John Gimlette - Books
Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka
Everyone has wanted a piece of paradise Sri Lanka is a small island with a long, violent and enthralling history. Home to thousands of wild elephants, this is a place where natural beauty has endured, indifferent to human tragedy. Journeying through its many regions - some haunted by war, many rarely seen by our eyes - award-winning travel writer John Gimlette interviews ex-presidents and cricketers, tea planters and terrorists, negotiating the complex relationships of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities and the more sinister forms of tourism. Each city raises the ghosts of old colonies: Portuguese, Dutch and British armies striving to claim the most significant ports in the southern seas; each site resurrects a civilization that preceded, and sometimes, outfaced them. The political families of Colombo lead Gimlette through recent years of turmoil, survivors of the tsunami tell of their recovery and, tale by tale, scrap by scrap, the thorny truths of the civil war emerge - a war whose wounds have yet to heal. As he walks in the steps of old conquerors, follows the secret paths of elephants and marches alongside pilgrims, Gimlette seeks the soul of a country that is struggling to free itself from trauma and embody an identity to match its vitality, its power and its people.
Sample chapter from 'Elephant Complex'
What lay ahead wasn’t worrying but it did feel unknown. Of all the island’s regions, the south-east always seemed the most mysterious and the most remote. The ancient chronicles hardly mention it, and, on early maps, it’s just a blank dappled with scrub. It would be defined by what it didn’t have, in particular, rain, reservoirs and rivers. Victorian map-makers left huge chunks of it empty, or marked ‘Unknown mountainous region’. Where names did appear, they looked hurried and inept, like ‘Westminster Abbey’ or ‘Capello de Frade’, The Friar’s Hood. Even in the 1920s, visitors like RL Spittel tended to think of themselves as explorers, uncertain what they’d find.
The region still felt unvisited. If the island were a clock-face, between three o’clock and six, there was almost no-where to land a ship. Meanwhile, inland, there were fewer roads than anywhere else, and only one railway veering off to the north. It seemed that anything could be out there, lurking in the bush. In 1924, it was a man-eating leopard, but more recently it’s been bands of guerrillas, hiding out in caves. Then there were all the creatures of local mythology. One, called the Gawara, was said to have the head of a buffalo and a tongue so rough it could lick away flesh. Worse, perhaps, were the Nittaewo, a race of miniature cannibals, who attacked in huge numbers, filleting the locals with their long fingernails. To those planning a visit, none of this was particularly encouraging.
But the hostility had also made this land a refuge. Somewhere out there were the last of Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants, the Veddahs. It was said that they were hunters or, in some cases, the hunted. I tried to think how I might reach them, and then I remembered an old friend, Anurudha Bandara. He’d made contact with the Veddahs, and often made trips. I asked him if there was any chance of taking me along.
‘OK,’ he said, ‘Meet me in Mahiyangana.’
For almost two-and-a-half thousand years, the Veddahs have been considered half-castes: royalty but with the blood of demons and snakes. It’s an insult they’ve never truly shrugged off, and yet it wasn’t always like this. In the preceding fifteen thousand years they’d probably had the island all to themselves, and their waruges, or tribes, had prospered. They may even have benefitted from the arrival of the Tamils and Sinhalese, soaking up survivors when their great cities collapsed. But the new arrivals also brought with them a dangerous idea. The Veddahs, they said, were descended from the island’s original demon-queen, the product of her nights with Vijaya, the Sinhalese prince. This immediately made the Veddahs both awesome and vile, a royal vermin.
Little had changed in the next two thousand years. The Veddahs would inhabit the margins of Sinhalese society, picking up the language but none of its habits. By the end of the seventeenth century, they were living as honoured outlaws, raiding travellers and fighting their own tiny wars. At night, they’d leave meat with the blacksmith and if, by the morning, he hadn’t left them arrow-heads, they’d kill him. But the Veddahs were also trusted. In times of invasion, they’d take care of the Kandyan queens and the royal treasure. They could also be found at all the great battles, pouring their arrows onto European heads. But none of this changed them. In 1821, an English traveller, Dr Davy, described them as ‘solitary animals … resembling more beasts of prey, in their habit, than men.’ The same thing might have been written at any time in the previous two millennia.
As far as the British were concerned, the Veddahs were thrilling. Here were people who had no idea how old they were, who had no sense of time, and who’d yet to learn how to laugh and smile. They wore clothes made of bark, and carried a slice of human liver to make themselves more fierce. To the Victorians, it seemed that at last they’d linked up with Neolithic man. One writer described the Veddahs’ existence as an ‘interlude’, adding that they were ‘due for extinction.’ This idea, that the Veddahs were somehow an accident from another age, was still popular, even today. In Colombo, at least one travel agent was offering ‘Stone Age’ tours.
They were lucky, perhaps, to have anything left to tour. The twentieth century had been particularly cruel. In 1911, there were 5,342 Veddahs, and yet, a hundred years later, there were barely 500. Some had perished in the Spanish flu pandemic, but many others had simply lost their lands and vanished in the mix. In almost no time at all, the veddarata , or Veddah’s range – which had once extended to the coast – had shrunk to nothing. The worst year was 1983, when huge tracts of land were swallowed up in a hydro-electric project. At about the same time, the civil war began, and the Veddahs were deprived of their guns. After perhaps 18,000 years of hunting, the Veddahs now had nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Many of them had drifted off to Bintenne, or – as the Sinhalese call it – Mahiyangana, the town now appearing on the plains ahead.
The next few days felt like a play in which all the actors had become somehow trapped. It was as if a storyline had entered their lives and possessed them, and now all they could do was keep the show going. Anurudha had warned me about this. ‘I’m going to take you to Dambana,’ he said, ‘A few miles from Mahiyangana, and home to about 350 families. We pay them some money, and they show us their lives. If they don’t want to take part, they stay out of the way. OK, I know, it’s not perfect but it’s a livelihood. The Veddahs can’t hunt anymore, and have no tradition of farming. It’s all they have left, putting on a show.’
