A Lost Motorcycle in Marrakesh

„I will give you a city tour – for free.“

“Are you sure you’re Moroccan?”

Salmane’s laughter was lost in the wind as we rode away from Jemaa el-Fnaa on his motorbike. He was still elated about having it back. A few days ago the police had stopped him at an intersection because he was riding without a helmet (a helmet on a motorcyclist in Marrakesh is about as rare as a sighting of Khidr, the green saint of Islam, in broad daylight). He thought he would get away with a warning, but the policeman told him to get of his bike, wrote something on an official piece of paper and handed it to him. “This is now your motorbike.”

Getting the bike back turned out to be a real odyssey. The fine of 300 dirham (a hefty fine for a student) had to be paid at the Royal Treasury, where a large number of people, some demonstratively dangling their motorbike helmets from their hands, were queuing for similar offenses. When Salmane’s turn came the clerk stood up, shut her window and said she was going for lunch. While we were waiting an incensed man almost single-handedly started a small revolution, shouting for a good ten minutes at another clerk who gave a good as he got. To the ears of the uninitiated even loving words sound like a quarrel when spoken in Arabic, while an actual quarrel has something of a storm and a deluge about it. But the man was smiling in between his bouts of anger. Two trips to impressively forbidding police stations to get the receipt stamped followed. Salmane’s brother, a taciturn doctor, picked us up in his car and drove us there.

Salmane had mentioned him and that he had studied hadiths, the sayings attributed to the Prophet, in Saudi Arabia, so I was expecting a rather conservative and perhaps combative man, but he was clean shaven, sparse with his words and relatively unremarkable in appearance and simply didn’t seem to know how to deal with my presence. Then again, he had taken a “lunch break” from work to drive his youngest brother from a police station to the next, so any added distractions were probably best ignored.

Having the necessary papers in hand he was sent off – with an uncertain goal. Apparently there were three places where confiscated motorbikes were brought and he didn’t know where his bike was and neither did the clerk who had stamped his form.

His brother dropped us in front of a nondescript gate and drove off. There was a tiny window, barred with rusted iron and behind it loomed the face of an elderly man, screwed up in a permanent Piss-Off setting. He took the papers and turned out to be friendlier and quicker than his appearance suggested. While he worked over the papers, another trio of bike seekers arrived, greeting us with boisterous noises.

“Do you like my body?” asked one of them, strong, tall young guy, quite out of the blue. I was momentarily puzzled by the question as he went through one or two half-hearted poses to show it off.

“He’s a body-builder!” shouted one of his friends and shook my hand. Never mind, we laughed and chatted a bit in a mixture of French and English. They, like most younger men, preferred English to “the language of the protectorate.”

Then the rusted gates swung open, interrupting us. Salmane and I were admitted with another double-check of his papers and the trio that had arrived after us submitted theirs to a check from the gatekeeper.

We entered and before us lay a wasteland of confiscated bikes. All size and shapes (most shapes exactly the same as Salmane’s bike, unfortunately, which seemed to be a popular model) filled the yard, haphazardly put together in rows and bundles with those at the far end looking like they would never be reclaimed by anyone. It seemed like a post-apocalyptic traffic jam after a catastrophe that had wiped all motorcyclists from the face of the earth.

I looked over at the keepers, expecting them to produce some kind of paper on which the location of Salmane’s bike would be marked. Instead they lazily waved in the direction of one of the corners. Nobody had any clue where the bike could be.
Salmane and I looked at each other for a moment, shrugged and went off to look for the bike. The only signs denoting anything at all were chalk-markings on the seat, showing the date when the bike was confiscated. Another clue was that Salmane had had to remove the pedal chain a few days ago, so we were looking for a bike confiscated on a certain date, missing a chain.

This particular Moroccan-Austrian detective duo did walk all over the grounds, but eventually came across the correct bike. Salmane rubbed at the markings, but they wouldn’t come off. So he pushed the bike out, had a quick, light row with the guys at the gate who weren’t sure he had filled everything out, but then we were off, once more complete and motorized.
The city belonged to Salmane again and he would show it to me.

He spoke while we were riding along the roads of the city. “What are those holes for? The wall has holes – what are they for? You can guess.” Along with his bike he had regained his stentorian, school-masterly nature.

I looked at the wall surrounding the city and studied the holes. “Pigeons or birds?”

“No! Look where we are. What is out there to protect against?”

“Well, nothing.”

Exasperated with his pupil, he said, “No, the wind. The holes are because of the wind from the desert. It is very strong and it would blow over the wall, that’s why they made holes. No pigeons or birds – if that is what tour guides tell you, they are lying.”

We raced past the gates of the new palace and out towards the richer quarters, always outside the walls of the medina. The roads were wide here, and quite empty of cars.

“I will tell you about the city and the people who founded and made it.” Salmane, you must know, has a prodigious memory. He learned the Qu’ran by heart when he was a child and repeatedly demonstrated it to me, reciting the subsequent lines whenever we heard a recitation on TV or on a radio in a shop or a car. In addition he was a great storyteller, understanding the power of images and conviction. One of the first things we had talked about was how the story of Joseph and his brothers was different in the Bible and the Qu’ran (not at all, by the way), ending up re-telling the story to each other, filling in half-remembered details and scenes.

