The end of a Goan love affair

September 6, 2010

After almost two years, this week’s newsletter is my farewell missive, so I suppose I should go out in coruscating style.

It has been an extraordinary time living in Goa, a place I first visited more than 25 years ago, a fact that I tried to deny for all the time I lived there. Of course, things had changed, but so had I; there was no point in looking back.

But towards the end of my stay that was all I was doing. I missed the tranquility, the lack of cars, the clean and empty beaches and the easy interaction with local people. I wanted my old Goa back, not this Modern Goa that was moving so quickly and destroying itself.

Naturally, Goa isn’t like the rest of India. My family and I visited some extraordinary places such as Sikkim, Darjeeling and Dharamsala that were still as pure as the first waters of the Himalayas. That beauty hadn’t been despoiled.

Goa, however, had and it was probably the fault of the earlier travellers such as myself, young and dumb; looking for a party.

When a Goan teenager realised that he could make more money in a day working with tourists than his fisherman-father made in a month, it was no surprise he dropped out of school and failed to complete his education.

There is nothing worse than ill-educated people with power, so the consequent rise of gangs in North Goa in Chapora, Vagator, Calangute and Anjuna who vied with each other to put on ‘raves’ led to the present state of non-governance where nobody knows who the power really lies with.

The Police are obvious targets. Rapes and high-profile murders made them look like bungling idiots who were in cahoots with goondas and politicans. Some of this is well-founded, but a recent experience of a near-lynching changed my mind about that. They really are trying to clean up the state. I’ve met them, it’s true.

It may take some time. There are some great people in Goa. The community I was part of (my ex-pets as I now like to call them) included some amazing people from all over the world, from Goa and other parts of India.

But here is a huge underswell of resentment against ‘foreigners’ who have settled in Goa and it is the under-educated who are responsible. Talk about biting the fucking hand of people who have fed you.

Again, nobody knows who to turn to. I know of people who have to pay bribes for ANY transaction they make and it is the local panchyat (village-leader) who is to blame. One personally oversaw the beating-up of a friend because his business was doing so well. I spit on their graves.

As for the politicians, there are not enough words in any language to describe their involvement in the disgrace of Goa. Every time I saw yet another tanker bringing iron ore up the river it was like watching a rape take place. They’re all on the make, all taking bribes, all responsible.

In my time there I wrote a piece about the ‘Golden Age of Goa’ for the Times of India but I take it all back. It is not a Golden Age, it is more like the Stone Age. Actually, the amount of garbage strewn around makes it even more primitive than that.

So, sitting in my friend’s safe European home after leaving Goa three days ago I will probably come back some time, not for the place, but for the people; my friends.

I’ll be reading the papers and staying in touch, but like feelings for an ex-girlfriend, I have no love left for Goa, no love left at all.

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Serial-killer Charles Sobhraj loses final appeal

August 19, 2010

The Nepalese Supreme Court has finally upheld the murder verdict on Charles Sobhraj, the Asian serial-killer known as The Serpent, for the murder of a young woman he committed in 1975.

It was a surprise decision because the case seems to rest on blurred photocopies and books and films, neither of which are permissible as evidence, but it looks like the conclusion of a 35-year case and a story that is more extraordinary than any movie.

In the 1970s and for some time after, the mere mention of the name Charles Sobhraj was enough to give every female (and some male) Western traveller nightmares. This charismatic serial-killer would prey on their naïve curiosity, befriend them… And then kill them.

Allegedly, he robbed and murdered at least 12 young women between 1974 and 1976 in India, Thailand, Nepal and Malaysia using the proceeds to pay for his addiction to gambling and a lavish lifestyle he had enjoyed since a life of crime that began when he was in his teens.

Rather like the his fellow psychopathic Charles Manson in the US, he used his guile to drug and then ‘cure’ unsuspecting travellers, ensuring their trust. Later he would rob them of their money and passports and eliminate them if he came under suspicion.

He was finally arrested in New Delhi in 1976 when he was caught with two of his acolytes, Barbara Sheryl Smith and Mary Ellen Eather, trying to drug a group of French students.

Prison literally held no bars for Sobhraj because he had escaped before, once from Bombay in 1970 and shortly afterwards in Kabul. At that time Kabul was as much a part of the hippy trail as Bangkok and Goa are today.

Sobhraj had smuggled gems into the Delhi prison and gave a bedazzled media the story of a lifetime. The subsequent fanfare meant he was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, instead of the death sentence and he became a celebrity prisoner giving interviews to Western media, revelling in the role and living a life of pampered privilege.

