Category Archives: Travel

‘India 101’… Spirituality and the conflicted in timeless Varanasi, part one

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I had hoped it would be as magical, as compelling as it had been that first time. During the two-month Indian leg of our backpacking trip in 1989, we had saved Varanasi for last. Positioned on the sacred Ganges River and considered to be one of India’s holiest sites, it was now the first destination of our ‘India 101′ trip with our sons and their girlfriends. It had been a difficult decision. Though we live in Southern India, should we venture north to travel this iconic route – Varanasi, Agra, and Dehli – or stay in the more gentle South. We decided on the former.

You want to get it right when your loved ones have traveled from afar, when you only have six days together ‘on the road.’ And I had been reluctant to revisit some of these treasured sites from our young traveller’s days. I wanted to remember them in that somewhat magical hue of days gone by, of simpler times. We had revisited Jaipur this past July and were pleased that we had. I had broken my ‘rule’ then of not revisiting… maybe it was alright to do so again?

After a brilliant Christmas at home in Bangalore, we strapped on our packs and flew north. Of the holy site of the Ganges, a quote from my old journal reads, “How fitting that this city of the faithful and holy should be our last stop. For to have experienced it early in the trip would have been too difficult to appreciate. Instead, it was the missing piece to completing the puzzle of India.”

Now, on reflection, had this visit been my first I might have been less convinced. Varanasi, or Benares, is said to be older than time itself. Ever wry, in 1897 Mark Twain wrote, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

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And indeed, it is. Several thousand years old, Benares is the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities. Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism claim all, or part of their origin here. At nearby Sarnath, Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have founded Buddhism in 528 BC. In the 8th Century, the worship of Shiva was established as an official sect of Varanasi and further, Hindus believe that cremation along the sacred Ganges River will bring moksha – liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. It still feels as if one is stepping into a vintage National Geographic article. Holy men – sages and swamis, babas and sadhus – meditate, pray and wander in vivid shades of orange, tangerine and saffron. The more temporal – barbers, hawkers, soothsayers and snake charmers – also fill their days along the ghats. All eighty-eight of them.

These stone stepped embankments, some dating from the 1700’s, lead down to the edge of the Ganges providing access for pilgrims and locals to perform ritual ablutions. “My mother has bathed daily in these holy waters. Maybe for thirty years,” our guide imparted. For most Westerners this is mostly unfathomable. The sacred Ganges is full – of human and toxic waste, of dead cows, human ash and bodies, of bone remnants that defied cremation – the ribs of men, the hips of women.

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The Aarti, before sunrise, is how Benares comes to life on the ghats. The air is chilled, the Ganges still swaddled in a misty shroud as we make our way to Assi Ghat. Brahmin students are lined in a row on a raised platform facing east to the river, where the sun will soon rise. The chanting of mantras ring through the air – the slow, steady beat of a gong accompanies the Sanskrit verses. The scent of camphor and sandalwood drifts around us. The young priests in training are precise, in perfect sync with their prayerful motions – the Aarti awakens the holy Ganges. Each day, each year, century upon century.

A separate prayer circle is close by, arms stretched out over a small fire. Not for warmth, but for the blessing of one’s body and soul. A priest sprinkles the devotees with petals. Ghee and grain are offered. Shanti, for peace is chanted. “It’s a bright example of reverence and living with less,” our guide offers solemnly. It is now 6:30 am.

We walk a few ghats upriver where a boatman is waiting. We seven huddle for warmth in his wide rowboat, one of hundreds that will soon float gently along the murky water. As his oars slice, soft and rhythmic through the water, seagulls call and circle. Boat wallahs beckon, piercing the calm morning air. Their wares are arranged prettily: prayer items, lacquerware, incense and Hindu prayer beads.

As the sun rises on the eastern horizon, ghat after ghat reveals itself. Each one serves a different purpose with distinct origins. A late King of Nepal built a temple on Lalita Ghat. Jain temples can be seen on the Bachraj Gat. The Maharajah of Jaipur claimed a ghat in 1770. The Dashashwameth ghat celebrates the Agni each evening – a worship to fire. It is also where dutiful prayers ease the Ganges to rest at the end of the day.

Perhaps the two most intriguing are the cremation ghats. Smoke is rising from the Harishchandra ghat as we row past in a respectful hush, a number of cremations in progress. Women are nowhere to be seen; it is believed their tears may prevent the soul from departing. The larger, busier Manikarnika ghat is further up river. Roughly one-hundred and twenty bodies are cremated daily. Wrapped in simple cloth, the face is left exposed, the body infused with ghee (clarified butter) so the body will burn as expected – usually up to three hours. The eldest son traditionally lights the funeral pyre, circling once for each of the five elements. He ignites by touching a taper, kindled from the eternal flame watched over by its guardians in a temple above the ghat, “Here, longer than anyone knows,” we’re told. Eventually the remaining bones will be laid to rest in the water by the cremation keepers. From the lowest caste, the untouchables, theirs is a job passed on through the centuries.

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Those who are not cremated – children of a young age, priests, pregnant woman, and others who are already considered holy – will be rowed out into the water. Weighted and given over to it, they too will have have attained moskha, fortunate to have died in Benares or to have been transported here. What may your beliefs be, to witness the Benares ghats at sunrise is a poetry of daily rituals – the first bathe of the day, the slap of laundry against aged stones, the suns first rays on chiseled temples, the rainbow array of boats, the first kite zigzagging the sky, the hues of vivid oranges glinting in the sun, ashen sadhus re-dabbing their spindly bodies, the murmurs of first prayers – the circle of life in raw, intriguing motion.

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As the morning unfolded we meandered through the back streets that radiate from the ghats. Needling our way through crowded narrow lanes, again I felt the weight of Varanasi’s history. A story told in trade – of fine muslin cloth and silk, of ivory works and sculpture – punctuated by cultural revival under Akbar, the Mughal Emperor in the 16th century. The enlightened Akbar built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, just a few of the thousands that dot Varanasi. We squeeze past worshipers waiting to visit one of the most sacred, barefoot and prayer items in hand, hundreds upon hundreds wait in line. Shopkeepers have sold the devotees prayer items, provided storage for their footwear, and served up morning dosas. We are forced to step aside a number of times. Pressing our backs against aged walls, we watch silently as families pass, their deceased loved ones hoisted high on stretchers as they manoeuve to the ghats.

IMG_2683We see few foreigners in these narrow passages despite tourism playing a significant part in today’s Varanasi. Yet I know that many come to this city to bathe in its spirituality, to elevate and open their consciousness. They follow in the steps of many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers and musicians who have also sought enlightenment in this holy place… some do not leave.

We make our way back to the five kilometre long ghats, along a street of many outstretched, imploring hands. Begging is a reality in India and sadly, syndicates operate here openly. Time and time again we are besieged by young women, listless babies in their arms, some reportedly opium sedated. A little digging will tell you these precious children have either been kidnapped or rented out by their mothers for a small sum. With a filthy baby bottle in hand, the mothers plead for milk for their child. Should you yield to their pleas, know that it will be sold back to the shopkeeper, some of your rupees then lining the pockets of the syndicate. Even with this knowledge, it is wrenching to walk away, time and again. Also heartbreaking is knowing that some of the beggars are limbless or deformed, perhaps purposely maimed.

Our youngest son, on his first trip to India, has a difficult time reconciling it and accepting that this is an aspect of India – even that it occupies a place in humanity. He wonders how we manage to live in a country with such injustices, such crushing poverty. Our inadequate answer is that one has to find a way to rationalise, to mentally detach and perhaps find joy in other aspects of India. Should that joy prove elusive or the culture shock too intense, it can be difficult to manage. We find solace and purpose in our active support of an independent school, making a difference in young children’s lives… it has helped us reconcile the many inequities of this society.

Moved and impacted by the scenes of the morning, we try in the afternoon to appreciate other facets of life on the Ganges edge as we wander back to our ‘home’ ghat. Up close, we witness the deep reverence of those bathing in their sacred river and even the holy cows taking their turn. We speak to artists and babas. We delight in Andrew joining a cricket game on one of the less busy ghats. He hits a ‘home run’, a moment with local kids, a common thread, a semblance of normality. Yet so much of our time is spent deflecting the begging and the predictable scams. Eventually we retreat to a roof top restaurant for a long relaxing, yet animated brunch. From this viewpoint, the temples reach up to the clear blue sky and children dart their kites above Benares’ ancient vista. Here all is peaceful and serene. But that evening our curiosity exposes us again to conflicting emotions.