I have never found much use for the Bible, to be truthful, but here it struck me for the first time how useful a tool of communication it is. Through the eyes and words of Salmane those stories became alive again. I’m not going to say that centuries of misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians vanished (and since I’m no Christian it would be a misleading analogy) because we sat and talked about a shared story, but I realized how far communication, shared knowledge and the ability to tell stories go in establishing mutual understanding. We could have talked about a movie or food in the same way, but because our experiences in those matters were probably very different we ended up talking about this ancient story.

But there were more stories, dreams and visions. Islamic history is full of them. Hashish and opium have always been favoured pastimes. Rulers dreamed grand and decadent dreams and warlords nourished themselves on a harsher diet of curved steel, hard saddles and desert winds. Those are stories that are best told when in movement – the motorcycle ride was exhilarating.

Two rival rulers, one a soft and rich man fond of poetry, the other a hardened and crafty warrior. A story about the first: One evening, in his garden, he sat on a bench and was musing about affairs of the day when he spied his wife on a balcony. He was struck by her beauty and wanted to watch her unnoticed, so he hid. She seemed rapturous, watching something in the garden. He followed her gaze and saw that she was watching the slave girls, all swathed in white except for their naked brown soles, as they were going to the well to get water. It was evening and the sun was setting behind the well, so she would see their silhouettes and would watch with great pleasure how their naked feet touched the clay path. The ruler remembered this. Unknown to his wife he ordered to have another part of the palace built, with a golden well in the direction of the setting sun and a balcony of jewels and wrought metal, exotic flowers lining a path that was all made of musk. The well was to be filled with the whitest milk and for more than a year the ruler sent out men to search for the slave girls with the most beautiful feet, which were to be garlanded with pearls. After two years he had created an apotheosis of the scene that his favoured wife loved and he gently tied a scarf around her head, covering her eyes and led her into this new dream that he had made…

Later he made a deal with the warlord, only to be betrayed, watch his soldiers routed and be chased from the city. But the image of his dedication is what remains, certainly embellished, but also making everything else meaningless. Softness and harshness, always side by side. The soft naked soles gliding over musk and the boots of soldiers trampling the earth.

We drove past the walls like the wind it was meant to keep out, along wide and almost empty streets, looking at the gates. It was through one of those gates that we drove and immediately we were swallowed up by a mass of people. It was a market in one of the poorer parts of the city. The word bric-a-brac very accurately conveys the shape of the produce sold here.

People were throwing words and goods at each other and everything seemed so makeshift that a gust of wind could dissolve them all, stands and people alike.

We scrambled through them and into the narrow streets of the Mellah, the Jewish quarter and poorest part of the old city.

“This is the Mellah. If you come here at night, you do not value your life very much,” advised Salmane as he took a turn. Another motorcyclist came towards us and we nearly rammed each other. Dust and pieces of stone flew from a wall as we scratched it, not with our feet or shoulders, but the back part of the motorcycle.

“Neither during the day, I guess,” we both mumbled, hoping the other one would not hear. Then louder: “Are you alright?”

The motorcycle and its riders were unharmed. We continued through the narrow streets, cautious for a minute, then making robes flap in our wake again. The Mellah is not just a remnant of the past, nor is it a ghetto. The historical relationship between Jews and Muslims in Morocco is not an easy one and the apartments in the Mellah are among the worst and most dilapidated in the old city. Drugs like kiff are as readily available here as anywhere else and it can only be the poverty and perhaps a spectre of the past that causes the bad reputation. On a later visit I was to meet a Moroccan Jew who worked as a performer on Jemaa el Fnaa, but this time my impressions remained fleeting as we crossed the quarter on the bike and shot out through another gate back into the flow of beige taxis and towards the outskirts where Salmane lived.

Venice – A City of Lies

The city is not a city. It’s actually a mirage – few people know that about Venice…it is a fata morgana of the seas, something that a shipwrecked traveler might wake up in, believing himself in a different world. The layout of this floating city is just too unique. I imagine it drifting away overnight, and myself waking up in a lonely bed floating in the lagoon. The city’s history is very unreliable. Nobody knows when, why or by whom the city was founded.

It is built on what is called an archipelago, a number of small islands, connected by channels. It is one of the few entirely car free cities in the world and probably the only one where a boat is the most convenient mode of transport. There are doors leading out of houses straight onto the canals.

This uniqueness is Venice’s burden. The city attracts thousands upon thousands of visitors each year. In fact the number of actual Venetians, people who were born and live in their own city, is rather small in comparison. It is said that – at almost any given moment – the visitors considerably outnumber the residents.

Venice is a city of visitors and travelers…and it can bear them. No matter how many people fill the main routes – like the one leading from the train station along the Rialto bridge to San Marco square where you can at best creep forward on a busy summer day – you can always take a quick turn and vanish into one of the smaller side streets and look for the true Venice…if there is one at all.

You must know, Venice is also a city of masks. The culture of the city was one of appearances and show but also of deceit and lies. You must never give yourself away entirely, always keep the others guessing and entertained by who you are. Go into a church. Any church. You will see that the paintings are without depth, like shimmering colors on the waves. Nothing solid and monumental would feel at home here.

