Priya’s story…part two

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has revealed itself gradually; snippets of conversation as we’ve come to know each other in our one year in India. I have known since she joined us as housekeeper, that Priya is widowed and raising children alone. This in itself, could be considered remarkable in India.

It is not uncommon for widows in India to be considered inauspicious and shameful to their family. They can be marginalized, cut off from family property and money, and considered an inconvenience and a burden. Widows can be abandoned with no place to go – simply cast adrift.

Traditionally, widows are expected to wear white, shave their heads and discard their jewellery – essentially renouncing anything that symbolizes womanhood. In some areas of India, social norms still hold to the belief that for a bereaved woman to remain in society, she must have a supportive brother or son.

In rural parts of India, where arranged marriages commit young women (often girls) to marry older men, it is not surprising that widows comprise ten percent of the adult female population, some forty million. Many, widowed at a young age, find that their life is essentially over or irrevocably altered. It can still be considered improper for upper castes to remarry, lower castes often do, ideally to a brother-in-law.

To understand their plight one has only to read about or see images of Vrindavan, a sacred city which has become home to thousands of destitute widows. Begging to pilgrims and chanting bhajan (sharing) hymns for up to four hours a day, earns them enough for one meal and perhaps shelter. For young widows in Vrindavan, poverty may lead to sexual exploitation, a last resort for those already stripped of their dignity. The organization Maitri endeavours to alleviate this, collecting contributions for the purchase of mosquito nets, fresh white linen saris (perhaps now a symbol of sisterhood) and even sewing machines for a widow’s livelihood.

The abhorrent practise of shunning widows is a grim residue of an Indian tradition sati or suttee, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyres which was once (and by some accounts is still) practiced. The perception of woman as chattel is rooted in the patriarchal culture which must change, in step with the values of a civilized society. The women at Vrindavan and other shunned widows represent all women. They were once girls, wives, mothers and grandmothers – deserving respect and dignity.

Within this cultural context, Priya’s independence and resolve is all the more admirable. She has mentioned to me that she is very careful not to acknowledge that she is on her own.

Priya was somewhat distracted this past month as her search for a new home was far more difficult to secure without a man’s name on the lease. Our offer to help negotiate was politely declined and I was relieved that a driver of another family Priya works for was available to help.

Thankfully Priya has found a new home, one with tiled floors and running water, an improvement from her previous house. However, she is not pleased that so many cows wander close by and she worried that her previous landlord might take advantage by not returning her security deposit, “Madam, this is life without a man, not easy,” she said stoically.

Recently as I relaxed, reading on my sofa, Priya eased herself down on the carpet beside me. We had just arrived home from a trip, the house was already clean and I was happy to have some time to speak with her. Priya’s brave and inspiring story flowed forth. With her resilience worn firmly on her face and her engaging personality coming through, her reflections evoked introspection, wistfulness and even laughter.

I use Priya’s own speech patterns. Madam is usually said with a Ma..dam, the last syllable lilting up lyrically as if it is a happy topic. Otherwise, the dam dips down with a tone of seriousness…it is the name she uses for me.

Priya where did you grow up?  I am not from here, from Tamil Nadu. We lived in a house of coconut leaves with mud floor, like a squatter’s village. We had no food, maybe gravy with onions and rice, once at night. I tell my children,”You are lucky.”

Did your father work?  He died, I was five. Preya puts her thumb to her mouth like a soother, indicating that her father was an alcoholic. Four other children, never enough food.

Did your mother work then and take care of you all?  She worked in rice fields, taking the husk. Very hard work Madam, 6 rupees a day.

Your older brothers and sisters, did they go to school?  No, no, no one. Sisters from a convent came to take me, so poor were we Madam. My mother said, “Take her for better life.”

IMG_0124How did you feel, do you remember this?  Oh yes, I was happy. Food was there. The bus ride was far, to Kerala, a convent. Sister Paulina took me. You know Madam, Priya gazes out to the lush rain tree and palm trees beyond for inspiration, coconut leaves were rolled long for lights (torch). Moved back and forth, very pretty at night. And spoons from jackfruit, we eat rice, lots of rice and coconut chutney always there. Priya smiles with the memory of this and I tell her I love this kind of chutney. Oh yes Madam!

Priya what did you do at the convent, did you start school?  Just a little, maybe one month, but no interest. I work, clean, play with children, pick up the coconuts. Madam, then a rich family wants to take me, “Give us Priya,” they said. I was five and a half.

Did you miss your mother, your family?  No Madam, there is nice food, clothes, soap. I go with the family and play with the daughter. I see her go to school and now want to go. I cry to go, but they say no, just housework and playmate for the girl.

Was anything paid to you, or your mother?  Yes Madam, 10 rupees a month. The convent send money to post office, to my mother. The grandmother was nice in the house. At nine, a Sister dies and I’m at convent for a break, but don’t want to go home. Priya works three years in the convent. At twelve years I go to new home. Sometimes now I talk about my family, but they buy me gold earrings, new dress to stay. From five to twelve I don’t see my mother.

Priya, all this time you didn’t study, only worked?  Yes Madam, I’m sorry but what to do, work from five years old. One day I want to see my mother, big arrangement to do this. The sisters ask, “Why Priya, they are still poor.” But I must see my mother, so I go, fifteen day holiday. Madam I don’t know my mother’s face. I go home, my sisters, brothers don’t talk to me. My language is changed. So poor, no study, only playing, no food. Mother work all day. Again I’m hungry. No clean water. Only two days I stay.

Were you sad to leave your family again?  No Madam, only think of food. It’s clear this is difficult for Priya to reconcile. The convent keeps me now to work, mother can come once every two months if want, two long buses away. Madam I like the schedule at convent. 5 a.m.up, church, food, bath and work. Now too old to learn.

For five years Priya’s mother is sent a salary from the convent. They also saved money separately for her dowry.

Madam at seventeen, I’m asked, “Do you want to go to Dehli?” First time for train, happy but a little scared. One sister took me. Delhi very different Madam!

Where did you go in Delhi, to a new family?  Yes, first year was good Madam. A girl there about three, but then the Sir, you know, was slapping my bottom. One night tapping me on the arm, I sleep in the hallway. I tell him, “I will tell!” I cause big problem, no one understands why I want to go back. The Convent comes to get me, three days again Madam on train. And then bad.

What happens Priya?  My mother comes to Sisters and begs for money for my sister’s dowry. She’s old twenty-five, they give my dowry money Madam. I don’t go to wedding, a mess.

Priya that must have been a terrible shock; all those years you worked.  Yes, now the convent says, “Priya go to a convent in Bangalore, Saint Anne’s.” My God Madam, the first time off train there is breath coming from mouths, so cold, like a frozen town. I work Madam like before and now I’m old, twenty-two. Then one day, they tell me rules are change and I must marry.

IMG_9338You didn’t go back home of course, you had no choice but to marry?  No this is my life. I dream Madam and Priya laughs at her own naivety at the time, I can watch T.V, cook for my husband, a good life. Her voice trails off at what might have been…

They find money for dowry, 20,000 rupees, earrings and a chain. Some teachers collect saris for me. And Madam, everybody knows husband is a drunk. Me a good convent girl, no family wants him. And mother too, a drunk.

I’m so sorry Priya. Yes Madam, what I’m thinking, she pauses for some time, I trusted the Sisters. I remember a cleaning lady at engagement party, “The boy is a drunk,” she says and someone says shhh! But too late, maybe sisters know.


Where did you live after the wedding?  
A place Tannery Road, everybody drunk, even now I would never take children there. Fifteen days after marriage, he says, “Go to work,” the mother-in-law, “George B……Why is she sitting there, send your wife to work!” Priya laughs and repeats it twice in a threatening voice. My dreaming is finished. Madam I’m happy you’re writing.

So am I Priya. You are an inspiration, everything you’ve been through. So you went to work housekeeping, what did your husband do?  Worked in a small shop, TV repair but only drank. The Sisters came and talked to him four times, but Madam, what to do…nothing changed.

Priya would quickly become pregnant. A kindly family she worked for allowed her to rest at work, offering her extra food. With no one to collect her from the hospital after the birth, the pattern of neglect and abuse began. Priya was able to take the baby to work with her; she cannot imagine not having had this ‘refuge’. Unfortunately the family moved out of state. An incident soon after the birth of Priya’s second child, left her fearing for her life. She felt she had no choice but to flee from her husband with her two young children – with no money, no job and nowhere to go.

Priya persevered and bravely worked her way through these most difficult times. I am aware of other details of her heart-rending story but much of it is too personal to publicly share. Her resolve, determination, maternal instincts and loving character is an inspiration to me…a poignant emblem of the strength of womanhood.

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Sometime last year, despite being detached from her family for all those years, Priya took her children on the long bus trip back to the village in Tamil Nadu to pay respect to her mother,”Madam, no cross is on her grave, I must do it.”

It says much about her character that she had the charity and compassion to make this journey for a family which has not been a part of her life. I sense that she views herself as the ‘lucky one’ having been given to the convent as a young girl.

When I show this blog to Priya before I press publish, she sees her photos and laughs her infectious laugh, “Madam, to the world?” she asks. I tell her that I do know much of the rest of her story, but it isn’t printed here. “You know Madam?” Tears well in our eyes.

“Yes Priya, you are very brave.”

“Madam,” she says reflectively, “I wasn’t strong then, not like now. I tell my daughter she must study, she must be strong.”

Priya’s story…the cadence of an Indian neighbourhood, part one

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has inspired me to write. To write of her courage of overcoming a difficult past and of capturing the lives of all the hard-working people in our neighbourhood. Allow me first to paint a picture…

It has been busy these past few months; trips to Brunei, Singapore, Bangkok and a road trip in India. Our comings and goings every other week bewilder the staff of our five-family apartment building; a gardener, two security guards, a manager and Priya, our housekeeper. They are very much a part of our everyday life.

“Madam, where going now?” Boran our gardener typically asks when he sees me with luggage in the porticoed entrance. When I tell him my destination, he looks at me quizzically, “Airplane?”

“Yes by airplane Boran, back in seven days. Sir is back in four.” ‘Sir’ is my husband,  in deference our names are never used. Not only is the country which I’m traveling to a complete unknown, so is the fact that often my husband and I leave together, yet return at different times. Or I travel alone, leaving Sir to ‘fend for himself’.

“But who will cook his food?” it seems half of the street initially pondered. This question was reconciled as they saw Sir on the street buying his produce from Raj, our vegetable wallah. When my husband revealed that he could cook his own food, there were looks and mutterings of bemusement. “Sir cook himself?” This is something new…

IMG_1577Boran is thirty-two and like many men who work in Bangalore as gardeners or security guards, he is from the north of India. They are a three-day train journey from home, usually taken only once a year. Working from afar, their families remain in the villages, reliant on monthly remittances.

As Boran watered the plants on a recent afternoon, he was eager to share some news. “Madam, I get married.”

“Boran are you getting married, congratulations! Is it arranged?” I already know the answer to this question; it would be unheard of for him to not have an arranged marriage.

“Yes Madam,” he says, scrolling through photos on his phone to present his bride-to-be. She has a kind, cheerful face and I’m relieved to see she is not underaged, often the reality in India. “She twenty-six Madam, very good. Come to wedding Dec. 26?” Boran asks with his boyish smile. When I explain that we’ll be home in Canada at the time, he’s not too concerned and mentions that our day-time security guard Kajul will return soon with some news. “Maybe he married now,” Boran says with a sly grin.
IMG_1581Kajul has replaced our first guard Rajesh Kumar who, a little tipsy one night, took a topple from his bike. A month in his village to heal broken bones was prescribed, but no sign of him yet – the ‘grapevine’ hasn’t provided any answers.

Where Rajesh Kumar was reliable yet often mystifying to communicate with, Kajul is unfailingly good at his job and speaks enough English should an emergency arise.

He is also ever the gentleman. Meeting me half-way down the street if I’m carrying more than one bag. Telephoning as the cry of a wallah heralds a vendor’s arrival,”Good Morning Madam, today vegetables?” Insisting on standing at my open door should a repair or delivery man be present. “Safety Madam,” he says. I’ve missed Kajul while he’s been on leave for his sister’s marriage.

About the same age as Boran and as the head of his household, it was Kajul’s duty to provide the dowry money for his sister. “Maybe Madam, when I come back I married too. But sister first,” he told me before he left. He wasn’t sure if finances would stretch to allow his matrimony, though his mother had someone in mind. We shall know in a matter of days when he returns.

Kajul has worked in the Middle East, a desired location I learn from some of the security guards who man almost every apartment building, stores of any repute, schools, clubs, etc. The job is monotonous with twelve hour shifts of sitting and waiting…perhaps a visitor, a delivery, a vehicle to open the gate for.

