Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Slow travel and the art of context

I have a friend who has 'done' India. Taj Mahal, check; Jaipur, Amber, check; Red Fort, Delhi, check.

Well, there are several responses to that. Apart from the fact that the 'Golden Triangle' isn't India, and that he hasn't seen a single decent Hindu temple, or any of India's Buddhist heritage, he's missed all the enjoyable small towns - Orchha, Mandu, Bundi...

But I think the biggest problem with that kind of speedy highlights-only travel is that you miss out the context. Even with the Taj Mahal, there's a whole load of context that people miss. For instance, the tiny but elegant tombs of two of Shah Jahan's other wives that occupy matching corners near the entrance (one is now used as a depot for bits of old stonework, carpentry tools and other maintenance essentials, though I managed to wander in while the gate was open); who knew that Mumtaz Mahal wasn't the only one?

But there are other contexts, too. For instance, visiting the tomb of the first and arguably the greatest of the Mughals, Akbar, is instructive; it's a massive, brutal pile, with strange little chhattris stuck on top, creating a weirdly turretted silhouette as well as mixing Hindu and Muslim architecture in the typically eclectic style of this multicultural monarch. Nothing in it prefigures the Taj - except for its lovely gardens, quartered by causeways in the Mughal style, and now home to tiny tame squirrels with tails like licorice allsorts, and elegant antelopes. The fountains of the Taj Mahal are silent, and the only noise you hear in the gardens is that of tour groups - it's in Akbar's gardens, surrounded by young courting couples who come to feed the squirrels, that you understand why the Mughals saw the garden as an image of Paradise.

Wander around the back streets of Agra and you find other Mughal tombs, much smaller, and in the typical red sandstone of the area rather than the tremendously expensive white marble of the Taj. But in every case, the geometry is the same; a square or octagon with a done, within a containing wall. Some are locked up behind chicken wire, others open to visit; one is full of feral cats. None of them are worth the air miles on their own - but once you've seen them, you understand the ideas behind the Taj, the earth, so to speak, from which it springs. And its genius then seems even more amazing.

You don't need weeks to take this approach; visiting every Mughal monument of note in Agra would take three or four days. Not everything you see will be a highlight; but you'll understand the highlight much more once you do finally see it. (I was quite glad my first three days in Agra were filled with freezing fog; it made the Taj all the more impressive once the skies cleared.)

But the other thing that's wrong with a 'highlights' tour is that if you're not careful, you miss some of the flavour of the country. I know well the sheer size of India, having taken a two-day train from Mumbai to Kolkata and another stunningly long journey from Chennai up the coast to Bhubaneshwar. It was boring in some ways, enlightening in others - a chance to talk to Indian MBA and engineering students going back to university after the vacation - but above all it instilled in me an appreciation of the immensity of the country, and the way everyone always seems to be on the move. Taking the toy train in Sikkim is more interesting to a railway buff, but it doesn't give you that insight into India.

So, suppose you have only three weeks to 'do' India? Be mindful of the context. Give yourself enough time to know one place properly; get a bicycle and wander around Hampi and Anegundi, or settle down in Leh and hike the surrounding hills and gardens, or just get a hotel room on the ghats in Varanasi and start wandering. You'll learn far more about India that way than just seeing the highlights.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Three sparse cultures

England is very rich. By which I mean not that GDP is high or that everyone's got millions, but that it has a very rich and diverse flora and fauna almost everywhere. Look around Norwich and you'll see flint, brick, thatch, tile, wood, all used in different ways on different buildings; look at traditional foods and you'll see cheeses, meats, different vegetables and cakes and breads. Lots of diversity. France, where I spend a lot of time, is the same; around us in Eure-et-Loir there are huge fields of wheat and barley, but also miscanthus (for biofuel and compost), beef and dairy cattle, goats, colza (for oil) and strips of apple trees (traditionally for cider). Variety is the spice of life.

Sparse cultures are very different. They grow up in marginal lands, where the terrain or the climate (or both) prevent there being such a rich variety of foodstuffs and building materials. Sparse cultures have a very strong flavour; and I rather love them. They're under threat, sometimes from globalisation and the introduction of a cash economy which doesn't match traditional life, sometimes (as on Formentera) from high property prices which make a traditional lifestyle with its small scale agriculture uneconomic.

Formentera is a marvellous island. It's rocky and sandy, hot, dry, has no snakes (only tiny iridescent green and blue lizards), is less than 20 km long. It was an island contested between Arabs and Catalans for years, and Arabia has left a few influences - notably the mixture of mint and sugar in the traditional flao (cheesecake).

Of course there were always fish - hung up to dry on driftwood poles. The smaller boats were run up little wooden slipways into ramshackle boathouses. Inland, farming was only made possible by engineering the land so that rain runs off from rocky bare areas into cisterns, one for each house - tiny whitewashed cubes that are one of the characteristics of the island. The houses, each with a little porch, sometimes with towers, are also whitewashed; rarely more than a single storey high, and rough-hewn in their looks.

In a sparse culture, things have to do double duty. So the fig tree is not allowed to grow as it likes, as it might in the South of France, and just produce figs. It's trained into a huge umbrella, with its branches supported on planks, so that livestock can shelter from the sun under its fragrant shade.

