Sunday 29 December 2019

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum – Hanoi 2018

In Hanoi, an obligatory visit on a Monday morning to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum reminded me that we were in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It seems to me that Vietnam has given up on all but three aspects of socialism: the one-party state, corruption and the mummified corpse of the great leader.

Luckily for us, Uncle Ho is closed for maintenance on Mondays. He is also closed for the months of June and July while Russian experts work their grisly magic on the leader’s corpse. Thus, we were spared the queues and security checks involved in entering the mausoleum to pay our respects. We could only observe the mausoleum from the great windswept parade ground that surrounds it. The architecture of the mausoleum is, they told us, reminiscent of the lotus flower. Perhaps it was exactly that; as imagined by an architect versed in totalitarian brutalism. We were there for the hourly changing of the guard. Non-commissioned officers in white uniforms as braided and be-medalled as any field marshal goose-stepped to their posts. The mood was lightened by observing the guide to a large group of Chinese tourists administering the most fearsome tirade against three of his flock who had had the temerity to sit down for a moment and fall behind.

We also saw Ho Chi Minh’s modest house and museum. I am happy to believe that he lived as simply as his house and study would indicate. Ho Chi Minh had asked for his ashes to be scattered throughout the provinces of Vietnam.  The party thought his body would serve the cause better in a mausoleum. The market ethic has reached even here. The only way out of the complex was through the gift shop, or rather a group of gift stalls. I had hoped to buy a book of Ho Chi Minh’s writings or a biography, anything that would give me more information. No luck with that in the stalls of fairground tat. No memoirs, but I could have bought rubber chickens in two different sizes.

We went onto the Hanoi Hilton a sinister and nasty prison originally built by the French. The exhibits and explanations contrasted the way in which the prison was a place of torture, cruelty and death under the French colonialists with the kind and considerate treatment handed out to cheerful and grateful American prisoners of war.  Try telling that to those that were there.

Monday 11 November 2019

Great Journalism at the Kulata Café

The pleasure to be found in someone else's local paper

There is no greater pleasure for the travelling scribbler than to sit in a café miles from home reading the local paper of a community you have yet to meet.
That is exactly what I was doing in the Kulata Café at the small town for tourists at Uluru in Australia's hot, red centre.
I had taken a free paper from the rack.  The first sip told me that the coffee was good and the first headline told me that the paper was going to be a treasure.  'Dead Bat Set My Nature Strip On Fire', it roared.  Clearly the 'NT News — Your Voice in the [Northern] Territory' knew a good story when it saw one.  The sports section bore the title "Just Footy" this was a journal that did not go in for highfalutin language.
The café was part of a scheme to train young aboriginal people in the hospitality industry.  The staff were all young and there was an air of anxiety as they all did their nervous best.  I frightened the life out of Victoria, a waitress, by asking her if she was getting good training.  In panic, she turned to others for an answer.  I think I must have been the first customer to speak to her directly but, 'Yes', she was and 'Yes', she did enjoy her work and then she ran away.
I turned back to the paper and increased my word power as the Reader's Digest used to tell us, always pays.  I learned that Ambos (ambulance drivers) were on red alert; that Firies had attended a blaze and that the Salvos had kicked off an appeal.  Salvos?  The Salvation Army of course.
A story about a proposal to open a strip club called Honey Pot near a school caught my eye with the masterpiece headline, 'Sorry Honey Your Strip Club Is Unbareable.'  And yes, that is how the sub-editor spelt it.
Suddenly, I noticed that I was reading yesterday's edition so I rushed out and bought the current offering.  Returning to the café, I ordered more coffee and a profiterole with an espresso cream filling.  It was much as you would expect except that it was the size of a cottage loaf.
The new paper had engineered a scoop.  A previous edition must have featured Harvey, a shih-tzu dog.  A reader had got in touch with the paper to say that Harvey was the spitting image of his own dog, Jack.  The paper had arranged for the doggy doppelgangers to meet and reported the event in a full page spread under the headline, 'I Couldn't Tell Him from Jack Shih-Tzu'.
It was reported that the pair had been standoffish at first but were soon enjoying a sniff and a pee round the yard.  You just do not get journalism this incisive at home.
And so, full of caffeine, cholesterol and culture I set off to see a big red rock I had heard a lot about.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Armchair Travelling by Postcard

I have found a new way of armchair travelling.  A website called has revived an old tradition, the postcard.  I am enjoying it.

Someone once gave me a travel-writing tip, “Send yourself a postcard”.  When I am abroad, I buy a postcard.  I write a message recording my immediate impressions of a place, address it to myself at home and post it.  I always sign off with “Wish you were here”.  It is a delight to receive the postcard when I get home.  It reminds me of my first reactions to a place and the “Wish you were here” is strangely pleasing.

 But, back to my discovery,  It is simple and free to sign up.  You upload your address and a little information about yourself to the site.  You have an initial allowance of five postcards to send.  