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Five of us make our way to the large cremation ghat. Twenty or so bodies are in various stages of cremation, sparks leaping through the smokey sky, up to the heavens. The air is thick, filled with the scented smoke of mango, sandalwood and banyan. It is a scene that challenges description and I struggle to recapture the spiritual experience of that first time. It is so busy, so many bodies, so overwhelming. We are immediately approached by a personable young man. He encourages us to follow him for a tour. “I’ll explain everything,” he tells us, “but no pictures, no photos. And just give what you want at the end.” A few of us are skeptical, a few of us more trusting. We go along.

We hear and see more. We meet a mourner, head shaved, as is the eldest son’s duty. We are taken up to the sacred flame. After about twenty minutes, my eyes are burning, breathing is difficult and as if on cue, the tour is pronounced to be over. The young man then leads us further behind the ghats where the light of the pyres doesn’t penetrate, to the dark mounds of stacked wood. We’re told in mournful detail how much wood is needed to cremate one body, many cannot afford it, but we can help and contribute. How many kilos would we like to buy to donate? Now we’re led further to a small shrine. An older lady is perched on a platform beside it, dark kohled eyes peering from her sari wrapped body. “You’ll be blessed by this sister. How much wood will you pay for?” The tone and manner of the guide has changed. A few of us go along with the ‘blessing’. One of our sons refuses. We nod to each other knowingly – yes surely it’s a scam – but are there more accomplices waiting in the shadows in case we don’t comply. It feels ominous. We venture a modest payment.

Eagerly making our way in the dark through a zigzag of lanes to the direction of a main street, we ignore propositions to buy drugs, dodge cows blocking our path, notice glances that feel less friendly. We find our way out to the main street, just as our ‘guide’ from the ghat cruises past on a motorbike – yes, his job is finished for the day. No doubt he has paid off the ‘sister’ who ‘blessed’ us and perhaps the ‘mourner’ who repeatedly shook our hands – maybe a little too profusely. Their day of ‘work’ is finished for them all.

We ride back to Assi ghat debating what we had witnessed, incredulous that death, especially in this city, could be a way to deceive, to devalue sacred rituals. At a rooftop bar with the soothing sounds of an Indian ensemble in the background, we talk and process the experiences of the day, rationalising it as part of traveling, part of the experience, part of India. I mention that not once in my almost two years of living in South India have I felt compromised in the same way I’ve felt here – I missed ‘home’.

I notice that I’m still wearing my shanti beads. Bought earlier that day on the ghats, they are considered divine, tears of Lord Shiva. Their rudra seeds go through blessings – washed in a mixture of holy cow’s dung and urine, milk and ghee. “For enlightenment and self-empowerment,” the baba had told me as he draped them around my neck. How I wish that for the many millions of women and children in India who are in need of this and the release of poverty.

The next morning, we bid farewell to Varanasi, I know it will be my last visit. I dig out my old diary where many happy memories are recorded of upcoming Agra and Dehli. This ‘India 101‘ journey continues for our family and we anticipate more compelling sites and, without doubt, more thought-provoking experiences. We’ll experience it together…  to be continued

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A calm moment in Varanasi, with Shanti beads

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At Sarnath, home of Buddhism

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serendipity in Mysore… friendship in the seventh country

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My third journey to Mysore and I return to these charming, soulful streets. It is an ancient royal city that seems to encapsulate the romance of India. Yet on this visit, I forego the pleasure of the beloved Maharajah’s palace and storied battle fields. Instead I just soak it up, wandering and indulging my love of serendipity.

For two days we engage Shiva, a trusty auto rickshaw driver. First, we bless our ‘carriage’ with a string of marigolds – a vendor unwinds a meter from his impossibly long floral coil. We then allow ourselves to yield to Shiva’s insightful and skillful guiding; to the undiscovered through narrow streets and tucked-away neighbourhoods. It is my dear friend’s first visit to India and she is delightfully overwhelmed – the noise and the seemingly choreographed chaos, the riots of colour, the abundance of holy cows. The warmth of the people and smiles, hands pressed together in greeting, namaste.’

We halt Shiva excitedly, time and again.”Let’s stop here,”– for bustling bazaars and their friendly vendors, many perplexed as to why we are so curious. But of course it is the panoply of fruits and vegetables, colour coded and geometric, lush and bountiful, artful and creative. 

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We engage with sellers of all sorts: fruit and sugar cane juice, garlands and greens, spices and sandalwood-scented fans. And purveyors of enormous aluminum pots, pans of all sizes, thali dishes and tiny tiffins.

We chance upon a street of busy tinkering repairmen, and some not so busy. Then shopkeepers who pause to chitchat outside their over-brimming, narrow shops. Perhap a customer’s arrival cuts into the neighbourhood gossip, newspaper perusing and an animated discourse of the day’s happenings. The rhythm of the lively back lanes and streets is their daily soundtrack, and heartbeat – a small town feel, despite a large city.

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Once-glorious buildings hint to the days of the British, and to the skilled craftsmanship of refined Indian architecture. They make a striking backdrop. “The door there, you must see,” we’re told. We appreciate its ornate solidity and we conjecture what secrets it holds beyond its beautifully carved facade. 

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Mysore is also dotted with stately government buildings and once lovely gems – some restored, others barely holding-on in their precarious, faded glory. We come upon sprawling gardens, now tangled and overgrown. We creep into courtyards once brimming with life, now the cows munch idly in the afternoon sun. 

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But we’re pleased to also meet some dear, friendly women. Under a canopy of rosy-pink bougainvillea, a group awaits at the local temple. “Open at four,” they tell us, nodding towards its massive, carved door.

 Striking up a conversation, one of the ladies takes my hands as she speaks. She is diminutive in her later years and her warm eyes are suddenly faraway when she hears I live in Bangalore. “I was there many years, shifted here now,” she says wistfully. “Still busy there?” she wonders. “Oh yes, very hectic,” I assure her and then add, “I like it here in Mysore.” She nods knowingly and I sense she is torn between two cities, even two lives. Our conversation is short, but nonetheless, still heartwarming and tender.  

The afternoon is fading to ‘happy hour’, but when in Mysore one really must treat oneself to a fine pashmina scarf – perhaps even two. We alight from Shiva’s rickshaw one last time to peruse an array of delicate, colourful scarves. It can take time to choose, but Kristin and I have thrown away the clock – all the better to treasure these hours together.

Ensconced back in the homely elegance of the Metropole, we luxuriate in the shade of long verandahs. We reminisce countries by the numbers and tally that India is the seventh we’ve had the pleasure of sharing. We cheer with our wine glasses and ponder… where next? 

 

If you go, allow me to mention my preferred:

Always stay at the Metropole Hotel.

Visit Ajaaz at The Heritage for scarves, collectibles and perhaps a carpet.

Royal Mysore Walks offers brilliant tours.

My tuk-tuk driver on the ground is Shiva. He’s usually parked close to the Metropole or call at: 988 682 2409

The Shatabdi Express leaves Bangalore at 11:00 am. and arrives just a few hours later. Stop for lunch at the A 2 B for a delicious southern thali as you walk the two blocks to the Metropole. A perfect weekend getaway, enjoy!

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A flourish of marigolds… the very best, exotic neighbourhood celebration

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The marigolds were the last touch. Shanti smiled graciously and handed the delicate blossoms to me, “Madam can help now.” I was pleased. The intricate rangoli was spread joyously on the driveway of our apartment building. Shanti and Kajul had been planning, chalking and decorating the welcoming design since sunrise.

The occasion was Navratri and from first light, our small apartment complex had been exuberant with the spirit that only a festival can rouse.

IMG_0044“First cleaning, then decoration,” I’m told as I venture downstairs to see the preparations firsthand. Boran is busy cleaning the gate and the doorways. By this time, Kajul and Shanti are applying colour to the rangoli at the front gate.

Our apartment manager Anand, and a friend, are just cruising into the driveway, back early from the market. Anand’s motorbike is barely visible. It is seemingly sprouting…with marigolds and banana leaves, with tulsi and sprigs of ashoka leaves. And of course there’s a bundle of food for the blessing, the puja.

