Thailand – Amazon saved me

Sunset at Cape Panwa - 850km later
Sunset at Cape Panwa – 850km later

The Coral Hotel was an engaging experience; way off the beaten track and a minuscule enclave of clipped grass and ‘Le Monde Sauvage’ artifacts. But whilst the surroundings were delightful there was an undercurrent of self-indulgence surrounding it that was essentially French. The food was – well – Thai but subtlety bastardised and so allowed guests baguette with their morning coffee and Gauloise. I guess that once you’ve made that sort of concession you’ve lost the neighbourhood, so to speak. But the hotel setting – little chalets scattered among the trees and facing a tropical pool – was very pleasant and a refreshing antidote to the traffic. A few steps from the elevated dining terrace took you into rural Thailand, the forest edge and onto a long, deserted beach. It was exquisite but all the time, though, my mind was drawn to that Emmanuelle film from the mid 1970s and its idealised, romantised and eroticised representation of a perfect, but unashamedly Francophile, Thailand.

We left the hotel with its French contingent in a smokey huddle, intensely debating the day’s issue, to continue our drive south. We were off the tourist beat and on minor roads that would eventually connect again with the still ‘under construction’ Phet Kasem Road. There were few vehicles and the drive took us south through villages and plantations, past small fields with single livestock and wretched buildings whose purpose and product were frequently unidentifiable. And at every point smiling kids waved while some of the dustiest and most contented-looking dogs I’ve ever seen either slept the morning away at the roadside or sat up somnambulantly and scratched with enthusiasm.

Rubber trees tapped
Rubber trees tapped
A family's income can be dependent on one animal
A family’s income can be dependent on one animal

The poverty we witnessed was a stark contrast to the smug complacency of the previous night’s acquaintances and, as the vista unfolded alongside us, made for some deep thoughts about the nature of tourism in the country. Most people I’ve spoken to about Thailand haven’t ventured outside the fleshpots and tourist-orientated centres that exploit the indigence and deprivation of a largely subsistence agricultural economy in which something over half the population is engaged. Unemployment is officially ‘low’ but those without jobs frequently gravitate towards rural family occupations or unskilled work that are outside Governmental influence and aren’t recorded formally. The economy was projected to grow and revitalise the tourist industry with the announcement of the ‘Thailand 4.0’ initiative last year but the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has imposed a year of mourning on the Nation. This has had a direct and adverse effect across most sectors. In practice the slowing of the economy means less for rural regions and encourages further population drift towards areas where tourist-related employment promises opportunity. That in turn generates social, cultural and economic pressures with consequential demands on natural resources and the environment. Tourism and its income are increasingly important to Thailand but the pressure imposed on its population and environment is unsustainable. In some respects the Thais are their own worst enemy although all tourism doesn’t need to be exploitative; some travel companies take a more circumspect approach and you gain a sense of this if you look at what Responsible Travel has to say.

Intensive cultivation along the road
Intensive cultivation along the road
Getting dinner
Getting dinner
Roadside shrine
Roadside shrine

Back in the traffic on the main road the landscape became open and expansive. Roadside shrines glimpsed between heavy trucks and rickety buses were set against a distant backdrop of verdant hills and plantations. We passed through the outskirts of unglamorous Surat Thani, a regional transport interchange with an airport and ferry access to Ko Samui and the Gulf islands. These larger towns present a very different Thailand from the beach resorts that come immediately to mind when tourism is mentioned.

Roadside cattle
Roadside cattle

1-amazon

There were still extensive areas of uncontrolled – and unattended – roadworks but I became a little more comfortable with the erratic and occasionally heart-stopping manoeuvures of other road users with the help of a gem in the madness – Café Amazon. These surprising and charming road-stops with their green and black uniformed baristas are associated with PTT service stations and are built on a standard layout that includes shops, toilets and food stalls. The coffee – ‘do you like your cappuccino cold or hot, sir?’ – came in biodegradable cups if you didn’t sit in the pretty little cabins and was passable, if not entirely authentic, but then I wouldn’t order pad thai at a Sicilian Autogrill. The invariably winsome staff more than made up for any inadequacies in the product and the banana cake set us up perfectly for re-entering the fray.