In this play, the sequence of events didn’t seem to matter, and so we began with a curtain call. That night, a cast of Veddahs turned up at our campsite, as if to say goodbye. There were six of them, looking just like the figures the Victorians had photographed: bearded, barefoot men, wearing only loincloths, and each with an axe. Lining up on the rocks, they bowed and danced, and made me a gift of leaves. Then something odd happened – perhaps it was all the lantern smoke – and I was copiously sick. There was nothing in their script about the audience vomiting and running off into the jungle, and so the Veddahs just carried on bowing and dancing, and presenting their leaves. By the time I got back, they’d crept off, vanishing into the dark.
‘They looked tough,’ I remarked to Anurudha.
‘Even tougher once. They could separate fighting bears.’
The next morning, three of the Veddahs reappeared, out of the grass. They carried their axes hooked over their shoulders, and moved noiselessly, like cats. The oldest was about seventy, and the youngest had his hair tied up in a bun. But the third one was the most powerfully-built, his beard so wild and silvery-black that, for a moment, I thought he was entirely covered in hair. He was also the only one to have a bow and arrow, a knife and a name: Udu Waruge Sudabanda, or ‘Sudda’. It was once thought the Veddahs had little use for names, and that people just were who they were - The Fat One, perhaps, Oldie or The Boy.
At first, they hardly seemed to notice me, and merely assumed their roles. Sudda loosed off his arrows, and the others fanned out into the trees, pursuing an imaginary pig, which they then killed in a frenzy of shrieks and gurgles. Later, an interpreter appeared – rat-faced and malevolent with drink – and we all set off, deeper into the forest. After a mile or so, the Veddahs suddenly stopped and listened. I couldn’t hear anything but they all padded off through the leaf-mould until they came to an old tree. There, the boy listened again, and then with his axe, he reached up and severed a huge lobe of honeycomb. With their beards now full of bees, they offered me a dollop and were surprised that I liked it. Did I like the other things they ate, like iguanas and monkeys? They told me hornbills had been popular, and the little swiftlets that went chee-chee-chee when you put them on the fire.
‘And what about porcupines?’ I tried.
The Veddahs all looked at each in horror.
Eeugh, they said. They’re for the dogs.
Things changed after the honey, and our day began all over again. Everyone presented their knuckles in welcome, and we clasped each other’s forearms. Sudda even re-introduced himself, with a cluster of stories that never quite finished. He said he made charms out of elephants’ teeth, and that many of the women had gone away to be housemaids, and that it was now dangerous to hunt, and that some of his friends had been shot, and that chewing betel had given him cancer, and that – beneath the beard – half his jaw had gone. Perhaps, he suggested, I’d like a monkey-skin drum? Or maybe he could make a bow and some arrows?
I tried to explain that Veddah bows were too big for the plane.
OK, he said. And now it’s time to see the king.
It was a grim thought, a king. Who would I find at the heart of this performance? A figure of fun, a Pearly King? Or perhaps some half-crazy Asian Lear, busily presiding over his own demise?
But Uru Waruge Wanniya was neither of these things. He lived in a small, thatched house, where he made baskets and bottled honey. He was a ‘king’ in the sense that he was the son of the greatest Veddah, Tissahamy. Like his father, he’d also become a champion of aboriginal rights, and across the wall there were photographs of him, shaking important hands and meeting the generals. These pictures were the only furnishings he had, apart from a mat and a chopping block. Nor was he apparelled in velvet and ermine. Although his beard was tidier and his eyes were rimmed with fatigue, he was dressed just like the hunters.
I was offered a seat, on a low mud wall.
‘I understand you’ve been to Geneva,’ I said.
This was translated first into Sinhalese and then Veddi basava, and the king nodded. I was away for a month, he said, and spoke at the United Nations. They’d never heard of the Wanniyala-Aetto (or ‘Forest People’) before, but things got better after that. My father had said that, if we were moved into communities, we’d become beggars, but we’re still here. Some changes are good, and some not. We’re not sure about the schools, but we don’t like the shirts and the shorts.
‘And what about the tourists?’ I asked.
They’re alright, as long as they don’t try and change us.
We’d been talking an hour, and the king now looked even more exhausted.
I got up to go. ‘Just one thing. How did you like Geneva?’
I know how lucky I am, he said, not to have that noise.
On my last day, we had several visitors to our camp.
The first were two snakes, who came slithering in amongst the tables. One was a rat-snake and the other a krait. Sudda had already given me something to ward off serpents: a cacuna seed, shaped like a python’s head. Despite its magic, I still jumped. But Anurudha smiled, and carried on writing. ‘One who fears snakes, sees them,’ he said.
The next visitor was more welcome, Mr Gunawardene the teacher. He was half-Sinhalese, wore a shirt and carried an umbrella. Under his arm, he had with him some books he’d written. These were probably the first stories ever published in Veddi basava, and when Mr Gunawardene read one to me, it sounded like the forest coming to life. He said it was a beautiful language but that it lacked the words to describe our times. Shoes – always hated objects – were merely ‘containers’, and aeroplanes had become uda thanen mangachchana dhandu kachcha or ‘above-going machines’. But the improvisations could be endearing too. A motorbike was a hootu hootu, and the English language was referred to as ‘birds shouting’ because that’s how it sounds.
The last visitor was Sudda himself. I found him a short distance from the camp, crouched in the grass. As I approached, he held something up for me. It was a bow he’d made, just the right size to go in a plane.
Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge
Between the Orinoco and the Amazon lies a fabulous forested land, barely explored. Much of Guiana seldom sees sunlight, and new species are often tumbling out of the dark. Shunned by the conquistadors, it was left to others to carve into colonies. Guyana, Suriname and Guyane Française are what remain of their contest, and the 400 years of struggle that followed.