Soon a stalk of banana leaf is attached to each side of the gate, garlands and greens are strung in place. Then it’s time to apply the tripundras. The three-striped motifs are streaked across the wooden slats of the gate and on doorways, even the elevators. They are decorative and spiritual, and the mark doesn’t disappear quickly. A tripundra had only just faded into an outer apartment wall from last year’s celebration. Now all is renewed, re-blessed.

Over the next few hours a more intimate glimpse of Kajul, our security guard, is revealed. I am fond of him and it’s a pleasure to see his creative side and his commitment to tradition. He is happily engaged in helping Shanti decorate the rangoli.

“Kajul have you done this before?” I ask, noting one of his fingernails seems purposely longer than the others. It is painted a reddish hue and I watch him wield it like a paintbrush; guiding different shades of kumkum into each petal, into each leaf-like pattern.

“Oh yes Madam. In my village, helping my mother and sister.” There’s a nostalgic look in his eyes and we take photos for him to send home.

Small parcels of vibrant kumkum await on snatches of newspapers. Shanti and Kajul converse in Hindi. There’s artistic planning and some laughter, but also a seriousness to their endeavour. I watch them for an hour or so, enjoying a coffee in the morning sun, savouring the activity of the neighbourhood.

A neighbour from the next-door apartment strolls through the gate to borrow a dash of the white kumkum. Their gardener passes by with lengthy stalks of banana leafs and a hatchet. It seems he avoided the market and fetched his from somewhere in the neighbourhood.

A few people peer-in to admire the evolving work of art. Oh we definitely have the prettiest and most elaborate decorations, I think to myself. If I might be forgiven the comparison, it feels a a little like I’m back home admiring the Christmas lights on our street. This festival does evoke that Christmas feeling: school holidays, time for family, best to do some ‘spring-cleaning’, perhaps a new outfit or two. It’s also time for veneration to the Hindu gods.

Finally, I can’t resist the temptation – that childlike instinct to paint-by-number, to colour. The enfolding array of designs beckon like a colouring book and a newly-sharpened box of pencil crayons.

“Would you like some help, may I help?” I ask Shanti. She looks over to Kajul, both of them are on their knees, delicately positioned between a flower that’s slowly coming to life.

“Oh no, no thank you,” they say shyly. I’m a little surprised. Is it maybe because I’m not Hindu, or perhaps they’re worried I’m not quite as fastidious as they are and will spoil their creation. I chuckle to myself remembering school days when I preferred that classmates did not work on book projects with me. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone ‘messing it up’. Yes I understand.

IMG_0063I go upstairs to refresh my coffee and see that our front door is not being forgotten. Boran is stringing a garland of marigolds then dotting each side of the door with a tilak and also blessing it with the swastika symbol. This ancient religious mark is a symbol of auspiciousness and good luck, it remains that today in India. Boran then proffers the melon and I contribute a rupee or two into its dyed, square ‘collection box’.  Before long, I’ll learn its destiny. IMG_0067
I’m soon called back down to the driveway where Shanti and Kajul are gazing proudly at their expansive creation. It’s a rainbow of colours. A feast of home-spun geometry. A happy mural – childlike, yet intricate and abloom. “Full complete,” Kajul says with a beaming smile.

“Madam can finish,” Shanti says kindly, handing a passel of marigolds to me. I get the honour of the last touches…a flourish of marigolds.

 

Meanwhile there has been a flurry of activity in the underground garage. “Time for puja,” Anand says inviting us down the sloping driveway, into a garage as pristine as a surgeon’s operating room. Cars and motorbikes have been washed. Machines tuned and cleaned. This day is Ayudha Puja, the occasion when traditionally weapons are worshipped, when tools are cleaned and revered, when specific attention to one’s profession and its tools is important. A divine force is summoned for all of them to perform well; here in Southern India it is highly adhered to.

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Babu, one of the drivers, has set things up in immaculate fashion. The cars are festooned with garlands, an altar of sorts offers fruit and sweets. The tires have been marked with the customary three stripes and a lime has been positioned under each front tire. Motorbikes have also been decorated, but I notice a bicycle on its lonesome in the corner of the garage. The guys laugh when I note it has no colourful embellishments and before you know it, they are at its side decorating to match the other conveyances. After all, the apartment’s back-up generator and even the piping has received some attention.

With everything in place, Babu lights small flames and incense. Invoking the god Krishna, Babu holds the sacrificial melon with two hands and slowly circles each vehicle, then the motorbikes. He then smashes the ‘sacrificial melon’ on the floor. It crashes open, coins tumble out and a cheer of some sort erupts. Now its time to offer the sweets to us all. And for the final observance, the time has come to move each car and bike just slightly forward. Pop, pop, popeach tiny lime, now sacrificed under the front wheels…the puja is complete.

It’s known that the most traditional and colourful place to celebrate is in Mysore with its parades and carprisoned elephants. Yet I’m pleased we were part of our apartment’s celebration, here to acknowledge the hard work these people perform throughout the year to make our lives more comfortable. It was special to have seen them in a more personal light and share in their enthusiasm. Yes, it felt like the very best, exotic neighbourhood celebration.

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We thought we’d venture out into the streets and decided upon the older neighbourhood of Malleshwaram. It is a quaint lively area, built in the 19th century to accommodate people fleeing the city centre from the plague. Today there’s an excited atmosphere as families celebrate. Ladies are beautifully wrapped in lavish saris. Children delight in a festival treat, maybe an ice cream or a shiny new pinwheel from a passing wallah. 

The streets are alive with marigolds and roses, with limes and banana leaves, and yet more of those melons. We come upon an orange-robed priest blessing a row of motorbikes. We stroll along lovely, well-lived streets. I adore the vivid colour, the whafting of incense and the easy smiles of vendors. Everywhere is verdant, alive and joyful. Here, still more banana leaves are just now being fixed to the corner point of shops, but so many more await to be be part of the festivities. The streets are awash in them. It occurs to us that most of Navratri decorations are natural, organic, connected to the earth.

And there’s more around every corner. More garlands of marigold, more lovingly designed rangolis, and more flamboyantly adorned buses, trucks, tuks – even a cement mixer has received some reverence today.

It is known that India, with its more than 30,000 gods, is a nation of festivals and cultural traditions. To experience these in an intimate fashion, away from the masses of crowds and feeling the spirit of a neighbourhood, is decidedly my preference.

“Madam, please take photo?” I’m asked yet again. The locals are keen to have the day captured.

“Alright, smile everyone,” I say happily. Serendipity has once again rewarded us with a feast of colour and with the gentle warmth of people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Canadian Summer… a passion for mountain towns, Whistler and Kimberley

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For now, I’ve bid farewell to my home in Canada. To my pine trees and my deck, perfectly-placed for moon and star gazing. To a place where the long summer evenings are precious with friends and family. It’s a home, and a town, that ever welcomes me when I return.

Now back in India, the inevitable week of adjustment is always my reality. I reconcile that I can’t jump into my vehicle and cruise the mountain roads or simply walk and breathe the fresh air. I already miss chats with family and not relying on Skype dates. Still, this past week was reserved to get over jet-lag and savour a little time before life gets busy for the rest of the year: final editing on a new book project, an upcoming visit from a dear friend, a retreat to Penang in November and the arrival of family for Christmas. But for just a few more days, I let vignettes of a Canadian summer play in my mind…

 

DSCF5086A passion for trains…for a mountain lifestyle

Kai looked very much the part in his striped train conductor’s hat. Greeting each passenger one by one as they stepped down from the pristine and impressive Rocky Mountaineer, Kai delighted them with a ‘high five’ and a warm “Hello!”

“You’re the little fellow we were told about,” one gentleman remarked. “So I hear you really love this train?” Kai nodded with a broad smile.

The picturesque station for the Rocky Mountaineer is just south of Whistler, British Columbia. We watched the train round the bend, and ease its massive weight to a halt along the edge of Nita Lake.

We were sojourning on its waterfront at The Lodge at Nita Lake. An idyllic place where canoes and kayaks tether to the Lodge’s private dock. We ventured out on early morning paddles – ducks floated gracefully in a line, loons called in the morning mist and a black bear browsed for berries at the water’s edge.

