. But we never went to war over religion.

It was my mother who informed this. She had no time for the Troubles that were tearing at Northern Ireland. On the weekends, in our aluminium caravan on the banks of Loch Sween, we would get the news from Ulster on a black and white TV. But my father would change the channel and I would snuggle beside him and watch gunslingers of a different sort, do battle in the Wild West. There is safety in distance.

Once, Mum had been a Protestant girl in a Catholic school. She had dreamed of heady rituals: the mouthing of a wafer so thin it could be a slice of Christ's body, a layer of his skin; his blood; the mantra of Latin; the catechism; incense smoke caught in the folds of her neatly pressed skirt.

It was a religion complicated by India. She was born there and lived until she was sixteen with the bloodthirsty goddess Kali, with elephant-headed Ganesh, and with the Queen of Fevers: Shitala Devi,:the Goddess of Smallpox (and leprosy and syphilis). When she left India, she packed these small fears, these rituals, with a slip of lucky cobra skin, a ring of elephant hair, in her shipping trunk and carried them to Wolverhampton in the English Midlands. There she developed a system of belief based on ladders, open umbrellas and the number thirteen.

The coin hits the ground and the captains shake hands. The teams run into position. Kabul Bank is playing into the sun. I give a small grimace of solace to Rafi. Kabul Bank takes possession and drives hard at goal. But the other team's defense pushes it wide for a throw-in.

The buildings outside the stadium are like ripped cardboard, and above them rise the hills of Kabul. A shantytown of mud houses collapse down dusty slopes. They are built by returning refugees and at night are lit by illegal electricity, by kerosene lamps and candles. In the daytime, small children carry water in goatskin bags and strings of bottles in the grinding heat. And as evening comes, I have watched their small kites lift from rooftops.

Finally the heat forces me from the stadium. I say farewell to Rafi and take the steps. A muffled roar signals a goal and for a moment I consider going back. But it is pointless. I have already missed the action.

Outside, men are unloading rolls of rubber matting from the top of a bus. Behind them is a huge football on a billboard. It is bigger and brighter than the sun. It is the colour of grain-fed eggs. The caption reads: It's not what I play, it's who I am.

A chador-clad woman floats into the frame as I take my shot.

This story first appeared as an article in the anthology Undertow, 2011

 

Tea at The Mama Najaf Chaikhana

 Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2009

I meet Simon Biney at the Mama Najaf Restaurant in the dusty main bazaar of Bamiyan. I am late and accompanied by two minders because the Police Commandant has ordered me not to wander alone after dark. Bamiyan is the safest district in Afghanistan but, the Chief was at pains to remind me, there are still bad people around.

Simon is sitting crosslegged on the floor of the chaikhana (teahouse). He is sipping serenely from his cup of green tea, surrounded by gruff, bearded men - truck drivers, itinerant workers, ne'er-do-wells. My guardians, Tahir and Yasin, eye him suspiciously.

'Salam. Nice choice of place,' Simon says by way of greeting.

I look around at the torn, stained carpet; walls greasy where the heads of many travellers have rested.

He nods. 'It's a truck drivers' restaurant.'

'Is it dangerous?' I whisper.

He shrugs as if danger is relative. And it is here, in a country where violence and life often connect.

I met Simon on the Couchsurfing website - where travellers find free, comfy couches to doss on, in far flung corners of the world. Although his toshak (bed) was already taken, by a dozen local carpenters, he offered me tea and kebob; '... that's minimum', he added. When I'd arrived in Kabul to research my third novel, I was frustrated at not being able to get to my destination, the Bamiyan Valley (only 180kms away). Simon advised me 'If you take a car or a taxi, make sure you go through Parwan valley, and not Wardak. The first is almost safe, the second is full of talebs and G.I. Better to avoid.'