The guards are a club unto themselves and nothing escapes their attention. When Sir recently had to climb down a ladder from our balcony to get to work at 6:30 a.m. (the lock had jammed), he was updated on the state of affairs as he turned onto our road at 5 p.m. The gaggle of guards in front of the jewellery store chuckled knowingly. “Sir, climbing down this morning? Locksmith here, all fixed now!”

On our street of three villas, three businesses, two apartments buildings and a private school, there are never fewer than a dozen guards at any time of the day. We know most of them and are greeted with a wave, a Namaskara, or a chat. “Madam going for lunch?” “Where is Sir now?’ “Sir, have not seen Madam for two days?”

And we learn of their lives. George Fernandez worked for years overseas, “Happy home now Madam, how is it in India?” he asks, peering through smudged glasses. He springs his roly-polly figure up from his chair each time I walk past. He tells me about his children, “some in university now”, the satisfaction radiating from his proud face…years of working away from his family now just a memory.

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Another ‘on-duty’ sits under the welcome shade of a large banyan tree. Vijay Kumar is a tall man with the countenance of a doctor or a lawyer. He also courteously rises from his chair with a greeting. “Good morning Madam, where going?” he asks on a recent morning. I tell Mr. Kumar  I’m on my way to the doctor and a look of alarm crosses his face. Reassuring him it’s nothing serious, I ask about his grandson. “Oh fine, fine,” he replies, pulling out a wallet-sized photo, “And now a name is there Ma’am.”

Mr. Kumar announced last month that he had become a grandfather and also informed us that the baby hadn’t yet been named. Following a Hindu tradition called Namakarama, on the fortieth day a baby is blessed, sprinkled with holy water and given its name at a local temple. It was a proud moment when Mr. Kumar could share his grandson’s name with the neighbourhood and distribute the requisite sweets.

Bidding farewell, my direction is the local doctor about three blocks away. It’s a beautiful spring morning; the trees are erupting with blooms, the bougainvillea bursting with lively shades, jack fruit and coconut are plumping up melon-big…I cross the road to avoid an imagined concussion. Mango trees are starting to bear their coveted fruit.
IMG_0121 (1)‘My’ mango tree which I see from my window will be harvested in July. A barefooted climber will scuttle up its massive branches and shake the mangos loose, dropping them onto a sheet, hoisted up at each corner. One after another the mangos will tumble down.

I had been promised last week by Anu, my neighbour across the way, that I must taste some this year. We hadn’t chatted for a few months and finally caught up Sunday morning IMG_2537around Mangalora’s fruit cart. After hugs from both of the ladies, and an admonishment that I am never here, Anu asked if I’m home now. “I leave later this week again Ma’am, I’m a speaker at a conference and will go home to see family.”

While we chose our apples and papayas, Anu asked what I’ll be speaking of and reveals that she had once been a teacher. The congenial Sunday morning chat ended with a “Safe travels and blessings to your family.” I resolved to make a point of getting to know Anu better, hopefully over some delicious mangos.

IMG_0277On this morning I turn the corner onto Lavelle Road, mindful of bikes, rickshaws and laden vegetable carts. A pony-pulled cart surprisingly trots past. Another unexpected sight greets me in front of Sodabottleopenerwallah, a restaurant we’re fond of. A brass polisher has set up in front to polish the tiffin boxes. The waft of red-hot charcoal infuses the air as the wallah heats, scrubs and buffs the small pots used for curries and rices. The sidewalk serves as the wallah’s work bench, ideal for this vital itinerant service.

The charm of our neighbourhood is just this; the traditional with the modern, the unexpected with the reliable.

As I make my way onto the busy main road, nestled in the shade is the usual chai wallah. His customers are gathered around for a morning tea break. He delights in his photo being taken, but the nearby newspaper wallahs don’t have time for such nonsense. They’re gathering their deliveries from stacks piled on the ground…The Times of India, The Deccan Herald, the Bangalore Times. Once strapped onto the back of their bicycles, they’ll be delivered in time for morning coffee.

When I reach the small hospital another block away, I am the only foreigner and curiousIMG_1280 stares greet me as I pay the 500 rupees (10 dollars) for my consultation. The doctor’s professionalism belies his simple surroundings and when he hears that I write, our conversation meanders to authors and history, to the once sleepy and peaceful Bangalore. “This was once the ideal city, so green with a temperate climate,” the doctor says ruefully, reflecting on his more than two decades in the city.

I leave and walk to my corner-store, Asha’s. I don’t know if it has served the community for twenty years, but I imagine so. About as big as an over-sized garden shed, two people cannot pass through its narrow space at the same time, yet the well-stocked shelves never seem to let me down.

Namaste Madam, what today?” Rafik asks, then pulls the items off the shelves as I call them out. He informs me that he finally has some cheese in stock, I’m pleased with this news but it seems I don’t have enough money with me. “Madam, tomorrow is there,” he says tearing a small recipt from its pad. Each item has been handwritten and it seems I’m 639 rupees short. “Thank you Rafik, I’ll come back tomorrow.” I smile to myself as I leave, knowing that my credit is good in the neighbourhood…truly a local now it seems.

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As I arrive back at my street, a busy scene greets me. Raj’s vegetable cart is positioned half-way down, Arun is cycling up with a bag of laundry in need of pressing and the postman is delivering today’s mail. I don’t get a chance to speak with him, but I engage Arun and Raj.

“How long have you been in business Raj,” I ask admiring the decorative touches on his trusty blue cart. It is well- laden, down to its inner compartment stuffed with greens –spinach, coriander, mint and curry leaves. It requires strength and concentration to maneuver this movable shop along the city’s busy streets.

IMG_0095 (1)“Nineteen years Madam, but the cart is new, 2004. Cost 32,000 rupees.”

“That’s a lot Raj,” I confirm, knowing it’s a substantial investment. “Yes,” he agrees and pats the handle of his cart,”and only one driver!”

We both laugh and Raj hands me the handwritten slip of my purchase. He clicks his tongue and shakes his head when I tell him I must go inside to get some money, “Tomorrow is there Madam.”

Arun unlatches a bag of laundry from his bicycle, just collected from a neighbourhood customer. He and his partner Laurence are iron wallahs and set up most days under the shade of ‘my’ mango tree. This bag of clean garments, along with many others awaiting their turn, will be pressed, wrapped in newspaper and delivered by dusk. Arun’s sturdy Atlas bicycle will roll back down the street with the deliveries.

“It’s a good bike Arun,” I offer, noting the brand.

“Yes Madam, Indian made and old.”

I ask how long he’s been in business and Arun seems chuffed to tell me. “First my uncle for 37 years, then dead. Now mine for 7 years.” I suggest to him that his Uncle would be proud and he smiles quietly.

Arun, as with all the wallahs and guards, no longer appear surprised that we choose to interact with them; perhaps they’re pleased to have some interaction as they work through another long day. The word wallah is Sanskrit for keeper and Hindi for doer, it describes these hard-working entrepreneurs well.

I realize that this is the day I truly feel at ease with my life in India. We’ve just celebrated our one year anniversary in the neighbourhood; it’s home.

IMG_0098Just then Priya walks up to start her three hour shift. “Madam, just home? Where were you?” she wants to know as she takes one of the shopping bags.

We walk up the wide steps, to my apartment where a wooden bench from the Middle East sits against my marbled entrance wall. It has welcomed me home in five different countries. We plunk the shopping down on it as we remove our shoes.

I fill Priya in on my morning, “I was at Asha’s and seemed to speak to everyone in the neighbourhood this morning, Mr. Kumar’s baby now has a name Priya. And I had to go to the doctor before I leave at the end of the week.”

“But Madam,” Priya says, her usual vibrant tone turning melancholy. “So long, over one month away?” she says remembering I’ll be gone longer than usual.

As she ties on her apron once inside, Priya asks ,”Madam, still cold in Europe and Canada?”

“Yes still cold, I must pack warm clothes this time.” With this she smiles mischievously then raises her voice in laughter, “Well Madam, enough clothes are there,” Priya says referencing my closets. This I can’t deny, nor that Priya always manages to brighten my day.

Thankfully, her days are brighter now than they once were….Priya’s story will be continued

A Bangkok love story…art, elegance and companionship

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“Siamese pink was the navy blue of Thailand and Mr. Thompson had a way of combining this with colours no one had dreamt of. He was a talented colourist, above all else.”

Our hostess, I’ll call her Lily, shows deference to her ‘boss’ as we slowly wind our way through the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok. To build his home, Thompson sourced six traditional structures which were dismantled, loaded onto barges, then floated to the plot of land he had bought in 1958.

As a former architect, Thompson would not only fashion an elegant residence which became a landmark in Bangkok, but his preservation of traditional Thai buildings would encourage wealthy Thais to better preserve their heritage.

Jim Thompson was the founder of The Thai Silk Company. Throughout the late fifties and into the sixties, when one’s ship docked or plane landed in Bangkok, one naturally made a beeline for the company’s trendy shop. In the early days Thompson would often be there, draping customers in vibrant silks with his refined, creative eye. It is recounted that few women could resist the newly exotic, must-have fabric…or indeed Thompson’s charms.

If you had a little money or notoriety, you might garner an invitation that evening to his renowned home, the heart of Bangkok’s social scene. Thompson treasured it and shared its unique ambience most evenings by hosting drinks and dinner parties.

“It’s in the evening when the house is at its best,” Lily says dreamily as we approach the large drawing room with its stage-like design open to the elements; the orchids, the palms, and the klong, a backdrop in silhouette. “It is magical when the soft lights illuminate centuries old buddhas, tapestries, sculptures and rare paintings. But it’s also when the mosquitoes come out and maybe even the spirits.”

I do wonder if Jim Thompson’s spirit is felt. He disappeared on Easter Sunday 1967, and in the years before that tragic time, he built a legacy of bringing Thai silk to the world and awakening the need to preserve Thai and Asian artifacts. He collected these with passion. It is still inconceivable to many that all these years later, Jim Thompson’s disappearance remains a mystery.

Thompson had exchanged a former life as an architect and a stage designer, to serve as an OSS (forerunner of the CIA) operative and a major in the US Army. Landing in Bangkok at the end of the second world war, the urbane, soft spoken American was charmed by the cities vestiges of old-world character, its canals, floating markets and the royal history of Siam. That first visit captivated Thompson and he returned to the US hoping to convince his wife of the possibilities of a new life in Bangkok. Instead a divorce ensued and he returned to Bangkok a bachelor, thus beginning another phase in his fascinating life.

My first visit to the Jim Thompson House was in January 1989 and for nostalgia’s sake, I now allow myself a journey of discovery, and a little sentimentality on this trip. A silk-bound book, House On The Klong, is in my handbag. Purchased on that initial visit, a note on its inner sleeve reads… Merry Christmas to my traveling companion, Christmas 1989

It was penned after six months of backpacking with that traveling companion and six more of teaching English in Japan. We had fallen in love on our through journey Thailand, India, Nepal and China. Today, he’s my husband and I love that he’s the guy who ported my backpack far and wide. The travel companion with whom I’m lucky enough to still be discovering the world with.

Returning together to Bangkok with its bejewelled temple roof-lines, its hectic waterways, evocative streets and to Thompson’s home, brings floods of memories.

img_4026It was more soulful and quiet then. Without tour guides and with only occasional travellers, one had time to savour; the objects d’art, the finely carved doors, the priceless collections of Chinese blue and white, the delicate bencharong, five coloured porcelain.

Back then one could easily gaze out across the murky canal and hear the click, clack, click, clack of the silk looms in Bangkrau, the small village of Muslim weavers, long since swallowed up by the city.

The boardwalks of their Thai-style homes were lined with hanging skeins of freshly dyed strands of silk, their thinest of threads teased from silkworm cocoons. Not long after settling in Bangkok, Thompson began acquiring lengths of the weavers silk fashioned for sarongs; pasins for the ladies and pakomas for the men. Many of these weavers would come to produce silk for his company, bringing them wealth they could scarcely have imagined. Thompson would have no idea that in just a few years, the weavers would become his neighbours, just across the klong.

One of Bangkrau’s old Thai structures would provide the main part of Thompson’s home, the renowned drawing room. It was a charmed setting where movie stars, writers, politicians and the social elite were entertained by the generous businessman. It is fondly recalled that Thompson would re-tell the same fascinating stories night after night with the exuberance of a first-time story teller. Music by Thai performers floated towards the drawing room as an accompaniment.

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As we meander through the luxuriant garden, Lily points to the spirit house nestled in a corner, its precise location chosen by a Brahmin priest who specialized in such matters. It’s said that it took a full morning to locate the spot as a complicated set of astrological charts were consulted of the genealogy of the compound spirits, traced back 2000 years. Spirit houses are tiny abodes and replicas of Thai-style house or temples which must not fall under the shadow of the main house. For the Thais, there’s an innate believe that spirit houses offer a residence for the guardian spirit of the house and surroundings.