But other countries also wanted to extradite him and he realised that if he didn’t extend his Indian sentence then a 20-year Thai murder warrant would still be valid and he would be deported and probable executed. So towards the end of his sentence he put on a big party, drugged his guards and escaped yet again.

Rather like detective Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard who was constantly outwitted by Great Train robber Ronnie Biggs, the persistent Inspector Zende of the Mumbai Police who tracked him down to the O’Coqueiro restaurant in Goa was similarly out-thought.

By bizarre coincidence O’Coqueiro is 500 metres from my house in Goa and my nearest restaurant, which has even erected a statue in his ‘honour’. According to regulars, at that time O’Coquiero was the centre of things in Goa because it was one of the only places to have a STD public telephone and they all believed he chose that restaurant in order to be caught.

If so, his ploy worked perfectly. Shobraj subsequently had his prison term extended by 10 years, thus obviating his 20-year Thai warrant. He was allowed to return to France in 1997.

Several years later Sobhraj went to Kathmandu posing as a businessman, but he became too cocky and was arrested on his next visit in 2003 for the murder of American tourist Connie Jo Bronzich. Since then he has tried every trick in Nepal’s statute book to get out of jail free.

Even so, a recent UN declaration that he was given an unfair trial means The Serpent may yet slither free from the tentacles of the law and Mr Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj may be a free man again. Lock up your daughters!

Monty’s Somaliland Outlook – Issue 2 – Berbera or bust

August 11, 2010

I left the capital Hargesia with three American Christians and a hired soldier who had a rifle, but one that didn’t seem to have any ammunition… I liked to think of him as my personal Colonel Blimp.

But it’s all about appearance and we were waved through checkpoints as we headed north to Las Geel, an allegedly unique archaeological site that was only discovered seven years ago and had hundreds of neolithic rock art paintings in perfect condition.

We were not disappointed. In the year the site was discovered three aid workers were murdered and consequently global tour companies haven’t been in a rush to promote it, but it is an absolute hidden gem.

The paintings were amazing and not a tourist soul in sight, only a sinuous wadi and the echoes of goats bleating, overseen incidentally by one of the most hideously ugly people I’ve ever seen.

My Blimp underscored his bumbling character by offering me some watermelon, only to nearly slice off my finger with a knife as he did so. Fortunately one of the Americans bound it and also told me my shit would turn black as I had sucked a lot of the blood. I never knew that.

Blimp, however, redeemed himself by playing some extraordinary Somali music that sounded as if it was straight outta the Mississippi Delta. While the Americans took umpteen pictures of 8,000 BC art, we synched our handsets and he Bluetoothed me the song.

Back on the road again as we headed for Berbera, a town on the Gulf of Aden. It was great to run naked into the sea, but in temperatures touching 50 degrees it was exhausting. The Americans and I went out for late-night tea and it was only after I had railed against the world’s religions did I realise they were Christians. Ho-hum.

But a fabulous debate ensued and defined the essence of travel; meeting different people, having one’s opinions challenged, standing one’s ground while letting others do the same. I promised to read Matthew in the New Testament and they promised to read Society Of The Spectacle by Guy de Bord.

I asked around the docks to see if I could get a passage on the livestock-boat to Yemen, but was warned off by the captains. Bad timing, the Yemenis weren’t letting British people in and it seemed a risk too far.

But there IS an international airport in Berbera, something that seemed impossible, but 10km out of town, there it was. With the help of my Somaliland attache friend in Addis, who had seen the Somaliland piece I had written for The Telegraph I managed to jump on the flight from Mogadishu and somehow arrived in Dubai.

So the journey was over. Dubai’s decadence was the antithesis of my trip and I escaped to India as quickly as I could. Even looking at pictures of Ethiopia and Somaliland make me well up with the odd tear. I didn’t make it to Asmara in Eritrea or Sa’ana in Yemen, but like the man says: I’ll be back…ENDS.

Monty’s Somaliland Outlook – Issue 1 – Child-soldiers on qat

August 3, 2010

When encountering the unknown it is sometimes best to possess as many mind-altering substances as possible and crossing into the unrecognised, and alcohol-free, ‘country’ of Somaliland seemed as good a time as any.

Unlike the Ancient Greeks who used <i>papaver somniferum</i> or magic mushrooms as protection in battles, I decided to chew as much qat (locally known as ‘chat’) to fortify myself against any checkpoint charlies or child-soldiers with guns.