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That afternoon we had cycled along the trails to Whistler, passing families canoeing and picnicking by the water’s edge. As we cycled from lake to lake, we came upon sculptures set in the lush riparian forest and kayakers paddling lazily through waterways. On emerald green waters a floatplane waited alongside a canoe – emblematic of Whistler’s coveted lifestyle.

And if you’re fortunate, you’ll spy another black bear up close. We rolled up to a group of cyclists stopped on the trail. “Wouldn’t go any further,” a local cautioned, motioning to a healthy-sized bear in the bushes up ahead. It was our second sighting of the day, a reminder that Whistler is very much their territory.

“Think we should leave that big guy alone”, the friendly cyclist suggested, hopping back on his bike. “Come on, I’ll show you a different trail.” We cycled further and saw more of the postcard-perfect town, quiet and serene, away from the multitude of tourists – a peek into the daily life of a local. It was late afternoon by this time and I was conscious that the Rocky Mountaineer would soon be arriving at Nita Lake Lodge.

 

As the impressive train slowed into the station just after 6 pm, I immediately noticed Kai. He went about his unofficial duties conscientiously – rolling out the red carpet, raising the Canadian flag then that of British Columbia, then positioning himself to welcome the travellers.

“This little guy is here every chance he gets,” Janice Bondi, the train’s manager remarked with affection. “You’d be surprised how many regulars we have at each stop.” As I watched Kai, I couldn’t imagine a more committed train lover.

 

As his father watched proudly nearby, I knew there was a reason why I too wanted to greet this iconic train in the Rocky Mountains. Its arrival evoked a sense of that slower, older lifestyle that early pioneers must have experienced. Witnessing the passion of a boy named Kai, made it a little bit more special.

 

A passion for Whistler, and for hats

Like me, Erik is fond of hats and considers himself fortunate to work with his passion. It was easy to warm to his friendly and engaging nature. “I ordered my first hat when I was ten years old,” he explained, “I like that you can customize your outfit with just a different hat.”

And Erik knows them well: beanies, flat caps, fedoras, buckets, suns, cowboys and of course the iconic Canadian toque. The Hat Gallery in the heart of Whistler is a place to try something different, or stick with what you love – it’s always a fedora for me.

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“What kind of a pinch do you like in your fedora?” Erik asked as he scanned his displays. He patiently searched and suggested, all the while exuding an obvious love of his job. We found the fedora up high on a shelf – yes it was the perfect choice.

Erik is Canadian and admittedly a bit of an anomaly in Whistler’s workforce. The ski town has attracted thousands of young workers from other countries, especially from Australia and the U.K. I was told that most arrive with a two year work visa, but start the process of becoming a resident almost immediately. It’s an easy decision for them. They choose Whistler for the lifestyle – skiing, paddling, hiking and a mountain that transforms into a biker’s dream in the summer months.

 

Whistler’s pedestrian-friendly town is lively with tourists from all corners of the globe. Enticed by the allure of the mountains, the activities, the cool bars and restaurants, it attracts millions of tourists yearly and has grown beyond all expectations.

Two tribes of First Nations shared this territory before trappers, traders and loggers arrived in the mid 1800’s. All would change when the Phillips, a young couple from the United States, opened a fishing lodge in 1914. Rainbow Lodge enjoyed great success, especially renowned for its fishing package...return train trip from Vancouver, 2 nights at the lodge and fishing for $6.00…

DSCF5057 (1)Visitors could also hike and horseback ride, enjoy a paddle on Alta Lake, or play with Teddy, Mrs. Philips’s pet bear. Myrtle Philips was the pillar of this new community that would eventually spread to nearby Whistler.

A ski hill developed in the ’60’s, a smattering of houses and the village itself in the early ’70’s. When the town needed a centre, town planner Eldon Beck planned a pedestrian village “where one could get lost, where things flowed like a river.” He could not have foreseen the success the mountain city would one day enjoy – being part-host to the 2010 Winter Olympics certainly helped. The Olympic rings are a tourist draw in themselves, a must-have backdrop for photos and selfies.

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Whether it was Erik or other young people I met who couldn’t imagine leaving this outdoor haven, the passion for life in Whistler is palpable.

And of passion, there was one more stop to make. The new Audain Art Museum – ‘where art meets nature, nature meets art’. It is a fine collection of Northwest Coastal Masks, Emily Carr paintings and more. I have a great admiration for the gifted, if wonderfully eccentric, Canadian icon. The Audain is iconic as well. Designed as a modern day longhouse and raised above the forest floor, seemingly one with the trees in which it nestles, it is a recent addition to Whistler’s cultural mix – already an essential counterpoint anchoring the proud past to the present.

 

The pride of a ‘forever hometown’…

We enjoyed a quintessential summer road trip from Whistler, back through Vancouver, and eastward toward the Okanagan, Canada’s wine region, a detour to Banff, and back to our own mountain town in the interior of BC. Like Whistler, not only is Kimberley a ski town, it’s a summer feast of bike trails, golf courses, rivers and lakes. For us this town anchors our peripatetic life. It represents warmth and stability, the place we chose for our family home.

 

 

When a ski trip took us to the small city of 7,000 or so, we were immediately smitten. Situated in the Purcell Mountains with the Rockies as its backdrop, it seemed like an easy choice and we resolved that no matter where we live in the world, this is where we’d return to.

Kimberley was once home to the largest lead-zinc mine in the world and has long been a community that welcomes newcomers. The Scandiavians pioneered our first ski-hill, the Germans and Austrians gave us our Bavarian-themed town centre, the Platzl. It is a setting where, on a Saturday afternoon, you’re as likely to meet a barber-shop quartet as a party of golfers in town for a weekend foray. Kimberley might well be known as a golf and ski destination, but people are drawn to this mountain town for many more reasons. Increasingly young families are choosing Kimberley for its lifestyle, a place to raise children in a safe and active community. But then that is nothing new to generations of settlers.

 

I met Clarence, serenading visitors about to board the Kimberley Underground Mining Railway. Commuter trains no longer run to Kimberley, but this small train wends its way up the ski hill, or tours into the now closed Cominco Mine.

 

Clarence was playing ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, rather fitting considering the wildfires that rendered the mountains hazy through some of the summer. He flashed a wide grin as I identified the song and again when he heard I was an accordion player too. I asked Clarence how long he’s played.

“Oh since I was ten or so,” he remarked speaking fondly of his instrument, then assuring me that he loves keeping the tourists happy. “About ten-thousand rode this little train last year…good for the town.”

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Clarence shared that he has been here, ‘a long while’, drawn here from a neighbouring province. I also made small-talk with the conductor as he waited for the 11 am tour to fill up.

“Are you from Kimberley?” I asked.

“I’ve been here for years, where else would I live?” I’m told matter-of-factly. People here get a little protective about this city, one of the highest in Canada – 1100 meters of altitude and only one stop-light. I hear this kind of unbridled hometown sentiment time and again. As Sonya, a good friend of mine, often comments, “Don’t get me started about how much I love this place.” She and her husband retired here three years ago and it quickly became their ‘forever hometown’.

Like Whistler, Kimberley has its share of locals who are passionate about their jobs and businesses. I’ve long been welcomed home by Robin and delight in her refined taste of home and kitchen wares she offers in her store, Grater Good. 

And I love the quirky and eclectic goods at Old Koots. “Hey Terry Anne, welcome home,” Janet and Wendy greet me as I wander through their door, hoping for that one-of-a-kind find.

The date for my hair appointment at Wolfy’s is always booked the minute I get into the country. While Kellie and her mother Pat fill me in on the latest news, I sink back into the small town vibe and delight in the scene…yes, it’s a little like the set of Steel Magnolias.

 

I stop in at Caprice’s Fine Art Studio to admire her latest works. Caprice and I share the love of art-books and of Emily Carr. We even share the same hometowns, our original, and now our adopted. “Sometimes you just know when something is right,” Caprice tells me.

 

I find myself at my favourite coffee shop, Bean Tree. With its retro furniture, its door always propped open by a ski boot, and its antler-adorned fireplace, its charming atmosphere typifies this unique town.

With friends and family having come and gone, it was time to pack and ‘close up’ the house. And with that, I only just remembered to grab my new hat from its perch on the antlers at Bean Tree. I’ll need it for the days ahead in India. The pattern of my life continues…

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A Monkey Temple… good karma and a mantra

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“I can’t go in there, you two go ahead.” I’m adamant. But all the same, my husband and son try to convince me. “No I’m certain. I’ll wait here with Mohan.”