“There are four things the spirit house must have,” Lily enlightens us, “food, water, incense and flowers…oh, and a candle is nice too.” On this day, orange marigold garlands appease the spirits and please our cameras.

Jim Thompson would grow the ancient process of silk weaving and with other investors, form the Thai Silk Company in 1948. Almost instantly, its fine silk was sought-after worldwide. Before this, silk was considered old fashioned and something that your elderly relatives wore to a family wedding perhaps.

This would change as Jim Thompson’s silk soon graced photo spreads in magazines, exhibited in expensive stores and orders filled worldwide. The entrepreneur was seemingly indefatigable. Along with opening a company retail outlet and overseeing a thriving company, Thompson would also consult as a costume designer for movies such as The King and I, and Ben Hur…with specially designed silk of course.

Thompson had little free time, a recognized rebuttal after his disappearance which asserted that he had time to be a covert agent. But despite his frenetic schedule, he did find time to trek into the jungle, ideally emerging with an unknown species of orchid of which he was fond of; another rebuttal as to how someone knowledgable with the jungle could disappear in it.

Fittingly and perhaps in memory, the Jim Thompson House and gardens are fragrant with orchids poised in Chinese blue and white pots, with lush lily-padded ponds and replete with antiquties…I leave reluctantly.

The next day, I decide to visit Thompson’s first residence, The Oriental Hotel. On my way I turn onto a side street from what was once a worn elephant trail, New Road, the first proper road in Bangkok. It is the area where colonial-styled embassies congregated and antique shops opened for the travellers who began to trickle into the city at the turn-of-the-century.

I stop at a showroom, its sweeping decorative rooflines delightfully incongruous with its former use as a tractor repair shop. It stands defiant amongst modern buildings. As I admire antique handicrafts, I meet the second-generation shop owner. She patiently explains lipao, a beautiful dark climbing plant used for weaving and intriguingly, solves the mystery of why bamboo rice holders must to be smoked periodically. You’ll want to know it’s to prevent mites, of course. I then broach the topic of Jim Thompson.

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“Oh yes, we remember him,” she says. “I recall when I was a small girl he came to buy a valuable Thai headdress which was part of a matching pair, he owned the other one of course. It was put on my tiny head and very heavy.” I smile at the recollection and mention that I’m writing about the famed silk legend.

“What do you think happened to him?” The shopkeeper seems genuinely curious.

It is not a surprising question as three or four theories persist.

5-moonlight-bungalow-todayFirst and perhaps the most widely accepted is that Thompson innocently set out for a jungle walk from the Moonlight Bungalow where he was staying with friends in the Cameron Highlands in 1967. After an Easter church service followed by a picnic, the others had retired for an afternoon siesta. Thompson said he also planned to rest.

He didn’t however and a scrape of a lawn chair and the crunch of footsteps on gravel were heard sometime later. Thompson’s friends assumed he had decided to walk, which he was inclined to do at every opportunity. Despite weeks of full-scale searches, no trace of him or his body was, or has ever been found. Did he meet his demise accidentally plunging into a ravine or falling into a tiger trap set by local tribesmen?

A planned suicide theory persists, but is most often debunked, “Jim would never have done that to his friends and business,” a former colleague insists.

Other theories involve a kidnapping, a secret departure to start a life elsewhere (a few supposed sightings were reported in places like Tahiti), or a planned escape underground with his past OSS career having caught up with him.

What is known is that family, friends and colleagues waited tortuously for weeks and months in the hope that Thompson would stroll back into his beautiful home.

“I really don’t know,” I confess to the shop owner. “Even I’m a little haunted by it, I can only imagine the grief of his those that knew and loved him.”

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I take my leave and walk the short distance to the legendary Oriental Hotel, more imposing and glorious than ever. Commandeered by the Japanese during the war, the grand old Oriental was threadbare and worn-at-the-heels after liberation. American soldiers and liberated Dutch, British and Australian prisoners of war had also sought refuge in it’s once glamours surroundings.

Thompson, ever a designer, was serving as an unofficial political advisor to the American embassy at the time but couldn’t resist the charm of The Oriental. “We could make this a great hotel again,” he is quoted as saying to Germain Krull who became one of his partners. Thompson relished the opportunity to use his creative skills, yet the partnership lasted only a year with Thompson being squeezed out.

He continued however, to live in its revolving-door lifestyle for a year or two more, setting up his first silk shop. Framed prints pay homage to his time at The Oriental. In one print, Thompson’s parrot, Cocky, is perched on his shoulder in front of his home. It is said, the verbose parrot died of heartache when his master did not return.

I stay for a late lunch, taking in the elegant surroundings and the glimpses of Thai silk all around me; the furniture and cushions, the staff’s vibrant sarongs and jackets…patterns and splashes of smokey greys, oranges, emerald greens, tawny browns and of course siam pink. Jim Thompson’s colourful signature is everywhere.

This is still where the rich and famous gather and I notice some dressed for lunch as if for a cocktail party. Short silk dresses and sarongs mix with gentlemen in linen jackets and polished Gucci shoes. Thompson would be pleased. “He was a terribly elegant man, always dressed immaculately in Thai silk,” gushed one admiring lady.

Despite numerous affairs with married women, a few apparently more than ready to leave their husband, the bachelor never remarried. “He was rarely alone, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lonely,” mused one of his confidants.

 

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I gaze out to the Chao Phraya river and watch the myriad boats ply the waters. Orange robed monks and tidy businessmen catch ferries, tourists alight at the hotel’s dock, long-tail boats speed past with their bright strands of fabric flapping from their prows. Elegant Thai roof top have given way to modern buildings.

I remove the silk covered book from of my bag and write of yesterday’s visit to the House…Bangkok, Feb. 25th, 2017, A return to the lovely and beguiling Jim Thompson House, yet this time with one of our sons. And what a joy to still be discovering and finding inspiration with my traveling companion...it’s been some twenty-eight years after all…

Penang’s shades of green and hues of blue…a mansion and Jimmy Choo

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There are a few unsent ‘postcards’ from Penang this past year. Having co-authored a book about its pioneers, both past and present, there is much to write. I could relate the fascinating history of Francis Light, who claimed the island for the East India Company in 1786, or the myriad settlers from near and far, especially the resourceful Chinese and the stalwart Southern Indians. There are Penang’s iconic shophouses, godowns and clan temples. Its diverse culture and heritage trades, the legendary food and the engaging street art. That and more will be revealed when the book is published. But for now, a few snippets from the Penang I’ve come to know and love…

 

The Blue Mansion…img_5098-1

A photo of her hangs in the mansion’s dining room, her dress and hairstyle unusually simple for a person of her status. Tan Tay Po was 20 when she married the 70 year-old Cheong Fatt Tze. She would become his favourite wife – there were eight of them – and the Blue Mansion was Tan Tay’s splendid home.

Known as the ‘Rockefeller of the East’, Cheong Fatt Tze had homes (and wives) scattered throughout S.E. Asia, but the indigo-blue mansion in Penang was his preferred. Where he’d find his beloved wife number 7.

boutique-hotel-penang-island-blue-mansion-architecture-02-1-600x600-1I had been to the mansion earlier in the year, gathering information for the book project. Along with writers from the region, I had the good fortune to be invited to a candle-lit dinner in Indigo, the mansion’s elegant restaurant. Serendipity saw my place-card positioned across from Laurence Loh, the man who brought the mansion back to life; rescuing it from its dilapidated state and likely from demolition.

Laurence Loh is one of Malaysia’s esteemed architects and I followed many who have spoken to him over the years, BBC, CNN, Architectural publications and others. Laurence is understated yet passionate about his role as a conservation architect.

“Why take on such a daunting project?” I asked. “What motivated you to dedicate years to the restoration of a mansion? ” In fact a home now considered to be one of the finest restored mansions in the world.

Laurence admitted that he had not given the property much thought as he passed it daily as a youth on his way to school. Years later having returned home to Penang after time abroad, Laurence felt a strong pull towards the temple-like building. Along with partners, he and his wife Lin Lee would buy the property on Leith Street and transform the Chinese court-yard home to the enchanting splendour of its past – it would take 11 years of meticulous restoration.

That evening as we had dined, Laurence explained that developers had hovered in anticipation for the prized site when it came on the market. Conservation in 1989 was almost non-existent with no guidelines and little vision. The mansion lay in a state of decay and disregard with more than thirty tenant families inhabiting it. Motorbikes zoomed through the house and washing lines hung from gilded panels. Animal bones, droppings, feathers and rubbish littered the rooms.

Laurence told me modestly, “It just needed to be cleaned up and restored. There was an epiphany that this would take hold of our lives.” And he hinted that it was meant to be…that perhaps Cheong Fatt Tze had already chosen him as the rescuer.

I was curious if it was the love story of wife number 7, ‘the one he loved above all others,’ as Laurence had put it. Or perhaps it was the unique sense of scale, proportion and space with which the mansion had been designed. I sensed that it is a little of both. Laurence admitted that a keen sense of preserving the legacies of Penang’s forefathers, especially those of the Chinese settlers, had motivated him. “I’m very proud of my Chinese roots,” he explained, “it’s essential they’re preserved.”

The residence was originally completed in 1904 by Cheong Fatt Tze. Having arrived from China to Batavia in 1856 as a penniless 16 year-old, Cheong would come to epitomize South East Asia’s determined Chinese entrepreneurs – of which there were many. Cheong transcended from a carrier of river water to a one-man multinational conglomerate. Initially there was help from his merchant father-in-law, that of wife number 1, yet Cheong would go on to successfully deal in the commodities of the day: pepper, tin, rubber, tea and coffee, rice and opium. He would invest in banks, glassworks, textiles, cattle and a vineyard. He would start his own shipping line when refused first-class service on another. He was an extraordinary entrepreneur.

On a recent visit to Penang, I decide to spend an evening at the Mansion in one of its 18 restored guest rooms. I’d be untruthful if I didn’t confess that its history and spirt is felt within its storied walls. It’s not an uneasiness, but more of a tacit acknowledgement that you are just passing through…the home will always be Cheong Fatt Tze’s.

The next day, I’m invited to join a tour. The private rooms are roped off to the public and there’s a secret delight in having been in the inner sanctum of the mansion. Along with tourists from different countries, I learn that nothing was left to chance when the grand home was built. With its 5 inner courtyards, the centre wing was where business was conducted and were family was housed, perhaps one or all of the 3 wives and various concubines. This was often the norm for a man of Cheong’s social standing.

“Wives 3, 6 and 7 lived here. But if you were out of favour you could easily find yourself in the side wings or across the street in the servants quarters”, our guide reveals motioning to separate buildings across the street. Yet we’re told of Cheong’s great philanthropist tendencies, of his ease with both Asian traditions and of the Western World. We hear of his discerning sense of fashion from Mandarin outfits of fine silk, to top hats and tails.

Indeed the photos and other manifestations capture the essence of time, place and wealth. We see intricate Scottish ironworks (a must-have to affirm one’s wealth in the British empire), gilded decoration, priceless porcelain and Art Nouveau stained glass windows. But its the chien nien that intrigues me most.

Chien nien translates to cut-and-paste shard works, a laborious process whereby specially produced rice bowls are cut with pliers to provide shards of coloured porcelain. Lime putty is then used to form the shards into intricate patterns of men, women, animals and scenes depicting Chinese mythology and various Gods. Some 10,000 bowls, imported from China, were needed to restore the mansion’s chien nien – believed the most prolific on any private building outside of China.img_5060-1

As we gather in the central courtyard, we’re asked a question that I had heard previously from Laurence. “Do you feel the chi, the spirt?”

It is reference to the elaborate feng shui that Cheong Fatt Tze implemented in his home .

“This is the heart, here in the middle, where the greatest chi energy radiates,” our guide says motioning to a spot between two stone columns. “This precise point would have been selected by a feng shui master, the house grew from there.”

It seems very little was left to chance. Granite steps were added as ideally one must always step up when entering a Chinese home…it denotes promotion. The granite implies strength and stability. Golden coins were buried in auspicious corners to ensure continued wealth. The side wings of the home contain six rooms on each floor. The number six as it rhymes with ‘lok lok tai soon‘…smoothness for every dealing.

The Chinese believe that rain water brings wealth (farming, crops) and that nature’s wealth should be drawn inwards. Hence the mansion’s elaborate pipes and gutters to collect rainwater, emptying into the courtyards, backing up in loops, cooling both the floors and ceiling spaces. “The water can come in quickly but should flow out slowly, just like the Chinese ethos towards money.” This is conveyed to us with a chuckle, yet it is clearly to be taken seriously.