Unfortunately Formentera is now becoming an overspill for Ibiza. People are building ranch-style, chalet-style, horrible Eurotrash houses and demanding that the traditional house gets made over into a hotel-style apartment with eau de nil accents and a spa-style bathroom. But some of the local residents still manage their small mixed fields of tomatoes, potatoes, onions and (next to the house) flowers, and the prickly pear still grows wild, though somehow, I've never managed to be on the island for the prickly pear season.

Ladakh is all about making oases in the high altitude desert. Fields are scooped out of river valleys; sometimes terraced, but never in the extreme way you'd see in the Philippines or Indonesia - this terracing is just about making the best of gentle slopes. Willow and poplar grow around every village and are the main building materials apart from rock; tamped willow rods form borders around the top of the wall, while the poplar provides beams. There are apricot trees, and dried apricots are one of the staples; otherwise, it's grain, with a short growing season, and whatever you can get to grow in the vegetable patch. And there's yak butter - milk doesn't keep, I suspect - to put in your tea, and there's beer made with fermented grain, and that's about it. It could get very boring. But somehow there's an intrinsic joy to Ladakhi life that stops it becoming monotonous.

Oman is the last of the three sparse cultures I've visited. Rocks and sea and sand; that's about it, unless you go as far as Dhofar with its frankincense trees and dripping khareef monsoon season. Rocks and sea and sand, and mostly rocks.

The traditional Omani building material is dirt. Huge forts were built with mud brick walls, and a new coat slapped on every few years to protect the fragile material against wind and (infrequent) rain: where buildings have been left uninhabited and unaided, they start to slump and sag, and eventually become just piles of dirt.

Roofs and ceilings are made of palm tree branches and palm leaves. Dates make oil as well as being a staple snack. The palm tree, omnipresent in every oasis, is used in every way possible, for building, eating, even for killing your enemies by pouring boiling oil on them from the fortress battlements (although no one does that any more).

The oasis uses the palms to shelter lower growing crops; but a lot of the space is used up growing greens for livestock. A system of waterways, the falaj, carry water from the high mountains down to the oases, and sluices give every field and every farmer fair division of the water. (Many of the falaj are now being replaced by black plastic tubing, but the system remains pretty much the same.) High efficiency, dense agriculture, but limited in its scope and locations.

Then there's coffee, which doesn't grow in Oman but is every Bedouin's invariable beverage. Three cups to welcome a guest. Always kept in a big thermos, to be ready for guests at any time. Coffee with cardamom - because Oman is a sparse culture with a surprise: it was on the trading routes from India to East Africa, and even, at one time, owned Zanzibar, so spices became part of its DNA.

And, for perhaps the same reason, or perhaps because there are so many Indian and other subcontinental guest workers in Oman, the national dish of choice nowadays appears to be chicken biryani.

By contrast, India is another rich culture (obviously, with the exception of Ladakh). Whatever it is, India has a diversity of it - religions, languages, climates, styles, foods. And yet... it's still India, still indefinably, inevitably, unmistakably India. But I'd better leave that to another post...

Monday, 25 July 2016

Snails galore at Cluis

I thought that was weird right away. The central green of this little Berrichon town is decorated with three big stone snails.

But then I thought if La Chatre had bronze sheep, and Rouen had concrete cows, then Cluis having snails wasn't quite so strange.

I went into the little microbrewery on the square and was invited to have a glass of snail slime. That was very weird.

("La Bave du Luma" turns out to be a quite acceptable strong bitter, brewed by an expatriate Brit who knows his stuff.)

And then found out that every year has a Fete du Luma, or Snail Feast, with a huge motorised snail leading the procession. (Luma is local dialect for the edible snail, 'escargot' everywhere else in France.)

Someone's back garden has a little traffic sign, a triangular red bordered sign with a little black snail - 'warning! snails!'

Someone else has curtains with little snails drawn on them.

Everywhere you look - snails!

Apart from the snails, Cluis turned out to be a fascinating little town. The splendid old manor house has been turned into the Mairie, there's an ancient church with some nice glass, a splendid medieval timber covered market, and a huge old fortress in the valley below whose pinkish walls are impressive even in their state of ruin. The town was a stop on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, so you see a couple of scallop shells contesting the snails' hegemony.

But it's the snails I'll remember!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

FOMO vs really missing out

After YOLO comes FOMO. Nasty little abbreviations, but FOMO is definitely nastier than YOLO. Fear Of Missing Out is insidious. It's a distant cousin to the deadly sin of Envy; it's anti-Zen, anti-spontaneity, anti-life.

I see FOMO travellers all the time. They want to pack the whole of India into three weeks. They end up seeing nothing but tout-infested tourist traps. They see the Taj Mahal at dawn and they're out of there by lunchtime; they never get as far as the Himalayas, and they miss out on the delights of small town India.

FOMO travellers get bored when they're somewhere like Luang Prabang. They say 'There's nothing more here for me to see', or 'It's not Bangkok', or 'too many temples'. They don't talk to the monks, they don't go along to chat to the Laos learning English at Big Brother Mouse, they don't get to know one special Sandwich Lady on the market.

I admit to having some of the characteristics of FOMO travellers. I always want to do too much. I always want to see everything. But I've learned to take my time. (And okay, I have time, since I made travelling a priority and rented my house out to do it.)

