Monday, 5 February 2018

In praise of early morning

Jaisalmer
Walking round Gadisar before breakfast. After the ghats, it peters out to shallows and scrubland. The city-side banks of the lake are covered with temples and chattris, but out towards the country, there are only scattered memorials, single stones, small cenotaphs. A bittern sits hunched, looking miserable. A heron stalks the shallows.I hear doves cooing and a single crow guffaws loudly at his own joke.

Pushkar
Walking towards the Brahma temple I find the street of confectioners, the cauldrons of halwa already simmering, steam rising into the cool morning air. Shopkeepers coming to their shops are singing: one passes me - Hari Ram, Hari Ram. The streets still empty. The sun just touching the edges of the roofs with gold.

Bermondsey Antique Market, London
Even though it's August, it's chilly this morning, the sky pearly grey like a silver tabby. The market's bustling - not crowded, but purposeful. I stalk the stalls for sight of vintage fountain pens but all I can find is Parker 45s, all in black, all with medium nibs, all priced at a tenner. I buy a little brass lion instead thinking it will go with my Omani lion-shaped padlocks bought in the old souk at Muttrah.I listen in to a chiseller trying to get a price reduced and the stallholder giving as good as he gets; it's like listening to an old married couple squabbling. They've done this before, I think.

There's an Italian guy does coffee and bacon sarnies i the corner. I crack. The bacon is crispy and the coffee hits my bloodstream with a jolt. Fortified, I try the little inside market - and here I find my prey; a whole big big of vintage pens that cleans my wallet out and is still cheap at this price.

Gelati, Georgia
The little wicket gate hangs open, awkwardly, and awkwardly I bend to go under it, and down the steps, into the monastery. A black cat stalks across the lawn and is lost in the monastery buildings.

Inside the church, the early light is pale gold, suffusing the sky blue of the paintings. So many paintings; every arch, every pillar, every inch of wall is covered with images. A priest all in black, and black bearded, comes to cense the church; the censer's chain hisses and rattles, but his feet make no noise at all on the pavement. Everything else is quite still.

Outside, a monk sits on a bench by a waterspout and talks to a cat, which takes umbrage and turns tail. I stand and look at the view of the forested hills and the twisting road below.

Cannaregio, Venice
Out here you feel closer to the lagoon than anywhere else in Venice. No twisting alleys or tall palaces close off the lagoon. I walk past the abandoned bulk of the new Scuola, brickwork that was never meant to be seen - a tale of old failure; there was no money left for marble. A solitary jogger passes me.

The houses are low, the pavements narrow. Grey water of the lagoon, brown water of the canal. As I walk back towards the centre of Venice I smell dark bitter coffee being brewed up. Someone is loading an upright piano into a boat.

Taj Mahal
I can't believe it. All the tourists who came in through the gate with me as it opened have stopped on the steps of the Naubat Khana to take pictures of the sunrise over the Taj, and I am alone here, quite alone with the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, and the cleaner, who is rubbing the white marble till it shines and sprinkling rose water on the tombs.

I take my time looking, drinking in the atmosphere. The stone is like honey, pale honey. The stillness is absolute. As I turn to go, the cleaner motions me over, signs for me to give him my scarf, and tips rosewater on it. All day I move in a rose scented cloud. 

Burgundy
I had a big slab of ham with chervil sauce last night, and coq au vin, and I still feel pleasantly full even though I've started out before breakfast to climb this last ridge and look out over the smaller hills below. That's where the path will lead today, towards Avallon and Vezelay and the great basilica of the Magdalene; but it's too misty to make out where the path leads, and the furthest hills are lost in haze.
I turn to look back, and suddenly the low sun lights up a glittering sprawl of diamonds - the funnel spiders' web alight with flame.

Mornings It's not just the fact that the big tour buses don't arrive till everybody has had breakfast, and they've rounded up the guy who is always late, and called the rota, and fixed all the lunch bookings, and found the guy who is always late has wandered off and they have to find him again...

That's one reason I embrace early rising on holiday, because there's no better way to see places without the crowds. But it's not the only reason.

There's something marvellous about seeing the world before it has put its makeup on. Seeing everything fresh, sometimes fresh with dew, or a thin rime of ice before it melts. The early sunlight that casts long shadows or tinges the world with gold. The expectation of the new day.