A celebration of that aspect of the city still exists in the yearly Carnival of Venice every winter. It’s a celebration of the city’s secretive history and its love for the uncertain. People from all over the world fill St. Mark’s square wearing the most elegant masks and costumes.

Walking through the city you will see masks looking at you from every corner. Some are a reminder of the history of Venice – for example, a long nosed mask is reminiscent of those worn by plague doctors during the time the Black Death haunted the city – others are pure fancy.

Venice has several outlying islands. One, the island of Murano, is world-famous for its production of glass and jewelry which has a century long tradition and is often visited to see the glass factories and glass blowers at work.

Another island is reputed to hold an old sanatorium and to be more than a little haunted. That is probably just a story – why not rent a boat, try to find the island and make sure?

The decayed glory, the canals, the boats, old churches, squares full of people…Venice always offers something for a short or longer visit. Perhaps you will even see it during high water once, when many streets are flooded and visitors have to walk along makeshift piers to see everything they want to see.

There is one secret that the founders of the city managed to keep, for the most part. They were all seafarers and most of them were pirates, plunderers and thieves. In fact the entire city is a gigantic magpie’s nest of stolen goods, bits of temples and statues that were nabbed far away. Look at the Palace of the Doge, if you don’t believe me. On the middle balcony there is a group of statues on a chariot. They were brought here from different places and then the architects played a game. Where does this statue fit? The one that looks slightly angry. Even the lion on top of the pillar, even that symbol for the city came here on a boat from Africa and never felt, let alone saw a Venetian chisel.

Knowing this pleasantly scandalous morsel, don’t you feel like putting on a mask and walking around the city, feeling slightly superior and a little proud of yourself? No matter where you are from, the mask surely makes you a bit Venetian, no? Perhaps you understand how important, how essential, a bit of scandal was to the city?

Perhaps the next time (the first time?) you come, you will look for your own secret Venice? They say it is right around the next corner and over this bridge. Just walk past the shops selling masks, ice cream and pizza. Perhaps it’s somewhere in the Jewish part? Perhaps it is in a street that suddenly ends, in a window above a sea-smudged wall and the dance of light on the waves…

The Isle of Strangers

The beach of Luskentyre – looks Caribbean but is thoroughly Scottish

I don’t mean to be overly British and start with the weather … but I have to start with the weather and hide this fact as best I can with literary allusions.

“Wind and Wave” is the title of a collection of dark hebridean folk tales and it’s impossible to better sum up the isles than with those words.

The wind is a constant companion on the Outer Hebrides and not unlike Hamlet the visitor may be convinced after not too long a time that the direction of the wind can influence one’s mood as well as one’s sanity. You can walk along narrow lanes or drive your bike along the roads for hours and be astonished by how easy it is to move along. Perhaps it is the road itself that keeps you moving. But woe unto you if you try and turn around to return the same way you came from. If you do that, you’re bound to find out that it was a Southerly wind after all, the proverbial wind in your sails, that benevolently carried you along. Now the wind is in your face. The wind is like an unceasing swarm of insects that enters even the tiniest openings of your clothes. You feel it in your bones. You feel that the wind knows all of your deepest, darkest secrets and that is why it wants to keep you from returning. You feel faced with true cunning and evil. It is old and clever. It does not take long for you to curse the wind in intimate detail, like an ancient enemy.

In short: Headwind makes you go mad, faster than you think. Like a man searching for shade in the desert, that is what you are, on a windy day on the Western Isles looking for still air.

If you manage to brave wind and madness, there are a lot of discoveries to be made. The Outer Hebrides, specifically the isles of Lewis and Harris are remote. (strictly speaking those two form a single island; but in the imagination of it’s inhabitants it always appears as two islands; Lewis is the island of the Protestant workers and Harris is the wild and exotic South in which – at least in whispered rumours – traces of flamboyant Catholicism appear). In the books of the Greek historian Strabo they appear under the name of Hyperborea, the furthest North, and once you’ve made it from London to Stornoway you have already made it halfway to the North Pole. In an age of cheap flights distance doesn’t mean very much, but we have become so complacent that something like changing flights twice already seems like an impossible imposition. And since this is the way things are, most of us will never make it to the barely inhabited isles.

Which isn’t too bad for those that do. The relative emptiness of the land (about 18,000 people are living here and population density is about 8 people per square kilometer) makes it easy to draw a line right through time itself. Here civilization did not manage to create enough ruins to cover the old places. The traces of the – often quite harsh – past have not been wiped away.

The foundation of the island, stone called Lewisian gneiss, is the oldest stone that exists today and it was created during thousands of years of volcanic activity. It was the ice age that gave the isles their shape. The heat rising from the Earth’s molten core melted the rocks, the air and the ice hardened them; explosions and eruptions shaped the rock into mountains. It’s a scene from the oldest myths. A world of chaos, ice and fire. Then the ice age passed and temperatures rose. The massive sheets of ice ground down the mountains like titanic sandpaper and the icemelt filled the valleys where it formed the countless Lochs and created the basis for the peat moors that dominate the Hebrides.