Because if you're always afraid of missing out, you will miss out.
  • Your schedule will be too full for you to decide to stay for a week in that place that really speaks to you. It will be too full for you to tiptoe into a music class and decide that playing dulcimer is something that's worth missing the hill tribe visit out of your Thai  itinerary. It will be to full to have lunch with a nice Burmese history teacher in a little cafe near Shwedagon Pagoda, instead of eating in the tourist place with everyone else.
  • You'll miss the thing you didn't know was happening. At Palitana, I so nearly missed the great mela - its date changes from year to year; I decided at the last minute to stay for another two days and walk the great pilgrimage with thousands of Jain devotees. I ended up being water-pistolled cool, given rose-scented towels, and entertained to some of the best Indian cooking I've ever had.
  • You'll miss the delight of becoming a temporary local. At Orchha I was invited to play karrom with Ram Babu and his sons, to become the official photographer for a local wedding, and to join a family picnic for a little boy's birthday. I even got a personal brazier and massage from grandma when I came back wet and cold from an expedition to Gwalior that turned into an out-of-season monsoon.
  • You'll miss being able to sit down and just soak in the spirit of the place. There's a stand of ancient trees somewhere in Ladakh where I sat for two hours, just because it made me happy.
Okay, you may not have six months to travel around India, as I did last time. But leave yourself some space for the special things to happen. Get to know one small area well, or get open tickets so you can change your plans on the fly, and above all, know that the guide books and the '100 things to see before you die' (or 300 things, or 1000 things) are not meant specifically for you - and that what you love may be very different from what's in the guidebook.

In which spirit, things I'm glad I've seen and experienced, but that were never in the books:
  • the cats of the book bazaar in Istanbul, and their special cat drinking fountain,
  • the Japanese chanting monk at Rajgir who invited me to chant Nam-myoho-ren-ge-kyo along with him,
  • the box of kittens in a cafe in Meknes, and the brothers we met who look after 22 cats between them and scrounge offal from the butchers to feed them,
  • Buddha's birthday celebrations at Temisgam, Ladakh, with traditional dancing, spicy lunch, and the chance to scramble around some very steep scree,
  • dancing and singing with a brass band at Shivatri Mela in Pachmarhi,
  • visiting a goat farm on the Sentier Cathare and seeing kittens and kids playing together in the hay,
  • lying on a comfortable big boulder on the Way of St James in the Massif Central, watching the infinitely deep blue of the sky and feeling happily lazy,
  • seeing a flock of goldfinches on teasel, somewhere near Nasbinals,
  • finding the Mestre rowing club outing on Torcello and getting a ride in a gondolino over to Burano,
  • talking to 'Mr Heatwave' in Asbyrgi and finding out why Icelanders don't wear shorts in April,
  • getting invited up to the organ loft in Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges and staying there till midnight,
  • spending all morning with a friend of my landlady's quartering Sofia in search of a gaida (Bulgarian bagpipe) - and just as we'd given up hope, finding one to buy,
  • talking someone at the Buddhist Photo Archive in Luang Prabang and finding out there's a picture of him as a young monk in the exhibition,
  • marching on a French Musicians' Union demo (and finding my partner in the process).


Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Two churches in Berry - Gargilesse, Le Menoux

I'm just back from a music festival, Le Son Continu at Chateau d'Ars, near La Chatre, in Berry - the heart of George Sand country.

Just getting up on Monday and driving home seemed an anticlimax. We needed some gentle meandering around Berry first, and fortunately the good people of the Berry tourist office (that's two departments, Cher and Indre, working together) were at the festival with lots of information and a splendid fuchsia pink 2CV. That gave us a couple of ideas for a day out; two interesting churches, and a bit of scenery en route.

So off we went, through Neuvy Saint Sepulchre with its wonderful round church (UNIQUE EN FRANCE as the sign on the main road proudly claims, in big capitals) round which the houses and towers huddle for protection from the truck-plagued main road, and by small lanes through the countryside. This is bocage, where every lane runs between hedges, and mature trees shelter lazy cattle from the sun, and even though the wheat is now golden and ready to harvest, the landscape still swims with green.

Gargilesse is a pretty village; church and chateau top the slope above the Gargilesse river, and small houses cluster around them, tucked into tiny declivities or straggling along the road. In the dusty square in front of the chateau gates, someone has made a delightful fern garden under a spreading tree. The tourist office has been installed in an ancient dovecote, the nesting slots patterning the inside walls starkly with light and shadow.

It's hot outside. As soon as I step into the church I feel the chill, and I see the green and black streaks of humidity on the walls. A huge painted Christ looks down at me from the apse vault. I look at the finely carved capitals of the crossing and I see Saint Peter - at first, anyway, I think it's St Peter holding up his key - then I realise he has a little fiddle in one hand., and when I look at the next figure, he's the same... and the next one... Then I realise, there are three of these fiddle players on each of the capitals, and there are four capitals on the inside and four on the outside, which makes twelve plus twelve... these are the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse, shown on the great doorway at Santiago de Compostela, but here, they guard the centre of the building.

Then I find dark steps leading downwards. The walls each side are slick and wet, and the wooden handrail feels vaguely sweaty. It's a mini-pilgrimage through the dark dankness, and then out into the blazing light and colour of the crypt. Almost every surface is painted; three great windows on the river side of the church, where the ground falls away, light the narthex.