After a delay at the border and a fight between a soldier and a passenger who objected to the former manhandling his wife, I finally jumped into a shared taxi for the bumpy 100-kilometre journey to Hargesia, the country’s capital.

As the benign qat soothed my brain and the taxi settled into an aqua-plaining rhythm, I read about where I was going. Somaliland used to be British Somaliland and in 1960 was the first African country after independence to transfer power from the military until it decided to cleave itself to its bigger neighbour, Somalia.

Bad decision. After years of tribal tensions, a savage civil war broke out until the Somalis were finally ousted and Somaliland retreated to its pre-Independence border and in 1961 unilaterally declared its independence.

Since then no country has recognised it despite having a free press, a free-market economy and a recent fair election that saw the incumbent President hand over power to the victorious opposition.

The closest they have come is when Somaliland officials were invited to the opening of the Welsh assembly, Wales having a large Somaliland community. And while there were a few hairy moments at checkpoints most of the soldiers were so wasted on qat to be any real danger.

Hargesia was insane. There are 16,500 Somaliland Shillings to the dollar and the largest denomination note is 500 shillings. Kids run around with wheelbarrows full of banknotes while qat-addled money-changers sprawl in houses of stacked-up money. All a bit 1930s Weimar republic with the valueless German Mark.

Seeing all this money was annoying because I didn’t have any of it and my only hope was a London friend wiring me some dollars through Dahabshiil, the Somaliland version of Western Union.

This seemed to be loaded with problems but I kept being told ‘no problem, no problem’ so I bought a Somaliland SIM card on credit after using THE FREE AND FAST WI-FI in my $10 hotel and gave my friend the details.

He then called me from a shop in London telling me it was all quite simple and asked for my Somaliland SIM and then he would call me back… Which he did ten minutes later… Five minutes AFTER I had received an SMS from Dahabshiil telling me my money was ready to be picked up.

Amazing. Now I could pay my bills and explore the country, but first I would have to ‘hire a soldier’ for $15 a day if I wanted to go anywhere outside the capital… TO BE CONCLUDED

Monty’s Ethiopian Outlook Issue Two – Towards the border

July 29, 2010

The first thing the ambassador at the Somaliland liaison office in Addis Ababa said to me as I handed over $40 for my visa was that he thought I was a journalist… My heart dropped.

It looked as if my plan to get a succession of buses from Addis to Berbera on the Gulf of Aden were stymied before I had even begun so I mumbled that I wasn’t. ‘But we love journalists!, he said. ‘I AM a journalist, how did you guess, you clever chap?’, I replied as my endorsed passport was handed to me.

The reason he loved journos was that Somaliland has been an unrecognised country with a free press, an open economy and was about to hold free elections that the incumbent President would not only go on to lose, but hand over power with grace. He wanted the world to know about his country.

I had plotted a course that would take about a week but I had missed all the early morning buses so jumped into a minibus after doing some dollar black market business (a surprisingly big deal if caught doing so) and said farewell to wonderful Addis.

I finally found out why there are no motorbikes in the city because they were banned by the previous Russian-backed Mengitsu government because they thought they could be used by bikers to assassinate Mengitsu. Big business opportunity there.

But finding that out was nothing like the joy I felt when I finally found out how Ethiopians tell the time. Even allowing for my defective mobile and the time difference with India I was still getting confusing replies whenever I asked. That’s because in Ethiopia sunrise at 6am is referred to as zero O’Clock and an hour is added as the day goes by.

Ergo, at 10am it is 4 O’Clock, at 3pm it is 9 O’Clock until the 12-hour cycle begins at sunset, so at 8pm it is 2 O’Clock and so on. The country also uses an old calendar so there are 13 months a year, but that’s another (time-consuming) story.

So I hit the road and crammed into three buses finally making it to Awash, a dusty town that did have a bar, a projector, a dirty sheet as a makeshift screen and a World Cup match where Ghana beat USA 2-1. Unforgettable.

Up early in the morning and eventually arrived in Harar, the weird city where the French poet Rimbauld lived for many years. Explorer Richard Burton was the first white man to ‘discover’ the town by disguised as an Arab merchant, a story that had enthralled me as a kid.

Amazing place, more like Morocco’s Fez than anywhere else in Ethiopia and a place where I ran around a beer factory screaming when England scored against Germany, then at dusk held a stick in my mouth while a hyena grabbed raw meat from the end of it (long story).