Watch for trucks and other traffic
Watch for trucks and other traffic
Yeah, OK
Yeah, OK
Off Cape Panwa
Off Cape Panwa
A fixed point during our time in Cape Panwa; meeting for a cold drink at sundown
A fixed point during our time in Cape Panwa; meeting for a cold drink at sundown

Once we’d turned off towards Phang-gna, however, the traffic cleared and we were frequently on deserted roads. The driving experience changed, the road became less straight and the scenery more spectacular. As we neared Phuket the influence of the tourist-dollar began to show itself in improved roads and street lighting, better building and a veneer of increasing opulence – and fewer dogs. Then we were over the bridge and onto the island. The main drag avoided the worst excesses of the place but as we approached and passed through Phuket Town the traffic intensified, smiling children were replaced with crowds; mopeds were interspersed with tourists on scooters and emboldened Westerners sporting distasteful tee-shirt slogans appeared among the Thai faces. But we were soon through it and at Cape Panwa, with 850km completed and the sun setting across the bay.

Thailand – a walk in the park

Bang Rak backstreet
Bang Rak backstreet

I like to walk and, in my view, the best way to acquire the feel of a place is to walk it; just pick a couple of points and walk between them. You set the pace, take your time and if you’re in a city like Bangkok, where you get to hear, see [and smell] it, the experience is completely immersive. We had a couple of days before we started the drive to Phuket so I wanted to show Mission Control an aspect of the city that was just a little off the tourist route and busy with life; people working, eating, shopping and living. So we took our shuttle boat across to the right side of the river and threaded our way along backstreets towards Lumphini Park. You could debate whether temperatures approaching 30C and humidity in the high 80s combined with continuous traffic, unsettling aromas, flea-bitten dogs and hawkers reduced or enhanced the intensity of the experience but I struggled to get her to engage; it was, in fairness, a little sweaty.

Potted plants and mopeds crowd the pavements
Potted plants and mopeds crowd the pavements

The walk from Chao Phraya river takes you through the Bang Rak district; past housing and go-downs, local restaurants and hotels, shopping malls and street-food stalls. It’s bustling, noisy and surprisingly colourful in the muted sunlight, providing as it does a rewarding and instant snapshot of Bangkok. Wealth and poverty rub shoulders with locals and tourists; there are temples, a Hindu shrine and even a cathedral as well as Patpong, which is famous for its night markets and red-light area. Bang Rak feathers out on either side of Silom Road; an artery of heavy traffic and public transport that forms a spine running through its centre.

Different businesses
Different businesses

On the eastern side Lumphini is the biggest area of green in the city with massive trees, clipped grass and secluded paths. The park provides shade for myriad gatherings; jogging, cycling and group aerobics. People meet to improve Tai Chi, others are boating and some are simply giving their kids a day in the park. You can get dance lessons or watch free concerts and there was even an all-join-in singing session in progress when we arrived, not that I could follow the tune or understand the words. The tourist authority offers birding in the park and it does have a reasonably long list of recorded species, despite there always being more people than birds. It needs a bit of luck and an early morning but it provides a glimpse of Thailand’s rich avifauna but unlike the parks in London, where we sprinkle crumbs for sparrows and encourage squirrels to feed from our hands, Lumphini is overrun with two-metre long water monitors that seem to just about tolerate the human visitors, as long as we keep our distance. It really does feel foreign.