A huge Christ of the Apocalypse biting a sword between his teeth scowls down on the sanctuary; the three Kings have crowns and neatly curled beards like Henry III of England on his tomb in Westminster Abbey (and he died in  1272, so perhaps that gives a date for the painting?). The dead wriggle and clamber out of their tombs as angels blow horns to announce the Last Judgment. This is terrifying stuff, nothing pretty about it; the later paintings, perhaps fifteenth century, show the instruments of the passion - the spear, the nails, the cross. Somehow the painters at Gargilesse always seem to have been concerned with the tough side of life, the torturer's art, the destructive and awesome.
When I came out of the church at Gargilesse I was struck blind by the glare of the afternoon sun. I felt I'd emerged from a strange undersea world of gloom and damp, from the subterranean folds of a grotesque brain.

 The church at Le Menoux couldn't be more different. From the outside it looks like one of those identikit small nineteenth century churches you find all over France; neo-Romanesque detailing, a slim central spire, all done in crisp and clinical white stone, with as little life in it as a technical drawing of a building.

Then you go inside, and psychedelia breaks loose. Not what you were expecting, at all. (Unless, of course, you had that useful little booklet from the Berry tourism people.)
 When Bolivian artist Jorge Carrasco arrived here in the 1960s it was a dull whitewashed space. By the time he'd finished with it, it was a glorious chaos of colour. Only the slender ribs of the vault and the arches of the windows and side chapels are left white, both emphasising the lines of the architecture and bringing a little spaciousness and light to the design.

Amazingly, despite the psychedelia and bad trip imagery that would have suited Hunter S Thompson, the church breathes a spirit of contented peace. Light pinks, pale spun gold yellow, the intense blue of a twilight sky, come to life as the sun comes out from behind a cloud. In Le Menoux, nothing stirs, except two gardeners working on a strip of lawn, and there's not even a breath of wind; in the church, colours swirl, the universe is made and remade over and over.

It's difficult to imagine two churches so different. But Le Menoux is just what a medieval church would have been like - an explosion of colour and imagery. The frescoes at Gargilesse have faded; would their colours originally have been as saturated and as shocking as Carrasco's?

Monday, 4 July 2016

Watching the stained glass

We spent tonight at a concert in Saint Pere, Chartres, given by the Instrumentarium of Chartres. The Instrumentarium has commissioned luthiers to create musical instruments modelled on the sculptures and paintings in the cathedral, and the concert brought together the different sonorities of instruments and voices in this medieval church.

What fascinated me was the change in the stained glass. When we went into the church just before nine in the evening, the sun was golden, and the yellow stain and deep red of the windows glowed like flame. Even the roof was gilded with the light.

Half an hour later, the same windows seemed bleached, huge areas of white predominating, and the cool blues more prominent than the red or yellow. It was as if the temperature had dropped.

Later, Chartres en lumiere saw the glass lit from the inside. (The photo below is from a few years back. Chartres en lumiere sees the city lit up at night from April to October, until midnight, when the fairy cathedral turns back to stone.)

Most of the time, when we go to look at stained glass, we see it for five minutes. (Even worse, we see it in a museum, with a standardised, level light behind it.) But when you sit beneath a stained glass window for an hour or more, during a service or a concert, you begin to understand how its moods change; how the colours shift and shuffle, according to the sun and the weather. It's like the difference between meeting someone once, and knowing them so well you can tell what they're thinking just by looking at their face.

I think there's a message here for any traveller: take your time. Stay in a place long enough to see its different moods; the way a town wakes up, gets going, spends the long tired hours of a hot and dusty afternoon, prepared for night. See it in different lights; sunrise, sunset, the lurid stormy light of a sudden squall, or the slanting tearful light of a moist evening. You can hit five temples a day in India, but you'll never understand as much from that kind of travel as you will from spending a whole day in one of the great temples, like Meenakshi's in Madurai, or the Vipaksha temple in Hampi.

And when you take your time, you'll find one time when you get through the tourist appearances and see the place for what it is. Like the early morning in Pushkar, when I saw the sweet sellers stirring their cauldrons of halwa and heard shopkeepers singing 'Hari Krishna, Hari hari' on their way to work, or the indie concert I heard in a little cafe in Malang, Indonesia, which ended up with my being introduced to the artists and taught how to make 'rempah indo' spice tea.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Travelling in bookshops

Bookshops sell travel books, and in the case of some (Daunt's, on the Marylebone Road in London, or Stamford's in Long Acre) specialise in them. But this isn't a post about buying travel books.

Rather, I've been fascinated by how we can use bookshops to travel in time and space.

For instance: I had an hour to waste at Hualamphong Station in Bangkok before my train to Nong Khai could be boarded. So I did what I so often do when I'm waiting for a train at home - headed to the station press kiosk and bookshop, and browsed the magazine racks.

I don't happen to read Thai. Fortunately most of the titles are in English, even when the rest of the magazine is in Thai only (some have the occasional page in English, probably advertising). The pictures on the cover also give you an idea of what's inside.

And what a fascinating little journey I was on! Here were no fewer than three magazines addressing that little known (to farangs, anyway) niche market, the Thai Cowboy. On some future tour, I have to identify and visit some of these Thai Cowboys; I can't think of anywhere less like the Wild West, and Thais are not exactly ringers for the lonesome, rugged heroes of the western, but somewhere, on the trail of the lonesome banyan, a Thai cowboy waits for me.