Where the streets have no name, Bamiyan, Afghanistan

I tell him how safe Kart-e Parwan, the neighbourhood where I stayed in Kabul, seemed. He tells me in the Alley of the Butchers, very close to my guesthouse, two of his friends, French journalists, were captured the year before. Foreigners are worth money. Sometimes a lot of money. In a country where a policeman earns less than sixty U.S. dollars a month, it is a great temptation to become kidnappers.

He pours me a tea and I ask him what he is doing here, a twenty-six year-old Frenchman living among the locals, speaking Dari, dressing in a shalwar kameez. It turns out he came here directly after study to help retrofit houses using passive solar design principles.

I ask him about his opinion of aid workers in this country. He goes silent for a moment, looks into his swirling green tea, pops a small boiled sweet in his mouth.

Then he tells me a story about two members of a large agency being helicoptered in from Kabul to visit the lapis-blue lakes of Band-e Amir, 75kms to our west. They had two four-wheel drives with security personnel arrive before them, possibly sent from Kabul - a fourteen-hour trip over terrible, dangerous roads. The two foreign workers got out of their helicopter, ate their pre-made lunches, drank their bottled water, gazed at the impossibly blue lake, then returned to Kabul. The frightening cost of this exercise typifies most foreign aid work in Afghanistan. It makes Simon angry. How many orphans could this money have housed? How many widows would it feed?

Band-e Amir

A man comes around with a battered exercise book and asks us if we are staying the night. After hours, these chaikhanas turn into rest houses. The food mats and teacups are cleared and men curl into question marks on the carpet. Simon says it is time to leave.

Neil and (not) Simon Biney, chaikhana, Bamiyan

His motorbike is hard to start. It is a cheap copy of the Pamir (a locally produced bike named after a mountain range). His is called the Panir which translates as Cheese. I hop on the back of the cheese-cycle and we ride over the river. There is a crescent moon out and a poetic spray of stars above the niches that once held the giant Buddhas, before the Taliban came. It is hard for me to picture young men like Simon settling for life anywhere normal after this. And it is hard to imagine Afghanistan rebuilding without their help.

 

Whaleboat Dreaming

Lamalera, Indonesia, 2001

In July of 2001, I started a two month journey through the Indonesian archipelago researching my novel Indo Dreaming. This was pre Bali bombing; I got home a day before September 11. This was a safer world, although Indonesia was in the middle and there were many other dangers.

In two months, I travelled on dodgy buses and ferries and ate questionable food. I climbed an active volcano with a spear-toting local and swam in a volcanic lake with liver flukes and giant carp. I met Bob Marley look-alikes in Flores and thought I was going to die of dangerous water and terrible transport in Sumbawa. I surfed over coral and cringed at cockfights in Nusa Lembongan, and watched shadow puppets flutter like moths in Yogyakarta. And when I sat down to write my novel in 2002, all those places, people and experiences drifted back; much like the ghost my main character, Goog, was searching for in his journey of discovery.

Although the Lonely Planet guidebook gets a gentle mocking in my novel, it was through its pages that I first tasted Indonesia. One place in particular stood out - a speck of island off the far eastern tip of Flores. Its name was Lembata and, from a tiny village on the windward-side, people still hunted the largest animals on earth from the most un-seaworthy boats.

 

Lembata nestles between the volcanic islands of Solor, Adonara and Pantar at the far eastern tip of the Florenese island chain. I reach Lembata by boat from the town of Larantuka on the main island of Flores. On board, motorbikes are stacked in the bow, seasick chickens lie limply on deck, the smell of clove cigarettes and diesel drifts through the cabin. The boat negotiates the Solor Strait, stopping at Waiwerang, where a gang of boys leap onboard to sell eggs, peanuts, bottled water, bruised fruit and gula merah (red sugar) wrapped in palm leaf packets. They also pinch my nose, steal my sunglasses and shout loudly in my ear. But I forgive them because they are young and happy and don't get many foreign visitors. The ferry finally moves on to Lewoleba, the dusty capital of Lembata, in the shadow of Ile Api - the Fire Mountain.