Mohan is our driver in Jaipur and we’ve arrived at our destination, one that I’d prefer not to be at. He’s driven us about 10 km outside of the city. Manoeuvring on a narrow country road, we’ve threaded through small villages with once stunning architecture. We’ve circumnavigated more cows than I’ve seen possibly anywhere in India. Cow-patties attest to this; large numbers of them bake in the afternoon sun. They’ll soon be used as ‘firewood.’

We’re now parked in front of the gate of the pink-hued Galtaji Temple. Except that I can’t bring myself to go beyond it… this is also a Monkey Temple.

A cow stands patiently at the gate as if wanting to enter. But me, I harbour no such desires despite continued pleading from Bruce and Matt.

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“Believe me, there is nothing I’d rather do less. You saw how afraid I was earlier today with just a few monkeys.”

I’m referring to the scene that morning. A Skype call with my parents on the verandah of our hotel suite, a waiter serving me freshly brewed coffee, his colourful tunic striking a pretty picture against the archways, then…’pop, pop, pop!’

“Goodness, what was that?” mom asked with alarm. Spinning the computer around to the scene of a uniformed security guard aiming his air rifle, I answered rather matter-of-factly, “Oh, just the guards keeping the monkeys away.”

“Really, I’m surprised you’re so calm,” she remarked. They are well aware of my fear – I don’t know where it came from. Nonetheless, it seems today won’t be the day I conquer my pithecophobia.

Back at the monkey temple, I tell Bruce and Matt that I’ll stay in the truck with Mohan. Noting there is nowhere else to go, I wave them off as they disappear behind the dreaded gate.

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Mohan explains how sacred this temple is. “Many people come once per month, very good karma ma’am.” He tells me of his beliefs and then with a bit of coaxing, Mohan chants his Om mantra, his morning prayer. It’s beautiful and evocative of the devotion that infuses this culture. All too soon the mantra comes to an end.

Back to reality, the large red gate with the mark of Om is to my left and to the right? Well I finally dig up the courage and decide to explore… I don’t see any monkeys on this side of the gate.

After telling Mohan it was lovely that he shared his mantra, I suggest we take a small walk. I’m immediately overwhelmed with the smell of cow manure and urine. As we arrived, there had been a group of cows with people gathered around, but I hadn’t realized the significance.

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“Ma’am this very holy too,” Mohan says as I survey the surroundings. One lone tree, a shop with shading umbrellas and a barn-type structure at the far end. “People come to feed holy cows, sometimes before work. Good karma,” he emphasizes once again.

In Hindu belief, the cow is considered sacred and held in high esteem. It is seen as a caretaker, a maternal figure because of its ample resources; dairy products, strength for tilling fields and dung for fertilizer and fuel.

“Feed the cows?” Mohan asks, motioning to a heap of ragi on a cart outside of the shop. You can buy a handful for a few rupees.

“No I’m fine. Thank you though.” I then notice peanuts on display and put two and two together.”

“Ah the guys could have bought food for the monkeys, that’s a shame,” I say to Mohan. Then nodding to the shopkeeper, trying to make small talk. “Monkeys like?”

“Yes good, good,” the peanut seller says warmly. He has a captive audience with the temple-goers having to pass his establishment.

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The Galtaji Temple with its water pools was built a few hundred years ago. Now perhaps some five thousand monkeys call it home. Its environs get even busier during festivals and yet more lively. Curiously, jumping from the surrounding cliffs into the tanks is an attraction.

“Monkeys and people use the bathing, good for soul,” Mohan says as we wander further. Of course the image of communal bathing reels in my mind, but it dissolves as we come upon Saba.

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Saba

“This is cow shed for holy cows and keeper. This Saba,” Mohan acknowledges the man as he steps from the barn. Cows munch on ragi behind him as Saba stands at his gate. He does not smile. His silence speaks volumes.

I wonder if this is a small goshala, there are thousands of these institutions that care for old and infirm cows. With more than three-hundred million of them in India, the highest in the world, some of the luckier cows will finish their life in a goshala rather than abandonment when they are no longer useful.

Most cows are owned in India and traditionally each household had their own. They were part of the family with names and personalities and as with most pets, you would not hurt or eat them. It is now common to see them foraging throughout the day, then making their way back to their owners at sunset. I have seen it often; a string of cows sauntering home just as it gets dark. There’s a saying in India… “If you can’t remember your way home, follow your neighbour’s cow.” 

‘I’ll buy water,” Mohan says as we turn back around to the shop. I notice Saba has made his way here as well, it’s right next door and he seems more at ease now. He orders a chai and the seller asks once again if I’d like peanuts for the monkeys. Politely foregoing the temptation of the ragi and the peanuts, I wander across the smelly, dusty road to strike up a conversation.

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Mohan

A  young man has the deep-orange mark of the monkey god between his eyes. The shades of oranges in Rajasthan are vivid and have great meaning attached to them. The man motions to his mark. “Hanuman,” he exclaims with a proud smile. He doesn’t speak English and Mohan isn’t particularly pleased that I’m attempting a conversation with him.

I finally see my two guys emerging through the gate. At least an hour has passed and they’re effusive.

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The mark of Hanuman

“It was fantastic you should have seen them Ter, swimming and playing,” Bruce says swiping through his photos to share with me. One shows a monkey standing on his shoulder. There’s a video of a baby scampering along his arms and a family frolicking in the pool.

“Come on Mom, we’ll go back in,” Matt says hopefully, like he’s ten years old again and doesn’t want to leave the fun-fair.

“To be honest, let’s get on the road,” I reply, shying away from the photos…and the monkey urine on Bruce’s shirt. It’s mingling with the aroma of cow. Yet I’m pleased to see these two have shared this unique Nat Geo experience. One that I’m convinced will come up more than once around the family dinner table!

“Sure, let’s go. Are you ok Ter?” Bruce asks.

“Oh yes, I had my own little adventure.” I’m thankful I left the safe-haven of Mohan’s truck.

The peanut seller gives me a wave as we pass and I mention that they could have bought peanuts to take to their new friends. “Matt we could go back in and feed them,” Bruce says. He’s only half joking.

“Keep driving please Mohan.” He chuckles. “Yes ma’am not liking the monkeys. But very sacred here.”

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After a quick stop for the two to shower and change, we drive to Nahargarh Fort as its position on a hill over Jaipur is the ideal location to view the sunset. As we make our way along the fort walls to the outlook, monkeys dart in and out of the imposing yet romantic structure. A large monkey sits on a low wall that we have no choice but to pass.

I begin to breathe rapidly and grab Matt’s hand for protection. Shielding my eyes, my body tenses as I rush past the substantial primate.

“Mom I had no idea. You really are afraid,” Matt says slightly bewildered. “You’re ok, we’re past him,” he assures me.

Then calling over his shoulder, he announces to Bruce, “Dad, I don’t think mom would have done well at the monkey temple, good thing she didn’t join us.”

Well now that’s an understatement…

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But in fact as interesting and as sacred as some people believe monkeys to be, the situation in India is one worth mentioning.

Simply, there are too many of them. This is evident on the streets of old Jaipur and apparently the situation is worse in other cities including Delhi, the capital.

Monkeys have habituated themselves to urban living and often terrorize in large numbers. They seize food and other items, they bite and attack with serious implications; ninety percent of monkeys carry tuberculosis. No we hadn’t realized this – Bruce assured me ‘the temple monkeys were very well behaved.’

Yet having no natural predators they are considered by many to be out of control, but the belief that they are the reincarnation of the god Hanuman ensures they are safe from any attempt to decrease their numbers. A quote by a government official further confirms their role in religious folklore, “These aggressive macaques cannot be the incarnate of Hanuman, they surely belong to the evil monkey king, Bali.”

The practice of feeding monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays for good karma contributes to their reliance on humans. Of late, discussions have intensified as fear and destruction continues. When one of the waiters at the Haveli heard we had gone to the temple, he was eager to show us an image of his village’s beautiful town hall. The monkeys keep tearing it apart. “Twice the community has repaired it. These monkeys are most destructive.”

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They also cause havoc on farms as crops are destroyed across the country. I find reports of farmers having deserted their land with no solution on the horizon. The numbers of monkeys rises unabated.