The empty isle, a newborn exhausted by the catastrophes and cataclysms of volcano and ice that gave birth to it, was a place of the sidhe, the fair folk, creatures of the otherworld. They lived here in a world that would lie beyond human comprehension for yet a while.

Much later man enters the stage. Human, manipulated or simply guided by the sidhe, who he would not comprehend as his un- and subconscious voices until much later, took his first tentative steps across a harsh landscape where hunger, loneliness, cold and madness where never too far away. Then human learned to hammer bronze and iron. Learned to live in hordes and tribes around a fire and to chase away the fears, the cold and also the sidhe. All of these things he banished to the shadows.

The islands were already settled in the Iron Age. If one takes a car to a place called Bosta, a beach hidden in a bay of the isle of Berneray, which in turn is hidden in a bay of the isle of Lewis, one will find a reconstructed iron age house right in the sand, a few meters away from the waves. It is only a few steps away from the place where archaeologists found the ruins of the original house and the remains of its inhabitants. Until recently the house used to be inhabited. A woman – conveniently, a woman of present day – stayed in the house to explain to curious visitors all the details of the lodging. She was working for the archaeological society but they seem to have run of of money to pay her.

If, instead of their modest and quietly proud character, the Hebrideans would be given to boastfulness, they would never shut up about the fact that the menhirs, the standing stones, that can be found on Lewis are older than Stonehenge. The Callanish Standing Stones are about 30 minutes by car from our beach of Bosta and offer you a somewhat more mystical window on the world of 4,500 years ago.

There are a number of stone circles scattered over Lewis but the largest of them can be found above Loch Roog between windy fields and herds of sheep. The purpose of those mysterious stones is up to debate but in the imagination of most people they are a clear symbol of something mystical and spiritual. It is possible that they indeed were religious gathering places for the druid class but they might also have been astronomical tools, used to calculate weather patterns or the severity of the coming seasons, as well as more complex calculations in accordance with the celestial bodies. One thing that is sure is that there were burial held here. During the time of the beaker culture, which lived at the end of the Neolithic period (about 2000 B.C.), bodies were lain underneath the stones and given ritual gifts. Another sure thing is that during the late Neolithic period the henge stopped being a gathering place of any sort and was instead used as farmland. The henge sunk into layers of peat and was home to cows and sheep who rarely stopped to puzzle about the use of these quizzical stones.

Later inhabitants of the isle, freshly Christianized, now distrusted those relics of a devilish past. If they paid attention to them at all, they called them fir breighe, false men. As far as they understood the stones were non-Christian humans that had been turned to stones as punishment.

The House of Flowers

Tito’s Tomb in the House of Flowers

Jugonostalgija – the nostalgia for the lost Yugoslavia is a strange social phenomenon. It can be the harmless obsession of younger people who have never experienced what they dream of, except through the stories of their parents or grandparents. It can be the quirky eccentrics of a collector or someone slightly mad who likes to run around swathed in old paraphernalia. It’s neither threatening nor very political and it has experienced a renaissance in Serbia and in Belgrade as well. Nowhere is Jugonostalgija more apparent than in the Yugoslavian Museum, the halfhearted new nickname of Tito’s final resting place.

You can find the museum on a leafy hill in a well-off residential district of the city. The museum itself, a pompous and not particularly trustworthy looking post-war construction, is closed for the foreseeable future. It’s official name used to be the “Museum of May 25th”. It was given to Tito so he could have space for all the lavish gifts that were thrown at him by his own people as well as foreign heads of state. Among those gifts we can, of course, also find the eponymous batons that were used in the festivities of May 25th – but let’s talk about them later. The museum is being renovated and questions reveal that renovation is a highly flexible state. When will it be re-opened? Well, when we open it.

Notwithstanding that, there are tickets for the museum. You can buy them in a small, not very obvious hut and an improvised path leads you behind the museum into a garden inhabited by statues. At the top of a small set of stairs you are personally being welcomed by your host. A black bronze statue of Josip Broz wearing his favourite coat waits in an imperious posture for all visitors, well-wishers and distant relations.

Here you can find a few visitors, scattered in the abandoned-looking gardens. Nothing here is pompous. It feels relaxed and only slightly kitschy. There’s a strong smell of pine needles. Occasionally a group of tourist-pilgrims rushes past. They are young people who all have been given a felt hat with one red star. Neo-soviet sheep shepherded by a brisk guide. They laugh and seem joyful, perhaps a bit intoxicated and – as all themed tour groups do – slightly out of this world.

The groups are being led towards the House of Flowers. It is a pavilion from the 1970s. Inside, surrounded by marble and exotic plants and flowers, you line up for your selfie with the tomb of Tito. It used to be a winter garden, built right next to Tito’s residence. Following his own wish, he was entombed here, inside of thick white marble. A smaller tomb is next to his. This is where his wife Jovanka Broz lies. She was the victim of intrigues that first estranged her from her husband in 1975 and then caused her to lose all her possessions a few years later. Tito’s presumptive heirs wanted to remove her from the scene as quickly as possible. She spent the rest of her life in poverty and it took until 2013 for her to be reunited with her husband in death.