When we encounter a photo of the beloved wife number 7, we learn that Tan Tay was the daughter of a Penang goldsmith and the only wife mentioned in the tycoon’s will. When Cheong died in 1916, flags were lowered to half-mast throughout Asia by both British and Dutch authorities. His coffin was toured to Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong for farewells, before burial in his native China.

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And of the mansion? Cheong’s will stated that it was not to be sold until the death of he and Tan Tay’s son, only 2 at the time of his father’s death. When he died in 1989, the last daughter-in-law would fall short of money and resort to leasing the mansion’s once grand rooms, contributing to the dilapidated state Laurence Loh would find the mansion.

As the tour finishes, I recall something Laurence had shared that with me. “Cheong Fatt Tze had wanted nine generations to live in this home. He wanted it to be enjoyed by many.”

Thanks to the vision of a passionate architect, that is happily the case…

*The Blue Mansion is properly known as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

 

A connection with Jimmy Choo…

img_3173I find myself on ‘hallowed’ ground…that is, if one is both a lover of shoes and familiar with Jimmy Choo. His story began in Penang, a local boy who shared his roots with the very man I’m speaking with, Mr. Wong Heng Mun.

I’m at Hong Kong Shoes on Kimberley Street and have decided to have a pair of shoes made by Mr. Wong and his team of cobblers.

There are three skilled artisans busy today in the long, narrow shophouse. One shoemaker is stitching and another cutting strips of leather with scissors as large as a size- 13 shoe. Mr. Wong minds the front of the shop. He not only knows a thing or two about shoes, he apprenticed alongside Penang’s runaway success story…Jimmy Choo. Like Mr. Wong, Mr. Choo also came from a family of shoemakers.

“Jimmy was about 15 or so, a little older than me when we apprenticed. It was my father that taught us.” Mr. Wong’s father, Wong Sam Chai, was Penang’s esteemed master cobbler for some 60 years.

This is not the original location of the shop but still, it’s become a bit of a mecca for shoe lovers visiting Penang. The shop is certainly not as salubrious as a Jimmy Choo. This is more of an ‘organized chaos’ with shoe mouldings, scraps of leather and shoe samples crammed onto shelves and arrayed on the floor. Proudly displayed magazine and newspaper clippings of the Choo connection decorate the walls. The workshop is stuffed with tools of the trade: threads on bobbins, glue for soles of leather, hammers and heels, and a ‘museum piece’ Singer – timeless and trusty.

Mr. Wong is kind enough to lead me up the worn treads of narrow stairs to the second floor. Shoe moulds as far as the eye can see. Wooden and plastic – shades of greens, hues of blues and wood polished smooth by expert hands, sizes and shapes for all.

Mr. Wong tells me that more than 200 pairs of shoes are handcrafted every month for clients. “Some locals but many foreigners.”

img_5285Back in the workshop, I notice the nonya shoe that is in the works. Its delicate glass beads have been painstakingly stitched into a pattern onto fabric, and is now being crafted into a sandal or perhaps a slipper.

Traditionally this was a pastime expertised by Malay ladies. Beaded slippers complimented their colourful sarongs and lavish kebayas, their tight fitting embroidered blouses.

I’m told that the craft of stitching the coloured glass beads was even a skill coveted for marriage. It seems that presenting a pair of hand-stitched men’s slippers was effective for impressing a future husband. Wonderful examples of nonya slippers and all else pertaining to their refined and opulent culture can be enjoyed at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

Today, pieces of the beaded designs are still created and sold to Hong Kong Shoes, both for personal orders or otherwise. “Many foreigners also like these,” Mr. Wong assures me as we admire the intricate samples. In somewhat of a paradox he shows off a massive shoe mould, though I don’t catch the name of who it was a match for – surely it was an extremely tall basketball player.

I’m just a normal size 6.5 and I tell Mr. Wong that I’d like my sandals copied please, “though just a little more tight fitting.” I dig my worn footwear from my bag. They’ve traipsed over the cobblestones of Rome, through the narrow lanes of Cintra and the back streets of Miri…and many others in between. I surprise myself by choosing roughly the same colours of leather…actually I think I’m just a little overwhelmed with the vast array of samples.

Mr. Wong opens a notebook, asks me to take off my shoes and instructs me to stand on the blank paper. He traces my feet, jots down some notes and confirms my order on a small notebook…order 8565. I pay, then he bundles up the note paper, my beloved sandals and plunks them in a plastic bag. Gosh, I hope I see those again, I can’t help but fret.

“How long Sir, until they’re ready?

“About two, three months,” he tells me with a confident smile.

“Lovely, my friend will pick them up for me,” I say, giving a knowing glance to a good friend who spends much of her time here. I already envision my next visit, my shiny pair of sandals awaiting me.

“No worry,” Mr Wong assures me,” we make many, many shoes.”

I can’t resist asking, “Who is the most famous client you’ve had?”

“Oh, Hollywood famous,”he says matter-of-factly. He’s most definitely not revealing any secrets.

 

And may I share a few of my ‘preferred’ in Penang…

Hotel…Campbell House on Lebuh Campbell

Restaurants…Seven Terraces, Il Bacaro, China House

Museums…Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the house of Sun Yat Sen (father of modern    China), Penang State Museum, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Things to do…Enjoy street food, especially Char Kuey Teow. Trishaw to discover the many Street Art installations. Take in the view at the peak of Penang Hill and visit The Habitat, Penang Hill. Wander along Beach Street, Armenian Street, Love Street and all in between. Venture out to the Spice Gardens. Have tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Take in live music at China House. Visit the many temples and mosques. Stroll the clan jetties. Don’t miss Occupy Beach Street early Sunday mornings. Arrange your visit to coincide with the brilliant George Town Festival…

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A finely stacked woodpile, skating in the Canadian outdoors…welcoming the New Year

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“Birch is most definitely the cadillac of wood, kept us warm growing up,” Ian tells me, fondly recalling winters of his prairie youth. We and a dozen others are gathered around a crackling bonfire in British Columbia on New Year’s Eve day. Stacked in the fresh snow is a pile of wood …readied to keep the fire ablaze.

Despite a temperature of -12 Celsius, the late afternoon gathering is lively and it feels perfectly natural to socialize in the beautiful outdoors. Neighbours wander up with a drink and a ‘Happy New Year’ on their lips, many clutching a pair of skates.

For beyond the fresh air and the chance to greet friends, the other attraction is the open-air skating rink. A few meters from where we’re gathered, the glassy stretch of ice beckons as keenly as a deep-blue pool of water…if you’re a skater that is.

Skating on outdoor ice is a hallmark of Canadian winters, about as idyllic as it gets. Two of my sons are with us and they can’t get their skates on fast enough. Having played hockey in various countries we’ve called home – Oman, Dubai, Norway, the U.S. – the opportunity to strap on the ‘blades’ in the Canadian outdoors is part of their identity. But perhaps that is over-thinking it… it’s just unbridled joy.

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Snow shovels ready at the outdoor rink, near Kimberley BC

They glide and weave effortlessly over the frozen pond. They and longtime friends grab hockey sticks and shoot pucks at the net, shouting into the cold December air, Feels so great to be out here! For a longtime hockey mom, it is music to my ear-muffed ears on this last day of 2016.

We’ve delighted in seeing countless outdoor rinks this holiday season in the small towns in our area…Cranbrook, Fernie and Kimberley. This is what you do. It’s how many families spend time together, building traditions all the while. Perhaps the rink is the setting for a date or where you just ‘hang out’ and meet friends. Or maybe you play a game of shinny – pond hockey – with whoever happens to be around. It’s all of this and more; it’s part of being from the ‘great white north’. This is where the deep and abiding love of skating and hockey is born in the hearts of many Canadians.

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Skating in Fernie, BC

My own boys learned to skate on Grandpa’s pond. On visits home for Christmas the first question was usually, “How’s the ice Grandpa, can we skate?” If the answer was ‘yes’, out came the wide snow shovels. Back and forth they were pushed, clearing the snow for action…anticipation rising as each strip of ice revealed itself.

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A Sunday afternoon in Cranbrook, BC

Countless hours were spent with family on that frozen wonderland. The grind and rasp of metal blades on the uneven surface, the crack and thunk of a flexing ice sheet, the elated shouts of kids at play, the bark of dogs chasing the puck…the sounds of winter ingrained in our memories. And now for life, the guys can enjoy a day like today and feel at home on the ice.

With dusk approaching, more people arrive and I smile at a small girl on the bench at the edge of the ice. Her mother is lacing up her figure skates and she’s clearly excited. The ice is busy, yet the skaters will be mindful of a beginner; memories of learning how to skate stay with you. It’s tough. You stumble, you fall, you get back up over and over again until you get it. And then, like riding a bike, the sense of freedom and satisfaction it brings is thrilling.

Back at the bonfire, I continue the discussion of wood with Ian and our good friend Nolan.img_1740 The brothers grew up in Saskatchewan where a weighty stack of wood got you through the biting cold winters.

“Birch is ideal,” the two confirm, adding some science to their assertion. “It doesn’t spit, good energy density and it burns hot.”

I admit that I had ‘smuggled’ some ornamental birch logs into my shipment when we left Norway and on reflection, it had always burned well in our classic Norwegian fireplace.

Some treasured pieces of it now happen to be part of my decor in India, of all places. Perhaps like the wooden skis propped in our office, the birch reminds me of my roots. Of growing up in cold winters; in the snow, on a ski hill, on the ice and yes, often huddled cozily around a fireplace. But there’s far more to wood than meets the eye. “Did you know that the chopping and stacking of wood can be a bit of an obsession in Norway, even takes on an art form,” I offer as someone adds more pinewood to the bonfire.

Yes, apparently it’s common knowledge that wood will dry well if there’s enough space for a mouse to run hither and tither throughout the pile. And stacking that wood is not to be taken lightly. Different types of wood should be stacked accordingly and in Norway, besides the practical piles like a sun-wall pile, there’s a round stack, a closed square, a standing round stack or the v-shape pile. Who knew?

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There are also the sculptured woodpiles. I have learned that wood, with its complex hues, also offers an outlet for creativity that one might not expect. The end of a pice of oak is a deep brown. Pine and spruce radiate yellow tones with a little help from the sun, whereas cut ends of elm, aspen and maple display as muted whites. And apparently the rich alder is also a sought-after shade for stacking aficionados.

It seems there’s no end to woodsy creativity, One might ‘sculpt’ a massive fish or even a portrait of the king and queen. I recall that while we lived in Stavanger a retired engineer had created a woodpile portrait of Queen Sonja and King Harold V, in tribute of the king’s seventy-fifth birthday. This masterpiece had been preceded by a portrait of a composer and a likeness of the local mayor. How wonderful to find creativity in wood (and gain a bit of notoriety!)

Yet if it that all sounds a little mundane, there is something far more rousing about woodpiles. “Ok gentlemen,” I joke with my friends at the bonfire, “by any chance did your prospective wives happen to inspect your woodpile before they said yes?” There’s a reason I’m asking of course.

In the late nineteenth century in the American state of Maine, it is reported that young women might determine the suitability of a husband by the condition of his woodpile. Call it a folksy tradition or not, but the general rule was thus:

img_3066Upright and solid pile: the same could be said of the man.

Low pile: a good cautious man but could be shy or weak.

Unusual shape: freethinking and maybe an open spirit but construction could be weak.

Not much wood: be ready for a life from hand to mouth.

Unfinished pile, some logs here and there: unstable, lazy, maybe prone to drink?

Old and new wood together: be suspicious, might be some stolen wood there.

No woodpile: forget it, there must be more suitable candidates!

I think of the wood pile at the back of our mountain home. No it surely isn’t perfect, but the wood has been enthusiastically chopped. At our house you never have to ask twice to have firewood, our guys relish the opportunity to channel their inner woodsman. There’s no question they find a certain satisfaction in the process.

It is said that chopping your own wood is therapeutic and contemplative, even atavistic. A chance to wield an axe, use brute power – a gratifying correlation between effort and output.

Back in 1854 in his book Walden, Henry Thoreau extolled the virtues of not only chopping wood but living a simple life in natural surroundings. It was Thoreau who observed that wood warms twice over, once when you chop it and again when you burn it.

A seemingly simple observation that just happens to be inscribed on a small cushion in our home. Filled with pine needles, it evokes the spirit of the outdoors and nature’s simple pleasures.

I’m curious to see how our neighbourhood measures up in the wood stacking department. I notice finely-stacked woodpiles and logs waiting to be split and chopped, all protected by snow-clad trees and cabin eaves. This is the kind of place where snowboards, skis, snowshoes and sleds lean against houses, fond embrace of the mountain lifestyle. It’s where snow piles high, gathering on roofs and resting on tamarack, pine and birch. Indeed, the reminders are everywhere…embrace nature’s beauty.