It seems then that designated temples are a good environment for monkeys (and humans), but it’s only a ‘drop in the ocean’ considering the numbers.

The same problem doesn’t exist where we live in Bangalore. I’ve evaded them in a number of parks, but thankfully I rarely see them on the streets in our area.

So for now, a visit to a monkey temple is checked off the list of ‘must-sees’, at least for two out of three of us.

For me, the highlight was Mohan sharing his evocative mantra.

But there have been many special moments in Jaipur. I hope this musical slideshow captures a little more of the ‘pink city’ and its environs…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to romance… to the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur

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Dear Jaipur,

You welcomed us twenty-eight years ago and we return nostalgically to you. There has always been a fondness for the ‘pink city.’ As young travellers you offered us colour and mystery… the romance of a storied destination.

You are much busier now. Your Maharaja-designed 18th century streets are in constant motion; a stream of life and noise, of endeavour and exuberance.

Tuks, camels, cycles and bullocks, strain both people and cargo through lively streets. Monkeys scamper on ledges and peer through stamp-sized shutters. A procession; a swirl of a wedding marches past as a band trumpets, an elegant groom on his festooned horse – to the bride’s house he gallantly goes.

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You still beguile and please with your facades, lattice work windows, your streets washed in soft shades of pinks, roses and salmons.

   The signature Hawa Mahal, Palace of the Winds, is still your calling card. Evoking the richness of Maharajahs and Maharanis, it is a fine blend of Rajasthani and Mughal styles with miniature domes and delicate screens, all nine hundred and fifty-three –  modest viewing galleries – for the ladies.

 

 Moghul inspired archways, peacock doors and splashes of frescoes fascinate the eye. They are tributes to your past; of proud Rajput warriors, fairy-tale palaces and flourishing bazaars.

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But your beauty is also in the finer details – bangles upon sparkly bangles, slipper-shoes of soft camel leather, bejewelled textiles and intricate block prints.

And perhaps just the simple – golden pomegranates on laden trees, toys of old newly discovered and heavenly corners to luxuriate within. We find divine comfort in the Samode Haveili…it becomes our haven.

 

It all feels like a past remembered – familiar yet newly captivating. We are entreated from all corners: to ride, to purchase, to visit, to partake, to view the beautiful.

Lemony and saffron turbans wrapped atop weathered faces hint at untold stories. Ladies primp and pose, tradition captured in cautious smiles. Young entrepreneurs bargain a good price and Mr. Chand’s outdoor photo studio recaptures us in monochrome memory. We still have the photo from years ago, we believe it was taken here. “Maybe me or my father,” Tikam Chand contemplates. “Yes still here, isn’t it?”

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 I am coaxed to an astrologer’s chair – this city is known for its mystic vibe of bespoke gems and stones, sage-like astrologers and stargazers. And for me a first. I don’t believe, but still…

“Sunrise and meditation is good for you. Maybe you think too much and please madam, you must wear white on Mondays. But good life, good marriage.

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He doesn’t know that twenty-seven years of marriage has just been marked. Perhaps fittingly, on a postcard of the Hawa Mahal, my beloved wrote… 

We would never have imagined that our journey together would have taken us this far and into so many corners of the globe. Thank you for being my travel partner of nearly twenty-nine years – my past, my present, my future.”

And so dear Jaipur, the monsoon rains cooled as we traipsed barefoot on your ancient stone, welcome respite from your desert climate. We soaked up your enduring sites, luxuriated by candlelight and dined on fine Rajasthani cuisine. We weaved through your scented bazaars, climbed the heights of formidable forts and spied peacocks under the shade of ashokas.

Indeed more luxurious this visit – the backpacks have long been put away. Yet it was here those years ago, that our travels sparked a romance and now beckoned us to return. So with a fond farewell Jaipur, you will always be a jewel in our traveller’s souls…

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A train passage to Enchanting Hampi…

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Night train to Hampi – day one

The Hampi Express pulls into Bangalore just before 10 p.m. Hauling a staggering number
of carriages, it almost snakes its way back out of the station as hundreds of people rush at it. Those with general tickets jostle to find a seat; the 365 km journey to Hampi is a long way if you must stand.

We have the luxury of being booked in a four person sleeper. Two sturdy ceiling fans, frayed burgundy curtains and packages of linens await us…Southern Indian Railways bordering their edges. Two long seats below will transform into beds, while above, two bunks are perfectly serviceable for those who don’t toss and turn.

Lulled to sleep by the gentle locomotion, I am awakened through the night by the absence of movement at various stations. At one, I pull back the curtain as the unwelcome light from a platform threads into our compartment. On a station bench a tall gangly figure is wrapped in a shawl, arms on knees, his eyes pierce mine. I modestly retreat behind my drape, but as we roll along through the night I imagine all the people. All of the lives in the small villages that line the track…some seventy percent of India lives rurally.

I peer outside just before sunrise, steel factories loom against the awakening sky. This land is rich in iron ore and I see shadows of families scavenging scattered pieces, tumbled from passing trains and scooped into wicker baskets.

Hampi unwrapped – day two

The cry of a chai wallah from outside our compartment awakes us– an informal announcement that we’ve arrived at Hospete station. We disembark at 7:20 am, two of us rested, one of us groggy. Our senses are immediately heightened as we alight. Carriages disgorge flocks of passengers. Porters proffer their services twirling cloths into mini turbans on crowns of heads, a ready perch for a bag or two. Wallahs announce and drivers implore, tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk?

We have a driver waiting and he is soon maneuvering through traffic along with stray dogs, cows and bulls, wild pigs and piglets…all navigating the lively streets.

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After a quick refresh and breakfast at our hotel, we’re back on the road and the lush countryside welcomes us. We pass bullock cart after bullock cart laden with feed, crops and the fruits of the land. I understand why this site was chosen as the heart of an empire. The Tungabhadra river runs through the valley bringing sustenance to sugar cane and banana plantations, rice paddies and coconut groves. It is fertile and beautiful.

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A few kilometres down the road we come upon Hampi, a richness of deep-red soil framed by massive monolithic boulders. Shades of bronzes and rust, pale pinks and greys offered a natural defence (and building material) for the once mighty Vijayanagara Empire. After waiting for a shepherd and his goats to pass, we enter through the narrow Talavaraghatta Gate. One passes into an enchanting land…

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Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hampi has attracted settlers, travellers, traders and pilgrims since the mid 1300’s. With ruins that rival those of Rome and Pompeii, accounts from early foreign travellers capture scenes from the past…

DSCF1078“Travelling about three-hundred miles from Goa, we arrived at the great city of Vijayanagara…sixty miles in circumference…ninety thousand men bear arms. Their king is more powerful than all the other kings in India. He takes to himself twelve thousand wives, of whom four thousand follow him on foot wherever he may go. A like number are handsomely equipped and ride on horseback.” Nicole Conti, an Italian traveller, 1420

The lore of Hampi is not only infused with tales of an extravagant and powerful empire, but with the presence of gods, goddesses and heroes – a connection to the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys. We learn this through Basava, our guide throughout the day from Explore Hampi.

“Everyone calls me Hampi Basava,” he tells us. The son of a farmer, Basava grew up hearing tales of the great empire from his grandmother, inspiring him to share the richness of his hometown. As did encounters with archeologists who excavated the site, “I learned much from them, but still learning.”

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The Vijayanagara empire reached the zenith of its power under Krishnadevaraya from 1509 to 1529. Over time the city of Vijayanagara Pattana, became simply ‘Hampi’ and hosted the Pan Supari Bazaar with its daily market and almost one-thousand meters of stalls.

We walk the broad boulevards now quiet and forlorn, but I can still feel and hear the pulse of the people. The clatter of hooves mixing with the slow squeak of a rusty oxen cart. The calling of traders from colonnaded street-long bazaars. Colours gleaming against the scorching sun – gold and jewels glinting. Exotic spices, vermillion, turmeric and sandalwood piling in peaked domes. Sensuous silks and imported Chinese blue and white, hiding in the shade of the columned stalls. A chiseled relief of a fish announcing a nearby water-well. A sign suggesting the courtesan’s bazaar…always held on a Tuesday.

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In 1520 Domingo Paes, a Portuguese horse-trader, wrote…”In this city, you will find belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it was and the many precious stones there…the streets and markets are full of laden oxen.”