Now, award-winning author John Gimlette sets off along this coast, gathering up its astonishing story. His journey takes him deep into the jungle, from the hideouts of runaway slaves to penal colonies, outlandish forts, remote Amerindian villages, a ‘Little Paris’ and a space port. He meets rebels, outlaws and sorcerers; follows the trail of a vicious Georgian revolt, and ponders a love-affair that changed the face of slavery. Here too is Jonestown, where, in 1978, over 900 Americans committed suicide. The last traces are almost gone now, as the forest closes in.
Beautiful, bizarre and occasionally brutal, this is one of the great forgotten corners of the Earth: the Wild Coast.
Sample chapter from 'Wild Coast'
'Home', for me, was an ill-defined area called Republic Park. It began on the edge of the city, and petered out in the cane fields. As a neighbourhood, I was never quite sure if it was on the
way up, or on the way out. Half the houses seemed empty, or covered in razor wire, and the roads were merely long, white furrows of powdery sand. Taxi-drivers used to love telling me who lived up here: drug barons, traffic cops and some fancy politicians. But the biggest house, which looked like a slice of Versailles, was owned by an evangelical pastor. 'Ah, yes,' they'd say, 'the church is some good business in Guyana.'
The house that I stayed in was the smallest of them all. It had so many bars and grills that, from the outside, it looked like a cage finished off in concrete. But inside, it was cheery and cool, with burnt-orange walls and African masks. I had my own bathroom, complete with a small yellow frog that lived in the cistern. In the mornings, it made a noise like a tiny generator. I enjoyed this, the idea of a frog-powered house.
The arrangement I had was a bit unusual. Before coming to Guyana I'd spent weeks trying to find a family who'd have me to stay. This was obviously a novel concept in Georgetown. Why would a bucra want to stay in a Towny home instead of a big hotel? What will he eat? Will he need a pool? Undaunted, I sent out more emails, and they began to percolate into the Diaspora, spreading out from Canada to Israel. At last, someone came up with a family, or at least half one. Get in touch with Lorlene James, they said, who lives with her eight-year old son.
I still laugh when I think of Lorlene. Although she was thin and light-footed, she had a fat person's gift for expression. Whatever she said was often, I realised, a hilarious distraction from whatever she felt. Of course, she could also be serious, coquettish, intellectual, furious and wry, but mostly she was funny. People loved her, and she could imitate anyone; the good, the straight, the cops, and the people that ran the country. If there was rum around, she could even make herself laugh, and that's when I noticed that – between the gasps – there was always a chink of sadness.
We're all, I suppose, a product of the fortunes that have brought us where we are. The mystery, in Lorlene's case, was how her humour had survived the journey. She described a life buffeted along from one calamity to another. A beautiful Georgetown childhood had suddenly ended in the Seventies, when the entire family was expelled. 'My father was editor of The Guyana Chronicle,' she told me, 'and had a radio show that fell foul of the dictatorship.' Canada offered asylum, and seemed big and exciting at first. But it was no place to be black and hard up. Her father got a soulless job, vetting other immigrants, and his marriage fell apart. Bullied almost all the way to university, Lorlene realised that Canada was not for her. She decided to return to Guyana.
'I got back eleven years ago,' she said, 'and realised I'd missed it every day.' For a moment, there were shoots of genuine happiness. Lorlene married, Floyd was born, and she threw herself into politics. She joined the AFC – Alliance for Change – a party whose novel claim was to represent all the different races. Soon, she became a member of parliament, and her bill for the abolition of corporal punishment was enthusiastically received. But this was a Guyanese tale, and so it was bound to end in surprises. First, her husband was killed by one of the country's only sports cars, and then her bill began to fall apart. 'The ruling party killed it off,' she told me, 'they weren't going to be told what to do by someone they saw as skinny, Canadian and AFC. I hated politics. It was so futile. There was nothing we could do.'
Floyd hadn't known his father but, somehow, he seemed to absorb his mother's misfortune as if it was all his own. I've never met a child so acutely sensitive to the needs of adults. Once, after I'd taken him swimming, he asked his mother if I'd marry her. Lorlene explained that I already had a family but Floyd never gave up. Every time I took off on one of my trips into the interior, he'd hug me and start to cry. It still pains me to think of his tears splashing down my shirt, and his curious, ill-formed hopes. All he knew is that they had to emigrate, and he'd spent hours searching his books and comics, looking for somewhere to live. Eventually, he'd come up with the answer to everything, and that was Japan.
As Guyana's only landlady, Lorlene was hopelessly generous.
From the start, she refused to accept any rent, and, instead, threw a party. Her friends, both Africans and Indians, were like the people from the Side Walk Café – except even more political. When the food appeared – a vast spread of spicy chicken, rice, fried bananas, huge pastries called doubles, stewed channa, fillets of Banga Mary, and enormous flagons of punch – they gathered round it in a scrum. Soon the glasses were clinking and everyone was holding forth. It was like twiddling the dial of a radio, and getting all the pundits at once. I was surprised how simple politics can sound. The AFC people said they'd been burgled, ostracised and completely excluded from public life, for daring to occupy the centre, and courting all the races. For some of Lorlene's older, Trotskyite friends, it was even simpler still; there was no such thing as mishaps, life was series of remarkable conspiracies. One lady solemnly told me that dark, outside forces were responsible for everything here, from floods and robberies to the price of sugar. 'Even the AFC,' muttered another, 'are puppets of the CIA.'
Between these chicken fights, Lorlene took me out on tours of the city. Being borderline solvent, she had a borderline car. It had no paintwork, no bumpers and no name. As it had no handles either, Floyd would have to climb in through the back window, and burrow through the rubbish to release the doors. I enjoyed the idea that people thought this was a gift from the CIA. Once under way, it was like riding along in a skip – until we reached full speed. Then, there'd be a gruesome howling sound, and everything would shudder. Several times, we felt components detach themselves from the undercarriage, and we'd watch as they clattered off down the road. 'Ah well,' Lorlene would say, as if they were bits of her life, 'we're still moving, aren't we?'