We said our farewells, hung up the snowshoes and covered our not-so finely stacked woodpile. Now from our other home in India, restored to face the challenges and the new opportunities the year will bring, I wish you all a joyful and fulfilled New Year. I hope you’ll revel in the beauty of nature…wherever you may be…Terry Anne

The Cameron Highlands…tea plantations and intrigue in Malaysia

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img_2936Forgive me for musing that death by trampling elephant, marauding tiger or mysterious jungle disappearance would have been more intriguing. Instead, and rather ignominiously, Sir William Cameron succumbed to an accidental overdose of medication for insomnia.

Needless to say, I’m not wishing for any such wildlife encounters here in the Highlands. A visit here had long been on my wish list – the romance of a hill station, vestiges of colonial life, sweeping tea plantations, and the mystery of a man who truly did disappear into the jungles of the Cameron Highlands. But more of Jim Thompson in due course.

In 1885 after the British cartographer’s death, his detailed maps of this area were somehow lost. Yet Sir William’s stories of a Shangri La-like plateau lived on in popular lore and fuelled the imagination of the generation to come. Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands pay homage to this intrepid explorer. His explorations would often last for months…risking malaria, leeches, snakes, tigers and Malaysia’s ferocious sun bears.

We begin the 60 kilometre ascent from the main highway towards the promise of the temperate retreat. Kuala Lumpur with its modern skyline and grand hotels is now a few hours behind us. This road, the infamous Government Route 59, snakes treacherously to an altitude of 1600 meters with its precipitous and ‘prone to landslides’ slopes.

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The narrow thread of tarmac hugs the contours, dipping in and out of verdant valleys past whale-sized palm fronds, dense creepers and riots of wild hibiscus and tall, crimson poinsettia trees. And bamboo, so tall and wayward, it arches into a natural canopy shading the road below. I am struck by the sheer enormity and improbability of forging a trail though this impenetrable, primal landscape.

I imagine Cameron’s forerunners hacking a pathway for the convoy, elephants steadily plodding, shouldering and crashing through. I picture the explorer sleeping atop his sturdy pachyderm, safer there than on the ground below. His is an image of the quintessential British adventurer; intense and curious, indomitable and stalwart. Perhaps like others he hoped for fame, but the spirit of the times also created remarkable individuals driven by sense of duty…and many who simply craved the adventure.

The plateau that Cameron spoke of would later entice the British Government to the Highlands. They desired a hill station – a retreat of cool, misty air – also ideal for cultivating tea and vegetables and flower gardens.

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Forty years on, Sir George Maxwell launched a new expedition. Starting where Cameron had left off, it was soon evident that elephants were not suited and Maxwell diverted to the once bridle path that we are now cruising on.

Route 59 weaves its way through settlements of the indigenous Orang Asli people. Their traditional wooden houses are set back from the road and stand on short stilts, protection from floods and ideal for air ventilation. Dogs laze out front and roosters peck all around. We pass the most basic of settlements, a woman cradles a pet monkey like a precious baby and children play with make-shift toys. I take a photo of a vendor’s baskets. They are brilliant against a striking vista and I buy something…anything…just to contribute to the family’s income.

Between the villages, the road is punctuated with hut after hut, in reality just rudimentary lean-tos with atap roofs. They are crucial venues from which to sell, providing income for the Orang Asli and other locals. Often just a few bunches of an unknown fruit, bananas and long, long runner beans dangle from the lengthy bamboo beams. And maybe some vivid dome-shaped baskets (to protect food from flies)…it isn’t a lot to sustain a family. But then, I don’t know the whole story.

This contrasts a small, hectic village where a gaggle of tourist buses threaten to block the junction. Mass tourism has reached the Highlands and stalls are grouped to entice the crowds, and the odd backpacker more prone to jungle treks than shopping.

A young man at a well-stocked stall notices me eying the mysterious fruit. Wedging out a piece from the tough, unadorned skin, he offers a sample of the fleshy fruit inside, “Jungle mangosteen,” he tells me. It tastes like the anti-oxidant-rich mangosteen I’m familiar with and this variety seems to be in abundant this time of year.

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Further down the road we pass a trio on a motorcycle. Junior is napping on the handlebars, nestled into dad who threads the family vehicle along the twisty road. A tall basket hugs the young mother’s back. I know these rattan vessels are used for collecting the ‘King of Fruit’, the durian. Despite its spikey armour, the durian is a fickle fruit. Once it has tumbled to the jungle floor, it must be collected quickly before its freshness fades.

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img_2827Risking tiger attacks as they scour the jungle undergrowth, durian pickers rush to bring the costly commodity to market. The putrid aroma of durian belies its creamy, sweet taste. Or so I’m told…I can’t bring myself to try the noxious fruit. In hotels and public transportation throughout S.E Asia, signs strictly forbid durian on their premises.

As we arrive in Ringlet, the first township in the Highlands, we chance upon Mr. Lee offering the coveted produce from the back of his battered Land Rover. He has an awarding-winning smile and does his best with his limited English. Yet he seems distracted, peering up and down the road for potential buyers. Mr. Lee needs to sell his ‘heavy as a bowling ball’ fruit…durian has a short shelf life.

Nearby, Sun and Crystal run the family nursery shop. “The Cameron Highlands is also the land of orchids,” Sun shares, “and for vegetables and strawberries.” She shows me stalks of spear-like asparagus, while Crystal peels back the husk of a sweet corn cob and proffers it raw. “It’s how we eat it here,” she says. When I attempt to buy some strawberries I’m refused, “No these aren’t tasty enough today, can you come back tomorrow?”

Sun shares that she has lived in Kuala Lumpur, yet prefers life in the hills amongst family, friends and fresh mountain air at the family farm. We’ll soon see the vast number of small farms for ourselves as they compete for prized terraced land alongside tea plantations. As I bid farewell, Sun and Crystal insist on having a photo taken with my business card. Promising to include them in this blog, Sun’s radiant face beams even brighter.

img_2894We arrive late afternoon at one of the former colonial hotels, The Lakehouse. Upon retirement Colonel Stanley Foster opened it in 1966; relatively late as guesthouses and bungalows sprung up here from the 1930’s onwards. The Lakehouse is how I envisioned.

It sits pretty in Tudor style and stately atop a manicured terrace with its white picket fence and pristine gardens. Once inside, reminders of the past conjure days when British government employees left their ‘posts’ and retreated to the hill station…or indeed decamped here to work for ‘The Empire’.

Victorian furniture and Persian carpets decorate The Lakehouse, objects from simpler times: archaic desk telephones, copper vases and spittoons, framed polo photos and worn church settles, cozy next to walk-in stone fireplaces. Yet a framed collection in the hallway conjures the true tonic of the Cameron Highlands, its flora and fauna. On display are green blumeis, lemon migrants, jewelled nawabs and Malay lacewings – delicate butterflies of breathtaking beauty.

Lemon migrants have flitted around us in abundance today. But as we enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, it isn’t what we see…it is what we hear.

Dusk is approaching and if you have not heard the ‘call of the jungle’, it is an awakening in itself. A rousing masterpiece, a veritable soundtrack of curious and mysterious notes. The din of frogs, insects, birds and monkeys. A sizzle of an electrifying buzz that vibrates the dense evening air. A backdrop for a second melody of chirps, coos, hoots and howls, of slow languid flutters and then long, rattling rattles crescendoing to a lingering his-s-s-s-s.

From the gorgeous terrace view, the silhouette of the jungle provides a provocative  backdrop. All aglow under the luminous super-moon, magical and mysterious. Nevertheless, I simply cannot contemplate the thought of stepping into the clamour and its known dangers (and I now fully understand how poor Cameron could not sleep.) And then I remember the afore mentioned Jim Thompson.

It was 1967 when the American architect, former spy, art collector and founder of the Thai Silk Company holidayed here with friends…just up the road at another colonial guesthouse, the Moonlight Bungalow. After an Easter church service and tea on the terrace, Thompson chose not to take an afternoon nap as the rest of his party had. He fancied a light stroll. Perhaps he donned his straw trilby hat and grabbed a walking stick before stepping into the jungle. Jim Thompson would never return.

I know of Thompson from his House On The Klong. On my first trip to Asia I visited his home, now a museum. The art collector assembled a number of houses into a luxurious long, open air home along a muddy canal in Bangkok. I was bewitched. Its art, sculptures, thai silks, and the sultry air intoxicated this young traveller. Was the wonderment due in part to the disappearance of the flamboyant owner who simply never returned?  And so this is where the mystery lies, in the thick of a Malay jungle…

At the time of the disappearance, local guides with extensive knowledge spent days searching for the 61-year-old. But to no avail, Thompson’s body has never been found. Any number of theories exist – devoured by a tiger, a planned disappearance, or being a former OSS agent, perhaps an elaborate kidnapping? But I digress…we are here to visit the tea plantations after all…img_3007

By chance we only have time to visit one of Cameron Highlands tea estates. The narrow road leading to the BOH Plantation is layered with small farms, providing a peek into daily life on the terraces.

Verdant terraces of vegetables…colossal cabbages, patches of mint and scads of corn.

Greenhouses with creeping strawberries, silky orchids and festive poinsettias.

And places to worship; a Chinese shrine, an Indian temple, a simple sacred family alter. It is a picture of cultures in harmony.

Yet before we arrive at the oldest plantation in the Cameron Highlands, we do stop once or twice. I must capture these dated Land Rovers that are ubiquitous and innumerable in this highland terrain. They have clearly been the work-horses for decades – rather endearing in their rusty, run-down, yet reliable condition. The Rovers ply these roads with produce on its way to market, with workers back and forth to the fields.

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The family business of the BOH Tea Plantation reveals itself like an emerald, undulated carpet. Rather than busing it to the base of the entrance, we choose to walk the kilometre to the factory. img_2995We pass barrack-like cabins where the pluckers live and we take the liberty of skirting the road, treading on water channels that double as steps and define the vast fields of the Camellia Sinensis.

The higher the tea plantation’s altitude, the better quality of the tea. A tea plant can live to 100 years, the BOH’s planted their first  in 1929.

The estate sweeps in all directions. One wants to roll a hand over their manicured patterned rows. Glide it across their unblemished, waxen leaves. How is it, how are they all plucked? One can’t imagine.

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We climb to the lookout for the view that must be one the finest in the Highlands. We sip tea on the terrace and sit contentedly. Yet now I’m distracted. One can’t help but theorize about poor Mr. Thompson. Yes, it must have been a tiger…

Australia…elusive kangaroos, big surf and happy vineyards in Margaret River

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“Truly, you’ve never seen a kangaroo?” the boutique owner said incredulously, wrapping my purchase in her trendy Perth boutique. Much like the city, it is vibrant and colourful. Perth is rich in art and architecture, and proud of its colonial and convict roots – all with the impossibly ideal back drop of the Swan River.

“No, in fact it’s my first time to Australia,” I confessed, admitting that her country is somewhere I had always wanted to visit.

“You’ll have no problem spotting a kangaroo, we’ve got a ton of them,” the young lady assured me. “Way more ‘roos’ than people.” I think that is the moment it began; my obsession to see one of these iconic symbols of Australia. There is so much about this country one dreams of seeing, but let’s admit it, a kangaroo is right up there.

Perhaps my curiosity with ‘down under’ took root years ago. On a six week Contiki tour through Europe, the Aussies were definitely the crowd you wanted to be around. Always fun and partying, they kept you guessing with a colourful and lyrical vocabulary all of their own.

“We’ll just call you Tess,” I was told on day one after introducing myself, “and love your sunnies by the way.” In keeping with the penchant for Australians to nickname everyone and everything, my sunglasses were now sunnies and my name was Tess…it kind of had a nice ring to it!

After a night of revelry in Greece, that fellow traveler would wake up minus one eyebrow, shaven off in honour of his birthday. We had celebrated until the wee hours of the morning.

“No worries, Tess,” Russ told me with a sly grin, “it’s how we do it in Australiaaa.” Rubbing the white patch on his sunburned forehead, like a freshly plastered band-aid, he declared there was only one thing to do.  “More ouzo mates?” We all greeted the morning sun with another shot of the Greek ‘nectar of life’.

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All these years later, I’m more inclined to drink fine wine and here, I’m in luck. After a week of exploring Perth while my husband ‘toiled’, we decide to tour Margaret River, Western Australia’s acclaimed wine region. We’ll visit renowned vineyards and see one of Australia’s most daring surf beaches. We will stand in awe of beautiful and unusual flora and fauna…unique on this continent, like nowhere else on earth. It seems to reason that we’ll spot a kangaroo or two?

img_2502-1The first hint of the iconic hoppers – they can travel at an impressive 40 km. an hour – are the road signs. In place of signs cautioning of caribou in Canada, of sheep in Scotland, or perhaps camels in Kazakhstan, the highways in Australia warn drivers of the kangaroo. The gangly marsupials outnumber the population by almost 3 to 1. Said to be particularly prolific in the ‘outback’ with some standing over 6 feet tall, it’s best to drive though that territory with a substantial 4WD, big bull-bars and spotlights…just in case you meet a ‘big red.’