We approach the Vitthala Temple and I am instantly mesmerized. The massive enclosure has lofty gopuras (pyramidal temples) to three sides, grandiose protection to Vishnu’s mode of conveyance, the opulent stone chariot. “The wheels were once capable of turning,” Basava assures us. The king, concerned with the long treks the pilgrims endured to the sacred temples, entreated the weary pilgrims…Take the energy of the wheels.

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The nearby mandapas, intricately columned gathering places, are exquisite. Relief carvings depict dancers, drummers, voluptuous courtesans and warriors, royal elephants and sartorial hints of foreign visitors…a fez from Morocco, a cloak from Europe, a turban from the Middle East.

Basava taps on musical stone pillars sending harmonious notes through the open air pavilions. The granite architecture has beguiling lotus motifs with traces of colours that once decorated and hints of Chinese, Indo-Islamic and European influence. We see shrines, sculptured gateways and monuments to a legion of gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha, a god favoured for good luck.

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Nearby at the Royal Enclosure, the queens private bath, the royal stage, the king’s underground shrine and even a stepped water-tank speak of grandeur. The king had admired it else elsewhere and imported it piece by piece, step by step. Numbered and reassembled in its odd- numbered formatting. These are the numbers Indians favour – 1 for a preferred God, 3 for the past, present and future, 5 for the elements, 7 for the days, 9 for the planets.

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By late afternoon the much anticipated monsoon-rain threatens on the horizon. Clouds roll over orchards and palms, and the granite-bouldered sky. It’s been a stifling hot day, the wind picks up and the clouds shower upon us. We don’t mind. It is cooling and refreshing. “Raindrops like lotus buds,” Basava says lyrically. “The farmers will be blessed. Come, we can’t miss the elephant stables.”
The number varies as to how many elephants the kings kept, accounts speak of anywhere from four to nine-hundred. Twelve or so royal elephants resided in the lavish stables. Domingo Paes elaborated…“The elephants are covered with velvet and gold with fringes, and rich cloths of many colours, with bells so that the earth resounds. On their heads are painted faces of giants and beasts. On the back of each one of them are three or four men, armed with shields and javelins.”

imagesWe dash across the rain-soaked grass to the stables with its lofty doomed roofs, surely too beautiful to only house elephants. But these beasts were an integral part of daily and royal life, fitting of an empire that ends…abruptly.

 

IMG_5164I almost don’t want to hear the fate of this once great city. In 1565 the empire’s armies
suffered a catastrophic defeat by an alliance of Muslim sultanates. The great city was captured, plundered, holy Hindu sites destroyed and more than 100,000 Hindus massacred. As with many great empires, its life cut abruptly short…its heart and soul ripped away.

On a mountain side at the end of the day, we stop for a cooling drink of coconut water. The river gently flows below us and I hear a haunting voice, repeating like an ancient mantra. Lost in her own thoughts, a tiny aged woman crouches under the shade of a boulder. The plaintive strains of her lyrics punctuate the day. Quietly I sit, and listen.

 

 

 

A coracle across the river – day three

With the option of a small ferry or a coracle, we chose the latter. The round cane-bound vessels have plied this river since before the days of the empire and though precarious to board, we float peacefully down the Tungabhadra River. Only the warnings of crocodiles concern us…the monkeys play in the temples, the sloth bears and leopards stay on land. Patches of leafy greens contrast the boulders that seem set to topple into the shallow waters. Temples are chiseled from the granite, integrated seamlessly into the chunky contours of the land.

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We walk a kilometre or so along a winding road, through a hamlet and past emerald fields. We pass local teens playing cricket, heaps of sugar cane piled on stout wagons and the shell of an old coracle now tidily protecting firewood.DSCF0802

We reach Anegondi the 3rd century capital of the Vijayanagara empire. Yet even before then, legend speaks of the monkey kingdom here as noted in Ramayana. Local story-tellers refer to Anegondi as mother earth, one of the cradles of dynasties.

After walking through its ancient gate, we are almost immediately upon the town square, a ceremonial ‘temple car’ parked off to one corner. Unlike the stone chariot in Hampi, the elaborately carved wooden ‘car’ can be pulled through the streets on festival days. Rickshaws, town-folk, holy-cows and cyclists manouver a smooth, black-stoned sculpture…perhaps it is the town round-about.

 

Close by, the Gagan Mahal begs to be restored and I picture how stunning the palace must have once been with its lattice work detailed arches and breezy terraces. While I’m peeking inside, Bruce is surrounded by village children. They flip through our guide book and hoist themselves up on the stone wall. I line them up for a photograph and on a whim decide to buy them a drink. Our ‘child’ is back at the hotel recovering from sun-stroke so we’re happy to improvise. It’s Father’s Day after all.

We march the troops across the street and besiege the small shop. The shopkeeper is surprised, perhaps he knows that news travels fast in this sleepy town. Before we know it, yet more youngsters gather and holler out their drink of choice. “Now enough,” the shopkeeper firmly cuts us off as other customers await their turn, not entirely amused by our generosity.

We wander further, the same children pass on their bikes and shout a ‘hello, namaste, thank-you.’ We stroll onwards through the streets.
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Rice shifts and slides from bamboo baskets.

 

 

 

 

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Bangles are offered from a turbaned peddler.

 

 

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Slathers of mandarin-orange paint brighten a simple village home.

 

 

I am happy here, surrounded by shades of pinks, baby-blues and soft greens. It reminds me of those romantic, carefree days of travelling in India from our past…no agenda, no expectations, just the hope of serendipity.

We travel the ferry back across the river, taking the bus instead of a tuk-tuk to the hotel and unbeknownst to us, the next day we’ll hire a car instead of returning home by train. Southern Indian Railways inexplicably cancels our return tickets. We can stand, we can wait five days until sleepers can be booked, or we can see the countryside by car. There isn’t much choice, perhaps it is what I hoped for after all. And my lingering image?

As we leave Hampi behind, a group of nine or so people journey along-side the road. One waves a bright red trianglular flag, each person wears a matching scarf – no bags, no luggage. They are pilgrims.

“Going to the Hampi temple,” our drivers enlightens us, “finding sleep in temples along the way.”

“How far have they walked?” I ask.

“Maybe days are there, or weeks from village.”

For many this will always be a spiritual and magical place.

 

 

 

Haida Gwaii…majestic and spiritual home of the Haida

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This is my first guest blog written by my son, Luke H. Wilson and his girlfriend, Trixie Pacis. On a recent trip to Haida Gwaii, they beautifully captured the essence of this remote, yet culturally rich destination in Canada’s Pacific North West.

 

The Highland Ranger took a sharp turn into a small cove and skidded to an abrupt stop on the pebbly beach of what once was K’uuna village. We disembarked quickly, eager to explore and relieved to be on land after two hours sailing across choppy seas. The rugged shoreline looked much like we had seen of Haida Gwaii so far, an archipelago of 150 islands located between Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle. On an Easter getaway from the city, we had reached the main island on a small propeller plane—its age belied by lavatory ashtrays.

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The morning mist revealing stunning vistas

Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii was renamed in 2010 as part of a restitution agreement between the indigenous Haida Nation and the provincial government of British Columbia. Despite its pristine wilderness earning it a spot on National Geographic’s list of ‘must-see places in the world’, it seems that relatively few have heard of it. For us, the notion of exploring Haida Gwaii first came from an unexpected source—a chance meeting with a German hitchhiker during Trixie’s solo road trip to Alaska last August. The almost spiritual wonder with which he spoke about the island resonated; we were curious to see if it would evoke a similar response in ourselves.

On the road to the Queen Charlotte harbour earlier that morning, we had no choice but to interrupt a convocation of eagles swooping and circling over their roadkill breakfast; there’s really only one main road on the island. As we passed slowly and reverently, we counted seven Bald Eagles perched in the trees above, piercing eyes ever watchful. Though tempted to linger for this rare and intimate glimpse of nature, we had a boat to catch.

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Captain Volker and Watchman Walter

We arrived at the docks as the morning sun burned through the mist, revealing pine-covered islands and snow-capped mountains. Equipped with extra layers and flasks of steaming coffee, we walked down the gangway to meet Danny, the colourful owner of Highlander Marine Services.

The guiding season doesn’t technically begin until May, and his company doesn’t typically offer guided tours, so it was by chance and generosity that this expedition came together. Coincidentally, Danny had been on our flight to Haida Gwaii, and was able to work some magic for us. He arranged our passage into Gwaii Haanas, the National Park Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site that comprises the southern-third of the island.