Another early start and through The Valley of Marvels after finally convincing the driver to spend 80 miles on the roof before going through Jijiga as the checkpoints began and the Somaliland border beckoned… TO BE CONTINUED

Monty’s Ethiopian Outlook – Issue 1

July 23, 2010

Ever since I was 21 years old, managed a betting shop in London’s White City estate and hung out with my Rastafarian customers I have always wanted to see Ethiopia… And I should have done it years ago.

Even though Ethiopian Airlines passengers still ask staff whether there will be any food on the flight because they still perceive the country to be in perpetual famine, I can report back that it is one of the most precious places on the planet.

As is usual with much-delayed ambitions and expectations, things didn’t start off too well. Four days of filming my second Bollywood film on a set that was filthy gave me severe dysentery and my first four days in Addis Ababa were spent in bed.

But after that it was all uphill, even though Addis is a city that lies at an altitude of more than 2,300 metres. I did as all travellers do and sought out the railway station and took it from there… To the nearest dirty bar.

One completed World Cup match later I found myself outside the impressive National Theatre with a ticket for the red carpet closing ceremony of The Ethiopian Film Festival the following night. Then I was alone in Haile Selassie’s tomb, admitted by the Head Priest who thought I could get him a visa for the UK (‘Of course etc’).

And so it went on. The next day I saw Lucy, the world’s oldest skeleton at 3.2 million years old and quite possibly the missing link because Lucy was a biped with a small brain and only bigger-brained humans were supposed to do that.

Then it was the film festival, a personal chat and beer with Liya Kedebe, the star of Desert Flower, a harrowing film on female circumcision, an early morning flight to the insane island monasteries on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and the Blue (more like Brown) Falls before a 12-hour day bus back to Addis.

The following day my mate arrived from London and I had to tell him that even for the England/Germany World Cup match and a booked ticket to Joburg, I would be staying in Ethiopia… He took it well and we got drunk for 48 hours, I won the 35 metres steeplechase at the National Stadium, rode motorbikes and watched every World Cup match we could.

Then he was gone and for once I had a guide-book (they’re like mobiles; once you have one you can’t stop looking at it), but this time it was welcome. I planned a route to the coast in Somaliland, a country that I didn’t even knew existed and then a 30-hour boat with livestock that went to Yemen… TO BE CONTINUED

Deal or No Deal comes to Afghanistan TV

July 13, 2010

Later this month the game show Deal Or No Deal will make its debut on Afghanistan TV, a development that will doubtlessly delight the poorest people on earth.

When a hackneyed Dutch TV show can so easily pervade this awkward country, it comes as no surprise that India’s influence on the country continues to grow… And naturally Pakistan is none too pleased about it.

While it is well-known that China has invested heavily in Pakistan, it is also playing the 21st Century version of The Great Game with India, but not for geostrategic control, but for the minerals under its earth.

According to the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Industry, this landlocked country has huge amounts of gold, copper and iron ore as well as 3.6 billion barrels of oil and 36 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and a 2010 US Pentagon report estimated there were nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits.

But mineral wealth doesn’t equate to riches for its people. Just look at the Congo, Angola and other African countries as terrible examples of how imperial powers have plundered their riches while using its people as virtual slaves.

China’s approach has been to subsidise Afghan companies to extract these minerals and India is concentrating on political leverage… while the Western nincompoops prefer to concentrate on bombs and misguided military muscle. Never has the global transfer of power been so starkly illustrated.

So the Great Game continues and I’m not talking about Deal Or No Deal, but one thing’s for certain, nobody has ever won these particular game and it’s unlikely anybody will.

Monty’s Indian Outlook – Issue 78

June 17, 2010

Later this morning I will be strangled by a Hindi gangster called Mr Biscuit and thrown onto a steel conveyor-belt and into an incinerator.

As might be surmised from the paragraph above my role as a Russian drug dealer in the movie Dum Maro Dum is coming to an end and unlike James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever I don’t get saved by the CIA; I am burnt to a crisp.

And believe me, those stories of actors doing their own stunts, in Bollywood, it is not a choice. Last night after 14 hours of learning lines of Russian dialogue, acting and a long day, the Action Director taught me how to fall and those bootmarks on my neck were real.

What makes things a little trickier is that my assassin is Aditya Pancholi, Bollywood’s leading villain, a role he is rumoured to replicate in real life and a man who doesn’t pull his punches. But it’s my first death scene and I’m going to scream the house down.

