meanwhile, in the hot & dusty south…


When I switched on the wifi on my computer, it didn’t find a single network in the centre of Vellore, a middle-sized town in the hot and dusty plains of Tamil Nadu. Some things in South India do not change, it seems. Women with turmeric-yellow palms and faces, cows roaming the street, men urinating on the the pavement, the scent of sewage and spicy sambar, the leaning piles of paper everywhere in the Ideal Police Station. (And even if new things do arrive, the old stay too.)

vellore street
street in vellore
I had arrived on a bus with Greg Simmons‘ horde of audio engineers on their annual field recording trip (which, as has become tradition, included an oto.3 recording session). They carried on to Goa, I figured Vellore might be a nice little place to visit, after bypassing it on my motorcycle journey two years ago. We had lunch and Greg’s army boarded their next bus while I walked in the direction of what I thought might be the centre. To my surprise, all hotels were full. Because of the harvest festival pongal, or was it my white face? Contemplating alternatives involving more long-distance bus rides, I stopped checking every hotel, just walked into a few that seemed friendlier. In one of those a solemn white haired man was willing to let me a room provided I’d get a stamp of approval from the police station – so it had been my foreignness indeed. Unfortunately, when I found the place the responsible officer had left for the day. No problem sir, I was assured before I was simply left alone, and indeed, after some convincing and leaving an extra deposit in the form of a large sum of money and my passport, I could move into my room.

My dinner was this trip’s first rava masala dosa, crispy and tasty. Quickly done too, in one of those dimly TL-lit halls, concrete floor and metal crockery banging through the reverb. I had a heavy piece of triple chocolate cake to look forward to whilst battling the mosquitos in my room and going through the results of the recording session, so went looking for some accompanying tea. But alas, it was too late, No tea anywhere, including the stall of the angel-faced chaiwallah next door – matching smile, hairy ork-ears provding counterpoint.

vellore street
another street in vellore
Had a good tea the next day though, at the barbershop, between shave and eyebrow-trim. The barber had sour breath and divided his attention between running a razor over my cheeks and a televised pongal cow ceremony. Water buffalo (one at a time) were set free into a crowd and excited men jumped at them and held on to their humps as long as they could. Anyone who made it for more than two seconds punched the air triumphantly while the cow, unbothered now, disappeared around the corner. The barber and his friends got very excited. The spectacle reminded me of what I’ve heard of Pamplona in Spain – raging bulls chasing the crowds in narrow streets. The much more sedate water buffalo featured in the Indian version seems merely scared and just wants to get away. No one got hurt. There seemed to be different teams in different uniforms, and mysterious people outside the camera frame kept throwing gifts down from a higher platform. The audience, apart from a few smiling tourists, was all male.

Freshly shaved, I took an autorickshaw to the bus station – and found a large, beautifully fortified temple complex just behind the Ideal Police Station, including guards in matching style. Would have been nice to check out. Next time. After this reacquaintance with South India and a nice stop on my way to a few days of relaxation in Bangalore, I got settled in Madras – make new friends at Hotel Broadlands, practice Indian pharans and American rudiments, unpack my ukulele, and enjoy bookshops and espresso at the Express Avenue Mall. I am now ready for our shows with oto.3, starting tonight, at Counterculture in Whitefield, Bangalore. On to the soundcheck now.



Waiting for Erik Gustafson of EPIC to talk about elephant songs for his Iraq Matters podcast over more than decent espresso at the Rand Gallery, Suleymaniyah. It’s the second day of Eid and the place is swarming with fifteen-year olds, grouped along gender lines and looking their best: skinny jeans, bow ties, pink polyester dresses, and, for the boys, the incomprehensible middle-eastern haircut – clipped close down the sides and back and a big mop on top, often asymmetrically shaped for heightened effect. The girls taller than the boys, who try to compensate with shadowy upper lips and studied-casual smoking around the bathrooms.