A friend once told me he would never, ever get up before eight. I can't be bothered to argue with him. I just feel sorry that there are so many things he'll never experience.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Charterhouse, London

I used to live almost opposite the Charterhouse at one time, when I was working in London. I knew the area around Smithfield, and Saint Bart's, and all the little streets of old houses and ancient pubs that both the Great Fire and the Luftwaffe had failed to reach. But I'd never visited the Charterhouse itself, till Friday last week when I was walking from Barbican down towards Holborn to catch a bus, and found myself in Charterhouse Square facing a sign that pointed to a 'Museum (free)'. Either one of which words would have been appealing, but the two together made a visit irresistible.

The Charterhouse has had a mixed history. It was founded as a monastery; became one of the most luxurious houses in London after the Reformation; then became a school and almshouse. Now, the school has moved out and only the almshouses remain, sheltering gentlemen* of a certain age. What's remarkable is that the flavour of the Charterhouse incorporates all these strands of its rich and complex history.

In the chapel, the ornate Renaissance tomb of Thomas Sutton, (re)-founder of the Charterhouse, tells the story of the self-made man who left his entire fortune to charity. (It was contested, of course.) It fills practically the entire wall, soaring up to the roof on columns with beautiful gilded capitals; at the top stands the figure of Charity with her cornucopia, and besides two men in armour, a cherub blowing golden bubbles (the fragility of which represents mortality), figures of the virtues, and the heads of spotted hounds (Sutton's crest), there's also a frieze of Jacobean gentlemen listening to a sermon - perhaps actually here in the Charterhouse. Not a space is left unfilled by this exuberant, if not always polished, work.

The chapel is a wonderful space, with its high white ceiling, particularly on a bright summer day when the sunlight pours in. The other memorials may not all be tasteful, but they're interesting if you have a historical bent - I spotted composers Tobias Hume and JC Pepusch (a friend of Handel's), as well as the writer Thackeray, the Methodist John Wesley with the motto 'the world is my parish', and Lord Ellenborough whose statement that "one must not put manacles on science" was instrumental in developing the concept of fair use in copyright law.

Go into the museum and you're in a much smaller, almost claustrophobic room, giving on to dim corridors with faintly lit exhibits. Here is the original founder Walter de Manny's bulla, found in his coffin - a papal seal, probably from the document that gave him the privilege of selecting his own deathbed confessor. Here is a skeleton, not de Manny's but that of a plague victim. Then there are views of the spectacular carvings in what was Lord North's splended house, before it passed through the hands of the Howards to end up with Thomas Sutton; there are pots, and Bibles, and a splendid English alabaster carving of the Trinity, and a Communion Cup in silver,and most splendid of all, a water map of the Charterhouse showing how water got from Islington to the monastery, dating from 1341 and rolling out on three metres of parchment across the wall.

Perhaps most touchingly, there's an ancient chair - added to, restored, repaired, much like the Charterhouse itself. 

Why did I never visit the Charterhouse before? There's a good reason; from 1348 to 2017, the Charterhouse guarded its privacy. It was never open to the public. Since the beginning of 2017, the museum and the chapel have been open to visitors, and guided tours (£10) offer a chance to see the inner courts, Great Hall, and part of Lord North's great mansion. Or you can take a tour with one of the Brothers - a more intimate tour, since each Brother gives the tour from his own perspective, talking about his own life and interests as well as the Charterhouse's history.



* I understand the Charterhouse now also accepts ladies as residents.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

A trip to Ukraine

I'm just back from a couple of weeks in Ukraine. I've visited almost all of Eastern Europe, but a few countries were left outstanding: Ukraine, Albania, Macedonia, Moldova, and Belarus. Well, Belarus can wait, but I'm getting round to the others.