The slight downside is that my dancing scenes in the forest rave are to be expunged because the scenes have been rearranged, so the Indian public will be spared my shapes, but you can’t have it all. That’s not all. Some little fuckwit has also nicked my mobile phone from the set.

So, after being in two Bollywood films this brings to a temporary end my acting camera unless I get serious and engage an agent, but perhaps it might be time to get out while I’m still ahead. Already I have enough material to fill two books.

But my demise awaits and Aditya Pancholi has just knocked on the door of my trailer and somewhat threateningly asked me if I’m ready to meet my maker. See you in paradise.

Monty’s Indian Outlook – Issue 77

June 10, 2010

It was when I saw my sugar cane juice man closing down his stall I knew that the monsoon would to be early and India’s economic growth this year would be extraordinary.

The monsoon in India is the juice that gives the country its vitamins and the early arrival this year makes up for 2009 that saw many parts of India suffer drought because the monsoon effectively failed in those areas.

Not that the world knew much about it. As is usual, it is urban India that obsesses the rest of the world, not the plight of parched people on its peripheries.

The word monsoon was coined by the occupying British in the 1800s and comes from the Arabic word mawsim that means ‘season’. It lasts from any time in June to September and, no, it doesn’t rain the whole time.

First, there are pre-monsoon showers and a few days later the real thing hits. It’s amazing when it hits, the full force of Mother Nature and, yes, some of us do dance naked in the rain.

After that, all is intermittent. Sometimes it pelts down for three days, other times it stops for a week and at others it falls in the morning and is clear in the afternoon.

Living here in Goa the awful pre-monsoon heat and humidity drives the last tourist out of town and means the sea is too dangerous to swim in, but it is a great time to be here. Time to reflect, create and wonder.

Such thoughts are from the minds of agrarian Indians who produce the bread-basket of India and a realistic prospect of an excellent monsoon this year means much lower food prices and a boon to India’s GDP.

So watch the Indian stock market soar this mawsim and the country delight in its drenching. As it’s my birthday today and the monsoon arrives tomorrow, me and the Arabian Sea are going to say goodbye… until the summer returns.

Monty’s Indian Outlook – Issue 76

June 2, 2010

Football is a game that divides and obsesses, but Dharamsala’s Sharsaman bar for the midnight kick-off of the Champions’ League Final last week was a mighty fine place to be.

Thanks to some terrific marketing by the bar that had advertised the game between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich as starting at 10.30pm the place was packed out with as motley a crew as possible.

Firstly there was the dashing matinee idol (me), the self-titled Captain Crip, a paralysed man in the most wheelchair-unfriendly town in the world, several plastered Tibetan monks, a cheeky chappy from London who supported Chelsea and a veritable smattering of Italians and Germans supporting their respective clubs.

I started talking to Captain Crip about how he lost the use of his legs (bike accident in Oregon) and said to him it at least his old chappaquiddick was still working.

Ah, apparently he’d lost the use of that as well so I quickly started talking about why Inter’s captain Zanetti hadn’t been picked for the Argentinian World Cup squad… promising to punch myself in the face later for being such an idiot.

Strangely enough all the Tibetans wanted Bayern to win and by the time we were finally on our way the atmosphere was raucous, polarised and good-natured, but I have a strange foible when it comes to a particular German player and it nearly led to trouble.

For some strange reason every time Bastian Schweinsteiger touches the ball in any match I always scream out ‘SCHWEINSTEIGER! at the top of my voice. I don’t know why, perhaps I have SCHWEINSTEIGER’S syndrome, but I was getting a lot of dirty looks until I explained my condition and all calmed down.

I’d like to report that the whole bar shouted out ‘SCHWEINSTEIGER’ every time he got the ball but Inter marked him out of the game and there was enough mayhem going on for the incident to be forgotten.

By the time Inter had lifted the trophy after a very one-sided victory it was nearly 3am by the time I had said my goodbyes and clambered home using my crap Nokia as a torch.

On the way I averted three quite mental dogs, nearly fell to my death twice until I fell into our 150 rupee-per-night room greatly annoying my wife and son by snoring for the rest of the night (sorry, family).

But I’m going to have to watch my mouth. When England play their second World Cup group match next month I am likely to be the only whitey watching the game in an Addis Adaba bar when I’m in Ethiopia. But more of that later, as I’m sure you can imagine.