I’ve escaped my room – edit central, these days. How does one turn 20 hours of film into a 20-minute documentary? I’ve done a lot of short clips, but this is new. And exciting, obviously, but I need a break.

Although I must admit it’s not the first escapist move today – after cataloguing and reviewing all my material over the last few days, I felt like doing something concrete, and threw together a quick-and-dirty edit of the song Hewraman from our show at Caffe11 last Thursday, based on an idea by Ari Ali. The static camera was operated by Rebin Jaza, the moving images were shot by film maker and bear saviour San Saravan.



sahaloka paqla
After a good chat with Erik, during which we discussed topics ranging from intercultural collaboration to the economic side effects of donor money (to be broadcast in the nearish future), I walked down Salim Street. The Saholaka area (street corner, really) was busy as always, teeming with groups of men and women of all ages and of course lots of families. Happily munching on a portion of paqla, I once again congratulated myself on that moment of clarity, many decades ago, when I figured I should probably be a musician, because that would surely show me a lot of the world.

into central europe


Good day, sunshine! Bratislava, half past eight in the morning. A hot chili-chocolate that makes my nose run and a (strangely lemon-scented) croissant – in the sun! It’s warm enough to take off my hiking quality cardigan, the combination of sun and fresh breeze feels good on my bare arms. Is this what they call Indian summer?

i thought it was here...
I’m on my way to the centre – trying to find a Adrian and Tono and friends, musicians I worked with on a La Nuit de Bratislava, a Merlijn Twaalfhoven project in 2004, in honour of Slovakia having joined the EU. (These days, the country seems fully integrated – the first one on this trip where euros are the native currency.) We had a great time then, putting together an evening of music from scratch, all bringing ideas and enthousiasm. The five or six years I regularly worked with Merlijn probably had quite an influence on my work, developing collaborative skills and ideas about what I did and did not like in ways of creating music together.
It’d be fantastic if I could find our Bratislavan colleagues again, catch up and play. But I’m not very hopeful – I think I found their studio last night, and, like many things here, it all looked a bit more polished and upmarket than it used to. I’m not saying that they couldn’t have gone with that in the past eight years, but they may have also taken up residence somewhere else. If they’re even still here.

megalomaniac building en route to slovakia
The ride from Budapest (check back for the post on my visit there, or subscribe to updates) to Bratislava was very pleasant. After a slow start including breakfast in a wonderful little teashop, I cruised through the city another time, crossed the famous chain bridge – in its time the second-longest suspension bridge in the world, or so I heard – and continued along the Danube, the Duna in Hungarian, or the Dunaj, as I believe it’s called here in Slovakia.

After endless suburbs and a sign pointing to the Napkollektor (sounds like a dream job, wonder if they’re hiring?), I came by a campsite that rung vague memory bells – did I stay there with my highschool class in our final year, a few lifetimes ago? A great week filled with museums, quests for vegan food, missing my first girlfriend, wandering around town, and the first time I tried my luck at firebreathing – inspired by the effect of spitting vodka into the campfire, a classmate and I got a few bottles of petroleum and became the stars of the final evening.

The Danube’s famous bend to the west started via the picturesque (and slightly Efteling) towns of Szentendre (St Andrew) and Visegrád. Beautiful road through forests along the river, and lots of bikes. We wave at each other enthousiastically. Lots of Harleys like before, and all your regular plastic bikes that I wouldn’t be able to identify to save my life.

Crossing the river meant crossing the border with Slovakia. No checks of course, this being Schengen, though some uniformed thugs did seem to take an interest in my bike. The usual curiosity, or may it have had something to do with the Devanagari licence plate on the front? Now that I’m in Schengen and properly insured, I thought I’d take the Pakistani made front off and enjoy the beauty of the Nepali original, as well as people’s confusion. But maybe I should check if here, like in the Netherlands, the front plate is indeed not compulsory.
Straight west the last 100 km through Slovakian fields. Squinting into the sun makes sleepy eventually, but the golden light was beautiful and comfortable.