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The Highland Ranger, our trusty vessel

Here we were on the Highland Ranger, two of twelve Haida Gwaii first-timers from all over the world. To prove the vessel was sound, Danny wryly explained that the Ranger had once even been used to recover a decomposing grey whale from the harbour. He introduced us to our captain, Volker, who’d worked his entire career on local waters, and our guide Walter, who’d spent many summers leading tours through the historic sites of Gwaii Haanas.

We were told that one such site, a village known as K’uuna (or Skedans by early European fur traders), would be our first stop. As we sped Southwards, we were whipped by crisp winds, sprayed by heavy waves and battered by the abrupt rise and fall of the boat’s metal benches. But breathtaking vistas and a thrilling, up-close encounter with a pod of grey whales made the journey more than worth any discomfort for self-admitted landlubbers.

At first glance, K’uuna didn’t appear to be much. In place of the well-preserved Haida village we had perhaps naively envisioned, we found a lush patch of forest nestled beneath a steep cliff, flanked on either side by a rocky, driftwood-laden beach. The only visible dwelling was a newly constructed cabin housing the summer watchmen who maintain and protect the site throughout the ‘busy’ tourist season. Walter had spent many summers as a watchman and it wasn’t until he began to walk us along K’uuna’s winding trails—marked with bright white clam-shells—that we slowly began to realize the extent of the history they watch over.

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Two mortuary poles, one leaning and one resting on the ground, protected by white clam shells

The ancestors of the Haida Nation first reached the islands of Haida Gwaii as early as 13,000 years ago. They developed a complex culture harmoniously intertwined with the abundant resources of land and sea. At one point, as many as 100 villages had cropped up throughout the archipelago—vibrant enclaves of skilled artists, seafarers, warriors and traders. European contact, which began in the late the 18th century, was initially an economic boon for many Haida clans who used their trading prowess to take advantage of the insatiable foreign demand for fur pelts.

This relationship ultimately had tragic consequences as diseases transmitted by the European traders and subsequent Christian missionaries decimated indigenous populations, wiping out 90% of the Haida people in a matter of decades. The scourge of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis was so virulent that by 1890, the vast majority of villages had been abandoned entirely. We learned of this as we walked the paths of K’uuna; the white clam shells preventing us from unwittingly disturbing human remains and serving as a stark reminder of the catastrophic fate that had befallen it.

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Fallen roof beams under a blanket of moss

Before the epidemic, the village was home to over 700 people living in thirty communal longhouses lining the sheltered bay. Walter showed us all that remained of these dwellings—rectangular depressions in the soil, now overgrown. Could this be all we’d traveled so far to see?

But our initial disappointment soon faded as Walter began to paint for us the history of his people. As he pointed out four cedar corner posts—waist high and rotting —once supporting a longhouse, he described how numerous families lived, cooked and socialized under one roof. They were clearly once impressive structures, sometimes up to 30 meters long and over 15 meters wide; however, despite their size, custom required them to be constructed in just one day. According to Walter, the superstitious villagers feared that evil spirits would occupy the building site if it was left incomplete overnight.

The residents of a particular longhouse were rarely involved in the building of their own home; that task was given to members of neighbouring clans—a tradition designed to promote peace and unity throughout the community. Intricately carved and painted “house poles’, once adorning the front of the homes embodied totems of revered animals; orca, grizzly bear or mythological thunderbird. Each represented the identity, lineage, and social standing of its occupants. The shores were once also dotted with ‘mortuary poles’ honouring past chiefs and other prominent individuals. The largest of the Haida poles, these had a cavity at the top where the remains were enshrined, allowing the physical body to return to nature while providing an earthly home for the spirit of the deceased.

Few of the many totem poles that once towered over K’uuna remain; some still defy gravity, raked at alarming angles, but most lay on the ground beneath a blanket of moss in various stages of decomposition. Walter pointed to a faded carving of a bear. We crowded around the fallen pole, straining to glimpse the faint outline. Without Walter’s help, the symbolism of the carvings might have been lost on us. He revealed that in his time as a watchman, he had seen such a dramatic deterioration in the poles that he believes, in as little as a decade, the once beautiful and striking poles will be unrecognizable.

Instinctively, we asked: shouldn’t all of this be preserved so future visitors have the opportunity to learn about Haida culture first-hand? Walter paused thoughtfully, “In our culture, we believe that everything should be allowed to return to the earth”. This simple, yet profound, response provoked a fascinating discussion that continued throughout the day as much of what we observed circled back to the delicate and often contentious issue of cultural preservation.

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At Queen Charlotte Cultural Centre

At one point, Walter turned our attention to a mortuary pole and indicated that it was one of many painted by Emily Carr, the renowned British Columbian artist who traveled to Haida Gwaii in 1912. Her depictions of the haunting scene she found in K’uuna are an example of early attempts by outsiders to record Haida history, and she was not the only one to show concern.

Anthropologist Wilson Duff led an expedition to ‘salvage’ artifacts from the village in response to the encroachment of the logging industry in the 1950s, the repercussions of which were still evident in the scarred terrain beneath our feet, and the tire tracks left at alarming proximity to several mortuary poles.

Facing such threats, many were cut down, rolled to the beach using logs, and carted off to various places. (It is suspected that a container of poles—some no doubt from K’uuna—is to this day stored at the University of British Columbia, neither displayed nor allowed to return to the earth.) Though Duff had obtained permission, we got the sense there were, and likely still are, members of the Haida Nation who feel his actions were a sacrilege. Towards the end of our tour we passed a mortuary pole, slanting forty-five degrees but supported by a makeshift wooden brace. Walter shook his head, “I don’t know who did this but it’s not the Haida way—it should’ve been left to fall.”

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The rugged coast

At the end of a long day, which included a stop at Tanu, a larger Haida site and the final
resting place of celebrated sculptor Bill Reid, it was time to return. As the
Ranger pulled away, we were struck once more by the island’s pristine nature; from our vantage point, there was no sign that we—nor 13,000 years worth of thriving, industrious inhabitants—had ever set foot ashore. Sailing north towards the Queen Charlotte harbour, we reflected on what Walter called the ‘Haida way’; an understanding of equilibrium and a willingness to let nature take its course. We realized that behind us was one of few truly wild places remaining in the world, one that wouldn’t exist without the Haida Nation’s continued practice and defense of their ancestral beliefs.

Two weeks later, we found ourselves admiring The Raven and the First Men, a seminal
Bill Reid sculpture featured at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA). We roamed the adjacent gallery of totem poles and wooden chests, taken from Haida villages and put on display in modern, climate-controlled rooms. We roamed the outdoor exhibit where several replica poles and two impressive longhouses stood at full scale. While it helped us to better

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s indoor exhibit. 

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The Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid depicting the birth of the Haida people

visualize what K’uuna and Tanu might have looked like, we couldn’t help but notice that they were staged on a man-made beach that was a poor imitation of its wild counterpart. However, we realized that while we were lucky enough to see the sites in person, it’s certainly not sustainable.

With the MOA drawing 150,000 visitors annually, we can only imagine what that foot traffic would do to K’uuna’s lightly trodden pathways. Though the exhibit is well-curated and an effective way for people to discover the richness of Haida culture, we left the museum wondering whether these artifacts were being deprived of their natural resting place.

As you read this, wind and rain are smoothing away the once distinct and beautiful carvings. Tree roots grow through the fallen poles, absorbing and recycling their nutrients. In as little as a decade, the carvings will be indistinguishable, and not long after, the poles will disappear entirely. Though the footprint of the early Haida people on the land may have faded, the ‘Haida way’ lives on—in Walter’s words of wisdom, in the continued carving and raising of totem poles, and in the evolution of the culture to balance modernity with tradition.

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Totem poles in Skedans, circa 1878

We were left with the impression that the people of K’uuna would have been content to see their poles return to the earth, so long as their traditions and values remained. We were moved by the pristine haven that is Haida Gwaii and left with a deep respect for the guardians of this majestic place and a determination to learn from their relationship with nature. Perhaps this is the legacy we should immortalize.

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s outdoor exhibit contrasted by Haida Houses

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 tops have given way to modern buildings.

I remove the silk covered book from 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…

 

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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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