Most tourists do know about Thai amulets. If you're a Buddhist you'll have been given a few. But I was taken aback to find a whole shelf of magazines devoted to amulet collecting. (Imagine someone took over your local WH Smiths and replaced all the home and garden and interior decorating section by magazines about crucifixes and St Christopher medallions - which one to buy, which are the most effective, how to spot fakes, how much to pay... That's the size of section I'm talking about.) It seems that Thai men don't do DIY, don't collect stamps, don't have model railways; they have amulet collections. (I say men: it's usually been men I've seen haggling at the amulet markets. I may be wrong.)

I was also pleased to see that Hello Kitty thrives in Thailand. Given the national love of pink, and the national love of cute, I should have expected it, but it was still nice when Thai ladies came over to admire my Hello Kitty watch (100 baht from MBK), and nicer still to see Hello Kitty stationery. Stationery shopping being, of course, just as good a way into a nation as bookshopping.

India is quite different. Station bookstores in India show you very well how this country has evolved into a masterly agglomeration of cultures, taking in influences and conquerors alike and popping them into the pot where they simmer down and, in their turn, become Indian. First of all you get a mix of languages from English (US version), English (UK version) and English (Indian version) through Hindi to the 'local' languages whether Gujarati, Bengali, Telegu, Malayalam, Tamil...

And you get a weird cultural mix. Lots of management magazines - India is in some ways a technocracy, where business schools have immense pull on the imagination and Chetan Bhagat's clever novels of a modern India of callcentre workers and computer geeks are to be found everywhere - jostle for space with devotional texts or the Mahabharata told for children, cool white shirts and office blocks with technicolour pastels of dancing gopis, and warlike Shivas in electric blue. There are railway timetable books that look as if they've arrived from the 1950s with typography and paper quality to match, though alas there are no steam trains in their pages any more, and local papers for which Dilli door ast* might be a suitable motto.

And travelling in time? For that you need a secondhand bookshop, like Poor Richard's, in Felixstowe. There  are fewer of them than there used to be, even on the Charing Cross Road, the name of which used to be synonymous with secondhand bookshops, but a good one will still take you back through time, and teaches an interesting lesson in humility if you have the patience for it.

Secondhand bookshops give us glimpses of what was fashionable once. The date of that 'once' varies from shop to shop. In some, you find the earlier 20th century; no Joyce, not much Woolf, but huge piles of Hugh Walpole, Maurice Baring, Somerset Maugham. In others, the 60s and 70s; lots of Roots, Fear of Flying, Valley of the Dolls. (And once, gloriously, an original Whole Earth Cookbook which I snapped up for a quid.) If you wanted to compile a piece on popular culture of a particular date - or rather, middlebrow culture, not the pulp fiction or the Mills and Boon - you couldn't do better than to start with a good secondhand bookshop.

The humility? When I look at all these books, and when I consider how very few of them are still regarded - how very few have anything much to say to us now, and how many have sunk without trace - it makes me feel very humble as a writer. It makes me, almost, despair.

It's the antithesis of the great library. A great college or royal or museum library is like a heaven for books; a great illuminated psalter, a Newton or Blake manuscript, first editions of Scott or Tennyson or Beckett, can make us all dream. The signature in the front of a neat little Aldine printed text, 'Sum Erasmi', suddenly brings you close to that great humanist. But a secondhand bookshop is the purgatory of books, where they wait in fear and trembling, destined perhaps, eventually, for heaven... but more than likely for the yawning gates of hell and its eternal fires (or more probably the slow mouldering of landfill).

Of course the reductio ad absurdum of all this is the plethora of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey now to be found in charity shops, replacing How to Dress which was the charity shop book of five years ago and the rag rolling paint books and Kaffe Fasset knitting and embroidery books ten years back. I did enjoy Oxfam's wonderful idea of turning all those copies of Fifty Shades into a fort.

* Dilli door ast - 'Delhi is far away': the words of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, 

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

A few hours spare... in Bangkok

I used to hate that last day of travelling - a day when I have to check out of my hotel, when I have a bit of spare time before going to the airport, but not really much, when I don't know what to do with myself. Just a few hours spare. Or the little bit of a day after I've checked in, and before I have to do anything or go to the trade show... What on earth to do with that bit of spare time?

Now, I find that most cities offer interesting small delights that can make a few spare hours into an intriguing voyage. So I've started writing up a few of the "side dishes" for cities I know reasonably well.

I'm kicking off with Bangkok. It's a city you're more than likely to have a bit of spare time in, since it's an airport hub for much of South-East Asia, not just Thailand. What can you do with not much time?