Though the sun hadn’t even set yet, it was getting dark as I rode into Bratislava. I simply following the signs for “Centrum” – no idea where to go, as usual. GPS is overrated. (I admit Budapest wasn’t much fun, but that was more related to the bike’s engine either stalling or racing every time I stopped. Got to get in touch with Liz & Phil again, I think.) Found the most extremely factory-like sleeping arrangement so far, and ended the day sampling the local spirits in a bar playing pleasantly loud metal.

bratislava by night

wisdom & poetry


definitely european

In-bowl taps in the toilets replaced with paper, church bells instead of azaan, and on the road to Sofia every other kilometre a stoned-looking woman who forgot to put her clothes on, advertising things as diverse as hotel rooms, soft drinks, and hunting rifles.
Riding into Bulgaria’s capital Sofia was a strange déja-vu. I’ve been told its grandiose neo-classical style is typical for the communist era (the city was bombed badly during WW II); to me it first of all looks European. Familiar brands of cars (and the odd Lada and odder Trabant) glide through the streets, gallantly stopping for anyone who so much as looks at a zebra crossing. I’ve reached a different part of the world. (The taxis are still yellow, though. Since when have there been yellow taxis? Iran?)
Even the weather has changed – on my way from Plovdiv to Sofia the forests were turning yellow and the evenings are chilly now. Summer is on its way out, the exotic part of my trip is over, from now on everything is much more familiar.

All that said, I’m looking forward to the different flavours of Europe I’ll encounter on my way up. So far, one surprising feature of the Bulgarians is their use of the Indian headshake for “yes”. And that while I’d just gotten used to the Iranian and Turkish meaning of a very similar gesture, a quick shake combined with an irritated frown, meaning “I beg your pardon, say again?” The throwing-back of the head still throws me off – with or without a sharp tongue-click, this gesture, so close to what I understand as “yes”, means “no”. To add to this happy diversity, the same gesture in India means “I beg your pardon, say again?”. Still following? All I’m saying is that Milan Kundera’s theory of how gestures use people to express themselves, however charming, might not be the full story after all.

national theatre
detail of the façade of the national theatre

alexander nevsky cathedral
alexander nevsky cathedral
The free Sofia walking tour was a good way to get to know some landmarks, always helpful when trying to navigate an unknown city on a motorcycle, as well as an educational introduction to Sofia. Among other things, I learnt that the mosque I’d noticed when I entered the city is ascribed to the same Mimar Sinan who’s partly responsible for Istanbul’s Sultanahmet skyline and whose work is all over Edirne, including the bath house I visited. (Stories about all that will be up shortly – check back or subscribe to updates.) It’s the only functioning mosque in Sofia at the moment (plans and funding for a second mosque have been ready for a long time, it’s just the required permits that are slow to come), all others were either destroyed or got a different use after the Ottomans were kicked out in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in the late nineteenth century to commemorate the victims of that war. (It seems you’re supposed to keep your footwear on in christian houses of worship. Weird.)

safety pin review
writer delaney nolan with a poem from the safety pin review
One of my fellow wanderers had a poem pinned to the back of her pink-and-purple flower dress – courtesy of the Safety Pin Review – which I wanted to keep reading again and again, perhaps because of its enigmatic last line. She turned out to be writer Delaney Nolan, in town for the софия поетики, the Sofia Poetics. The next few days I enjoyed the festival, where besides Delaney reading her short stories, works in English were read by Edinburgh-based American hippie-dandy Ryan Van Winkle and Englishman and former cagefighter SJ Fowler. Once again, the world – or maybe it’s just our artist’s tribe – proved itself to be small: organiser Ivan Hristov of софия поетики is also a musician, and he turned out to be married to musician-actress-writer Angela Rodel, whom I’d contacted earlier about music and musicians in Bulgaristan.