Gosh, we’re only in a small rental car so I’m feeling a little fragile. I sit in the front seat, camera ready, full of anticipation and poised for action. Mile after mile of beautiful scenery, but no ‘wildlife’ to be seen. As we near Margaret River without so much of a glimpse, I implore my husband to pull over, “Let me at least take a photo of the sign then,” I say dejectedly.

The roo quest is all but forgotten as we drive through coastal dunes towards one of Australia’s most formidable surf beaches, Surfer’s Point. With some of the biggest waves in Australia, including the massive Margaret River Bombie, waves are said to rush at you like a freight train. This area is a surfing mecca. The breaks are renowned for striking fear into the hearts of all but the most heroic of surfers. As I marvel at a surfer gliding over a house-sized wave, I am transfixed by the force of nature…and of the surfer’s artistry in mastering the cresting wall of water.

img_1159The fear of sharks alone, more present than ever these days, would give most people pause. The many warning signs positioned prominently along the beach tell it like it is…rips, waves, cliffs and sharks. The surfer emerges from the water and I catch up with him in the parking lot and ask if he gets scared out there.

“Yeah, was at first,” Gavin admits, “but caught the wave and felt good. I reckon this is one of the best surf beaches in Oz right here, pretty hard core.” He tells us to come back with a bottle of wine for sunset, “prettiest you’ll see.”

I come across John sitting contentedly, gazing out to the ocean, until I pester him about his classic Land Rover. Wet beach towels dry on its sturdy hood. “It’s a ’77,” John tells me with pride. I immediately picture myself cruising through the outback in its rugged solidity, photographing all those roos…

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When John hears I’m from Canada, he mentions Vancouver as many Australians seem to do. I offer that Captain Vancouver had actually been close by all those years ago, just along the coast at Albany. I relate that Vancouver had claimed the spot for the British and named it King George Sound, collecting botanical samples all the while. “Is that right, small world,” and we move on to discuss the unusual flora carpeting the dunes around us.

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Surfers and families alike hang out at beach front cafes or just ‘chill’ along the coastline. It is a spectacular setting of turquoise and indigo waters surging onto white, powdery sand…punctuated by the crash and roar over the reefs of Mainbreak. Blankets of billowy clouds hover just above the horizon. We barefoot it to the most brilliant of vistas and wade in the chilled waters of the Indian Ocean. It is a fine day to be in Western Australia.

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Not far away is the charming town of Margaret River. The name first appears on a map in 1839, named after Margaret Whicher, the cousin of the founder of nearby Busselton. Mr. Bussel was one of many European migrants that settled the area, logging and clearing farmland. Yet it’s hard to believe that by 1922, scarcely more than 100 settlers called this beautiful area home.

But Margaret River had more in store for itself and is now surrounded by some of the world’s most spectacular vineyard scenery. To visit the mostly boutique-sized wine producers is to meander down narrow tree-lined roads, stopping to not only savour wines (and craft beers), but also to appreciate the perfection of the vineyards themselves.

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The estates are perfectly gardened with heavenly-scented lavender and perfumed roses, with spiky and bulbous native shrubs. With grass-trees and the ever abundant kangaroo paws, Western Australia’s floral emblem.

Rows of sturdy grape vines precisely pattern the fields and gentle slopes of grassy meadows are alive with browsing sheep, with black and white cattle. And with mobs – groups of kangaroos as they are called – or so it is said. I picture them, bopping through the rows as in a giant linear maze. A delightful playground, little joeys peeping out from their mama’s pouch. But on this day, not a single one to be seen.

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We stop at Vasse Felix, reportedly boasting the original vines of Margaret River, planted in the 1960’s. The founder, Dr. Tom Cullity, is hailed as the pioneer of modern viticulture in ‘Margs.’ He initially resorted to falconry to control pests, but the story goes that the falcon circled the vineyard once and flew off never to return. I ponder how it is that the roos don’t partake of the grapes. I later read that they cohabit quite comfortably in vineyards, prefering the grass that grows between the rows.

I also learn that Thomas Vasse was a French explorer who mapped the South Australian coast in 1811. He would later lose his life on the high seas. Or did he? Perhaps he was rescued by Aboriginals and taken in, then again, perhaps he was saved at sea and ferried away. It remains a captivating mystery in these parts. What we do know is that Dr. Cullity chose to name the vineyard after him, appending the word Felix – which means happy or lucky – implying a more fortunate twist of fate for the fabled mariner. How fitting…it is difficult not to feel happiness at the Vasse Felix Estate.

After lunch at their acclaimed restaurant we meet Nola, our hostess for wine-tasting. She describes the ‘beautiful fruit-driven blends’. We learn that the confluence of temperature, humidity and soil in Margs is ideal for grapes. We chat, sample and I succumb to an excellent Sauvignon Blanc Semillon and a perfect Filius Chardonnay – one for each suitcase.

I notice a sculpture of a reclining kangaroo, comfortably sprawled. Beautifully lit and back-dropped by the warm hues of donnybrook stone, it seems to be the ideal setting for family photos. Well that’s one finally spotted, even if it isn’t real!

Yet we’re determined. The day has turned moody with somber clouds and light rain. We venture onto a few back roads, chancing upon the haunting Buranup Karri forest, home to some of the tallest hardwood trees in the world. This forest supported many early settlers in the timber and firewood trade. The karri trees thrive in the local loamy soil; a mixture of sand, silt, clay and rich organic matter.

img_1205We wend our way towards town, detouring out of curiosity to see the extensive Leeuwin Estate. The grounds are long closed and the sun is lowering in the sky. Suddenly my husband slams on the brakes, “There’s one,” he says motioning to the field,”there, between that row.” I leap out of the car and creep to the fence. No it’s gone, just hopped away…maybe I saw a tail?

We decide to call it a day, but chance upon the Brewhouse and stop for an early evening libation. Reportedly opened by ‘three mates who wanted their own bar to walk to’, it is busy on this Sunday evening. A lively band plays outside while kids happily run amok. Locals greet each other warmly…eveyone seems to know everyone in Margs. In walks the crew from Vasse Felix, they recognize us and give us a shout.

Ah I love this place, it’s so like TofinoI happily remind myself that I’m destined to return. A friend of mine owns a small vineyard here and though we missed each other this time, I’ll most definitely take her up on the offer of a private tour. Felix indeed…

We take it easy on a small sofa and warm ourselves by a wood-burning fire, a couple soon plunks themselves down on the other. There is an instant connection with Julie and Chris. Originally English, Julie is a nurse and cannot fathom ever leaving her adopted country. Her boyfriend is a local through and through and is immediately charming. Chris’s stereotypical Aussie accent gives his stories even more character; maybe with just a bit of extra flourish thrown in for us…to make us feel welcome no doubt. We laugh our way through an animated and illuminating conversation.

Chris tells us he was once a ‘copper’ but is now a builder. I sense he wishes he had his brother’s job…piloting helicopters along the coast to spot sharks. “That’s a job? I mean is that necessary?” I ask naively.

“Oh yeah darl, bloody sharks are everywhere, we need Shark Watch here in Oz.”

“Really, I didn’t know! And this darl,” I ask, “you’re the third guy this week to call me that, is it doll?”

“No it’s darlin’ of course,” he says and then it comes to me. Wonderfully, Chris reminds me of my one-eyebrowed friend back on the beach in Greece. Full circle.

Our new friends talk about the weather and how it impacts daily life. “Oh yeah,” explains Chris, “our lifestyle involves the ocean mate, you don’t do anything unless you’ve checked the conditions first.” Julie nods in agreement and mentions that they’ve spent the day diving for abalone, ah, another idyllic day.

“That’s for sure,” Chris chimes in. “Nothing better here. You load up the ute, throw in the eski and the barbie. Ya got your shadey, ya got your ‘shelia’,” he roars, slapping Julie’s thigh playfully.

“Don’t you dare call me a ‘shelia’, Julie warns in mock outrage.

Funny thing is, I understood all of that perfectly.

You load up your 4 WD, you throw in the cooler and the barbecue. You’ve got your sunshade or awning (hitched permanently on any vehicle worth their salt in this region) and you’ve got your girl.

It all sounds perfectly fabulous to me!

Alas, the eventful, fun, idyllic day that never seemed to end, has indeed done just that. Ok, so we didn’t see a silly kangaroo we tell ourselves as we drive back to Vintner’s Retreat, our charming B&B, fittingly situated on Merlot Place. During our stay, a steady stream of birds have flitted in and out of the garden to show off…28’s, galahs, lorikeets, roselles and kookaberros. Rose, our gracious hostess, had mentioned the ‘friends’ that visit her front lawn. “I have kangaroos here all the time, it’s very normal.”

We pull into the driveway and we damn near faint. There on the front grass, I kid you not, are two of the illusive Macropus Rufus

The kangaroos pop up from their grazing and turn their heads towards us as we get out of  the car…“You two finally home? We’ve been waitin’ for ya mates!”

 

Post Script: And on the next morning, it all became so easy. ‘Go to the golf course’ we were told at breakfast…oh, yeah, there were mobs of them….

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Of Magical Mysore…of farewells and re-attachments…

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img_0771Time with family and friends recently in Canada was wonderful – home in the true sense. However my other life in India called.

The world may be my oyster, yet there is a downside to living on different continents. Once back in Bangalore, reality quickly set in.

After four months of a ‘monastic’ existence whilst consumed by a book project and another few months away, I returned to Bangalore feeling a stranger and out of touch. I needed to fit back into a social life.

As in the past with other adopted countries, I trust a time will come when it feels more effortless…

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my first reaction was not to yield to my surroundings, but rather to explore. “Let’s see more of India,” I implored my husband. “I need to take advantage of actually being here.”

The next morning we pack our bags and head to ‘Majestic’, the city railway station. A little more than two hours later, the train delivers us to the city of Mysore. The saying goes that you haven’t truly experienced South India unless you’ve journeyed here. Our first hours in the city hint that this might be so. The streets feel different from Bangalore, but in a way that was strikingly familiar. I am transported back to those enchantingly simpler times we had experienced backpacking in India, over a quarter of a century ago.

img_0819-1Mysore’s streets and broad tree-line boulevards, are lively but less urgent than Bangalore’s. Stately buildings exude charm and a sense of place and history. All reminiscent of our India of old – a fondly re-discovered treasure.

The city is redolent with history, defined by the regal Maharajahs of the Wodeyar dynasty and by the infamous Tipu Sultan. Known as the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu was India’s freedom fighter and revered for resisting the onslaught of British imperialists. His state succumbed only after their fourth campaign. The Sultan is also celebrated as the pioneer of rocket warfare…but more of Tipu Sultan later.

We stay at a former residence built by the Maharajah of Mysore himself, a cozy retreat for his European guests. The Royal Orchid Metrople is that touch of old world charm with its tiled verandahs of potted palms, intricate lattice work and inviting wicker chairs. I enquire who the lady is, proper in a lacy Victorian collar and hairstyle of the 1920’s. Her portrait is handsomely framed at the foot of the lobby’s spiral staircase. With a hint of reverence, the concierge confirms, “We’re quite certain she was our first guest.”img_0765

I conjour a day in the life of this European visitor. I imagine her penning a letter at the writing desk in the Maharani suite – the very one we were staying in – carefully folding the parchment before sliding it into an envelope. Perhaps the correspondence describes a social gathering of visiting dignitaries, the unexpected thrill of an elephant ride or the purchase of fine Mysorean silk. Perhaps the letter addresses the paradox of the writer’s privileged colonial lifestyle, in contrast to the struggles and injustices of many locals. I would tell the writer that as foreigners in India, we try still today to reconcile the inequalities that surround us. We embrace the culture and the heritage, but often grapple with the poverty of the underprivileged.

img_0768Our guest from the 1920’s makes her way down the spiral staircase to the porticoed entrance. She dons a sun hat and the doorman, splendidly attired in the Mysore fashion of the day, bids her ‘Good afternoon’. He summons a carriage and the visitor is conveyed to the Maharaja’s Palace. As the palace draws into view, she is instantly captivated.

As it was then, so is it now. Mysore Palace remains one of India’s grandest royal buildings. The most visited tourist attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, six million visitors a year are transported back to an era of unparalleled grandeur. This is the seat of the Mysore royal family, where the most beloved of Maharajahs, Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV was installed in 1902.