It’s best then to buy a small supply of postcards of your home town and some stamps, £1.35 is standard airmail postage for cards in the United Kingdom. Then you say you would like to send a postcard. You will be given a name and address and a reference number.

Send off a few postcards.  When they reach your correspondents, they register the number on the site.  You will be told it has arrived and there is often a short message of thanks.

Most importantly, registration triggers the site to give your address to someone else and soon you will receive a nice postcard from somewhere random in the World.Here is a diagram from the site showing how it all works.

I have been on the site for a couple of months and already I have a collection of colourful and interesting cards.

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Bolshoi Zayatsky Island Labyrinths

600 miles north of Moscow is the White Sea.  In this sea, a huge inlet in Russia's arctic north coast, lie the Solovetsky Islands.  They were remote enough in distance, access and people's consciousness to be the place for Stalin's first Gulag.  These islands have always been a place for mystics, dissidents, and heretics. 

In the archipelago, I walked on the uninhabited Zayatsky Island.  Isolated and dark for a quarter of the year it may be, but people once lived here.  Before even the Sami hunter-gatherers, people of the Stone Age came here and laid down 13 stone labyrinths.  Locally, people call them Babylons though they were already ancient when that city was built.  They are simple double-spiral paths between low rocks, set into the heather.

People with no more than flints and furs came here.  They were people like us; they were spiritual and imaginative.  They told stories.  The original purpose of the labyrinths is uncertain.  Some guess that they were portals to the underworld, made labyrinthine to prevent evil spirits finding their way to the surface.

Under a clear, cold sky, I walked one of the labyrinths, slowly curling in to the centre of the maze and into my own thoughts.  At the centre, the path wound out again interlaced between the inbound lanes.  It would have been easy to find an altered state of consciousness here.

I sensed something universal and timeless, but elusive.  There is a labyrinth in the cathedral at Chartres.  Rock paintings in Mexico show the same design.  Some lost idea connects all these labyrinths through time and place.  Labyrinths must have led our ancestors to a place that we have forgotten how to find.

Monday 9 September 2019

An Unexpected Evening in Fes (2014)

We did not plan it. We just found a leaflet in our room that evening, “The Fes Festival of Sufi Culture”. We took a battered red “Petit Taxi” to the Dar Batha Museum, and bought tickets. The people there were happy to guide us to a restaurant nearby and told us to be sure to get back by eight thirty for a nine o'clock start.

It was just as well that we got back to the museum by 8:30; the nighttime garden courtyard was almost full.  We found ourselves among a happily noisy crowd.  I discovered that the man on my left was my new friend Mohammed, a philosopher from the University of Rabat.  His subject was the connection between Sufi music and philosophy.  He promised to email me about his book -- I am still waiting.  He went off to join friends; the audience was mobile to say the least.  Friends greeted each other across the rows of seats then clambered over to join them.

The courtyard was open to the Maghreb sky with the elegant, illuminated arches of the building on three sides.  Behind the stage, trees were flooded with green, blue and magenta light.  The concert started, people were still arriving, as extra chairs were passed overhead.  The crowd was noisy and cheerfully unruly.  Arguments, no doubt about the music, broke out.  The music was sublime.  The Al Firdous Ensemble gave us the melodies and words of Andalucía, blended with an earthier African beat.  With the group was Ali Keeler, a guest with a British surname.  Perhaps it was he who introduced a Celtic-sounding tune, albeit with Arabic words.  The tune fitted well with the rest of the programme and, oddly, the audience sang along.  There must be some ancient connection between the people of the northwestern fringes of Africa and Europe.  Toddlers cried and were hushed, people shouted to friends and people continued to arrive. 

At the start of the second half, the Taureg group Tariqa Wazzaniyya trooped in to the beat of a single drum.  They were about 15 men in white robes and headdresses.  There was a moment of silence and then they started a deep, resonant chant of ‘Allahu Akbar’.  It was an old, repetitive sound straight out of the desert and it silenced the audience.  As their performance developed, they sang sometimes in unison and often in complicated harmonies.  Even if we did not understand the words, the sound was deeply moving and the audience loved it.

I asked the taxi driver who took us back, ‘Combien?’ 

‘Comme vous voulez.’ he replied.

He was no fool; I must have paid him about three times the usual fare.

Tuesday 13 August 2019

Aiutate me …il mio gelato va a fuoco!

On the elusiveness of Mount Etna and the inadequacy of phrasebooks.

Does anyone still use a phrasebook? Or do we just rely on Google Translate. Phrasebooks can date quickly; though the apocryphal phrase, "Help me, my postillion has been struck by lightning" is nowadays seldom found. The real problem is that they just do not have quite the right phase for the particular moment.

Still, I kept my well thumbed Italian phrasebook in my pocket as we set out on an excursion to Mount Etna. At least they told us it was Mount Etna, all we saw was cloud and drizzle as we traipsed over cold, red and grey, lava fields, taking on trust that Etna's crater loomed over us.