Next to the tombs is a smaller room. Tito used it to work and today it houses and exhibition of the Blue Train, that he used to travel around the country. Here you can find old maps, photographs and parts of the original chairs and tables used inside the train. I was there before half the world fell in love with a new kind of autocracy, but even then the fascination seemed very uneasy to me. At the same time I could not help but wonder how to make sense of this mass of events, political as well as personal – even at a remove of many decades it is difficult; to make sense of events as they unfold seems, at least from the perspective of a historian, impossible.

The opposite side of the room is dominated by many batons, celebrating the Titova stafeta – the “Relay Race of the Youth in Honour of Tito”, which happened every year on May 25th. This was the Day of the Youth and Tito decided it was also his birthday (his real birthday was May 7th but who is counting?). On this day Tito stood in the Belgrade stadium to receive the baton as well as a book of signatures from the hands of the last relay runners. Altogether those gifts had traveled a distance of more than 9,000 kilometres, traversing the entirety of Yugoslavia. The runners were young and athletic men who had – according to legend – spontaneously started those races in order to honour their wonderful and magnificent ruler. They continued until 1987 – 7 years after Tito’s death. The House of Flowers used to be filled to the brim with pilgrims then. But the collapse of Yugoslavia put an end to all that – the races, the pilgrims, everything disappeared and the House of Flowers closed its doors.

But the most recent of those batons are not from 1987 but from 2012 … no 2013. How come? In 2008 the relay races began anew, as a festival for those thousands of people that still celebrated Tito’s birthday. The initiators were political actors – the New Communist Party, led by one of Tito’s grandsons. For them these festivals are a means to an end, a way to tap into the nostalgia and use it for their own purposes and support.

The people, however, want their nostalgia to be just that and nothing more. Not a political but a personal event. A chance to get drunk and reminisce, taste some sweet sadness of bygone days or remember tiny personal glories. A memory of childhood or power (this nostalgia is most deeply rooted in those who only experienced the end and downfall of Yugoslavia or those that had careers in the military). Sometimes nostalgia means nothing more than a place where Tito impersonators, wearing sunglasses and the famous coat, can pose for pictures. Where you can open restaurants with Tito decor and dress the waiters as Young Pioneers. Nostalgia rarely wants reality. It wants mood and fashion.

The main part of the museum is in another house – Tito’s former residence. Here you can find piles upon piles of those gifts that Tito recieved from abroad. It’s called the Old Museum and it is quite disorderly. You walk around between guns and very similar looking uniforms of the Great Marshall and slowly but surely you feel lost. Lost in time as well as in the personality of Tito. Only occasionally the curators try to speak up, in the form of newspaper clippings, notebooks from schools or paintings. It is an intentional looseness, they say. They want to create an undogmatic space where you can encounter the complicated past eye to eye.

Sometimes you imagine to glimpse the lack of budget behind the idea of an open and undogmatic museum, but it certainly is not a waste of time. There are no self-important interpretations that give you meaning and so you are forced to create your own image of Tito and his time. Surprisingly enough this image, even amidst all the relics and pomp, might turn out less negative than one would initially suspect. Any form of hero worship quickly collapses under the sheer weight and repetition of lavish gifts that heads of states or sycophants sent him. But behind that you can find an educated man, self aware and interested in art, science and psychology. Sensitive, perhaps most sensitive to his image. The military appearance, that silly coat, was calculation, not an expression of his personality the way it was with Mussolini, who had to hide behind it. It was the role he thought was best suited to keep Yugoslavia together. Of course he was mad – only a madman even wants to be in such a position …



Welcome to our mysterious home – I would like to introduce all of you to a project of mine. This is an introduction, but also an attempt to raise funds, so if you are allergic to such requests, stop reading right now 😉

Terranigma (terra = earth, enigma = riddle, terranigma – the earth as an eternal riddle) is a project that I conceived of in 2013, inspired by a preceding visit to the Himalaya region of Spiti in Northwestern India and by conversations and work with fellow travellers, photographers and filmmakers. My goal is to create a platform to preserve and document some of the most remote, strange and culturally valuable places and traditions on our planet through photography and writing.

After seeing ancient monasteries and thousand year old traditions in the valleys of the High Himalaya I came to realize that much of this wealth might be – and probably will be gone from the face of the earth forever in five to ten years time.

The world changes at a breakneck pace. Change, as a matter of fact, is the only thing that is constant in our existence. I want to record and show the world in the way I percieve it while I am travelling: as a deeply fascinating, fragile place full of mysteries and riddles, full of life, of traditions and also of change.

Do you consider such a project worthwhile? If you do, I am asking you to seriously consider supporting it. I aim to create a platform for various photographers and independent documentary filmmakers to collect knowledge of disappearing things. This must – out of necessity – start with my own photography.

This is what I am asking you: If you think it worthwhile, go to my website (http://www.sebastianbuchner.weebly.com/terranigma.html) and have a look at the PDF file. I am offering all of these images for sale in various formats, from very large to very small, from expensive to really cheap.

All money raised this way goes directly into funding further travels and to help create an online platform for photography, documentary film and independent cultural or anthropological reporting. I don’t expect this will be easy or that anything at all will happen without a serious amount of work – I am thankful for anyone who takes enough time to look at it and perhaps is willing to share it as well.