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The extensive palace grounds are lush, shadowed with rain trees and dotted with sacred temples. I’m asked to join groups for photographs and willingly oblige. It is clear we are much more of a curiosity here than in Bangalore. Small children greet me with smiles and a, “Hi Auntie, where are you from?”

We join the multitudes and deposit our footwear before entering the inner palace. Photos inside are not allowed, but then they could not do it justice.

The ‘Indo-Saracenic’ architecture of the Mysore Palace is a mix of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic…and it is breathtaking. With soaring rooflines, mosaic floors, doors of inlaid ivory and displays of gold such as the elephant howdahs, the palace is designed to inspire awe. The durbar (the ceremonial meeting hall of the royal court) is magnificent in both scale and opulence, emphatically projecting the power of the Wodeyars who ruled for almost six centuries.

The much beloved Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV was the 24th Maharaja, ruling from 1895 to 1940. Focused on education, hospitals and religious sites, he worked to alleviate poverty and improve public health and industry. The forward-thinking Raja also built Asia’s first hydro electro project. Nearby Bangalore benefited and was the first city in India to have electric street lights in 1905.

Indeed the strides made during the Raja’s reign, inclined the revered Mahatma Gandhi to remark that the Maharaja was truly a Raja Rishi, a saintly king. His princely state of Mysore was acknowledged to be ‘the best administered state in the world’. But of course the Maharajahs of Mysore (as with other princely states) were also known for their excesses. Doing a Mysore was a phrase coined by Rolls-Royce executives in the 1920’s, code for the purchase of ‘Rollers’ in batches of seven…as the Maharaja Krishna was inclined to do!

The palace is a trove of treasures. Finely detailed wall paintings portray scenes from the Wodeyar’s stately processions and lavish lifestyle. Depicted in intricate detail, the Maharajahs are adorned in the finest Mysore silk and richly bejewelled. They sit atop caparisoned elephants, under the shade of a howdah or upon golden thrones. And they are rich beyond compare. At the time of his death in 1940 at his summer palace in Bangalore, Krishna Raja Wodeyar was one of the world’s wealthiest men.

We emerge from the palace into the expansive grounds. Hawkers gently tickle drums to entice. Cheap bangles, sandalwood carvings, incense and oils are offered – Mysore’s reputation for sandalwood and the finest of silks is undisputed. Brightly painted carriages and their listless ponies invite; more modest echoes of the elaborate carriages that once graced the the streets of Mysore.

img_0918-1The next morning a ‘carriage’ of a different kind awaits us. The environs of Mysore beg to be explored and we jump into a classic ’66 Mahindra Jeep. It’s rugged and basic, it’s a beauty.

Faizan from Royal Mysore Walks greets us affably and promises we’ll enjoy the tour. “You can ask me anything at all,” he says, “but just call me Fez, it’s easier.” As a former tour guide myself, I easily identify with him.

Fez is knowledgeable, engaging and gently puts us through the odd history quiz…perfect!

The drive takes us to the ramparts of Tipu Sultan’s fort in Sriangapatnam, an island formed between two channels of the Cauvery River. Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan’s father, had usurped the throne, then expanded the Mysore kingdom but would be forced, with his son, to defend it in four Anglo Mysorean wars. Fought over three decades, the final and decisive campaign by the British East India Company was in 1799. Even now more than 200 years later, the battlements seem impenetrable and might have remained that way but for one man.

I envision the battle as Fez paints the scene with a wave of his hand. “There was a traitor” he tells us. “His name was Mir Sadiq and so despised is he even today that people throw stones at his tomb.” The general betrayed the Sultan by colluding with the British, opening a breach in the walls that lead to the defeat of the Mysorean troops and to the death of Tipu Sultan, the only Indian king to die on a battlefield.  At a nearby palace, we see the face of Mir Sadiq actually smudged out in paintings, more evidence of the contempt with which he is still held. On the other hand, Tipu Sultan is a national hero; his reputation for brutality is a story for another time.

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That British victory yielded the richest haul of war-spoils from any battle they ever fought. I’m fascinated by this remarkable period, indeed of all Indian history…the Moguls, Maharajahs and the British rule which is both maligned and embraced here. As we leave the ramparts, a simple wooden bullock cart trundles past. Two beasts of burden pull the sturdy cart along a time-worn trail at the river’s edge – a scene unchanged for centuries.

Our Jeep rolls past sugar cane fields, silk worm farms and stands of eucalyptus trees, the sights and smells rushing through the open vehicle are colourful, raw and exhilarating. We turn off the highway and thread across an ancient narrow bridge over a gently flowing river. The Raja Ghat extends either side of us, scenes of ritual bathing and high-spirited play combine; scenes that evoke moments of clarity…I am in India!

img_0860On the side of the stepped ghat, under an ancient stone pavilion, a ceremony unfolds. A young man, bereaved of his father, is in the midst of a solemn ritual. Guided by a brahmin priest, he recites prayers as water is rhythmically dabbed on his wrist. His head is shaved as tradition demands. We listen to the priest’s intonation, a soothing, flowing mantra. We offer condolences to the women witnessing the ceremony, sensing that we have intruded on their grief. Yet they acknowledge us with a nod as we quietly take our leave. On the upper ghat another brahmin priest invites us into his vividly painted temple to witness the ritual about to commence. Inside, the centuries-old place of worship is cool and somber. We sit cross-legged on the stone floor opposite a priest flanked by two men, one an assistant, the other the supplicant.

img_0862The priest leads them in prayer for the well-being of the family. The father takes his cues from the brahmin as his adult son and wife look on. Sanskrit mantras mix with camphor wafting through the still air. Rice and turmeric are sprinkled, offerings in a timeless ritual.

Hands pressed together, and mouthing a ‘namaskara’ to the mother, we again take leave. She returns my gaze, her eyes confirming that our glimpse into this sacred family tradition was welcomed. I am moved by the openness of Hindus, their joy of sharing the living traditions.

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In the mid-afternoon sun, more scenes of communal prayer and family togetherness play out on the ghats. As children splash in shallow pools, the rhythmic slap of laundry beats out a languid tempo on the rocks. Ever-present, sacred cows luxuriate as they munch vegetables in the shade of a mango tree.

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On our return to Mysore, Fez points out stops that we will have to plan for our next visit; sandalwood incense makers, silk farms and even traditional painters of those iconic bullock carts that seem the very essence of rural India. The jeep tour with Fez has offered us insights we would not have had the privilege of seeing.

img_0913South India lives up to its reputation of friendliness, of mystic sights and ancient traditions. This is why, I remind myself. Why this peripatetic life with its farewells and re-attachments, its solitudes and contemplative transition, is worth it. These are the moments to treasure.

I get my bearings back over the next few days and resolve to be contented. I attend a number of social events through the week and feel a little more connected. “Are you free this weekend?” I’m asked.

“I’m afraid not,” I say, “I’m off again.”

As I pen this, my suitcases await at the door for this evening’s flight; it is Singapore and  Australia for the next ten days. Without any children here, I can freely accompany my husband on a business trip. It’s true…I have nothing to complain about…

The Grand Bazaar in Pondicherry and a train passage to old ‘Madras’…part two

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“Bonjour Mademoiselle, ca va?, asks the shallot seller. His smile is radiant, his demeanour peaceful. He shifts and shakes his shallots in a slim basket, removing their skins and depositing them lighter and more saleable into a substantial basket. The shallots are the sellers only commodity this Sunday morning at Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

If you’ve watched the movie Life of Pi, you’ve briefly glimpsed Pondicherry. The narrative begins here, the film sweeps through parts of the old town including the expansive bazaar. Founded in 1827, it’s about the size of a football pitch, and we had been told to not miss it.

Pondicherry’s rich heritage is revealed here; the sellers, the produce, the decorative flower garlands created and sold for cultural and religious occasions. As I experienced in Kazakhstan, a market is where the fabric of a city reveals itself. A place where the murmur of regional languages, the aroma of exotic spices and unfamiliar produce beguiles you. An experience where the cultural thread that stitches a community together heightens the senses – market places are a traveller’s touchstone.

The shallot seller is proud to be of French ancestry, common in this once French port on India’s South East Coast. Pointing to his talika spread across his forehead, he makes it clear that his devotion is for Shiva. The broad stripes, painted or smeared from ash, are worn proudly on followers of the Hindu deity. The seller motions to his stripes and white dot, “Shiva is love,” he tells us in dreamy affirmation. I marvel that he sits, sifting his produce and smiling contentedly, almost in the pathway of the bustling bazaar…in complete serenity.

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Most sellers have a stall, a perch, a ‘hole in the wall’ from which to sell. Many have their own small puja (shrine), a smattering of religious calendars and a hefty ancient scale beside them. Some have a speciality item, others sell it all. Red for apples, tomatoes and luscious pomegranates. Green for coriander and limes, curry and betel leaves, peas and lady fingers…you know them as okra. Purplish eggplant IMG_1117and orange for carrots and mangos.

In Southern India bananas straddle both the yellow and green spectrum, their bunches often sold on thick stalks…ready to be steamed, fried or roasted. Banana leaves are vital as ‘plates and platters’. Practical yet with a side benefit – it’s believed that antioxidants are transferred to the curries and masalas from their thick, waxy leaves.

I feel I’m in the way as burlap sacks of beans, groundnuts and garlic are heaved high on shoulders and humphed past me. I’m cautious underfoot for squashed oranges and smashed corn husks, for the odd rat that darts in and out. I dig my hands into stuffed, rolled down sacks, trickling and rolling rice, myriad beans and lentils through my fingers.

I’m thankful for sincere smiles as I make my way through the crowded lanes, haggling and chatter filling their space. My openness and curiousity is most often met with warmth and returned smiles. The odd person reminds me they are busy trading and understandably, my camera isn’t welcomed by all.

The volume of produce is staggering, it simply has to be sold. This is where the people of India procure their food, not at sterile well-lit grocery stores, but at bazaars, at markets, at roadside vendors.

As colourful as the canvas of fruits and vegetables is, the cultural complexities of the flower and petal stalls are even more intoxicating. These petals of jasmine and lotus, chrysanthemum and oleander, roses and marigolds, are transformed into the dainty, the neck-sized and a variety of shaped garlands for welcoming and worshiping. One might even wrap a garland around an auto rickshaw…yes, they can be bought by the meter. They can reach seemingly gargantuan proportions and be elaborately decorated; they have to be seen to be believed.

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Flower petals are bought cheaply by the bag, both for wholesale and for personal use. It isn’t uncommon to come across ladies sitting on street sides conversing and threading, petals slowly forming a garland. Yet most garlands are threaded at a maker’s stall.

I meet Chandra and his two sons. Their hands are swift and supple as they thread jasmine and roses. “It’s a family business,” I’m told, “my sons are following my foot-steps.” Small businesses such as Chandra’s are the backbone of India. The garland business is prolific.

img_4516They are offered for worship, draped around doorways at a housewarming, a new motorbike or auto rickshaw may be blessed with a garland, a bride and groom exchange them three times during a wedding. They are also woven into a lady’s plaited hair, especially here in Southern India.

I’m told that each Hindu deity has a unique garland: Goddess Lalitha prefers hibiscus, Lord Vishnu wears tulasi leaves, Lord Subrahmanyan likes to be draped in jasmine, whereas Mahalakshmi likes red lotus. Ancient kings appointed keepers whose only role was to tend flower gardens – cultivating precious petals for daily devotions, never to be sold. It is also rumoured that these royal gardeners did not marry.

When I wander to a tucked away lane and find garlands as tall as myself, it crosses my mind to take one to our hotel as a kind gesture. I realize it’s prudent to ask if there’s a special meaning attached to the over-sized creations, “Oh yes madam, those are for funeral!”

The rules for the flower pluckers, the sattarars, is fascinating…and yes I use the word ‘plucker’. In India, the word pluck is always used in reference to flowers. You do not pick flowers –one plucks flowers. It seems the rules for sattarars are rather specific, whether it be for the plucking or the making of garlands.

Flowers should be plucked in the early morning, ideally after having bathed. The flowers or petals should not have been smelled by anyone. They most definitely should not be used if they’ve fallen on earth or dirt. Namajapam or the repetition of holy names should be done while plucking.

While constructing garlands, the petals and other material such as banana tree fiber used as the base, should be kept on a table. Ideally above hip level – a flower for God should not touch the feet. I note that Chandra and his sons were building their garlands above the hip, their creations then displayed above them. I realize I had lifted one gently to my nose to appreciate its fragrance. Did I unwittingly break a rule, or does that only pertain to the loose petals?

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It seems the fragrance of jasmine, the most cherished scent of Indian flowers, is meant to be enjoyed. When their delicate ivory buds are threaded into gajras, not only do they decorate women’s hair, it is believed the scent reduces anxiety, emitting peace and happiness. Ancient Hindu art, chiseled some 2000 years ago, depict goddesses with delicate gajras enhancing their thick locks. And so it is, still today.