The next day provided glimpses of the volcano through the back window of our bus as we travelled south and west through Sicily until the mountain was hidden by distance from our view.

It was some days later that we reached our Taormina on our journey back east. In theory, we could see Etna again except that it always hid behind its own private cloud.

That was why, at dinner that night ice-cream in the mode of Etna (at least that was my translation of the Italian menu) seemed the obvious choice. The waiter appeared with two huge conical heaps of ice cream in goblets, each topped by a sugar lump. With a flourish the waiter poured Sambucca over the sugar lumps and applied a match, causing the ice-cream mountains to flare up spectacularly. Etna at last.

Memorandum to Italian phrasebook compilers: please include in all future editions, "Aiutate me …il mio gelato va a fuoco!", which translates to "Help me …my ice cream is on fire!"

Wednesday 10 July 2019

An Unplanned Day In Rural Slovenia

The train from Ljubljana towards Jesenice took us to the small, unmanned station at Radovljica. Our plan was to get a taxi from there to the even smaller town of Brezje where there is the Slovenian national shrine to Mary, “Help of Christians”. We are not Catholics but there is a museum of nativity scenes there. Adrienne has a collection of 50 cribs from our travels around the world and there cannot be many museums dedicated to her slightly odd collecting habit. We had to go. The way out of the station was up a dark, grey, damp, graffiti covered concrete staircase that brought us to the bottom of a steep, narrow road. There was no hope of finding a taxi stand. Bad start.
But then I saw two small signs “Tourist Information” and “Old Town Square”. Well, that was worth a look. A short uphill walk brought us to Linhartov Trg” (Linhart square), which turned out to be a town square dating from the 15th century. It is hardly a secret, it is UNESCO protected, but we had no idea it was there. It is a paved square lined by old townhouses rendered in painted in shades of cream with red tiled roofs. Municipal buildings form one side of the square, traders on the other.
We scrapped our plans for an early afternoon train back to the capital. The tourist information office got us by bus and a short walk through the Slovenian countryside to Brezje and the Nativity Museum. Who would have thought that you could fill 10 rooms with nativity scenes of all ages and origins? I liked most, the cribs from the Americas: the holy couple as porcelain flamenco dancers from Peru, a nativity scene in the palm of a hand from Mexico and a dread-locked infant from Jamaica.
Back in Radovlica, people were busy fixing green garlands over the nave of St Peter’s Church, while others arranged white flowers round the altar ready for a wedding.

In the other corner of the square was a museum of Pharmacy and Alchemy that had only been open for 14 days. 4 each was repaid by a beautifully designed and interesting small museum. It is an enterprise started by Milan Plešec, a pharmacist, and his daughter Anna, who sold us our tickets. Mr Plešec had bought half of the building that had almost fallen into disuse as a nunnery, only 3 nuns remained. I asked what he had done with them. Anna laughed and told me they had been moved to other religious houses.
The origins of chemistry as a modern science were set out in the basement. Even though I studied chemistry at school and knew it had its origins in alchemy, I did not know that “Chemi” was the Egyptian word for the black earth of the Nile Valley. This was adapted by the Arabs to Al Chemy and thence by way of the age of reason to the science of chemistry. Upstairs was a collection of instruments
and tools of the pharmacist through the centuries from Egyptian through Rome to 19th-century European. It was gratifying to see tobacco in the form of huge fat cigars presented as a medicine.
Mr Plešec had displayed his collection of antiquarian books, pharmacopoeia and an Histoire des Drogues. It was quite right that these fragile and valuable books should be beneath glass but I would have loved to turn their pages.
The square has a few snack bars with nothing much to eat. We were rescued by a friendly fellow tourist who directed us to Gostilna Augustin where we had a long lunch of grilled local trout on a terrace overlooking the Sava Valley. The train we planned to return on came and went. We didn’t care.
Pausing only to admire a chocolate chaise longue commemorating a recent festival, we took one of the half-hourly buses back to Ljubljana. All right, it wasn’t really chocolate just made to look like it.

Museum of Pharmacy and Alchemy. Linhartov Trg 28, 4240 Radovlijca, Slovenia.
The best way to explore this area might be by the Bled Hop on-Hop Off bus: Bled Hop on Hop off bus
Gostilna Augustin Gostline Augustin
There is a free guided tour of Radovljica every Tuesday at 10:00 am
I travelled to Slovenia with the excellent PTG Tours

Monday 8 July 2019

Singin' in the Rain

My wife Adrienne, enjoying a "Singin' in the Rain" Moment in Celje, Slovenia.

