“If there’s one thing I have learnt on my travels, it is that it’s the people who make a country, the ordinary people, the people who aren’t perhaps going to rewrite history, the people who will barely leave a footprint in the sand.”
THE PRAYER WHEEL
She is seventy-six years old, but looks older. Her name is Tsherine. She is dressed in a maroon kira, Bhutan’s national dress, that is ragged and bleached by the sun. Her grey hair has been cut very short and looks oddly modern in her surroundings for she sits outside the ancient temple of Pana Lhakhang in Paro, beneath the shade of a bodi tree. She has spent every day for the past nine years sitting in this spot, beneath the tree of Buddha’s enlightenment, on a small square wooden platform, surrounded by a swarm of flies that land lazily on her arms, her hands, her face, the only exposed parts of her body. She does not brush them away.
A pile of mustard leaves lies in her lap. Occasionally she picks up a handful in her left hand, scoops the leaves in her palm and ritually filters them through her fingers. Her right hand pulls on the worn rope that turns the prayer wheel next to her in a clockwise direction, around and around all day long. It whirls. The sound of it fills the air.
As she sits she recites silently to herself the Mani prayer, the words spoken by Chenresig, the God of Compassion. She recites this prayer ten thousand times each day, keeping count on the wooden beads that hang around her wrinkled neck. She has spent the past three thousand, two hundred and eighty five days reciting this prayer. Nearly thirty three million prayers has she uttered, over and over, hour after passing hour.
“Om-Ma-Ni-Ped-May-hu,” she whispers, rocking slightly back and forth on her hard wooden seat. “Om-Ma-Ni-Ped-May-hu,” again and again, trying to make amends for the past wrongs she has done, trying to climb closer on the path to enlightenment.
As I walk past I give her the betel nut leaves that I brought in Paro earlier that morning. She takes them with a sweet broad smile that creases up her eyes, gripping the leaves in her hand as if they were pieces of gold. She puts one in her mouth and begins to chew, slow cow-chew motions that match the rhythm of her prayre.
Before she came to the temple Tsherine was a farmer. She came from a village near Punakha in the centre of Bhutan, more than a day’s walk from the nearest road. She tended goats, cows, grew her own vegetables, her own corn. Nine years ago she came to Pana Lhakhang to pray. It was a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage that was meant to last two weeks. But whilst here she fell and broke her leg. She has been here every since, stuck, unable to get home. Everything happens for a reason, she believes. This is the life that was chosen for her, the path she was meant to take. So she lives now in a small one roomed stone hut at the bottom of the garden of a nearby house that smells of damp and the vegetables that used to inhabit it, and every morning she sets off, propped up by a wooden crutch, down the stony path to her prayer wheel.
The sun is low in the sky by the time I have looked around the temple and Tsherine is heaving herself up off the wooden platform. Her teeth and mouth are stained red from the betel nut leaves. She smiles as I pass, bright eyed and creased with lines, nodding thanks once again as she slips into the pale blue sandals that were given to her by a kindly neighbour. She grabs hold of her crutch, leaning against it, her arms shaking with the effort to move slowly forwards, one step at a time. Her bent back stoops low, stiff from her day’s praying. I watch her hobble off, shuffling across the uneven stone flags and disappearing around the side of the temple. She will return again at dawn the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. She will return every day, till death prevents it and only then will she know what her prayers have amounted to.
THE ODD COUPLE
The market runs alongside the railway tracks. There are people everywhere, dressed in cartoon-bright colours amidst a backdrop of brown dust that churns up around their feet. The government has been trying to move them all for years. To no avail. The people collect here. The day to day business of selling their wares flourishes amidst a babble of shouts and laughter. Goods have been laid out on straw mats. There are bundles of shallots, rows of smoked fish, blocks of shea butter, piles of ground indigo and hand rolled balls of palm oil soap. Whirling winds twist through the crowds, spitting dust into eyes and mouth. The air smells of chicken, sweat and the turpentine from a nearby shoe mending stall.
I push my way through the crowds, choking on clouds of pollution that belches from the passing traffic running alongside the tracks. I pass women with glossy hair extensions and painted nails, their curvaceous figures squeezed into skin-tight dresses. There’s a group of girls on the ground having beads platted into their hair. They kneel with their heads in each other’s laps as a needle is threaded roughly through each of their locks. There are men and women laughing together, still reticent in each other’s company, but flirty and tactile, so in contrast to the villages I’ve just come from, where arranged marriages are the norm and where men and women work separately, eat separately, live their lives apart. Here, in Bamako, Mali’s capital, everyone’s looking for love, or at the very least lust. Sex is everywhere, drifting through the sweat and dust.
It’s him I come across first. I catch a movement down by my feet, a scuffle, an elbow in my leg, and look down. He’s crawling across the stony ground, a young man, in his twenties, with a large wide mouth and long lashes that bring out the darkness in his eyes. On his hands he’s wearing a pair of flip-flops that he’s using to pull himself forwards, dragging his useless legs behind him. They are shrivelled stumps, one cut off below the knee the other by the ankle. His knees are thick pads of skin, like leather soles, pushing him over the grit. He looks up briefly, the white’s of his eyes gleaming. There’s a grin on his face, a grin of comradeship as, like everyone around him, he tries to fight his way through the density of the crowd. He moves on, passing me and disappearing into the traffic of moving bodies behind me.
I shuffle on passing stalls of medicine imported from India, a stack of roller-skates, a man pulling a trolley piled high with aubergines. A few yards later though there is another movement by my feet. Again I look down and this time it’s a woman on her hands and knees, her legs all twisted, her feet bound in thick grubby bandages, one shoulder hunched towards the ground. Her face is beautiful, chiselled, wide eyed with a smack of red lipstick glossing her full lips. And she’s also smiling that same conspiratorial smile, glancing up at people passing, rolling her eyes, part of the crowd despite the fact that she’s moving knee-high amidst everyone. Then like the man before her she disappears behind me.
I move on, but noticing the ground now, taking in the rubbish trodden into the earth, the grime, the muddy patches where dirty water’s been thrown from a nearby fish stall, a mound of steaming dung left from a passing mule. It’s tough ground for the hands and knees to walk on.
I come full circle, up one side of the tracks, down the other, taking in the stench, the colours, the city life. It’s only when I reach the place where I started my ambling that I see them together, the crippled man and the crippled woman, sitting on a balding patch of ground beside a group of boys playing football. He is holding her hand, his flip-flops discarded by his side, and she’s looking up, coquettish, and laughing something into his ear. He grins, boyish, confident. They look like any young couple in love. You wouldn’t know that they spend their lives knee-high to everyone else, moving on their hands and knees through the dirt and the dust.