Damn, but travelling in Ukraine is hard. That's partly down to the fact that a lot of public transport is in the informal sector - private minibuses (mashrutkas) - and consequently not well signposted, and without timetables. And even fewer people than I expected spoke English, even in tourist-orientated enterprises. (In Lviv, a lot of hostels, hotels and bars cater mainly to a Ukrainian tourist clientele - two girls from Kiev told me "we go to Lviv to experience a real European city". They don't count Kiev as properly European.)
And the toilets. Oh God, the toilets. The bog at one monastery was, I think, the third worst I have ever encountered, and the two that were worse (Old Delhi railway station and a madrasa in Morocco) I didn't actually use. I had to use my scarf as an impromptu facemask, and take one very big breath outside before plunging in, and I just about managed without losing my stomach contents. A speciality in some places is the chemical toilet, but without actually using chemicals. It's like Glastonbury without the mod cons (bogroll, sanitiser and regular pump-outs).
Plus, what to do for breakfast?  Ukrainians either don't eat breakfast, or eat hot dogs and salad. In Lviv, I was able to find both croissants (food perverts, how about a croissant with whipped cream and prunes? it was actually lovely, but how they came up with the idea I can't imagine) and full English, but in other cities and towns life was more difficult - I ended up buying bread and soft cheese from the supermarket the night before.
Another slight hitch is that many of the historic monuments are reconstructions or highly refurbished, having suffered from both Soviet and Nazi damage. And in many of the churches, you're not allowed to take photographs, which for a keen photographer like me is absolutely maddening.

Okay, that makes Ukraine sound like a place you don't want to visit. Here are the upsides;
Life is very, very cheap. Three quid a night for a bed in a nice hostel dorm or a room of your own in a grottier hostel. About a tenner for a really glorious room in a nice guesthouse in the country. Beer for 50p to 75p a bottle, and you can get a massive mug of draught beer at that price. Three quid for a tasty small meal and two beers in a gastropub. Ukrainian self-service restaurants like Puzata Hata (branches  all over Kiev and in Lviv) offer a meal for two quid, with favourites like borsch, fresh salads with dill, vareniky (dumplings), and all kinds of ragouts, as well as lasagne (possibly not real Ukrainian food but popular, all the same).
The people are fantastic. Almost no one ever admits to speaking English if you actually ask them. But swear at a bus timetable for long enough, or have enough problems buying a ticket at the railway counter, and someone will appear and help. One girl took me all the way round Chernihiv. A lady who really, really didn't speak English showed me how the farm at the Pirohovo open air museum was arranged by making chuck-chuck-chuck noises for the chicken house and making herself 'horns' with her index fingers to show me the cowshed. An older woman in Lviv helped me out with halting German, and smiled when I told her how much better her German was than mine (which was true). A bus driver in Lviv saw I didn't know where to get my ticket and actually deserted his bus to take me to the ticket office, order my ticket for me, and accompany me back to the bus to make sure I didn't get lost. (Life is very unfair; an hour into our journey the offside back tyre exploded, and the poor chap had to strip to the waist to get under the bus, the spare wheel being screwed to the bottom of the bus rather than put in a neat interior compartment. He was somewhat blackened by the experience, though a wash in a bucket got the worst of it off before he put his white shirt on again.)
It's worth getting off the beaten track. Two of my favourite places were Pochayiv and Chernihiv - the first, a monastery set on a hill that dominates the rolling plains, and the second, a town with historic churches in the most delightful settings (and a fine gastropub, it turned out). Yes, it took a bit of doing, but it worked nicely in the end.
Some things are really different. I've been in cave monasteries in Burma and Thailand, but the Pechersky Lavra in Kiev has a completely different feeling; the tunnels are full of pilgrims weaving from side to side to kiss the tops of the glass coffins that contain saints' bodies, and the dim hanging lamps mingle with the pilgrim's precariously held tapers to create an atmosphere of mystery and intensity I've rarely met elsewhere. I don't think you'll get that powerful experience anywhere else in the world.
The open-air museums in Lviv and Pirohovo (Kiev) show you wooden architecture that's characteristic of the region - soaring wooden churches, low thatched farmhouses, shingle-roofed cottages.  To see one such house or church is interesting - to see dozens arranged in a beautiful setting (forest in Lviv, rolling grassland and woods in Kiev) is a dream.
And the flowers are amazing. Ukrainians love flowers. Every little house has its garden of lush greenery; every monastery has flowerbeds inside its walls. There are lilies, roses of every hue from light peach to bloodiest red, delicate hollyhocks in pastel pink and light purple, and garish orange sunflowers everywhere. These aren't neatly trimmed municipal flowerbeds, either; the climate, with intense summer sunshine mingled with heavy showers, makes the plants grow rank and leggy, sprawling, into mini-jungles. Even street artists aren't immune to the charms of flowers - one had airbrushed sunflowers on a wall near the hostel in Kiev where I stayed.