Slavic Ice Cream

Sladoled is a better word than gelato. It is a very much better word than ice cream, a prosaic, workmanlike but unambitious phrase. Gelato is Italian, Mediterranean, a Neapolitan a sort of word.
Sladoled is a brave Slavic word, a word that works from the cool Croatian Adriatic to the mountains of Slovenia.Sladoled is slippery and lickable. Sladoled, is onomatopoeic and, rather wonderfully, also feels like it sounds. Sladoled ranges from jet-black Croatian chocolate to Slovenian sour cherry. Sladoled melts in the mouth and slides coolly down the throat. Sladoled is both the action and the sound that you make when you use your tongue to catch melting ice cream running down your cone and onto your hand.
In Ljubljana, some of the signs over the sladoled stalls now say “Gelato”.  Stop, dear Slovenes, you have a better word; don’t let it die for the sake of us tourists.

I travelled to Slovenia with the excellent PTG Tours

To Be An Engine Driver

The weekly steam-hauled train that runs from Jesenice to Nova Gorica on Slovenia’s border with Italy is headed by the sort of steam locomotive that any child will draw for you.

It is huge and black and powerful with lights, a steam whistle and moving parts that snort and sigh. She is an old lady — a century old. She sets off confidently with a long whistle, the hiss of steam and the breathy wheeze of an elderly runner. Thick black smoke and white steam are forced from her funnel sending out the wet coal smell of a proper steam engine. The squeal of steel on steel as all this effort converts into motion tells us we are on our way

It is a long journey and on the way back the ancient locomotive shows her age. We stop for half an hour at Bohinjska Bistrica. She will go no further until properly cared for. The drivers sit on the rail smoking and mopping sooty brows with oily rags while serious engineers with spanners and tapping hammers perform esoteric rituals on the wheels and cranks.

A man has brought three small boys — his grandsons perhaps – to the station to see the steam train. Silently, at eye level with the great steel driving wheels, they gaze and point at the hissing pistons and connecting rods, transfixed by this breathing beast. They are too young to understand how it works but they cannot tear their eyes away.

This fascination with glorious machines is universal. It was a privilege to be there at the very moment in their lives that the idea formed in their minds, “When I grow up, I’m going to be an engine driver.”

I travelled to Slovenia with the excellent PTG Tours

Thursday 23 May 2019

Almost Not Buying a Panama Hat in Ecuador.

As any fool knows, Panama hats do not come from Panama; they are made in Ecuador.  Travelling to Ecuador, I was bound to buy a Panama hat.  They are not called Panama hats either; the proper name is sombreros de paja torquilla.  They are plaited by hand from leaves of the toquilla or jipijapa palm.  The wonderful art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat is a designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Armed with this knowledge I ducked into Señor Luis López Cifuentes's tiny shop on the Callé Morales in Quito.  Immediately my plan went wrong.  There in front of me at the top of a stand of hats was the finest Panama hat I had ever seen.  It was shaped somewhere between a fedora and a bowler - very stylish.  It was of the palest honey colour.  The weave was finer than any I had seen.  It looked and felt like the most exquisite linen.  This was the hat for me.  The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo would have worn a hat like this.  What a dash I would cut in such a hat

Senor Cifuentes looked on with a wry smile.  He had seen it all before.  I lifted the hat to try it on and the label fell into my hand.  I saw, as I knew I would that it was a genuine Montecristi Superfino. Then I saw the price: $2,000 (about £1,500).

'Made by hand.  It took six months,' explained Senor Cifuentes.

I looked down the rack, the hats were still beautiful but they became less fine as the price came down.  Senor Cifuentes explained that my hat, as I had already begun to think of it, was a 62 grade.  There is no standard grading system but 62 grade means that there are about 25-30 threads each way in a single inch.  Someone's dedicated and skilled fingers had woven each strand.

I could not imagine myself buying any lesser hat.

'That is not the finest hat there is, Sir,' said the ever-attentive Senor Cifuentes.

'For $2,500 you can buy a 66 grade!'

My knees buckled slightly.

I left the shop sadly, knowing that I would never own such a hat and could not bear the thought of a coarser one.

My wife tried to comfort me.

'You wouldn't be able to keep it clean and perfect,' she said.

I pointed out that if I were the sort of man who could afford such a hat, my valet would know how to look after it.

For the next week or so, I looked despondently at other sombreros.  It was not until we reached Guayaquil that I relented and bought a perfectly good Panama at a saving of $1,950.  I look quite good in it, even though I say so myself.

I had a further thought.  Just suppose I had bought the $2,000 hat.  I might have been sauntering along one day; one would not simply walk in a hat like that.  Suppose I had seen, coming towards me, the man who had bought the $2,500 hat.

First published in Wanderlust magazine

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Riding the Yangon Circular Train (2016)

I do not think I would advise a Burmese visitor to London to spend a morning riding the Circle Line but I am glad that, on a visit to Myanmar, I did spend three hours riding Yangon's Circular Train.

It is certainly slow.  It takes three hours to cover 46 kilometres as it passes through 39 stations.  But, in that time, all Yangon's life and vegetables will pass through the train.