Thank you,
Sebastian Buchner.

Hard Bones Beneath a Flexible Spirit – Spirituality, Wealth and Power in Middle Class India

The acquisition of power bestows unto someone a certain moral imperative – this holds true of any society. A high ranking politician is governed by different laws than a garbage man. Yet what happens in Hinduism is that the ethical objectivity that is prevalent in the West and which leads to the development of humanitarian feelings is replaced by a multiplicity of ethical and circumstantial subjectivities. Ethically, a person is only required to judge a situation correctly and turn it to their advantage. If a person succeeds that way, it is an essentially “good” action, regardless of the methods used. The winner makes the rules and you can only enter into a position of power by outsmarting others – it’s the ultimate expression of the trickster god, Loki in Norse mythology, Krishna, the honey-thief, in Indian. Any immovable ethical construct can only be considered ballast by someone who needs to be ethically nimble in order to succeed.

In America and increasingly in Europe we have an ethical construct that I will call, merely to illustrate it, the Spoiled Child System. It is, maybe, an inevitable construct for societies that are predominantly middle class and have been so for a long time. The one who cries loudest, not the one who steals the honey, is at an advantage. Progress and ingenuity are not awarded, but the system is in place to support the weakest link. The whole socialist structure cannot, of course, be reduced to something that simple and the view is prejudiced and simplistic, but consider for a moment that an Indian dealing with a group of Westerners in a competitive environment will always take himself to be Krishna and the others to be those whose honey is to be stolen, one way or another. An Indian with a group of other Indians…pretty much the same.

People who approach the Indian society up to a certain point are often appalled at how medieval it seems to be in certain aspects. This moral relativity, the prevailing conservatism, the option to purge oneself of all sins through the performance of a ritual and the fact that Indians are spiritually flexible enough never to feel any sort of crushing spiritual dread may well be an approximation of the mind of a European in the fourteenth century. By distancing ourselves from religion we have forgotten that it has a noticeable effect on the day to day life of a people and makes the mind a lot more robust. I find that side of religion very hard to deny. However, most Indians will react surprised if anyone ascribes a strong spirituality to them – religion, in India, is seen as something very pragmatic that enables a person to keep their self-regard under all circumstances and to allow them to purge themselves from whatever trouble they have whenever they desire to do it. Spirituality, in the sense of the contemplative Western tradition, or as something absolutely removed from worldly affairs is barely existent in India (it is, of course, there in the wanderings of countless sadhus and the idea of acquiring tapas, but even there is it driven by a certain kind of acquisitiveness, the wish to own something, spiritual powers in that case). Mind and matter are not separated from each other. A Hindu separates his life into four stages – brahmacharya, the learning stage where knowledge of the world is acquired, grihast, the householder, during which stage one works to acquire wealth and to experience physical pleasures, vanprastha, when the baton is passed on to the next generation and one slowly removes oneself from worldly matters, and Sannyasa, contemplation of the afterlife in the final years. One can decide to forgo one or several of the stages and enter into moksha or renunciation before one enters old age.

Maybe all of this can be considered day-to-day spirituality, but it is not the kind of spirit that engenders compassion. The Indian society is structured to a degree that is not obvious to a casual observer (if you think the pervasive chaos is a sign of lack of structure, try dropping a billion people in Central Europe and see how that goes), but proves to be all-pervasive once the observation becomes more acute. People in power are expected to flaunt their power and wealth in the most obvious and unmistakable terms – a politician without a revenue, ten man strong, a big Ambassador car and an arrogant, larger than life bearing is not considered a powerful man. Explosions of anger that, to a Western eye, often seem like arrogance or childishness are actually performances of power. Someone on a low hierarchic rung would rarely dare to show his displeasure to someone of higher rank. Both power and weakness need to be demonstrated in order to affirm the structure that holds Indian society together. The absolute constructs of morality that exist in Christendom are completely absent in Hinduism. A rich man is not expected to show humility, quite the contrary. He is expected to flaunt his wealth by the most extraordinary means.

Without an absolute morality, visible power becomes a spiritual focal point. But this also means that the powerful will never have a sense of compassion for the powerless, because it is due to a failure of their own that they are in a position of weakness. Equally, the powerless often accept their position as their karma, their circumstance – however these circumstances are no longer as fixed as they have been for centuries. There is no concept of charity in middle-class India, the very idea of it is considered stupidity. As such it is not unlike the middle-classes dotted all around the globe. Anything that is not obviously concerned with making money, must harbor some secret designs on it. The hierarchic structure of society gives credence to that idea, especially now that money has become a sanctioned way to climb that structure to the topmost spots. The structure itself is not questioned – it is considered an indelible result of karma. Poor people are deprived simply because they occupy the lowest ranks and wealthy people are entitled to every bit of wealth that they have simply because they occupy higher ranks. Even the gods have their hierarchies and while you can manage and shuffle and climb and fall, the structures themselves are tougher than bone, tougher than time. This is why an Indian does not consider it strange or conflicting when a guru who is teaching abstemious spiritual practices, for example, drives a brand new Mercedes and lives in a gigantic villa. His social position gives him all right to material possessions even if his teaching speaks against them. From an Indian middle class point of view there is no contradiction here. Even people who are in a position to speak up against the practice will rarely be prepared to do anything against it. In place of charity there is the right of each individual to amass as much wealth and affluence as he can, unburdened by any moral considerations or considerations for the other. Charity is offered by various religious institutions, but often as a form of advertisement or recruitment, or it is simply part of the personality of some people. It appears as the most commonsensical thing to do. If I help another, he might help another and might help me, too, if I am in dire straits.