So while I might not put Ukraine right at the top of my list of destinations, I'm very glad I went - it's a country with a definite difference and well worth the effort.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

In praise of the "second city"

Travellers often focus on tick lists of the most important destinations. Tuscany means Florence; Spain means Madrid and Barcelona; Portugal equals Lisbon; India is the 'golden triangle' (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur).

But somehow I always seem to enjoy the second city rather more - the city that's overshadowed by its more famous neighbour. Second cities are generally a bit less touristed, but that's not the real difference. They seem, often, a bit richer in general interest, in streetscape and odd corners, as if not having to live up to top billing left them able to develop a richness and diversity that the more celebrated city doesn't have.

  • Siena, for instance, is a city I could wander all day. It has its sights - the amazing, incomplete Gothic cathedral with a Renaissance scholarly (and papal) library built into it, and the Piazza del Campo with its palaces, fountain, tower, and horse race - but my favourite places are odd corners like the Fontebranda, where Gothic arches reflect the dazzle of moving waters, or the squares where the contrade have set up statues of their emblems, or the canyon-like square at the back of the cathedral where I've watched young lads practising their flag-waving a month before the Palio. By contrast, Florence strikes me as a city with plenty of interesting sights but not much character. (And Siena has better ice cream, too.)
  • Mechelen was the capital of the Netherlands once, a long time ago, and its soaring cathedral spire and elegant Renaissance palaces reflect its status. But that was a long time ago, and now it's just a rather nice large town, and all the better for it. Its Rubenses may not be as prolific or as good as those in Antwerp, but you can see them in completely deserted churches. Antwerp had wonderful bars, but in Mechelen I actually stayed in a brewery. And everyone in Mechelen has time for a chat, too.
  • In Morocco, tourists head for Marrakesh or Fez. But Meknes has a discreet charm that the larger cities lack. Like Mechelen, it has an imperial past - Moulay Ismail started huge building works here that would have more than rivalled Versailles - but its present is more laid back and low key. The mix of huge projects and unassuming neighbourhoods is rather wonderful.
  • Rajasthan attracts tourists to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur. But while all these cities have wonderful sights, my favourite place is probably Bundi. The palace rises above the town; the fort rises above the palace; all this is reflected in a tranquil tank below; there are stepwells, and old havelis, and there's a samosa stand in the main street of the old town that starts frying at about seven in the morning, just as the keeper of the Jain temple opens up to start cleaning the idols... And there are some of the most delicate and lovely paintings in the whole of Rajasthan, showing scenes of the life of Krishna. And an excellent kulfi bar in the market down the hill.
  • Barcelona is a superb city. I love it. But Girona, a short train ride away, has so much to offer; hilly landscape. a marvellous cathedral, small Romanesque churches... maybe no Gaudi, but no hassle, either. And yet no one ever seems to go to Girona even if they spend a week in Barca. Why?
And finally... I'm a proud citizen of the fine city of Norwich. For some reason the guide books seem to suggest that it ranks somewhere between ninth and eighteenth of the UK's cities in terms of interest. This is a lie. Its cathedral is one of the best in the country, and the pairing of Norman castle and cathedral is unique - both built in the finest stone imported from Normandy; there are a couple of dozen medieval churches, there are cobbled lanes, there are a number of truly excellent pubs (including a two-time CAMRA national Pub of the Year) and two seriously good beer festivals (three now that the national Winter Ales festival has taken up residence); there's a great live music scene, and some marvellous shopping. But you don't want to go there, do you? Because it's not London, Oxford, or Cambridge... 






Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Personal packing lessons

I'm looking back at my travel diary from my first trip to India and find, at the back, a list of "lessons to learn" for packing for future long trips. It makes interesting reading.