I started my ride at Ahlone Road station.  It was in a leafy cutting below road level, a bit like some of the stations on the District Line.  I had to bend down to buy my ticket from the tiny office.  It cost me all of 200 kyats [pronounced, "Chats"]; about 25 pence.  I waited for the train due at 8:30.  There is a timetable but its precision was somewhat short of Swiss. 

My train, pulled by a boxy, brown diesel banged, hooted and rattled into the station.  I found a seat.  There I remained for three hours as the people of Yangon boarded the train for a few stations at a time.  There was a never-ending flow of guests through, what I now thought of as, my carriage.

The train itself was a marketplace.  The man selling nice looking pastries served with shredded cabbage that he cut from the whole vegetable with scissors intrigued me.  A plastic bottle of a red, hot-smelling sauce completed his menu.  Deftly, his tray balanced on his knees, he put two pastries into a small, plastic bag; shredded cabbage over it and ladled the sauce on top.  Finally, he placed two chopsticks in the bag and handed it over to his customer.  Everything this man needed to serve a complicated meal was on one, carefully laid-out circular tray.  When he had finished serving a particular carriage, he stood up, placed the tray on his head, picked up his small plastic stool, and moved on with practised ease.  It was ergonomics as poetry.

The doors slid open at another station and a huge bamboo tray of Durian fruit appeared through the door suspended from a yoke.  It was closely followed by a man in longhi and solar topee and then by another tray of Durian.  The gentle odour of Durian fruit permeated the carriage and I thought for one horrible moment that he would be cutting them open and selling the delicious, if aromatic, fruit.  In fact, he was just travelling a few stations and got off again.

It occurred to me to smoke one of the fine Burmese cheroots that I had in my pocket.  Then I observed the sign above the seats.  Pictograms showed severe prohibitions on smoking, on littering and — snogging.  Chance would have been a fine thing.

The tea man came with his pink and green antique Thermos flasks.  200 kyats (was everything going to be 200 kyats?) bought me a small plastic cup of hot, thick, sweet tea.  My purchase gave me a licence to take a photograph.  Once finished, the plastic cup went into my rucksack — no littering.

We approached Danyingone station.  Even before we stopped, I realised we were at a market.  Huge bags of vegetables came flying in through the windows followed shortly afterwards, through the doors, by their owners.  The Durian man got off.  I was full of admiration for the heavy and awkwardly shaped loads the people, particularly the women, had to carry.  This was a working train; one woman was sorting and pruning what seemed to be bay leaves sprig by sprig into a big plastic bag.  Opposite me, a businessman in smart white shirt and well-ironed longhi read the paper.

A group of lovely women, not in the first flush of youth, came into the carriage and sat near me.  Each wore a spray of sun bright yellow flowers in their hair.  They saw my camera and hid their faces.  But once I had said "Mingalaba" (hello in Burmese), smiled, and gestured my admiration for the flowers, I was allowed to take a photograph.  Seeing their image on the camera screen set off a storm of laughter.

As we reached the furthest point from Yangon, we were in the country.  A woman up to her neck in water and wearing a bamboo hat against the sun was weeding a floating garden of vegetables in a canal.  The train turned south back towards the centre of Yangon.  The air horn sounded at every crossing and steel wheels on ancient British laid narrow-gauge rails squeaked, rattled and banged.

We pulled into platform seven of busy Yangon Central Station.  I wish now I had sat down with the old lady, with her sacks of vegetables on the platform, who was smoking a cheroot.  We would have no common language but I am sure we could have had a companionable smoke together.  However, it was now hot and I was looking forward to cool air and coffee.

Three hours had flown by.  Several hundred of the train's 100,000 daily passengers had passed through my carriage.  Where else in the world can you get three hours of top grade people watching for 25p?

Note:  I am told in 2019 that the track is undergoing repairs and the whole circle route cannot be done for a while.

Monday 29 April 2019

The Raghu Nandan Library at Puri

The town of Puri lies on the Bay of Bengal in the North east of India. The thing to see, so the guidebooks say, is the Shri Jagannath temple. The guidebooks are right but it is an active temple and it forbids entry to non-Hindus. To view it, your guide will take you up a narrow, dark and winding staircase in the building on the opposite side of the street. He will pause, as directed by a notice, to collect keys from “The Library”. You then go on up the stairs, through a locked door and onto a viewing platform on a sort of veranda over the library. I duly photographed the temple, which is very fine, but I was more intrigued by the library so I went back down the stairs to the Raghu Nandan Library. There I met the librarian, sitting at a desk with the legend “Librarian” painted in gold on the front. He was Mr R. N. Das, a handsome gentleman of 74. He explained that this was a privately run library. A donation was expected. The only reader was another man sitting at an ancient table, studying the Times of India by an open window. The library was stocked with books in antique glass-fronted cases.   In the first cabinet that I looked into, I had a choice out of Little Dorrit, some rather dated English novels, and the Dictionary of Hindu Iconography. I had the impression that no books had been acquired or even lent since India’s independence in 1947.