10,000 Steps to Salvation – Up Girnar Hill

I met Ritu and his friends while climbing Girnar Hill, the Hill of 10,000 Steps, in Gujarat. Girnar Hill is a famous pilgrimage site. It is about 1110 meters high and topped by  a number of temples, with a Jain temple situated a little bit lower, at about 7000 steps. There is something bombastic and challenging about Girnar Hill. 10,000 steps? Who wants to climb 10,000 steps and back in one day?
Well, I do, so just before dawn a riksha takes me to the bottom of the steps. It is chilly, but low temperatures are a blessing on such a trip. The driver is swaddled in a rag to keep him warm. His teeth clatter. So do mine. I start thinking of my own people, of the reasons Austrians or Europeans might have to climb such a hill. Being devoid of most religious sentiment, we can only start by seeing it as a sport-like challenge…but for me there is something else as well. I have been dreaming about the place, long dreams about climbing endless stairs and the stairs have begun to show up in the drawings I do daily. For me there is something mystic about it and I begin to think about how the Indians approach such a climb. I cannot number one god for every step that I take, I even have troubles with the basic concept of divinity and here I am in a world that is steeped in it. I smile patronizingly about the various Western “truth-seekers” that I meet from time to time and who come here for markedly “spiritual” trips (often translating as “ganja whenever you want it and no authorities” )…but the idea of spirituality is unmistakable. Has it snuck up on me? No, it can’t…it is here all the time. Sneaking is something decidedly un-Indian. It would ring a loud bell or shout at me. I’m about to climb a holy mountain and while the mountain may come to Mohammed, I’m sure it makes a whole lot of noise while it does. So I am safe from sneakers. But what about the obvious?
I realize that the very idea of a holy mountain is staggering to me, defies to be grasped by any sort of rationality. I do what everyone here seems to do when confronted by sheer irrationality: I shrug, chose a god to say some prayer to (Odin, who I have always liked – after all he’s the god of travelers) and race in headlong.

The mundane and the divine go hand in hand – look, the steps up the hill are lined with shops! It’s early so not all of them are opened yet. Those that are hold lonely figures swathed and swaddled in layers of clothing and the shops themselves are lit by a few candles. They sell Prasad, offerings to the gods; brightly coloured flowers, coloured powders, little tasteless rice puffs and pin-point heads coated with gold, silver or sugar, fragrant garlands in orange and yellow that one can hang around the necks of statues. They also sell more prosaic stuff – water bottles, chocolate, namkeen (tasty snacks). Other shops are still dark, the counters turned into makeshift beds where the proprietors sleep like corpses, clothed in white linen. Later, as I climb higher, it becomes clear to me that many of the shopkeeper live in their little shops…they sleep in there and, given the number of steps they have to climb up and down, they probably leave them only when necessary. It is certainly not the worst kind of life – shopkeeper on a sacred hill – but how do they live there? What about their families? (some shops are run by a number of people, women and children included) Who carries their goods up the hill?

I didn’t pause to find answers to those questions because climbing up steps is a consuming task. After a while one falls into a rhythm and that rhythm can be improved all the time. Watch out that you take one step with the left leg and the next one with the right or your knees will start to hurt. If you can take a stair in one step, perfect, otherwise you have to devise a pattern to put equal weight on both knees. The mind is engaged, one tries to keep oneself motivated, begins to trick oneself by saying “Look, a hundred more steps, then I’ll take a break…hundred more steps…ten more steps…one more step…oh, you know, let’s make it another hundred” and so on.

I cannot pause long enough to admire the landscape for fear of taking too long a pause, but the higher I climb the more breathtaking it becomes. I slowly clear the smaller overgrown hills and can see the sprawling villages surrounding them. There are other, smaller hills, topped by other, smaller temples (“Hills of 3,000 steps, hills of 5,000” steps says a small, exhausted and sarcastic voice inside my head). I am ambitious when it comes to climbing hills and mountains, so the people I started out with are soon left behind.

Before my climb I found out that you can actually climb Girnar without ever setting foot on one step. You can hire porters who will put you on a little wooden seat tied to a long pole and on this seat they will carry you up and down without ever complaining. You pay accordingly to your weight and so you will be weighed publicly and, I imagine, ceremonially before your trip. I was hoping that I would see some people being carried, but the carriers start their work later in the day, so I have to wait until I climb down again.