  • Bring a torch. Power cuts when you're in the shower; roads that are unlit at night, even in major cities; architectural sites where the interior of temples is not well lit - a good small torch is a godsend. 
  • Buy an Indian mobile phone or SIM card on day one. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I'd done this. There's bureaucracy to get through... but it would have been worth it. Relying on Skype plus antiquated phone booths doesn't really cut the mustard.
  • Take a good roomy handbag, not a daypack. It's easier to access things on the go, it doesn't shout 'tourist' at quite such high volume, and with the exception of the occasional big hike like Parasnath or Mount Girnar, it's just as comfortable.
  • Make sure all the trousers and shirts you pack have pockets. This might not apply to everyone, but as a keen photographer I need somewhere to put a lens cap, a spare SD card, a filter, when I'm actively taking photos - having to put things back into a bag when you know you'll need them again in a minute or two is a nuisance. Either this, or pack a flak jacket with zillions of pockets ... but that's not a look that is particularly pretty.
  • Pack plenty of socks. I have big feet even for a European. In India and south-east Asia they are giantess feet, and almost impossible to buy socks for. Oh, and make sure they are cotton or wool, not poly. (Of course you can omit the socks completely and just wear flipflops. But in which case, Girnar might be a very uncomfortable trek indeed.)
  • Prescription specs or contact lenses? Pack the prescription. I was able to get a new pair of specs at short notice in Pune. I probably could have got an eye check if I needed to, but having the prescription made it easy for me to get a new pair quickly.
  • My jagbag was a lifesaver. Grubby sheets and blankets in Indian hotels are no problem when you have one of these silk sleeping bags; used as a bag liner they'll also keep you from having to wash a heavy sleeping bag (impossible to dry out afterwards!). After six months of nightly use mine did have to be mended in a couple of places by the tailor in Orchha, but then it just kept going... they really are tough.
To that relatively specific India list you can add the general packing tips I've learned in a long life of travelling. Bear in mind I'm a real hard little so-and-so; I spent three weeks in Iceland with carry-on luggage, and that included my tiny, 1kg tent, and I've spent three months in south-dast Asia with only a daypack. If you love your creature comforts these tips are possibly not for you.
  • Get organised and use a packing list. If you don't, you're sure to forget something. If you're flying, take a look at the relevant aviation authority/airport/airline websites to ensure your luggage is the right size and weight, and you don't pack anything that's going to be problematic or get confiscated. 
  • Sort out your priorities. As I'm a travel writer and photographer my key priorities are a good big notebook (yes, I still take notes by hand, and draw little pictures) and photographic equipment; I will travel with only one change of clothes rather than not take my best telephoto lens. Pentax kit in particular is very difficult to source when you're on the road. Your priorities might be different. I met one musician who takes a uke everywhere - whatever else has to go to make it possible.
  • Pack, take everything out, lay it out on the bed, throw as much as you can away, and repack. This may need to be an iterative process if you are really having difficulties getting everything into your bag.
  • Pack clothes that you can wear in layers, particularly if you're backpacking different climates.
  • Organise your stuff for easy access. I use waterproof bags (which is useful if I'm trekking across glacial rivers, for instance). Camera kit and tablet goes in one, underwear in another, toiletries and contact lenses in a third. I have another bag for paperwork,including maps, notebook, tickets. If I'm only staying one night somewhere I don't even need to unpack.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Why I hated Ubud

I had wanted for a long time to go to Indonesia. I loved India; loved Thailand, loved Burma, found Laos frustrating but interesting. Indonesia surely would be another fascinating place to visit.

It wasn't. There were patches of joy; wandering the docks and fish market in Jakarta, the delights of Malang with its tea houses and little street food alleys, the high art of Borobudur, and a Buddhist temple where I stayed for free and drifted to sleep accompanied by the soft tones of a gamelan.

But Bali... the best moment was the sight of the island at sunrise from the ferry. Clouds louring over mountains on both sides of the channel, the grey water shot through with blood red. It never got any better.

Ubud, I was told, was not 'beach Bali', not full of shops selling sex-related t-shirts, not a place I'd find fish and chips and bargain booze. It was the centre of Balinese culture. Temples, art, noble houses, backyard shrines.

As it turned out the most fun I had was watching someone being burned.