  • Take a trip to Suan Pakkad Palace museum. It's a sweet little museum which makes its home in a number of old wooden Thai houses around a lawn, in the shadow of the skyscrapers. You can watch a battle from the Ramayana played by miniature dolls of Thai actors in their traditional masks, or be dazzled by the reflections in the lacquered pavilion. It's just enough of a museum to fill an hour or two, with a nicely relaxed atmosphere and friendly curators. It's not too far from Phaya Thai station, so quite easy to reach.
  •  Feed the turtles and koi carp at Wat Prayoon.  The Wat is on the Thonburi side of the Memorial Bridge, a brisk ten minute walk over the bridge from the boat station. The pond surrounds a miniature mountain, a little mound built up as a landscape with tiny temples and Buddha statues in niches, and despite the traffic roaring by outside always seems peaceful and secluded. There's also a fascinating Buddha museum and a huge white stupa like a wedding cake, which can be climbed up (and into; on the way out, you have to crawl through a tiny doorway).
  • Another really strange stupa is the Loha Prasat, just off Ratchadamnoen Road. This construction's metal spires give it a prickly, spiky outline quite different from anything else in Bangkok, but it's the inside that is really weird, with its maze of vaulted passages and spiral stairway. 
  • Take the boat up to Nonthaburi and back. Nothaburi has a huge, sprawling wooden museum (originally a public school) that's one of Bangkok's great unsung architectural wonders, a garish Chinese temple on the waterfront, and huge numbers of seafood stalls on the riverside promenade.
  • Visit Wat Kalayanamit over in Thonburi (there's a cross-river ferry from the Ratchinee boat station). The courtyards are filled with Chinese pagodas and statues  - originally ballast in Chinese trading ships, but adopted as objets d'art by the Thais - and the oversize Buddha has almost outgrown the temple.
  •  If you're based anywhere near Khao San Road, make your way to Wat Bowoniwet and stroll through the grounds. This is one of my favourite temples in Bangkok; it's a packed site, and there's always something happening (the first time I was there, people were visiting to pay their respects to the Supreme Patriarch, presiding in his funeral urn; he wasn't cremated till two years later), yet it never seems crowded. and I often have the chance to chat to one of the monks or caretakers.

Friday, 18 March 2016

In praise of small museums: the Whipple, Cambridge

It's a steampunk dream: cases full of clocks, regulators, astrolabes, pocket sundials, clockwork models of the universe, and even, upstairs in a plush little Victorian parlour, old children's toys like the zoetrope.

I don't think the Whipple Museum was really intended for aesthetic appreciation. It's a serious museum dedicated to exploring the history of science, and its collection of scientific instrumentation is intended to show the development of scientific thinking and practice; it's not an art gallery or an amusement arcade. But then, on the other hand, there's nothing stopping you from regarding it as either.

One of the great things about the Whipple is that it's a museum that positively encourages different approaches. For instance, in one room there are 'high density' displays - chests of drawers devoted to particular topics - and you're welcome to pull the drawers out and peruse the objects inside. If you want to take your time studying one particular subject, you can. I spent nearly half an hour looking at antique sundials, many of them incredibly elegant little works illustrated with wind-puffing cherubs or Biblical stories. There were pillar sundials, folding sundials, polyhedron sundials, sundials ranging from very simple to terrifically complex, even nocturnal dials. They are utterly fascinating.

Or there's the 'Victorian parlour' which shows how scientific ideas were manifested in children's toys and parlour amusements - the zoetrope, magic lantern, stereoscopic viewer...

Or you can sit down and read a book, or one of the many information cards scattered around the museum. This isn't just a museum for looking at things; you can read up on a subject, peruse the catalogue, or look at a theoretical text which explains the science behind the object in the case. That information isn't restricted to paper - you can look up objects on the museum's database, too.

I hadn't expected to enjoy my visit nearly as much as I did. I wish more museums would offer visitors the range of interactions that the Whipple does. This isn't a glitzy museum with lots of videos and push-button interactive displays - it's quite simply laid out in a fairly traditional style - but someone has applied serious thought to enhancing visitors' experience and helping them to investigate and understand the exhibits.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

The shape of a hill

For some people, the attraction of a mountain lies in its height.

(Interestingly enough, manufacturers of fountain pens subscribe to this school. So Montblanc nibs are inscribed 4810, Platinum has a 3776 series celebrating the height of Mount Fuji, and a Taiwanese company has 3952 for Yushan.)

But for me, the shape of a mountain is more important. I don't just mean its shape as you look at it, but as you walk it, too. In fact, some mere hills are for me more delightful than any mountain because of the shape of the terrain.

Take the Malvern Hills, for instance. Walk along the Malverns and you're walking along a dragon's back, up and down and along, on a ridge with flat land both sides - one side looking over the Severn Valley all the way to the distant Cotswolds, and the other looking over to Wales and the Brecon Beacons, and the assertive blunt nose of Hay Bluff.

Pen-y-Ghent is one of my favourites, with a snub nose and a long tail. If you're walking the Pennine Way you can climb up the steep face almost like a staircase and then yomp joyfully down the other side. Ingleborough, with its tiered, stepped profile, is almost like a Mayan pyramid or a slumping ziggurat. Seen from another angle, it's a sleeping lion with its head on its paws.

Out of the three Yorkshire peaks, it's Whernside I find disappointing - though it's the highest; it just seems to be a long sprawl of rock.

Even Munro-bagging, not all peaks are equal. (Let's aside discussion about which peaks are actually Munros and which are subsidiary peaks, which quite often appears to be a discussion about aesthetics rather than height.) Schiehallion's big bulging cone of rock gave me more pleasure than many much higher mountains. Loch Tay's horseshoe - Beinn Ghlas, Ben Lawers -  arches away from you as you walk it; not only are the views over the loch particularly fine, but the view seems to keep organising itself so that you always enjoy the vision of that outswept ridge with the peaks strung out along it.