Later, higher up, a group of young men catches up with me. I don’t want to talk. I want to climb. But they are chatty and so I answer their questions evasively at first. But they are persistent. One has a piece of lemon that he sucks of when he feels exhausted. He is small and slender with a fine and noble face. A good-looking and charismatic man, a little younger than me. He smiles easily and acts assured. This is Ritu. Ritu is the leader of the group. They number about ten, all of them boys around twenty. Most of them are engineering students in nearby Allahabad. Only of them has chosen a different field of study. He’s going to be an Ayurvedic doctor and he has to endure some gentle ribbing from his engineer friends. They take turn asking me questions, but there is respect and restraint about their questions. Soon I find myself caught up in their interest, their manner of talking, their quick and friendly spirits. They are from Junagadh, where my guest house is. They have lived in the area since they were boys and they quickly offer to show me around. They point out, while we are walking, all the different things that we can see. Sasan Gir. Have I seen Sasan Gir? There are lions in Sasan Gir! Have I seen wild animals? Have I been to the forest? Will I visit them at their houses?

They are exuberant and curious. After a while it is very good to have someone to talk to and to point out things to me. We exchange compliments and observations, goad each other on when we get tired, pass the first temple, the Jain temple (“7,000 steps”, we sigh) and finally reach the top of the hill…

Having reached the top the first thing I felt was how strangely energized I was by the walk up the steps. I couldn’t have stopped and stood still even if I wanted it. On the top, I saw now, there was not a single and huge temple complex like the Jain temple, situated a little lower, which we had passed a while ago. There were small temples, almost like huts, some on rocky spires that stood against the clouds and made them seem like miraculous castles out of some deeply strange and affecting fantasy.

One thing, something that I had never seen before, was the way the sun, which had risen while I was climbing the stairs, illuminated the clouds around the hill. For some atmospheric reason it looked like a halo of light surrounding the entire hill. The lower parts of the clouds were dark, but the upper parts where they slowly vanished to show a light blue sky were brightly lit. Halos of light? Temples on top of rocky spires? I was pulled ahead by my wish to explore more of this miraculous place.

The first temple I passed was a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god. There were a few pilgrims sitting around the temple – in fact there was a surprising number of people, men, women and even children, already at the top which made me think that they must have climbed up her during the night. If a place is called holy, it is never left alone.

I met two elderly men who greeted me with surprising friendliness and patted me on the back and one of them showed me his rosary which held attached to it an image of Osho, one rather controversial spiritual master who had founded the Pune commune and who held the belief that sex is the best way to spiritual development and enlightenment. We said goodbye and I moved on. There were more steps, but now they led down. I felt truly removed from everything else, as if by climbing these steps I had found some lost magical kingdom and now I could wander around here for as long as I pleased. Ritu and his friends were next to me one moment, gone the next. We chatted freely and joyfully.

I noticed stones painted in bright acrylic orange with two little stones painted like eyes glued to them. They were everywhere. They represent Ganesh, the elephant headed god, as I found out later. Little representations meant to remind you that the divine is watching from every place.

I climbed up to the temple that I had seen first, the one I had seen outlined against the clouds. It was a small temple, the highest point of Girnar hill and when I stood before its open doors I could see in every direction of the compass. Rivers, forested hills, villages. Everything lay spread out before my eyes.

Soon I was driven inside the temple by the throng of people pressing up to it. There were three priests inside the temple. One sat next to a divine image observing the worshippers. I had no idea what to do so I studied the people who sat down in front of the image before me. This gave me very few clues since most of them simply sat in front of it and then supplicated themselves to the image. Then they moved off, moved around clockwise in the temple room and then, upon leaving it, they rang a bell. When my turn came I sat down in front of the image and got up again. The priest called me back. “You didn’t do it right,” he told me in English. “Sit down and relax.” I crossed my legs, breathed a few times. “And now you bow down.” I did, touching the cool stone with my forehead. He seemed satisfied, so I put a few rupees next to the image as a ritual gift and moved off. I reached the bell and another priest who was sitting right underneath the bell, an expression of absolute bliss on his face. I was puzzled for a moment, apparently long enough for the first priest to turn and tell me, “You ring it, as loud as you can.” I nodded and rang the bell, moved outside of the temple, slightly stunned and dazed.

The cool air outside refreshed me and I climbed down again, made my way back to the temple of Hanuman where I hoped to meet Ritu and the others again. On the way I met some men from Rajasthan, a desert region, who invited me to sit down with them and share a bit of their food. They gave me cooked flour mixed with spices. We couldn’t communicate much but the mood was very friendly. They asked where I was from. There was a graffiti right next to us, on one of the rock faces. It said “Austrian-Indian Mountain Climber’s Association” in Hindi and English. I pointed at it and said, “From there, from Austria.”

Later I found Ritu again and he showed me something next to the Hanuman temple. There was a formation of rocks and if you climbed through it, you were said to be allowed to make a wish. We went down on our bellies and slid through a narrow mouth made of rocks and entered something like a little cave. We had disturbed two young boys who had sat there and who looked at me with wide and surprised eyes. We climbed out through an exit on the other side and Ritu invited me to come and eat with him and his friends. He had seen that I had not brought anything to eat with me so I had to share with them.

We sat down on a ledge behind the Hanuman temple and had chapattis, some pickled spicy vegetables and even some sort of dessert, which I couldn’t identify. It tasted wonderful. Monkeys had gathered to watch us, hoping to snatch some of the leftovers, but there weren’t any. Afterwards we sat in the sun, enjoying the day, enjoying the sunlight and watching the faraway and blurred world below.