His colleague showed me, with pride, photographs of the visit to the library by Earl Mountbatten the last Viceroy of India in about 1945.
I came away thinking that this library had two functions neither of which is really concerned with the collection and lending of books. First, it pays its way by charging modest fees to groups of tourists to view the temple from its veranda.  I suspect it had an even more important function: to keep two or three elderly men in harmless occupation, companionship and pocket money and to get them out of their houses and from under their feet of their long-suffering wives. It seemed to me that this was a perfect arrangement and I am on the look out for something similar at home.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

The Perfect Travel Journal?

Am I right in thinking that all of us who aspire to be travel writers have to have just the right notebook and writing instrument?

For some of course that means something with a battery but not me. My writing brain works at the speed of my handwriting not a keyboard.

But the notebook? I have worked out that a Moleskine journal won’t make me a Bruce Chatwin nor school exercise books a Hemingway. Anyway, now that you can buy Moleskines all over the world the magic of rarity has gone.

I do however persevere with the Palomino Blackwing pencil, not because it will release my inner Steinbeck but just because it looks good and feels good. It seems writerly.

I have tried all sorts of clever, purpose made travel journals with pockets and folders and fancy paper. But in the end, all I want is a plain ruled notebook that fits in a jacket pocket.

I don’t miss that built-in pocket at the back for tickets and receipts. I just glue an envelope inside the back cover. A small glue stick serves to secure everything else on the page.

I like to have a new journal for each trip or certainly each country. I have finally found my ideal notebook. If you search that online book retailer for “country flag notebook” there is a selection of sturdy, soft back, notebooks where the cover is the flag of the country I’m visiting. Those are the notebooks for me, at least until I see the next irresistible journal.

Friday 5 April 2019

Kolkata - A Morning on College Street (2018)

It was a hot, humid Kolkata morning and I had been advised to take a tram.  I decided to walk and within about 500 yards, I was lost. I had a map but there are few street signs in Kolkata.  I soon worked out that many shops have their address on their sign. That was how I got my bearings and found the tramline on Lenin Sarani. I took the tram to College Street. My fare was 5 rupees (about 6p).

College Street is the academic and literary centre of Kolkata. I knew I had arrived because a poster put up by the Kolkata traffic police read ‘Educational area – please maintain silence’. On Kolkata’s raucous and chaotic streets, the poster was a triumph of hope over experience.

Second-hand bookstores line the street. Most sell academic books written in English. At one stall, I asked for short stories in English, and found myself with a compilation by Sudha Murty called ‘Grandma’s Bag of Stories’. It was a book of cautionary tales in English and I thought my grandson Floyd would enjoy it. There was a bookplate in the front. The Jewish Girls School of Kolkata had awarded the book to a pupil for science in April 2017. I was buying it for 100 rupees (about £1) less than a year later. The ungrateful little madam had already sold her valuable prize. 

It was hard to find the Indian Coffee House. These coffee houses were set up after Independence as nationalised establishments. They have become an Indian institution. It was everything I hoped it would be. There was a high ceiling. Waiters in clean but scruffy white uniforms and turbans made their way at glacial speed between the tables. Eventually I was able to order a cup of coffee and some hot buttered toast; nothing trendy or modern here. I hoped to see and hear the other Indian institution called ‘Adda’, the art of lively and argumentative conversation. There were tables full of mostly men engaged in lively conversation and I reckoned I had found my goal. I was not invited to join in. A pall of cigarette smoke hung above the tables. At one point, the ceiling fans prevailed over the production of smoke to reveal a sign rendered almost illegible by nicotine stains. The sign read, ‘No smoking allowed. Smoking here is an offence’.

I started to read my copy of The Statesman, which had cost me all of five rupees. The Statesman is venerable English-language newspaper published in Kolkata. To prepare myself for the city I had listened as an audiobook to “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury, formerly a journalist on The Statesman.  So there I was, set up as I like to be, in a foreign city with coffee, my journal and the local newspaper, just absorbing the atmosphere. The Statesman’s masthead told me that it incorporated and was directly descended from ‘The Friend of India’, founded in 1818. 

When I had sufficiently imagined myself as some sort of foreign correspondent, I attracted the attention of the waiter for the bill in less than five minutes. Another 10 minutes or so and it came and I paid 37 rupees. My change came on a tray. I then made a terrible faux pas. I took the note and left the coins as a tip. My very tall waiter looked down at me and tipped the tray contemptuously towards me so that the coins fell back into my hand. There was to be no capitalist tipping here in this cathedral of socialism.

My business in College Street was done. It was not so much that I needed to achieve anything there I just wanted the feel of Kolkata. Here, as in many parts of India, there is a huge emphasis on education and self-improvement everywhere were advertised courses in English and even commercial English. Perish the thought of a course in commercial English, do they learn phrases like, ‘Let’s run that one up the flagpole’, or ‘Thinking out of the box’?