First of all, half the temples are closed. Atmospheric enough views from the outside, but no way in. There's one that wants to charge you a ridiculously high amount of money to see it. Another is completely barred by railings. And what there is seems often to be four or five years old - there are new gurning monsters being added all the time, usually in concrete.

Secondly, the service standards are dire. You pay £15 a night - it's not dirt cheap - and you get somewhere that looks okay, but then you find there's no running water, and the attitude is either "You can go to another hotel to use the shower" (yes, but how do I flush the bog?) or "You didn't *ask* for running water, so it can't have been important". One hotel showed me the room and agreed a price - then there was no one there when I went back with my bags.

Getting around Bali is a nightmare in itself. There are tourist buses which cost the earth and which I never managed to book on to; they were always full. There are taxis. (And there are buses that tourists are never told about which the locals use, but of course they go from town centre to town centre and don't deliver you to the places you want to visit; it's as if there are two completely different transport systems, indeed two completely different islands.) Taxis have to be hired by the day, so this is really a backpacker haven where you need to budget £20 a day for taxis. Not, in other words, a backpacker haven at all.

I readily engage with the transport nightmares and discomforts of rural India because I can get to little towns where there's no tourist trade, where I can shop for fountain pens or visit local metalsmiths or spend time with little girls who show me how to walk under the big Nandi bull sculpture and make a wish, or tailors and pharmacists who engage in conversation about English cricket and English food. In Bali, you're just headed from one tourist trap to another.

I took the 'high walk' out of Ubud into the hills. Rice paddies, trees, fieldside shrines. It was nice enough, but I felt I was filling in time. This wasn't a real trek, like Girnar or Doi Suthep, it was a one hour out, one hour back stroll.

I hired a bike. It had a sharp spike sticking out of the saddle that nearly ripped my thigh open, till I stopped at a printshop and acquired enough duct tape to wrap the bike up. There's no signage on the roads, and while there are some places you can go along the flat, the corrugated landscape forces you to ascend and descend steeply if you go in the other direction, and the road is always slippery, so I came off at bends all the time. In the end I gave up.

I was having an utterly miserable time when someone said the one thing that makes anyone even more miserable.

"Where is your Bali smile?"


Oh yes. I'm supposed to be happy, because Bali makes you happy.

I twist my features into a rictus. When a dog 'smiles', it's growling. I feel much the same.

And the worst of it all? The worst thing, without a doubt, is the spirituality. Because, don'cherknow, Bali is a deeply spiritual place for spiritual people. It's got tantric massage, it's got reiki, it's got acupuncture and acupressure and it hits your spiritual aura right on the chakra; there are Buddhas and Shivas and kabbalistic letters and mandalas, dreamcatchers and crystals and horoscopes and copies of Nostradamus. It's the Aquarian age, dude, and you can get a t-shirt telling you that, too.

So this is all authentic Balinese tat, that you could buy in any new age shop anywhere on the planet. Dreamcatchers: Native American. But you can't buy sage, and there are no sweatlodges, and I doubt any of these spirituality teachers can tell a Cherokee from a Chippewa. The Buddhism on sale here doesn't seem to belong to any tradition, with smugly smiling Thai Buddhas next to Nyingmapa yab-yum sculptures; Buddha apparently says "chill out." (The real Buddha, faced with his imminent extinction, told his followers that they were each individually responsible for their own salvation, which is a long way from a generalised it's-okay-dude message.)

There are detoxes with increasingly nasty ingredients. There's massage everywhere, delivered by oily blokes, trim girls, and, sometimes, masses of tiy nibbling fish. (I'm English enough not to like being touched all the time, and that goes for massage, though I gladly make an exception for the large ladies of the Budapest bathhouses, who'll thump you, stretch you, and turn you out limp, limber, and sorted for the next few months. You wouldn't get that kid of massage in Bali.)

The nearest I got to real religious practice was the small temple behind the market, where I sat for half an hour or so and watched (mainly) women come with small trays of offerings, and light incense to the ugly brooding deities.

And then there was the cremation. I was wandering along a back street when I saw the tower; eleven storeys, I think, of bamboo and paper, reared into a fragile skyscraper on a bamboo raft. The mourners were already beginning to assemble, men in black-and-white check sarongs that look like malformed tartan kilts, women in embroidered blouses. One man held a suckling pig on a platter on his shoulder; he was smiling broadly and dancing on the spot. There was a big red bull with a big red pizzle, made out of velvet.