I loved these tours. We'd howl through rusty suburbs, drive along the edge of the blazing cane, visit a few fish shops – or bars – and poke our heads into all the public buildings. Although Lorlene kept insisting there was nothing to see, Georgetown was defiantly fascinating. It seemed that, wherever we went, people were trying to create a spectacle, with whatever came to hand. Even the dead were doing it, with their plumed horses and carriages of glass. Once, the draymen shut off the whole of Homestretch Avenue, and had a mule race like something from Ben Hur (except with rubber wheels and distemper). Other spectacles were less ambitious, and involved rags and sticks and little creatures found in the forest. With these, people made kites and footballs, and the national sport was 'rackling'. To be a rackler, you had to put a tiny bird in a cage, and then coax it to sing.
Our tours often ended by the pool of the Pegasus Hotel. There, for a small fortune, Floyd could eat fries and pretend he was somewhere else. Around the pool, there were plenty of others who – in their own small way – were escaping. Some were local girls, beautifully coiffed and primped, hopeful of a foreigner and available for marriage. Often too there were British soldiers here. Mostly, they'd been doing jungle training, and were now trying to re-acquaint themselves with society through the medium of cocktails. AIRBORNE, read their tattoos, as if that said it all. The sight of the girls would make them dive off the tables, and show everyone their buttocks.
'Is this normal?' asked Lorlene.
'Yes,' I replied, 'for squaddies, I'm afraid it is.'
Lorlene frowned. I'd often heard it said that the Guyanese were prissy, and that it was only deep below the surface that there was a rich seam of philanderers and lovers. In the full glare of daylight, explained Lorlene, it was a different matter.
'As you've seen,' she said, 'everything here has to be just so.'
By the end of World War II much of Western Europe was in chaos. The future of our world had been contested here, in the hinterlands of France and across the German plains. But what's become of the battlefields now? Or the people that lived on them? And is there any trace of the 2.7 million Americans who smashed their way into the Reich (or the 12 million that followed)? With questions like these, the award-winning travel writer, John Gimlette, sets off on an astonishing journey into the past.
Beginning in Marseille and ending in the Austrian Tyrol, these are travels through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, and through cities that have risen from cinders. Along the way, Gimlette explores old camps and drinking dens, delves into the murky sub-culture of the war, and visits towns still reeling from the trauma. There's a rich cast of survivors too: veterans, prisoners, a heroine of the resistance, a few charlatans, Rommel's son, an Austrian chatelaine and of course the children of the blitz. Panther Soup is the story of these encounters, a tale as bleak and absurd as war itself.
But this is also an uplifting tale of recovery, friendship and regeneration. Foremost amongst the survivors is an American called Putnam Flint. Sixty years earlier, Flint had fought with the tank destroyers (or 'Panthers') and had ridden along with the great wheeled city that rolled through Europe. It had been an undertaking of unimaginable scale and complexity, and for most of his life, Flint has lived with the memories of the tank-mangled sludge (the 'Panther Soup' of the title). Now, for the first time, he'll return, and, as he and Gimlette retrace the old campaign trail, a very different Europe is revealed to them both.
Sample chapter from 'Panther Soup'
From Notre Dame, I walked out across the beautiful, pampered battlefield of Paris. Baron Haussmann would have been proud to see how his great design had worked, opening like a sluice to flush disorder from the city. 'Architecture is nothing more than administration,' he once said, as he cleared the slums for his exquisite military scheme and his interlocking fields of fire. For him, planning cities was like sketching the outlines of a campaign, and all it needed was armies to bring it all to life. The only thing that would have surprised him about the battle of 1944 is that the forces of disorder were German, and that the Army of the Republic was barely French at all.
I began at the Hôtel de Ville. Few buildings in the world have played such a pivotal role in convincing bureaucrats that civic duty shouldn't look like work. Even in its name, there was no suggestion that this was the place in charge of litter, or licenses for drains. It was an outrageous spectacle of stone – towers, twiddles, drunken nymphs, poets tottering along the pediments, and philosophers in every niche. It seems that such confusion had served it well during the German siege. For five days it was pitted with cannonfire without anyone realising that – between them – the fonctionnaires had only seven firearms, most of which were harmless. Unless the city was to be pecked to bits, it was going to need some help.
At first, the town hall's pleas were ignored. Eventually, however, with the revolt on the brink of collapse, Eisenhower dispatched a huge African army of twelve thousand warriors. It was commanded by a magnificent viscount, whose nom de guerre was 'General le Clerc'. Amongst his men were footsoldiers from Chad, Moroccans, Senegalese, some pom-pommed marines, several hundred white officers straight from the desert, les Chasseurs d'Afrique and a detachment of Algerian mountaineers. They must have made an extraordinary impression as they tore through the Norman countryside, like something from the pages of Rider Haggard. At the very sight of them, Paris opened up, and that evening the first of their tanks reached the Hôtel de Ville, and there the crew got out. Despite their outlandish costumes, the crowd was surprised to discover that they were Parisians. They'd been on the road for four years, had fought across two continents and now they were home.
The city dissolved in pleasure. For a while the Hôtel de Ville almost disappeared in a cacophony of bells, gunfire, squeals and flags. The Germans even added a few sound effects of their own. Sensing that the end was near, their anti-aircraft guns opened up all night, even though there was nothing in the sky. It was like 1812 all over again, except this time France had won.
Actually, there was still a battle to be fought, and so I followed the Africans up Rivoli and into Place de la Concorde. With all its granite emptiness and crushing parallel lines, this has always struck me as the bleakest feature of the Haussman design. It's fine for guillotines and cenotaphs but there's not much here for the living. For several days, the two sides' tanks slogged it out across this urban plain, crashing through the Tuileries and smashing up the trees. During one of these duels, a Panzer took a pot-shot at a Sherman, way off under the Arc de Triomphe, but his shell missed and fizzled harmlessly overhead. This was a fatal error; every French schoolboy knows that the Champs Élysées is exactly 1,800 metres long. The chasseurs turned their gun on the German, re-calibrated the sights and ruptured it in one.