Higher mountains often come in several stages. You're only aware of the part you're on; a glacier, a scree slope, a subsidiary peak. Hills, on the other hand, are often simpler; you can appreciate them as a whole. A tiddler like Glastonbury Tor has a more sharply defined and readily identified character than many full scale mountains.

And so, of all the mountains I can think of, Fuji is the one I really want to climb. Fuji with its simple conical shape, the icon that appears in the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the mountain so recognisable that Hokusai sometimes seems to hide it away in a kind of ukiyo-e 'Where's Wally?', seen through a trough of waves or a haze of cherry blossom.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Why I hate the bucket list

The bucket list is, in essence, an admirable thing. If you knew you had six months to live, what would be the things you'd really want to do in that time?

Would you read War and Peace, or Ulysses? Visit the Galapagos, or climb Everest? Or make peace with the family of that auntie your side of the family never speak to, and no one can remember why?

However, most bucket lists don't look like that. They look like this:
  • Macchu Picchu
  • Taj Mahal
  • Everest
  • Eiffel Tower
  • Venice
And I have a problem with that. Several problems in fact.

First problem: it's not personal. It's just another consumer list, like '1000 places to go before you die,' which, if you think about it, is itselfa depersonalised bucket list.

A personal bucket list might have some of these sites on it. But it's more likely to have a theme, or a number of themes, depending on the person. For me, it would include a couple of deserts and some far off the beaten track Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh, Lahaul, and Arunachal Pradesh. For one of my friends, it would include a couple of Formula One racing tracks and two Belgian breweries. For another, it would be filled with places he'd visited through the years and wanted to see one more time.

Second problem: it devalues everything else. In particular, it devalues spontaneity. (I've just seen a bucket list template which includes 'got married' and 'got divorced' on it. Frankly, if I had six months to live, I wouldn't go out and find someone to marry just so I could divorce them within the timeframe and tick the items off. But the creator of the list obviously thinks I should.)

I once sat for an hour watching a Buddhist monk create butter sculptures in a room in Spituk monastery, hearing the song of the ploughmen drifting up from the fields in the Indus valley below. That memory still fills me with joy; the Taj Mahal, on the other hand, was just a building. That's the problem with bucket lists.

And the third problem? They're such good vehicles for marketing. The places you have to see "before you die". (Well, put it this way, I'd be extremely interested if any PR sent me a story with places to see after I was dead.) And as always, they'll be places where someone has a luxury tour, a package holiday, or a resort - a way of neatly ticking off these items without actually learning anything or being challenged.

Oh, and the fourth problem. Why wait until you're diagnosed with something life-threatening to find the time to travel? (And then of course you probably can't, because you won't be able to get travel insurance.) Do it now!

I think, really, it's time to kick the bucket list.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Damn fine coffee, and why I like Thais

Sometimes the nicest little things are tucked down back streets, and it's just luck that you find them.

I found the loveliest little coffee shop purely by chance last time I headed into Bangkok by train. The train from Chumphon arrived at silly o'clock in the morning, far too early to check into my hotel, so I decided I'd walk from Hualamphong station to Marine Department dock, and take a leisurely boat up to Phra Arthit pier.

Just as I got to Si Phraya I saw a little coffee shop, Set Up, and thought: I could really do with an iced coffee. It would indeed Set me Up.

Now, iced coffee in Thailand comes in many varieties. Some is just Nescaff granules mixed up with evaporated milk and ice. Some is espresso with ice. And some is really damn fine coffee on ice cubes.

This one gave me a hit of pure arabica - those rich, chocolatey, almost sweet flavours combined with the slight dryness of roasty-toasty not-quite-burned beans. A wonderful aroma, too. All this for, if I remember correctly, 45 baht, which is a bit more than a euro and a bit less than a pound.

Anyway... I like to let people know they're appreciated, so I mentioned to the woman behind the counter that it was the best coffee I'd ever had in Thailand, except one - and that was on a coffee farm...

She clapped her hands, squealed, and leapt in the air with joy.

Now, that's why I love Thais. They are not cool. They don't do English understatement, or a Gallic raised eyebrow.

Yes, there are sulky Thais, and dour Thais, and I'm sure there are a few Thai curmudgeons. But Thai culture seems to encourage spontaneity and a sense of joy and fun. (A blog post brings Buddhist mindfulness into the equation as well in discussing what exactly Thais mean by 'sanuk', usually translated as 'fun'...

As well as delivering the best coffee I'd had for a long, long time, that encounter was a source of pure joy.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Belgian carnivals

This year I attended my second Belgian carnival, Aalst. It's a bit different from Binche.

Binche is all about the Gilles. Yes, there's a children's day, and a carnival parade, but it's the Gilles with their stuffed straw bellies and hunchbacks, their ostrich feather headdresses, green-spectacled masks, and clogs and bells, who are the heart of the carnival. Hear the snare drum, the stamp of sabots on cobbles, the tangling hollow sound of the bells, and the plaintive clarinet tune of the early morning as the Gilles assemble, one by one, and you feel something primitive and bloodstirring. There's nothing quite like that at Aalst.

Aalst is carnival as show. One local described it to me as "The Rio of Europe". Well, no samba bands, but I understood what he meant. The definition for a small carnival group here is "fewer than a hundred members". Some of the biggest ones have three or four floats as well as marching and dancing members.