They started off; forty men or more holding each of the bamboo platforms, the tower and the bull swaying down the road. At each junction they turned the tower and the bull round and round, scattering the bystanders, confusing the dead man's spirit; every time they stopped a gamelan played, not the meditative classical gamelan of Yogyakarta but a noisy, rhythmic one that drove for faster and faster climaxes with all gongs ringing and drums bashing out the pulse, and then stopped, suddenly, as if something had broken. The tower nearly hit the electric cables that crossed the road; a new gamelan started up, since it's such sweaty work they were playing in relays.

Down the procession went to the cremation ground, in the 'monkey forest', but the monkeys had more sense than to get in the way. Suddenly the pace picked up; the men carrying the tower were moving at a run, the gamelan was banging away, there was a surge up the earthen pathway like a wave running up the beach. Then, just like the gamelan, they all stopped. We were here. Time for the rites; taking the coffin out of the tower, circling the bull three times with the coffin, taking the body out of the coffin and packing it into the bull, which had been made a few centimetres too short, necessitating a little wiggling and bending of the dead body before it would fit; anointing the corpse, packing the bull with offerings, chanting.

After this, if this were India, the eldest son would touch a burning straw torch to the kindling. But this is Indonesia, and here is progress; asbestos slabs were set up on either side of the coffin, and a huge gas burner roared into life. And at this point, everyone lost interest, and drifted off to what looked like a cross between a picnic and a prayer meeting, sitting on the floor between the slabs that mark the sites of earlier cremations.

And of it all, the thing I most clearly remember is an Italian tourist jumping up on to the bull so that he could stick his telephoto lens into the corpse's face. And (because I should be honest) my own selfish reaction, that I had missed the best picture of the day.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Indian sweeties, Italian pastry, and nuns' farts

One of the delights of travelling is being able to taste different countries' cuisines. If you have a sweet tooth (and I do) sweet shops and pastry shops are a particular temptation, and one definitely not to be resisted.

I remember getting up early in Pushkar and wandering down the still dim street leading towards the Brahma temple, as confectioners stirred their huge cauldrons of halva, and the sugary steam hazed the air. Sweeties are prasad too, a standard offering to the gods, who love them as much as we do. Stick around an Indian temple for a while and a small child will probably come up and press a sweetie or two into your hand.

Indian sweets are almost all milk-based - the cow is central to Indian culture and milk, cream, paneer and ghee are focal points of Indian cooking. I was pleased to see an identification guide to Indian sweeties recently; though it misses out wheat halva and carrot halva it's good on the various types of milky treat. Then many towns have their own specialities - a crescent of crunchy fudge in Chittorgarh, little dragee-style disks in Chanderi.

In Venice, I discovered a tiny pasticceria that made castagnaccio, a rich chestnut flour cake with a deceptive hint of chocolate. It's not a Venetian tradition so much as one from the Apennines, where chestnut trees spread their bright foliage across the mountain slopes. While you'll find panforte di Siena or Italian ice cream in many grocers outside Italy, castagnaccio seems to have refused to spread beyond its homeland.

Having discovered castagnaccio, I found plenty of other ways of using chestnuts - soups, chestnut and sage with pasta, chestnut risotto. Originally a cheap source of foraged food, the chestnut has become a luxury, but the recipes are still faithfully recreated.

The delights of French patisserie, of course, are well known. But besides the taste, there's a further amusement - the names of different cakes. For instance, the Paris-Brest, a sort of doughnut-shaped eclair filled with praline cream and scattered with toasted nuts and icing sugar, commemorates a cycling race - encapsulating at the same time the French frenzy for competitive cycling and the national affair with patisserie. There are langues de chat - cat's tongues, little tongue-shaped biscuits.

The ancien regime survives in religious cake names - the Jesuite (three-cornered like a Jesuit's hat, I'm told), religieuse ('nun', made of a small chou pastry ball on top of a larger one, filled with cream and topped with ganache), and, best of all, pets de nonne - nuns' farts.