There was much damage in the spats that followed but Paris has worn its indignities well. The Quai d'Orsay was never a carcase for a long, and the twin clocks were now back in their towers goggling over the city. Gone too were the charcoal hulls and the wreaths, and the epitaphs written in soot: 'Ici sont morts 3 soldats Francais'. Even the Grand Palais had recovered from a spiteful fire, and had risen again like a giant soufflé of glass.
From Concorde, I turned into Rivoli and walked back, along the arcades. It was now mostly just tourists here, grazing their way through the souvenirs. But, on 24 August 1944, it was the Tirailleurs de Tchad, flitting from arch to arch. They were looking for the Hotel Meurice.
The Meurice was still surprisingly unobtrusive, considering it had been preening the rich for almost two hundred years. I noticed that, from the outside, the only sign of its stupendous hospitality was a liveried footman and a revolving door, made, it seemed, from gold. It was here that I paused, wondering whether they'd let me in, in my well-kebabed coat, and a pair of wintry boots. The Africans had held no such qualms, and had rolled a phosphorous bomb through the golden gates and then shot their way into the lobby. I can only imagine that this intrusion produced much the same reaction as my own, which was another line-up flunkies affecting a look of pleasant surprise.
This seraphic welcome continued all the way inside. I think I'd expected that – at any moment – I'd be picked up in tongs, and dropped down a chute. But, of course, it never happened and, instead, I was swished through what seemed like several acres of eau de Nil and gilt. Almost every wall was covered in period hunting scenes, blushing shepherdesses and winsome young bucks like girls with guns. Meanwhile, entire orgies had floated up into the frescoes, and a cup of tea, I noticed, cost the same as a night on la Huchette. Like Hausmann's city, it was all so overwhelmingly grand that, if a person wasn't welcome, he'd usually work it out for himself.
At some stage, I came across a list of those who'd stayed here. It was printed on thick cream card, and looked like a menu for people who eat kings and queens. I could see Queen Victoria, the Sultan of Zanzibar, the Maharaja of Jaipur and a handful of other imperial Zogs. The Meurice, it seemed, was also a refuge for those heaved out of their homes. Amongst the royal refugees, I spotted the Duke of Windsor, the Shah of Persia and the kings of Spain and Montenegro. Perhaps that's why General von Choltitz, the old Kommandant of Paris, had stayed here. It was as good a place as any to enjoy one's fall from grace.
'He had room 213,' said the receptionist, as if he'd just checked out.
People were odd like this, in the way they remembered von Choltitz. I once heard a tour guide describe him as 'The Saviour of the City', when all he'd ever wanted was to save himself. His great advantage in life was that everyone assumed he was something he wasn't. The Parisians held him in awe, assuming he'd destroyed Warsaw (which he hadn't). Hitler, on the other hand, assumed it was the sort of thing he'd like to do, and therefore when Paris rose in revolt, he put von Choltitz in command. 'Paris must not fall into the hands of the enemy,' Hitler told him, 'except as a field of ruins'. No monument was to be left standing, the population were to be pounded into oblivion and von Choltitz was to perish in the rubble. He even looked the type to carry out such a fatuous endeavour. He was ruddy and monocled and shaven like a walrus, and although he was middle-aged and stubby, he tended to bounce around as if he was looking for a fight.
But von Choltitz was no philistine, saw no point in the destruction of Paris, and had little truck with Hitler. For a while, he kept his master happy by sending him ludicrous reports that only the saner staff would understand; he'd put three tons of dynamite under Notre Dame; he was about to topple the Eiffel Tower in order to block the river, and he'd be blowing up the Arc de Triomphe to provide clearer fields of fire. Von Choltitz, of course, was merely buying time. All he really wanted was for the Allies to arrive so that he didn't have to surrender to the mob. He even sent them messages asking them to hurry (although he warned that Prussian honour forbade him from giving up without a fight). That night, as the Africans entered the city, he sent them directions to The Meurice, and settled down to dinner. He wished his officers well in the days to come, and – just for the record – told them to fight to the end.
But, when – eventually – the Africans found the hotel and came bursting into the lobby, there was no-one firing back. Instead, their lieutenant was taken up to Room 213, where he found von Choltitz resplendent in his monocle.
The lieutenant couldn't think what to say. 'Do you speak English?' he tried.
'Yes,' said the Kommandant, 'Probably better than you.'
With that, he was taken away to the Préfecture. But it was not the last he saw of The Meurice. He returned in 1959, when the manager found him wandering round the lobby. 'Can I help you?' he asked.
'I lived here for a while,' said the general absently, peering into the gilt.
It was immediately obvious who he was, and a strange scene followed. It was almost as if everyone had forgotten the roles they'd played in the past. Paris feted the general for saving the city but von Choltitz never looked comfortable in laurels. Although he was pleased to see the city restored, there was always a sense of shame. Against all his military instincts, he'd disobeyed his orders from above.
Theatre of Fish
John Gimlette's journey across this awesome and often brutal eastern extreme of the Americas broadly mirrors that of his great-grandfather, Dr Eliot Curwen. In 1893, Curwen spent the summer there as a doctor, and was witness to some of the most beautiful ice and cruellest poverty in the British Empire. Using his great-grandfather's extraordinarily frank journal, John revisits the places his great-grandfather encountered and along the way explores his own links with this awesome land.
At the heart of the book, however, are the present day inhabitants of these shores. Descended from last-hope Irishmen, outlaws, navy deserters and fishermen from Jersey and Dorset, these 'outporters' are a warm, salty, witty and exuberant breed. They often speak with the accent and idioms of the original colonists, sometimes Shakespearean, sometimes just plain impenetrable. Theirs is a bizarre story; of houses (or 'saltboxes') that can be dragged across land or floated over the sea; of eating habits inherited from seventeenth-century sailors (salt beef, rum, pease-pudding and molasses); of Labradorians sealed in ice from October to June; of fishing villages that produced a diva to sing with Verdi and of their own illicit, impromptu dramatics, the Mummers.