I stand close to ladies at a temple and the scent of jasmine lingers. More of those exotic scents and vivid colours that this traveller soaks up. I breath it in and cherish the scene. The images that await me in the coming day, further affirms my love of travel.

We journey back to old Madras (Chennai) by train. Not in first class or in air-conditioning, just the type of train that millions of passengers travel in daily. The kind of train with only bars on the windows and rickety old fans whirling above simple seats. The kind of train that costs less than a dollar to ride 160 kilometres or so.

We are the only foreigners, first aboard, and firmly planted next to the windows. This is important as the bench-seat for 4 will fill to 5, 6, maybe 7 by journey’s end.

img_1418-2Barely ten minutes out of Pondicherry a time capsule awaits. As the clatter of the wheels settle to a rhythmic, soothing pattern, the city gives way to a beautiful patchwork; palms, rice, vegetables and flowers. From these fields come the produce, the bounty found  in Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

Against this verdant backdrop, ladies swish in bright saris as they tend crops and herd flocks. Small villages – simple buildings roofed with palm-fronds and tin, bullock carts trundling down narrow lanes – an old age farming culture stocking India’s bazaars and markets.

The train halts or passes through lyrically named towns like Valavanur, Vullupuram and Vikravandi Mailam. At Tindivanam it gets busy, the 4 seater long-bench is now a 6. A sinewy fellow in a vivid orange lungi asks to borrow the Times of India, a rural family boards dressed in fresh linen and shiny saris – their young daughter toys with a new cell phone, a young professional strikes up a conversation. Might he get a photo for Facebook with our son?

The train screeches to rest at platforms, sellers jump on, plying the aisles…roasted groundnuts, guavas, biscuits and papers. The chai sellers need only to latch their aluminum urns onto a window bar. Tiny cups of sweet chai pass through the gaps; it’s common to treat your fellow passenger. As passengers disembark there are nods all around, perhaps a handshake, we’ve become acquaintances. “Very happy you are traveling the train,” they say.

Temples peek over groves of palm and trees of mango, children splash naked in ponds, water buffalos laze close by. At Melmarmuvathur, dusk settles in and the sultry evening finally offers a cooling breeze.

And the light casts different hues. Green fields deepen to emerald and hills become shadowy. The smell of the sultry air changes.

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Our young friend Anand shakes our hand warmly. The train has rolled into his station, he’s home to visit his recently widowed mother. We regret that we hadn’t exchanged contact details.

The scene changes at Chengalpattu Junction, on the outskirts of Madras. It’s now 7:00 p.m. and crowds of young professionals have left work in suburban offices and await their train into the city.

The fields give way completely to a rainbow of tall skinny homes, to the crush of the city. A milky, full moon dances over the lights of Madras. I close my trusty Moleskin and pack away my travel notes…the images dance vividly in my mind’s eye.

Pondicherry, the once French India…part one

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Colonial architecture in the French quarter

From the time we arrived in Bangalore, we’ve been told to visit Pondicherry. “You’ll feel like you aren’t quite in India,” people say with a twinkle in their eye.

We decide to fly to Chennai (or the once and more romantic sounding Madras), then take a leisurely drive south to Pondicherry. With our driver forewarned to be sensible (well aware of the customary incautious driving), we make our way down the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The mass of Madras gives way to villages and verdant fields stretched along a narrow highway – squeezed with villagers on foot and bike, goats, cows and bullock carts, and then the stream of traffic. We’re all vying for space against the ‘green monsters’ as I’ve dubbed the massive hulks of metal, painted a shade of that pesky green. There are herds of them, public buses that transport millions of people daily throughout India. They stampede the pavement like rampaging elephants, horns trumpeting and wheels trampling – commanding the road as they overtake dangerously, swerving out and back into their lane with only a fraction of space to spare. Your life flashes before your eyes, bend after bend. By the time we arrive in Pondicherry, this passenger is a wreck.

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The welcoming kolam

“I’ll have a gin tonic please,” I plead as we sink into deep wicker chairs at Maison Perumal. We’ve been welcomed with garlands of jasmine and fresh lime sodas in the three-storied courtyard…ironically stuffed with pots the same shade as the ‘monsters.’ “I’m just happy we’re alive,” our son quips as he sips on his lime soda.

Jaison, our host at the Maison explains the intricacies of transportation in India. “The buses are on a tight schedule, they have to move ma’am. Maybe take the train back…that’s the only way to see India.” I make a note to check the train schedule.

Pondicherry, the French interpretation of Puducherry (meaning new settlement), has two distinctive quarters in the old city, the Tamil and the French. We’re in the Tamil quarter, from the predominant population originating in Tamil Nadu, the state that surrounds the Union Territory of Pondicherry. This was once referred to as ‘black town’, settled alongside the French quarter in the late 1600’s.

The Tamil quarter developed around its five Hindu temples, countless small pagodas and the Grand Bazaar. This is where the highest caste of Hindus the Brahmins lived, as well as the businessmen who controlled large-scale trade, the Chettiars. Maison Perumal had been the home of a prominent Chettiar family, the Sunder Iyers, for more than one-hundred years. The family were bankers and cotton traders, and lived in a multi-generational fashion – framed sepia photos line the corridors and hint at their privileged lifestyle.

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Sam John at Maison Perumal

Sam John, the hotel’s manager greets us, meticulous in starched white cotton. He points out the finely carved pillars that elegantly frame the courtyard. “This family traded in Burma and so returned with Burmese teak. This is a large courtyard, sixteen pillars, fitting for a prominent Chettair mansion.”

It seems we’re sitting in the men’s courtyard, the women’s is the smaller one, close to the kitchen. They share similiar architectural features; red-oxide tile flooring for colour and open air wells for ventilation and light. In fact the age-old concept according to the Vaastu Shasta (the traditional Hindu system of architecture), each house must posses an open courtyard to honour the auspicious link between the five elements – the courtyard also bustled with family gatherings.

I ask Sam about the stone bench at the entrance of Maison Perumal, having noticed that the Tamil homes have a street verandah with a lean-to-roof over wooden posts, and a masonry bench tucked in the corner. “This is called the thalvaram. A shady place to give protection for the passers-by and to protect the building from the sun and rain. The benches are thinnai, used to welcome strangers or to chat with neighbours. We like sitting cross-legged on the benches, keeps us nimble, like yoga,” he says.

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Sunday morning thinnai

We experience the concept of thinnai first hand as we’re invited onto a verandah as we pass by a quaint bungalow early Sunday morning. Two sister-in-laws are chatting as they shell peas for mid-day lunch. Like us, one of the ladies is also visiting from Bangalore. We comment on the chaotic streets that we’ve escaped from – we breath in the healthier air of  peaceful Pondicherry.

Sam John mentioned the importance of retaining this low-key way of life when we had spoken. He was passionate in explaining that Maison Perumal is a cgh earth experience hotel, they have a clear ethos.

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A tri-shaw tour

The chain of hotels has non-negotiable principles of preserving the nation by honouring local heritage. Cgh hotels are restored to preserve their heritage and architecture. Sam had told us, “Respecting the past, all the hotels have adopted the local culture and way of life, paying homage to traditional modes of living, nature, architecture and heritage.”

At Maison Perumal, we ‘feel’ the ethos as we appreciate the attention to detail in the restored building, its second story evoking the French style with stained glass windows and authentic furnishings. This was often the case in a Tamil home, the marrying of the Tamil and French style. We enjoy local cuisine and an opportunity to tour on a trishaw. “We’ve engaged locals to do these tours,” Sam said proudly, “it helps support the community.”

One morning during our stay, a kolam is being chalked in the courtyard as we make our way to breakfast. It is a morning ritual for the Tamils (as in other parts of India) to create a design in the courtyard and at the home’s entrance. They are delightful either in their simplicity or in more embellished artistic forms, although decoration is not the main purpose of a kolam. Traditionally drawn from rice flour it welcomes people, small creatures and even deities, not least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth.

The patterns range from geometric drawings around a matrix of dots, to free form art work and closed shapes. Folklore has evolved to caution that the lines must be completed so as to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, and thus from the inside of the home.

Such ancient traditions such as these are still a part of every day life for the people in the Hindu enclave. The French quarter gave an entirely different sense of time and place. Puducherry, or Pondy, as the locals now refer to their city, has been a base for trading since the early 1520. Of the Europeans, the Portuguese were here first to trade in textiles; the Dutch and the Danes followed. But it was the French who rebuilt a prominent fortified town and thriving port of call, despite the British (in nearby Madras) razing most of it to the ground in 1761. The Treaty of Paris returned Puducherry to the French in 1763 and they quickly rebuilt. Today its unique charm captures the romance of those early Colonial days; of retreating  from the punishing heat on breezy verandahs after a day of trading those sought after commodities: cotton, indigo, cinnamon and cardamon, coffee, mehe pepper, cowrie shells and Chinese porcelain. They all passed through the warehouses before journeying, east to west.

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The respite of a colonnade portico

The French quarter, home to the French and other Europeans was dubbed ‘white’ town. Their homes and public buildings mirrored the upper-class French style. Imposing gates hinted at the prosperity of the owner ensconced behind high compound walls. They hid lush garden courts and verandahs decorated with exquisite scrolls and floral motifs. Ideally facing the sea breeze, the colonnaded porticos were essential to day to day life as the settlers coped with the extreme heat and humidity –entertaining staved off the sometimes interminable boredom of life in the Indies.

Women of the day visited, gossiped, read and wrote short stories. Tales were told of ‘Indian culture’ as they perceived it to be. Their interaction with the ‘natives’ was restricted to a minimum – mostly to their staff of butlers, gardeners and servants, and punkah wallahs who ensured a constant flutter of air from delicate wicker fans. Every good home also employed palanquin carriers who transported their sir and madam in improbable style. The large box-like contraptions with shuttered windows and a long pole on either end, (handles for the carriers) allowed residents in the French quarter to ‘hide away’ as they made their way through the streets.

We take a tour with Ashok who works with INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Their mission is to preserve heritage buildings, save them from further dilapidation, breathe life back into their storied pasts. We’re told the old town is in danger of losing its unique charm if more treasured buildings cannot be rescued. Along with the beautifully restored we see once-proud homes, shops and government buildings, lingering and neglected in a slow, sad demise.

Ashok leads us to one of the loveliest of the restored mansions. As we enter through the gate to the imposing, white and lemon-hued mansion, there is complete silence despite the presence of countless women. They sit embroidering, the chirp of birds and the rustle of palm leaves their gentle sound track. “This was the French Trading Company office and then the Governor’s mansion,” Ashok tells us. “Now run by the Sisters of Cluny Church, they train and help underprivileged ladies through their embroidery work.” It is an uplifting setting and a noble venture – an example of the practical possibilities of preserving the legacies of bygone years.

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Embroiders at work in a peaceful setting

Deciding to stay a few evenings in the French quarter, we meet a lovely young Parisian. Chandra, along with her cousin Ryan, is the acting proprietor of La Closerie, Bay of Bengal. The guest house is a combination of an old French home and a new annex that melds together seamlessly.

“My mother bought the colonial home about twenty years ago. It was restored and extended four years ago, I’m here to manage it for a year,” Chandra says. She mentions the contrasting pace between Pondy and Paris. “There are quite a few of us French here with Indian roots. It’s a vibrant community, a unique opportunity to spend a year here.”

Chandra is one of many French men and women we meet. When the French left Pondy in 1954, many residents retained Indian citizenship and property, even those who chose to return to France. While some descendants benefited from inherited homes, others found it to be a burden if unable to meet the cost of refurbishment.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself, who in 1947 became the first Prime Minister of Independent India, made it a point to preserve the unique heritage of this once French India. “I want Pondicherry to remain a window of culture.” And indeed through the efforts of INTACH and other committed bodies like cgh, Pondicherry is trying to do just that.

We take a late afternoon stroll along the sea front, joining the locals taking in the salubrious sea air. People linger in groups conversing, or ponder alone matching the brooding sky over the Bay of Bengal. The weathered lighthouse looms over the crowds, once more useful when it guided trading ships into these shores. Sculptured pillars from an ancient fort stand guard over a statue of the revered Ghandi – a statue of Nehru stands close by. The scene is much changed since boatmen and tall ships crowded the jetty, and the more somber history of Pondicherry’s colonial days unfolded– the shipping of thousands of Tamils as ‘coolies’ or indentured workers and slaves.

But for now we leave the sultry beachside with its pounding waves, with its people – French, Tamil and Muslim living harmoniously, where time stands still yet moves cautiously forward. One last time, we cross back into the Tamil quarter…there’s the Grand Bazaar to visit and that train passage to reserve back to old Madras.

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