I spent a few pleasant days wandering around Sofia’s cobblestoned centre. Found some CDs by Theodosii Spassov and finally an interesting book again (Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s The Bridge of the Golden Horn finished long ago), Eco’s The Prague Cemetary. Should be a good preparation for my journey through the dark heart of Europe. But first I’ll have another go at finding the frenzied rhythms in 13/9 that I looked for in Sofia in vain. Belgrade, Serbia, here I come!

istanbuli nights


welcome to istanbul

Upon my arrival in İstanbul from Safranbolu, singer Sumru and yours truly met at the Kadiköy boat station. Lots of tea (what else), and we chatted and walked around and watched the sunset over the famous skyline of Sultanahmet across the Bosphorus – in Europe! Sumru found me a room in percussionist Burhan’s house in Mecidiyeköy, also on the other side. More offices and suits than tourists, but enough tea shops and the most important thing of all: fantastic coffee. A bike mechanic and a shop with a friendly cat-loving owner were my neighbours.

kadiköy by night * music by sumru ağıryürüyen, anıl eraslan, and robbert van hulzen

İ had walked into a European city at the height of the holiday season. Summer was at its hottest – İ thought İ knew damp heat from Madras, but İ don’t think İ’ve ever experienced anything like this. Dripping with sweat at all times. İ can’t imagine what it must have been like for those pious souls who followed the rules of ramazan – no water all day in this heat? How did their prophet come up with that one, in the Arabic desert?

Many musicians had left for summer, and a lot of venues were closed – but those remaining were eager and enthousiastic and we had happy, sweaty sessions in shorts and summer dresses. (Enjoy the post, including video, on the Gitarcafé jam with Sumru and Anıl; recordings of the shows at Kooperatif and Nina’s will be up shortly – come back or subscribe to new posts.)

sunrise over beyoğlu
The nights were marginally cooler. Nights filled with tea, walks, and nargile in Kadiköy with Sanderien, who turned up on a fantastic surprise visit. Nights of playing music and smoking and drinking in Beyoğlu with cellist Duygu and saxophonist Meriç in Duygu’s flat in the Kurdish area (video and audio recordings coming up, check back later or subscribe) – didn’t matter what time it was, no one complained. Easygoing or not wanting trouble? Nights of jamming with Özgür of Karagüneş fame recently, who found a studio in Tünel where he now lives and works (recordings of these sessions coming up too). Nights of catching up with video editing duties in my Mecidiyeköy room, the fan, our golden calf, turned up to the max.

Gigs all done. Ramazan is over, crossing the bridge is no longer free but sets off irritating alarms. Time to move on, after almost four hazy weeks. İ rode out of İstanbul after a few last espressi at Nero’s and managed to leave the highway without triggering too many toll sirens; onto the İstanbul Caddesi to Edirne through green hills & prefab Tim Burton villages. Called it a day in Pınarhısar; good çorba and pide. After that I thought İ’d sleep but the music at the gypsy-or-whatever wedding-or-whatever next door has too many cool grooves. Half awake till morning azaan – Lee Perry style, endlessly bouncing between high buildings, the dogs joining in en masse but soon abandoning their efforts to keep up. I really should get some sleep.

songs of beyoğlu


Besides the most enjoyable improvised sessions I took part in in Istanbul (with Sumru and Anıl, with various musicians on the Elephant Songs night in Kooperatif on 10 August, and upcoming on 20 August in jazzclub Nina – material of those last two events coming up, check back or subscribe), I was very lucky to have a few cosy evenings at the studio of streetfolk legends Kara Güneş. I had fantastic cheese, fell in love with the santoor, and had great chats with many wonderful people.With one of their members, multi-instrumentalist Özgür, and cellist Duygu Demir, we played with and improvised on songs, grooves, and ideas we all brought.