Remember the noise and humidity I mentioned? Bangkok can become very oppressive and uncomfortable after a day plodding through its atmospheric neighbourhoods and so a culture has evolved that provides for an altogether quieter and more tranquil environment – the roof terrace. There must be at least twenty sky bars in the city, each expressing its own degree of cool and each striving for a unique identity that tends to make them all, well, a bit similar. Nonetheless, a sundowner high above the cacophony as the sun sets in spectacular hues through the befouled atmosphere is an essential experience. At the corner of the park we were near the So Sofitel hotel and so, leaving crowds of joggers and monitor lizards in our wake [and after taking our lives in our hands by crossing Rama IV Road], lost no time in getting our feet under a table at the Park Society. The drinks were perfectly chilled, the music was ‘Buddha Bar’ American and the clientele mostly Western; none of it was really Thai at all but then, why would someone from way down there want to sit on a rooftop drinking white wine when you have a business and a family to feed?

Bangkok excites me and it is exhilarating but a walk through Bang Rak has me wondering how many of the aficionados of cool at Park Society took a moment to count their blessings.

Even if the telephone line doesn't work someone will be around to fix it
Even if the telephone line doesn’t work someone will be around to fix it

Dear diary – another sunny day?

Sometime during the year I lost sight of the schedule. After moving and taking time to draw breath we were sufficiently organised to find a way of moving around the diminishing towers of unpacked boxes and leave for a while; we were set for travelling. All it needed was a modicum of organisation in order that the few fixed points punctuating the calendar dovetailed neatly into any plans that developed. We had to be at the wedding of course – a grand weekend affair at an English country house could not be missed – and I had to vote in the Brexit referendum, which required some time in Cambridge even if I made a postal vote. There was a birthday gathering in Thailand and a short trip to Dubai. Those apart, it looked like there would be plenty of time to fit in some spontaneous peregrination.

It would take just a little planning and a few simple decisions. Simple, that is, until Sweden presented something that we hadn’t accounted for – a long, hot summer. It’s difficult to describe the effect of summer on a nation that lives half the year in dark, cold winter. As soon as the sun peers over the horizon Netflix and jam-making are discarded for al fresco dining in what are still single-digit temperatures; fallen leaves are swept from patios with gusto; excited chatter echoes over garden hedges and the air fills with the aroma of barbecue lighter. In the streets and supermarkets those long Scandinavian shorts appear – the ones with tie-strings, utility buckles and pockets on the knees – and on the beaches people huddle behind windswept dunes while their blond-haired children frolic in the bone-chilling water. But in 2016 it was different. Above average temperatures and long, sunny days made it feel just like the Med and you didn’t need a fleece blanket if you sat out in the evening.

The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.
The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.
Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.
Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.

Sweden’s summer can be a hard mistress but she does provide the perfect excuse for fleeing to warmer climes. But as the warm spell lengthened from days to weeks and then months there was little need and no justification in leaving. In fact, those arrangements that we had made were appearing more inconvenient as the year sweltered on and it became galling to leave the hammock. We swam in tepid water until early October and started a re-reading exercise as the summer’s supply of essential books was exhausted. It was too hot on some days to do more than lie in the shade with a cool drink.

I left the blogosphere inside with my tablet and just let the summer sweep me along whilst ensuring, in the interests of tradition, that the legacy of James Pimm was upheld and the fortunes of Tanqueray maintained. And as a measure of catching up, a few posts covering some aspects of my 2016 carbon footprint follow this.

A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same
A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same

Go on – impress me

The beach at Palm Jumeirah - access is just a passport copy away
The beach at Palm Jumeirah – access is just a passport copy away

Dubai has an undefinable quality; it can amaze and depress; enlighten and shock but never, I’ve found after many years living there, leave one unmoved. You can love it or hate it in equal measure and, sometimes, endure both emotions simultaneously. When I received a request a few days ago for a copy of my passport my initial reaction was of disinterest but it quickly changed as I learned that ‘they’ were requesting an update because my passport had expired. ‘They’ are not the police or the immigration authority or any other quasi-governmental body. ‘They’, in fact, are the inept leisure division of a crap developer that issues access passes to the beach.