Sample chapter from 'Panther Soup'
I've suddenly realised that every one of my visits to St John's began and ended with The Narrows.
This channel, no wider than a shout, linked the harbour to the sea. The gap through which it passed was like a crack in a sky full of granite. As fissures go, it was simply mesmerising. The whole city faced it, as if watching a door ajar. Out there was weather, the Old World, shades of darkness and ice. In here, life had a more turquoise texture, and smelt of potatoes and fresh-cut pine. As a natural portal, it had defined the beginning and end of journeys for centuries. These were the most easterly rocks of the Americas and the beginning - or end - of the New World. The French, when Newfoundland was briefly theirs, had called it Le Goulet - The Throat - a name that was nicely sinister and functionally perfect. From its place in the hills, St John's watched, waiting to see who'd sail in next.
I often found myself plodding round the harbour, responding to some primordial urge to be uphill, up in the rocks. First, I would climb through The Batteries, several layers of Victorian artillery; Inner, Outer, Middle, Upper, Lower. These old dug-outs had long been colonised by eccentrics, people living in driftwood cottages and flotsam. I always imagined that their proximity to the wild, gnashing sea had left them a little distracted. Their homes dangled over the black froth and they themselves were given to some curly pronouncements: 'Inteligence not Educasion!' said a sign, or 'CANADA = NEWFOUNDLAND'S NEWEST COLONY'
Every now and then - and most dramatically in 1959 - the walls of The Narrows crumbled, crushed these dwellings and swept them out to sea. When that happened, the Battery people reacted as all Newfoundlanders did in times of wrecked homes; they simply went out into the woods and cut themselves new ones. As I climbed higher, the broader picture emerged. St John's just about filled the foreground. Although I would become very fond of this city of planks and ship's paint, it told terrible lies about its age and size. It was not, as it claimed, the oldest city in North America (for that was to overlook - among others - Mexico City) nor had its population ever reached much beyond 100,000. But it behaved like a capital and, from up here, I could see two cathedrals, a Supreme Court and a miniature government.
Beyond St John's, I fancied that I could see into the heart of the island. This was, of course, an absurd thought; Newfoundland is the size of Ohio or England. All I was looking at were the soggy hinterlands - the barrens - where Johnsmen went on week-ends for boil-ups, gunning and perhaps a little grassing. If I turned and faced the other way, up the great gulley, I could see the draggers running for home, each beneath a helix of seabirds. In winter, the horizon would be speckled with ice and, in summer, a crease of brilliant blue. Had I been here on 9th July 1882 - on the cusp of Spring - I might have spotted the Albert. She was picking her way through the last knobs of ice, Grenfell on the fore-deck, troubled by the smell of burning.
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig
A wildly humorous account of the author's travels across Paraguay–South America's darkly fabled, little-known “island surrounded by land.”
Rarely visited by tourists and barely touched by global village sprawl, Paraguay remains a mystery to outsiders. Think of this small nation and your mind is likely to jump to Nazis, dictators, and soccer. Now, John Gimlette’s eye-opening book–equal parts travelogue, history, and unorthodox travel guide–breaches the boundaries of this isolated land,” and illuminates a little-understood place and its people.
It is a wonderfully animated telling of Paraguay's story: of cannibals, Jesuits, and sixteenth-century Anabaptists; of Victorian Australian socialists and talented smugglers; of dictators and their mad mistresses; bloody wars and Utopian settlements; and of lives transplanted from Japan, Britain, Poland, Russia, Germany, Ireland, Korea, and the United States. The author travels from the insular cities and towns of the east, along ghostly trails through the countryside, to reach the Gran Chaco of the west: the “green hell” covering almost two-thirds of the country, where 4 percent of the population coexists–more or very-much-less peacefully–with a vast array of exotic wildlife that includes jaguars, prehistoric lungfish, and their more recently evolved distant cousins, the great fighting river fish. Gimlette visits with Mennonites and the indigenas, arms dealers and real-estate tycoons, shopkeepers, government bureaucrats and, of course, Nazis.
Filled with bizarre incident, fascinating anecdote, and richly evocative detail, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a brilliant description of a country of eccentricity and contradiction, of beguilingly individualistic men and women, and of unexpected and extraordinary beauty. It is a vivid, often riotous, always fascinating, journey.
Sample chapter from 'At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig'
In a city of eccentricity it was inevitable that I would come across someone like Carlos Yegros. Our meeting was not however coincidental; I was channelled in his direction by his network of relatives and friends. I don't think they ever thought that Carlos would enlighten me as to the workings of his peculiar city but they knew that I would like him all the same.
They were right of course on both counts. Carlos was seamlessly charming, untidily handsome and just a little disconnected from reality. I think he must have had some sort of aura because, whenever he took up machinery, it simply stopped working, telephones broke down and cars ground to a halt. But the effect on people was quite different; they seemed oddly transformed. Disappointments turned to amusement and confrontations to banter. Even the dragon in my hotel melted and the street vendors loved him; he never said `no' to them, just `Otro dia!' - `Another day!' - as if every relationship was too precious to fracture and should merely be deferred.
I arranged to meet him one morning in the lobby. He strode in wearing wrap-around sunglasses and a tweed jacket bulging with broken telephones and oranges. I don't know whether Carlos ever contrived to be comical or whether being comical was just an accident - like being 47, divorced, broke and blind in one eye. These, Carlos' attributes, were - I decided - probably the equal and opposite elements of tragedy that all comedians were supposed to be possessed of. Like everybody else, I soon found myself laughing and I couldn't think why.
There was only one car that worked for Carlos and fortunately he owned it. It was a hideous, gnarly Japanese thing which he locked up with giant brass padlock. It had been broken into so many times that the only way in was through the driver's door. Beyond the drivers seat, I couldn't see where the path went.