beach fun


After finishing the successful shows in Tehran, I had planned to ride through the Alamut Valley to Qazvin, to visit the castles of the Assassins on the way. Then on to Tabriz, and up to Armenia.

beach set-up
our set-up on the beach
However, in the meantime, through CouchSurfing I’d met Komeil, who worked in the film industry and had been involved with documentaries on various topics including Iranian culture and tourism. During the last days of my stay in Tehran we met a few times (in the earlier described Café Un), first just with him, then with a whole team headed by Reza Fahramand, director of the award-winning films Tajrish and Shirzad.
beach filming
majjid and reza ready to shoot
We decided to make a film of a trip undertaken by musician Majjid Rahnama and yours truly, to play a concert somewhere in the valley, or in Qazvin. But this didn’t happen. After long consideratons, the location was changed to the foothills of the Alborz mountains on the Caspian Sea. The reasons were never entirely clear to me, though I did gather that in those more remote areas, filming without all the official permits would be less of a problem. Anyway, I had no reason to complain about this change of plans, the whole trip was amazingly beautiful.
And wet. For some reason (possibly the fact that a large part of their country is made of dry sand and gravel, as I experienced earlier), Iranians love the wetness of the north. “Just like where you’re from!” – as if that was a recommendation.

After the amazing Karaj-Chalus road, we rode up the coast for a while. Before heading into the mountains, we stayed at a beach house in Nashtarud for a couple of nights, swimming in the (cold!) waves and jamming on the beach. In the rain, of course.

riding the bullet in south india, february 2011


the bullet on the mysore road
Nayana organised a Bullet for me when I was in Bangalore a few weeks ago. On this visit, I was lucky enough to borrow it again, so I could find out how I liked a somewhat longer trip on a bike like that. And do I really need to say it? I loved it!
When on the train that previous time, she and I had a little sms-conversation, which resulted in a minor misunderstanding: when I picked up the bike, it turned out to be a “reversed feet” model: brake on the left, gear shift on the right. One up, three four five down. So on top of wearing shorts and slippers (where I’d faithfully been wearing my kevlar-lined jeans and motorcycle boots on my cute 100 cc Hero Honda in steaming Madras), I had to relearn my reflexes. Hm hm.

mysore traffic
view on the traffic from my hotel roof in mysore




But I tried thinking of it as reorchestrating a drum groove, and it was surprisingly easy. A blessing in disguise: it took away my worries about this aspect of the overland India-to-Europe trip, which will have to be done on a bike like this. Dutch rules & regulations make it virtually impossible to import a bike from after 1998, and the older models all have the British layout for the feet. (Ever had to quickly put a foot down in a U-turn whilst still using the rear brake? Then you know why this design makes sense in England as well as India, where after all they drive on the wrong side of the road.)

rothko avenue
rothko? à la warhol? in south india?

those fucking fish, what is it with those fucking fish, man


It’s unbelievable. You look at the sea. You swim in the sea. You stick your feet wash your hands cool your skin get salty make love get sunburnt in the sea. But then that’s not actually in the sea. It’s more on the sea. In-the-sea is another word for outer-space. There is this funny film – this mirror this membrane this giant ear drum if you will that separates the world as I know it from something of incredible, alien beauty.

A snorkelling trip seemed a good idea, after I spent a few days wondering around Gili Air, Indonesia. Got there when looking for a quiet place to get some work done for a few days after running around on Mount Rinjani. Getting very annoyed with Gili Trawangan, I ended up leaving my hotel room there, booking the next boat to any other island and whiling away the waiting hours eating food that was too expensive and very good. Reading my book on developing skills in musical improvisation by Paul Berliner. Amazing. Very insightful, very thoughtful and thought provoking. And very long winded. Please, mister Berliner, say what you want to say and leave it at that. Makes the whole story a lot clearer and, perhaps surprisingly because leaving out so much evidence and illustration, more informative.