Dubai has a wearying reliance on bureaucracy and I suspect it may have cornered the world market in rubber stamps. At every turn, it seems, a document is required from individuals who are at once detached, uninterested or, frequently, merely absent. You need a stamped and signed piece of paper for just about everything in Dubai whether it’s bringing in your piano, buying a bottle of wine or shopping for a local SIM card. And you have to provide a copy of your passport to get it. I once estimated that I have probably provided over two hundred and fifty copies in exchange for passes, approvals, authorisations or, that singular invention – the ‘no objection certificate’. So there must be literally millions of passport copies floating around the Emirate and where they all go is one of the great Mysteries of the Universe. In an endless danse macabre passport copies are stamped, signed, stapled and – well, from that point on I have no clue. They just disappear after they’ve been taken so if you visit two desks in one organisation the second desk will have no knowledge of your passport existing. A further copy will be demanded and if you are unfortunate enough to be sent back to the first desk – the usual procedure when five administrators are tasked with doing the work of one – they won’t be able to find the first copy and you’ll have to copy it again. Next day all three copies will have disappeared so it’s likely you’ll have to start all over again. Where do all those copies go?

One of the pools at the Palm Jumeirah beach
One of the pools at the Palm Jumeirah beach

The process is numbing and takes time but if you want the freedom to run child-like through sunshine in a landscape of tax-free salaries as you seek consumer Nirvana, developing patience and a personality that provides for circumspection become essential because in Dubai most things eventually get done and most things work. For individuals like me, with little or no patience, an administrative foray can be a very bumpy one but at least I’ve grown out of banging tables and demanding to know where all the copies go. That question, always greeted with a smile, is never really answered because no one really knows; it’s just a requirement, you know, to make the copy, stamp it and sign it. It has occurred to me that there is perhaps a secretive government department going around in the dead of night, cruising silently in unmarked vehicles and collecting copies of passports. But that would be silly, wouldn’t it?

Dubai’s idiosyncrasies often defy analysis, inducing an impassioned response. But then, with eye-watering speed, perception can be turned on its head and one is lost in all the things that Condé Nast Traveller and the Sunday Times tell us it is. Last year, while my mind was on packing cases and contract exchanges, the gourmet tower at Dubai Marina was completed. Now renamed Pier 7 it is a circular building linked to the Marina Mall and with a single themed restaurant on each level. The views over the marina are spectacular and, at night, even cynical travellers like me can’t help but be impressed. Dinner or drinks in balmy air on an open-sided terrace high over the water has to be one of Dubai’s most striking experiences. And in another example of the city state stretching a visitor’s sensibilities to extremes, an extension to the already gargantuan Mall of the Emirates has opened. Of course that delivered yet more restaurants as well as a vastly expanded Vox cinema complex. Our old favourite, Gold Class – with its wide seats and Coca-cola on call – was gone. In its place was a cinema restaurant experience called ‘thEATre by Gary Rhodes’. This puts watching a movie with a tub of popcorn to shame. If you like your food and reclining sofas ‘juste pour deux’, semi-private viewing-rooms, a waiter on hand when you need a drink or snack or just like spending a couple of hours watching a movie the way Donald Trump probably does, then this is for you. Dubai’s apparently endless capability to knock your socks off has left me non-plussed once again.

My Passport, by the way, was copied several times when I was in Dubai a few weeks ago and is valid for another seven years.

Dubai Marina from Pier 7; not to be missed
Dubai Marina from Pier 7; not to be missed

One step at a time

Blakeney - church and saltmarsh
Blakeney – church and saltmarsh

Moving home is never easy although I guess it can be a lot worse than what we’ve experienced over the past year. It’s taken much more mental energy than I would have thought possible and it’s also been somewhat distracting. So, along with a range of other pleasurable activities that weren’t a priority as we rebuilt walls in the old place and removed them in the new, posting an occasional blog was put on the back burner. In any event, the exercise would likely have gravitated towards anecdotes surrounding delayed sales, clarifications of legal easements, moving packing cases across Europe or getting the piano to the auctioneers so describing events seemed just a bit too much like sharing personal angst.