"What's all this newspaper for?" I asked. It wasn't just newspaper. The car was packed with rubbish. There were shoes and boxes and pieces of fruit, another tweed jacket, some roller skates and lots of socks. Perhaps it was all propellant and any minute Carlos was going to ignite it and we would hurtle through Asuncion like a fire-work, trailing sparks and rust.
"Just throw it in the back" he said.
As there was no room in the back, I simply burrowed my way into the heap.
"Is there a safety belt?"
"You won't need it here," he said airily "In Paraguay it is the law to put on safety belts but it is only to make sure that the driver stays near the wheel."
There was no danger of either of us straying far and so we sat there, held in place only by debris of Carlos' chaotic life.
Eventually we set off into the Asuncion traffic. It wasn't really a tour but more a series of incidents that began and ended at my hotel. Carlos couldn't see anything on his left - his blind side - and so we lurched from near-miss to near-miss. The orange-sellers scattered before us and a man carrying a manguruyu - a sort of river monster with a beard - dived for the bushes with his gigantic fish.
It was probably a good thing that Carlos didn't see these things because he was easily distracted. We stopped to buy two sacks of oranges, to visit a Canadian girl (who was out), to surf the internet in MacDonalds (and reduce it to whimpers and dandruff) and to visit three supermarkets. Carlos seemed strongly attracted to supermarkets and whenever he saw one, he swerved off the road.
"You'll like this one."
The first thing that struck me about the supermarkets was the fact that the glass doors were thickly sheathed in leaflets for lost dogs; lost show-dogs, missing mastiffs, retrievers that failed to return, whelps gone forever, poodles left in the park, lurchers left in the lurch, hounds, tykes, absent friends and Alsations. How could the Asuncenos lose so many dogs? And hadn't I seen them walking themselves round the parks? Now that I came to think about it I couldn't remember having ever seen a dog and its Asunceno together. Perhaps the dogs had had some sort of premonition about the city and had co-ordinated a mass break-out, to taken their chances in the wild?
For the dogless, premonition-less citizens, the supermarkets and `shoppings' were a sort of consolation. They were invested with the same extravagance of hope and wealth as medieval man had lavished on his cathedrals. Whilst they didn't offer access to the afterlife, they lit the path to a place that was - in a way - even more desirable; the Americalife. These places may not necessarily have been recognisable to Bostonians and New Yorkers as home but they were not of Paraguay either.
Here, bathed in cool, machined air, lit by a million pins of artificial light, the Asuncenos could communicate with another world. The shopping centres of Babel. It was a world of white skin, yellow hair, lip-gloss, Hellenistic promises ("Aphrodite Boutique") and Anglo-Saxon wizardry. Here, everything was creamy and sterile in a city that was hot and green. There were perfumeries, Swiss coffee shops, computer pods and bouncy castles for children who had never seen a real one. One shop sold nothing but Barbie Dolls and was run - apparently - by Barbie herself, in a stiff pink tutu. It was like a nightmare that it was nice to find oneself immersed in. I half-expected to come across a boutique full of inflatable pigs but the Paraguayans were now both more and less coherent. One glassy floor up, there was the New America household store where they could equip themselves as New Americans with 94-piece Sheffield-steel cutlery sets, assault rifles and Louis XV electric hostess trolleys. Nobody was buying anything of course - just touching, stroking, genuflecting.
"Who paid for all of this?" I was trying to keep up with Carlos. The floor was so marbled and polished that I had to skate along behind him like the Reverend Walker on Duddingston Loch.
"Nobody," he said.
So it really was a heavenly gift? Or an inter-galactic trading post?
"Yes" I insisted "But somebody must have built it"
"It's a dollar-wash" said Carlos. His good eye was wrinkled up in amusement. The other one looked stonily unimpressed. I imagined that he felt rather as he looked.
I had heard the expression `Dollar-wash' many times before. Every time something twinkly and new went up in Asuncion it was greeted with sneers of "Dollar-wash". As to who was laundering what kind of money, people were rather unspecific. This was hardly surprising; despite - or perhaps because of - the most gluttonous corruption in the world, no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted. Most people, on the other hand, saw the trail leading back to General Rodrigues - now tucked up in his mini-cathedral - and ex-President Wasmosy - now confined to his luxury bunker. The democracy that they had so assiduously nurtured had served them well, putting a pleasing veneer on a social structure so unequal and imbalanced. Sultanism had been replaced by neo-sultanism and the palaces of the new regime were its shopping centres and lustrous malls.
The supermarkets only differed from the shoppings in that they spread out like fields of eager landfill rather than climbing glassily upwards. Carlos and I wandered up and down the aisles, looking - he said - for the Canadian girl. She wasn't with the champagne or the garlic sausage nor did we find her among the 100's and 1000's and the chocolate milk. When I came upon a rack of copies of the Maquis de Sade's "Filosophia en el Tocador", I suffered a temporary loss of reality. Where exactly was I? I was revived by the sight of an Indian child, mottled with dirt, pedalling through the aisles in a plastic play-jeep, trailing price tags and high-pitched store-assistants. I felt an unsaintly urge to encourage him but all I could think of was winking. He looked at me blankly and then reversed away as fast as his little, eighteen-inch legs would pump him. When I saw that all the Pokemon packets had been eviscerated and their cards scattered around like a fox-raid, I credited the tiny driver with leadership skills. He gave me hope that not all Asuncenos were held spell-bound by the shopping malls.
Carlos was wriggling free of the spell and had forgotten about the Canadian girl.
"I'll take you to the Botanical gardens," he said.
I was impressed: our little adventures were beginning to show signs of turning into a tour. Actually, Carlos was dandling a rather different idea; her name was Lucy and she was a goddess of science.
I would have been quite happy if we had never reached the Botanical gardens. I was enjoying spluttering around Asuncion in Carlos' self-propelled waste-paper bin. He kept me constantly drip-fed with intriguing gobbets of information that he had gleaned, mostly from Paraguayan newspapers.