I found a tram to take me back south along College Street and then right into Lenin Sarani towards Esplanade. This time I was near the front of the tram and could see the driver standing at the controls. They were not complicated. He had a dead man’s handle, which he could push forward to make the tram go. Under his right foot was a metal button on the floor that operated the klaxon. Then I spotted that the street was one-way northbound. The trams however ran both ways. Mine was southbound.  We swung right into Lenin Sarani, I could see ahead of the driver, a phalanx of six yellow Ambassador taxis spread from pavement to pavement with no gaps between them and what seemed like six more ranks behind them. The driver did not hesitate. He drove straight ahead parting the taxis like a zip through yellow fabric. Taxis, cyclists, handcarts and cows constantly impeded the tram’s progress. The driver pushed his dead man’s handle forward and back like a demented fruit machine player while his foot beat a flamenco on the button that operated the klaxon. When all else failed, which was quite often, he yelled in vivid Bengali at recalcitrant pedestrians and cyclists. And so we clattered banged and barged until the road opened out into Esplanade and the tram station

I lost my way back to the hotel again and had to ask. All very humiliating.

Note:  If, like me, you would like to know more about The Indian Coffee Houses, I recommend “The Palaces of Memory”, by Stuart Freedman

Dewi Lewis Publishing 2015.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Shimla – Not Quite What It Seems

On a cold, wet public holiday in February, Shimla, the former summer capital of the British Raj reveals itself only slowly to the visitor.  It is worth the effort.

The first place to open its doors was the Indian Coffee House on the splendidly named Mall.  This tarmac street is less impressive than it sounds. Nevertheless, it was on this road that British India paraded itself and gossiped at Scandal Point.  The place where the daughter of the Viceroy eloped with a Maharajah in 1892.  The Indian Coffee House is one of a chain of nationalised coffee houses set up by the newly independent Indian government in 1947.  Inside white-uniformed and turbaned waiters serve coffee (no chai) and food from a menu that reads much the same as it did in 1947.  The mostly male clientele still practise the art of Adda, lively conversation and argument.  We, the few tourists to venture inside, were ignored though we shared a table with two cheerful Buddhist monks.

Coming out of the Coffee House, we were close to the Gaiety Theatre.  Built in 1887, it is a charming small theatre and remains in use today.  It is home to the Amateur Dramatic Club of Shimla (known as the ADC) established 50 years before the theatre itself in 1837.  It is well worth taking the tour and historical talk.  The theatre is very grand for its size. It even has a Vice-Regal Box. 

Upstairs there is a selection of production photographs.  The titles of the plays include The Merry Merchant of Venice and The Adventure of Lady Ursala, suggesting to me that the productions were not all that serious. I imagined they were full of in-jokes and innuendo. I even thought that the ADC might be a hotbed of flirting and more.  In rather an odd way, I found some support for my imaginings.

At Shimla’s railway station, waiting for the Himalayan Queen (The Toy Train) to takes us the sixty miles down to Kalka in just five hours, I bought some postcards at the small shop.  The shopkeeper silently pushed a small book in front of me. One glance and I bought it.  It was “Simla in Ragtime” by DOZ.  (Minerva Publishers, 150 rupees (£1.70)).  The anonymous author writes as an American.  It is a slightly naughty, gossipy commentary on life in Shimla in 1913 thinly disguised as a guidebook.  By the standards of the time, it is racy. Of the ADC, he says, ‘No professional company has any chance in Simla, as the local amateurs will not hire out the theatre. The fact is they cannot, because they are always rehearsing and changing the cast and eternally squabbling for leading parts.’ I do not know where else you can find the book but do not visit Shimla without buying it.

From Scandal Point, there is a ramp up to the Ridge, Shimla’s highest point with fine views of the mountains.  Behind Christ Church, we stopped at the Book Café. The chai and the cakes are good but there is something special about it.  The Himachal Pradesh prison department set it up.  It is run by long-term inmates.  It also runs as a lending library, so if you go there, please take a book to donate.  They will insist that you write your name in the book.  Then settle down with a borrowed book and chai served by a mild looking man who may be a murderer.

Walking back, I encountered a group of young men with a banner, shouting abuse about Pakistan.  A few days before, in Kashmir, a suicide bomber had killed forty-one Indian Border Guards.  In India, it was widely thought that the Pakistani army was behind it and people were angry. I went to talk to them.  They explained their anger.  I asked for a photograph.  Immediately, they forgot their cause to turn and pose with grins and those two fingered selfie salutes. Then they turned and continued their yelling.

Sometimes you have to dig a bit to find what a town has to tell you.

Saturday 16 March 2019

Recommended Guide, Delhi

I can confidently recommend Surekha Narain for Heritage Walks in Delhi.  She gave us a terrific tour of Chandni Chowk.  See my post below.