The dust has settled now and life has taken on a complexion that looks normal so taking the time to set out some thoughts with a passable Pinot is back on the agenda again.

The past year wasn’t all moving boxes, retrenchment and decanting furniture; we broke surface for air to visit Dubai and Thailand, had a couple of short breaks in Germany and enjoyed some summer being Swedish in Sweden. Getting away from it all – which will fill some posts shortly – kept us sane and provided perspective.

When I was younger and needed some thinking space I’d go up to Norfolk and walk the East Bank at Cley where the saltmarsh and sea air is cathartic. We did that this weekend and stayed at the excellent Byfords in Holt. It snowed a little, was very cold at times, sunny and windy by degrees and the Brent geese were everywhere. Being back in Cambridge today has the feel of home for the first time – most of the boxes are gone, new furniture is in or due for delivery, cables have been tidied into ducts and the new bookshelves are full. Climbing into bed is once again a choice, not a necessity.

Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea
Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea

 

“Er, waiter – what’s that tune?”

I have a friend – we’ll call him Charlie – who, like me, takes his food very seriously. He also likes music a lot but being a chap of deep convictions he believes that the qualities of each are such that they are best indulged separately; put simply, he doesn’t like both at the same time. He tells me that when he wants to listen to music he’ll choose it carefully and enjoy listening to it. Conversely, when he eats he doesn’t want music disturbing his meal. I understand that and I agree with the view he takes, albeit less demonstratively [I am English after all and we tend to avoid making a fuss] if the combination is on the sensitive side. Charlie, however, is not given to compromise. So, to my increasing admiration as well as my continuous entertainment, the first thing he does on entering a restaurant softened by ambient music is to ask that it is immediately turned off. Of course, that doesn’t always go down well but he knows what he wants.

I’m a novice at this and not a wholly committed convert to Charlie’s cause but I’m not slow in having a word myself if the circumstances call for it. In my view the customer should decide as to whether he wants music while he eats and I’m not best pleased at having anything imposed on me in the belief that it will enhance my ‘customer experience’.

In Sicily we’ve been staying at a very new hotel – the Masseria della Volpe in Noto, which has just opened. This restored farm has a breathtaking setting that brims with innovation and Italian design. But to return to Charlie’s territory – its restaurant has an outside area that soothes the souls of its clientele with quiet classical music that is discernible, if you want to listen, well-chosen and unobtrusive. It’s very subtle and I found it pleasant enough. I was taken aback, though, when I asked the waiter about it because his immediate response was ‘would you like me to switch it off?’ This hotel is new and had a few [relatively minor] teething troubles but, if it continues in this vein, it might just turn into that rare thing – a venue where guests’ actual preferences are put first.

The peaceful view from the belvedere at 'Volpe', with the volpe symbol.
The peaceful view from the belvedere at ‘Volpe’, complete with volpe sculpture

In case you’re wondering – I didn’t ask that the music was turned off and the service, food and hotel were excellent.

We moved on to Tuscany, where we returned to Il Pellicano at Porto Ercole. The hotel is rated very highly and here, where there are more staff than you can say ‘buon giorno’ to if you had all day, I did ask them to turn the music off. Il Pellicano rightly prides itself on its five-star luxury service and I have to confess that we were looked after very well. Staff here glide silently through the hotel in twos and threes with choreographed ease, nirvanic expressions on their faces; their sole purpose to make their guests’ visit memorable. Nonetheless, the restaurants and bar were polluted by the worst kind of ‘ambient’ music; tuneless, invasive, unidentifiable piped background noise that was more suited to a shopping mall food hall. An American one at that. Of more concern was that I couldn’t find anyone who was actually responsible for it. No one knew what it was [my guess – an Art Farmer jazzy flugelhorn tribute selection, but I might be flattering it]; no-one knew who had chosen it; no-one knew why it was actually playing and, amazingly, no-one seemed to have authority to silence it. It was as if I had asked them to turn off all the lights in the foyer. A waiter made a valiant effort when I first complained and lowered the volume but only managed to change the track to a different version of the same stuff. When I reiterated that I would prefer it off completely he sadly advised that he would need to speak to his manager. Moving on to the black jackets didn’t help; my concerns received more smiles, some patronising hand-wringing and sympathetic understanding but the noise continued in tuneless irritation all evening. And all day. We ate outside the hotel after that. 