I spent my evenings and a lot of the daytime on reading the book. Walking around the island took a few hours and walking was a great way to get places and get lost. Banana plantations, a village that might have been a compound or someone’s garden, beach beach beach. And tourist restaurants. All selling the same stuff and all at least acceptable. No jack fruit curry though, contrary to the menu of a cosy little beach place I sat down in with high hopes. Ended up in a fancy place further up (or down?) the beach, eavesdropping on conversations of diving instructors.

After contemplating booking the snorkelling tour with the same happy player of a broken guitar that I booked my transport to the airport a day after with, I ran into … no idea of his name anymore. Grr. Dutch guy who lived in Australia since years, with an Australian lady and their children. Or was it New Zealand. Huub, I think he was called. Bought five euros worth of rupees from him a while later. (Being able to eat at airports is important.) Huub told me about the amazing snorkelling right off the beach, and added that that was principally where the trips were going. Also another place just like it, and a place where the big turtles live. But: there are turtles here too! He saw one just a while before.
The next day I rented flippers and a diving mask and snorkel from the friendly guy who all of a sudden charged five thousand rupees more than what he quoted before – and not only him, it turned out, and not only to me. Apparently, a step up on the tourism calendar hierarchy that day. Still, he seemed quite happy with my advance of twenty and never mentioned the remainder again.

I walked up the beach to the corner, where the island turns left. One of the curves in the island, just north of the fancy tourist area. (As distinguished from the easy-going, the hippie, and the posh beaches.) Put my costume on, and stuck my head under water. Nice. Sea floor with plants, very shallow but friendly. Reminds me of looking under water in Switzerland when I was little (with the diving mask I had worn to a restaurant dinner the day I had bought it). And then the floor dips down and nothing is similar to anything you’ve seen. To quote Ewan McGregor, I felt like I was in National Geographic, I was National Geographic! Different world. Different light. Kind of hushy dark blue, very clear in a foggy way. It’s not that it’s unclear, but you still can’t see very far. Sunlight filtering in. And reflecting off of everything that lives there… Different breath. Breathing only through your mouth, with a rasp that keeps getting stronger until you realise you have to take the water out of the snorkel. Breathing deeply is difficult, something I always find difficult in water. The reason why I still can’t crawl in the water, and failed miserably at a diving lesson years ago. Just don’t know how to breath out. Panic breath in panic breath in PANIC BREATH IN. Exhaling is not on the menu. With a snorkel it’s a lot easier though, and it’s fantastic to finally relax and let the breathing take over, let it happen on its own without worrying about it.
Different sound under the water surface too. Muffled, and reverby. Or resonant, rather. Tiny pinpricks of bubble sound. The whoosh of flippers, delayed. Different physique. Being horizontal is cool. Being able to keep your neck long, into the back of your head, and have your head looking straight down, is fantastic because you can totally relax and breath and be active at the same time, the relaxation making you stronger.
And while floating and propelling yourself into this deep blue world of sci-fi sound and movement that may be very primal for us (after all, some of us believe our species lived in the sea for a while and their evidence seems credible), you meet Nemo and all his friends. I didn’t have my motorbike licence yet, but I was the Motorcycle Boy. Only I hadn’t known till then that this is in a different category of colour management. Unbelievable combinations of purple blue orange red yellow silver and all kinds of other shades and hues I never knew existed. And all shiny and contrasting and complementing and making that world somehow so coherent and so independent.
I went three times, with a little break after the second time. In which I sold a book (given to me by Tessel thirteen years before, I took a picture of what she wrote in it) and kept the two tens in my pocket while going the third time. My ignoring the slighly hot feeling on the skin of my back led to a very welcomed aloe vera treatment the next day, when my lobster skin didn’t enjoy the backpack. Leaving the island, leaving Lombok and Rinjani, and a few hours later flying away fom the airport of Jakarta with its Starbuck’s, where they take credit cards and provide wifi, and the usual airport bookshop.