A Day in Old Delhi

We emerged from New Delhi’s 21st Century metro at Chandni Chowk station and put our watches back three and a half centuries to Shah Jahan’s great seventh city of Delhi – Shajahanabad. But our watches were still wrong; time does strange things in Old Delhi.

Chandni Chowk, the main street that gives its name to the old city, was originally built as a canal to reflect moonlight and that is what its name means.  It is hardly that today. Work is underway to pedestrianise it.

Looking up, I could see the upper floors of the great havelis, mansions built by courtiers and rich merchants in the seventeenth century. The women of these houses, kept in purdah, could talk to each other and spread gossip from window to window across the narrow streets.

Havelis look inward. A narrow doorway or dark staircase revealed nothing about what lay within.   Work was going on to restore it. Later, we paused for chai at a haveli now converted into a boutique hotel (Haveli Dharampura -
Surekha, our excellent guide, led us through just such an entrance and we quickly found ourselves in the sunlit courtyard of a broken down haveli.

At street level, we might have been in Tudor London. Small shops, workshops and factories have taken over the front ground floors of the ancient houses. The street that had once been the Bhagirath Palace was now a street of electricians.  I concede that old London would not have had a street of electricians and in Chandni Chowk, the electrical shops sell cheap, gaudy, Chinese LEDs.  I told you that time does strange things in Old Delhi. There were streets of jewellers and silversmiths, where delicate silver ornaments, finely worked, were sold by weight. A delicate silver sculpture of basil leaves cost us about £6.

We walked on. A slight widening of a narrow street gave room to splendid gentlemen who tucked the instruments of their calling into crimson turbans. Their customers stood quietly, heads cocked to one side as the turbaned practitioners chose exactly the right instrument to clean their ears. The customers were about to hear more clearly the motorbike horns, bells and the yells of hawkers in the busy street.

The motorbikes were yet another 21st century intrusion into Old Delhi. Their riders drove them expertly between handcarts, cycle trishaws and nonchalant pedestrians.

It was hungry work, walking the alleys and streets.  Our wonderful guide, Surekha, was alert to our noses twitching at the smell of some new delicacy.  Lentil pancakes, sweet puddings of thickened milk with spices and Kulfi ice cream gave us precious moments of rest and refreshment.

Even before we turned the corner, we knew that we were approaching the spice market.  There were also sellers of nuts and dried fruits sold either in bulk or as pretty house decorations.  Our fruit, not and mango stone decoration now hangs in our kitchen with a clear instruction that it is not to be eaten.  Not only were their bowls of lemons decorated with green chillies for sale, people had also hung them up outside houses to ward off evil. 

Not every street was quite so aromatic and delicate. From the front room, open to the street, of a small house came the rhythmic clank and thump of a sheet metal press.  We were in the street of iron and metalworkers where proper ironmongers still presided over man caves of pots, pans, tools and fixings. A man could spend an hour in such shop imagining himself a craftsman.  Copper gleamed from shops selling plumbing. 
On a smaller scale, teams of men squatted in workshops making office ring binders.  You know the finger hole in the back of a ring binder?  Well one man punched the hole and the next fixed the metal ring with three taps of a hammer on an anvil.  He made about five a minute, every minute of a long day.  He did it yesterday and will do it tomorrow, perhaps every day for the rest of his life.  He must be paid a small proportion of the pennies that the ring binder sells for.  At this level, India is a penny economy and yet the high-rise buildings of modern, booming New Delhi can be seen from here.

A modern Delhi person might ask why we tourists insist on spending our time in a tiny, outdated and poor part of Delhi, while ignoring prosperous, booming and modern New Delhi.  They have a point but visitors to London do not come to gaze at Canary Wharf but the Tower of London and the Changing of the Guard.  All modern cities resemble each other.  A bar or modern coffee shop in New Delhi will be much the same as in Tokyo or Hackney.  What we tourists want to see is what is different and, perhaps, soon to be lost. The street of wedding dresses and fabrics, fabulously coloured and bejewelled was where Old and New Delhi came together.  Modern, young Delhi women, in jeans and tee shirts, sat cross-legged in tiny shops while the sellers flung down swag after swag of red wedding dress fabrics that would do a Bollywood film proud.  Only Chandni Chowk can give a modern Delhi bride the look she wants on her wedding day.

Adrienne’s purchase in such a shop was more modest, she blew about £1.20 on a chunky necklace made out of wood shavings.  Nothing goes to waste.

I have not mentioned the names of the streets. There were no signs though some businesses showed their address.  Few of those matched anything I  had on a map of Old Delhi.  I can identify where we went in to Shahjahanabad and where we came out but everything in between will always be a mystery.  As the crow flies, we had covered about two miles but we must have walked six.

The metro, like a time machine, brought us back to our hotel and 2019.

Our guide was Surekha Narain, Website