"Did you know, John, that in your country MacDonalds are trying to burn people by serving the coffee very, very hot?"
Whenever he told me any local political gossip, he made a little beak with his finger and thumb and his hand chattered in time to his words. It was a sort of disclaimer; it's only what he'd heard from a funny little bird called `The Gossips'.
I asked him about his family. It seems that Carlos was born to a family rich in vicissitudes. His father was a conscientious objector during the Chaco War but had earned extraordinary respect for his courage in carrying water to the front-lines. Carlos' brother on the other hand was a general in the Paraguayan Marines, an entity which is in itself amazing for a country that doesn't have a drop of sea-water. The brother had died from unhealthy over-indulgence and so Carlos' life was dedicated to healthy self-restraint; he was a trader of herbs and minerals.
"That's Freddie Stroessner's house."
Carlos' car was scraping along a kerb on his blind side. Beyond the grinding and gnashing of hub-caps, was an area of wasteland, thickly forested with tall, crackling grass. Beyond it, I could just make out the outline of The White House, Washington. It looked dejectedly different from the original; there was no glass in the windows and it appeared entirely hollow. A group of boys were playing football on the terrace.
"It was never finished."
I noticed that this was The Gossips talking, telling tales from its perch on the steering wheel.
"When Stroessner heard that Freddie had stolen all the money from the bank," The beaks paused and jabbed in the direction of another concrete blob, the National Bank, nestling in equally long and rank grass some distance away, "He put a stop to the building."
"How long ago was that?"
"Stroessner left in '89" Carlos whistled though his teeth "It must have been in about the early 80's. It's been abandoned for nearly twenty years."
"Why is it just left like this?"
The Gossips were on their perch again, twittering "Freddie's dead - drugs. No-one knows who owns the land. It was all fake companies. Now no-one will touch it."
It was the last and most enduring monument to the stronato - a wretched eyesore, built with plunder, abandoned in haste and recriminations, ensnared in a tangle of law and weeds.
When we got to the Botanical Gardens, we didn't go straight to see Lucy. Instead, we walked through the grounds and the little zoo. This had, until 1862, been the summer estate of Carlos Antonio Lopez and - however sweaty and ballooned-up on his own fluids he may have been - I had to admire him for the park he chose to rest in when the mercury lurched into the upper nineties. I had been here before, in summer, but now - in spring - the grounds were feathered in pink lapacho blossoms and cool, sweet clumps of frangipani and jacaranda. It was all achingly attractive and I would have been happy to sprawl out on the grass all day, admiring a cocktail-party of ostriches and parakeets. But, Carlos tugged me away - on through the zoo, to cast an eye over a giant ant-eater, six jaguars and, of course, Lucy.
In order of their excitement value, Carlos would have put them in that, ascending order. I would have put them the other way round. The giant ant-eater was exorbitantly exciting. It had a tail that fanned out like a great cloud of ash and its tiny (but brilliant) brain was encased in a strangely conical velvet head like a Womble from Wimbledon. But this was no Uncle Bulgaria; any dog that ventured to attack it would have found itself admitted into the arc of the beast's paws and then two sets of claws - each like tailors' scissors - would scythe into the dog's back, take a purchase on the attacker's flesh and pull it apart. Dogs, it was said, simply opened up and spilled themselves like ripe fruits.
By comparison, the jaguars looked rather plump and tranquil - or was it tranquilised?
Lucy was already clamped within the arc of Carlos' paws by the time I got up to the curator's building. She was looking neither plump nor tranquil but bore an expression which said that, though she was very fond of Carlos, she wished he was a little less demonstrative. A slender, vigilant hand was already slapping away The Gossips that were nibbling their way across her thigh.
"You like her, John?"
Lucy was very pretty and I had to admit as much, in a way which I hoped didn't sound even fleetingly demonstrative. She offered up her lovely face to be kissed. She had cool, creamy skin, deep black tresses and deep black spectacle-frames that ought to have been unappealing but which made her seem inquisitive and paradoxically alluring. It was only when I found out what she did with her days that she plummeted in my league-table of tingles.
I had felt slightly awkward, standing in front of Lucy and Carlos, she rather formal and zoological and he uncomfortably natural, and so I slid imperceptibly into the next room. It was Lucy's laboratory.
I was horrified at what I found. Hundreds of dead, chemical eyes were staring at me from their bell jars and tanks, creatures swimming in poison, frozen at the moment that they had yielded up their lives to science. There was a sickening reek of formaldehyde and the walls prickled with butterflies and scurvy moths speared onto cemeteries of cork. Here were stuffed monsters too; monkeys leaking straw and stockings from their fatal wounds, the gangly aguara guasu - the maned wolf - now grotesquely deformed by taxidermy and a capybara that had been so plumped up with enthusiastic stuffing that it looked like a clawed cushion. I wiped a little scurf from one of Lucy's pickling jars. The eyeball of a whale, the size of a croquet ball but veiled in white, lacy tissues of meat. His brain in the next jar. Above them, armadillo foetuses, curled up like armoured roll-mops.
In the remaining jars, were Lucy's prize specimens - the freaks in a collection of horrors; a calf foetus with two heads, each regarding the other with bleached, unbridled loathing; finally, a pickled puppy with a horn like a unicorn.
I returned to the others. It was now impossible to regard pale Lucy without gagging on a tiny, phantom hiccough of formaldehyde. I unhooked Carlos from his specimen and towed him back out into the sunlight.
I had surprised myself with the volatility of my perceptions. Perhaps I shouldn't have been all that surprised; pickling freaks all day puts even a pretty girl deep into the territory of the weird. It can't do anybody any good to direct their life's energies solely to the preservation of pain, deformity and death. Anyway, my perceptions were going to be nothing compared to those of Asuncion's children; their entire appreciation of the animal kingdom was based on an anteater, six dopey jaguars, the runaway dogs, a unicorn and half a dozen other marinated curiosities.