Two days later, I board the rusting truck-bus for a six hour journey over a torturous road to Lamalera. The bus is sardine-tinned with people, rice, radios, bananas, biscuits, betel nuts, chickens, thongs, candles and drums of kerosene. There is a goat stuck underneath my seat. We rumble through burnt fields and groves of guava trees. We pass villages where children call to us in tangled snatches of made-up English. The truck dies on a hill and we stand in the shade as the driver repairs the diesel tank in a mystical rite involving powdered soap.

We are dropped where the road ends at a ruined bridge. There is a further two kilometre walk to Lamalera. As we drop down the roughly cobbled track into town, women pass us with freshly butchered whale meat - rich red and marbled with white fat - balanced in plastic pots on their heads. The reality of a whale hunting town sinks in and I am suddenly unsure why I came. I love whales. I don't want to see them killed. I don't want to see any animals killed. I was a vegetarian for twelve years! So why am I here?



Lamalera boatsheds, Lembata, Indonesia

And this story links to another, further back in my history, like one of a series of threads that will eventually become the book I will complete in two years. And this story involves my grandfather and how he lived in India and was a hunter. How he killed a rogue elephant that had injured its tusk in a battle. How that mangled tusk grew in to his brain and sent him mad and made him want to kill people. And me, as a kid growing up in Glasgow, Scotland (a million light years away from the exotic jungles of Bihar) with bearskins and elephant's feet and leopard skins; a tiny square of cobra skin in a brown paper packet that my mum, as a child, carried for luck. A bunch of elephant tail hairs that my sister took to school for show-and-tell and her teacher told her not to tell lies. And maybe that's why I became a story teller and maybe that's why I am in Lamalera even though I hate killing and don't want the elephant's feet and leopard skins in my house.

The Dalma Rogue, Bihar, India 1947

The next morning we are in bed, still digesting the previous night's dinner - terrible black cubes of whale meat with two minute noodles - when we hear the call on the beach. The whale boats are putting to sea, as they have done for two hundred years, ever since the people of Lamalera arrived on the back of a Blue Whale (the only species they do not hunt; their totem). I run through the wooden racks of drying meat, to the beach and help the crew of the Santa Rosa roll their boat over rough logs and to the waiting surf. But, before I know it, I am on that boat and we are rowing for the horizon. And I am in danger of losing my passport, my camera, my precious journal and, most likely, my life. I look back on shore to the little altar with the Virgin Mary and wish I was a Catholic-Animist like these people so I could pray to Mary and the sea at the same time, to keep me safe.



Whaleboat launch, Lamalera, Indonesia

They raise their holey, woven palm sail and we make for the whaling grounds. Others are out here, with harpoon heads slotted into bamboo poles, balanced on their ladder-shaped prows, searching. I see the fin of a Spinner Dolphin break the water and hope that the harpooner misses as he climbs onto the prow. He lunges at the water, extending his body and forcing the forked harpoon head into the sea.



The hunt, Savu Sea, Lamalera

But he does miss and we return to the beach with nothing. A huge whalebone is still lolling in the shorebreak; a reminder of how the previous catch was butchered and shared among the crew according to a traditional pattern of cuts. 

Back at Guru Ben's Homestay, I sit at the same table where Tim Severin (another, more famous, author) wrote the notes to his book In Search Of Moby Dick, and complete mine. I am not sure how this story will weave into Goog's but I know it is a powerful experience and will add drama and excitement to the novel I am about to write.

And a year later I write the chapter in Indo Dreaming where Goog takes that same whaleboat trip (but his crew harpoons a shark). At the time I don't realise how far back that story goes and what a part of me it is. And I don't see how each chapter and each story has at least as many threads stretching back through the fabric of my own history. Until today.

This story first appeared as an article in Viewpoint magazine's Winter 2005 edition.