Some of the small groups are genuinely small. We saw a couple of solo participants and a number of groups of only five or six, including the 'Gay Farmers' Group' on their pink tractors, 'Hell's Grannies' on souped-up mobility scooters, and the 'Allahschnackbar'. (Tastefulness and political correctness are very much not part of the Aalst carnival. To be honest, I wasn't very happy with the 'African' contingents. I doubt those would be allowed in Britain. On the other hand, blackface in Aalst is generally smudgy griminess and you couldn't confuse it with any attempt to look 'African' - it's simply dirt.)

There is a genuine satirical element to the carnival, too. I spotted at least 26 Angela Merkels, mostly considerably more buxom than the original, plus three Vladimir Putins and a couple of Obamas, (David Cameron was refreshingly absent, unless I just missed him.) The Belgian police starred with an example of how to get a police horse to go faster - put him in a jeep. (I got the impression this might actually have been the Belgian police taking the piss out of themselves, given that there was a real police car detectable under its disguise in that carnival group.)

As soon as we arrived, we saw a crowd of identically arrayed Carnival Princes. Now, there's only supposed to be one carnival prince - this year, Prins Dennis, whose spectacles became one of the leitmotifs of the carnival. But another contender for the position had threatened legal action - he was passed over because his exam paper was wrongly marked, he said. These Princes were of the view that anyone could be a prince; one told me they thought the whole idea of suing was one of the best practical jokes he'd ever seen.

Unfortunately for outsiders, a lot of the satire is expressed in Oilsjt (the local name for Aalst) dialect - even basic Flemish isn't going to help you. The message of the smoke-belching, grimy Volkswagen corporate limo, though, was easy to understand. The Spar cashiers with plastic penises on their noses remain a mystery.


The heart of Aalst, though, is the 'Voil Jeannette' or 'Dirty Janet'. Big Flemish men from below the age of legal drinking up to grandfathers, wearing women's clothing.

This isn't a transvestite or drag festival. Several of the Jeannettes were carrying banners that said (excuse me if my Flemish isn't up to the mark) 'Een voil Jeannet is geen travestie'.

The tradition stems from the fact that Aalst is an industrial town. It had a big brewing trade and a lot of factories, and a lot of factory workers, who weren't all that well paid. (A hero of Aalst is the catholic priest and socialist Daens who worked to improve workers' conditions.) No spare cash for carnival costumes. So they simply borrowed their wives' old dresses and anything else hanging around the house. And so the Jeannette costume has come to include:
  • fur coats (preferably but not exclusively fake)
  • big wigs
  • bird cages
  • herrings, often in the bird cages but sometimes in a pram or on the end of a fhsing line
  • saucepans
  • toilet brushes (one official carnival float had a massed band of drummers playing on bedpans with toilet brushes)
  • lampshades, worn as hats
  • big boobs, sometimes naked
  • umbrellas, preferably lacy
  • perambulators.
One Jeannet we met not only had the pram, s/he had a baby dangling from one tit. What was in the pram, then, we asked?

"Jupiler," she told us. "Want one?"

(Aalst used to have its own beer, Safir. That brewery was bought by a bigger brewery and closed down, though a few bars still show its name proudly above their doors. Jupiler is the big-brewery replacement.)


 Poor Jacques. He's game, I'll say that for him. But in the space of three days, he was given a dressing down for dressing down, and then liberally made up with bright red lipstick; kissed by a number of Voil Jeanettes; smacked with a very smelly herring; and given a garlic salt dressing for his hair "to get him in the party spirit".

I escaped most of this, though not the herring, nor the garlic salt. (It didn't wash off in the shower, either; I drove all the way to Tournai smelling like a failed culinary experiment.)


The Gilles may not be the centre of the carnival, as they are at Binche. But Aalst does have its Gilles. The story is an interesting one.

Once upon a time, back in the 1930s I think, there was a bunch of Aalst locals who had been to Binche and thought what a good idea the Gilles would be for a carnival costume. They could have picked Hawaiians, or cowboys, or chimney sweeps, or characters from Mother Goose, but they just happened to pick Gilles - nothing traditional about it. They won a prize. They thought hey, that turns out to have been a good idea, why not do it again next year? (I imagine that economising by not having to buy another costume next year might also have been a motive.) And eventually, the Gilles did become an Aalst tradition.

And in Aalst, they have women as Gilles. Progressive.


On my way back, I visited Tournai, and found to my surprise another tale of one Belgian city pinching a festival tradition from another.

I found out about it when I saw a delightful wrought iron shop sign, on which was written in gold 'Au siecle de Louis XIV'. This turned out to be where cabinetmaker Edouard Trehoux set up his shop.  But as a plaque on the facade told me, that wasn't his real claim to fame.

Making furniture was not enough to satisfy his artist's soul. After he visited his sister, a nun in Ath, and saw the giants there, he decided that Tournai needed its own giants, and he started work. In 1932, Reine Tournai danced in the streets for the first time, to be joined over the years by crusaders Lethalde and Englebert, the Princesse d'Espinoy, Louis XIV, Childeric ... and more recently, M Trehoux himself.

As a final twist in the story, M Trehoux has now been immortalised among the Tournai giants. And in a spirit of friendly rivalry, a few years ago the Tournaisiens decided to take him to the festival at Ath.