Il Pellicano's terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever...
Il Pellicano’s terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever…

It’s a funny thing, a hotel’s perception of service. In Il Pellicano service has reached a state of almost flawless perfection; eager faces and greetings at every turn, waves and smiles, immediate help with baggage or directions, earnest understanding of the guests’ needs and close attention to their every word [which I rather liked, actually]. It’s so perfect, in fact, that it’s become a well-oiled process that no one questions. So years of practice means that switching on the music in the morning has become a box that requires ticking. The operation is successful, but the patient dies; one night we had *spigola al sale. Staff buzzed around us, one bringing a serving table, another re-arranging ours and topping-up water glasses; our wine was relocated to make way for the food and yet another assistant brought roasted vegetables before re-arranging the table again. Under the paternal gaze of the maitre d’ the steaming dish was displayed and set before us, the salt ceremonially cracked and the fish lifted carefully off the bone, cutlery arcing like a conductor’s baton. But by the time this culinary two-step was complete both the dining plates and the vegetables were cold. And in the background the flugelhorn medley moved to double-articulation.

Now I’m certain that each person involved fulfilled their duties perfectly, yet the meal was actually a failure.

I hope that the Masseria della Volpe continues to put its guests’ preferences first and I’ll go back to find out. I know that Charlie, thankfully, will continue to keep restaurants thinking about what their customers want and not what convention suggests. As for me, I still can’t get that flugelhorn nonsense out of my head.

 * This is a local speciality consisting of a whole sea bass baked in a herb-seasoned crust of sea salt.

if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as sea below the hotel
… if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as the sea below the hotel

Beam me up, Rakesh

Pristine forest near Thekkady

I like India a great deal and love travelling there but it’s been difficult to whip-up enthusiasm for my recent sojourn amongst friends and acquaintances. Despite everything the sub-continent has on offer a fear of flying is commonplace; one said that he’ll only go if he carries his own food and another that he feared he’d be injured in a traffic accident and die in a foreign land surrounded by flip-flops. On the other hand, birders warmed to reports of my seeing 125 species in two days – including the very hard-to-see Wynaad Laughingthrush – whilst justifying their own reservations on the absence of cornflakes. By and large, though, the mere mention of the place evokes visions of chaos and a foreboding of parting company with bowel control.

I readily agree that standards of hygiene and driving are not what many of us are used to but both dangers can be avoided with a little care. After many visits and a reasonable amount of immersion in the culture, I’ve never felt that either presented a terminal threat. No, the thing that distresses me each time I visit is India’s apparent inability – and this is putting it simply – to sort itself out. Poverty is still rife, infrastructure is inadequate or absent and the consequences of corruption are widespread but the thing that irks me most; the issue that has me ranting into my masala dosa and coconut chutney is the ever-increasing and ubiquitous spread of garbage. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in India but all around you, in the streets, beside the buildings, lying in heaps and just getting under your feet is the detritus of 1.2 billion people. In Kerala alone an estimated 6000 tonnes is generated daily and most of it is apparently lying around.

It was alarming to find plastic in the dung of wild elephants and plastic bottles, paper plates and food wrappers deep in pristine evergreen forest. When I asked about it friends and even individuals involved in the management of national parks shrugged their shoulders at failed collection legislation and offered rueful excuses. Most blamed corrupt local government; local government apparently blames the State. In 2000 the Supreme Court of India issued a directive based on advice provided by the Centre for Science and Environment in Dehli. This called for all local governments to set up proper waste processing facilities by the end of 2003. Whilst several took some action the majority merely ignored both the directive and their garbage-strewn fiefdoms. In Kerala, NGOs and Community organizations such as Kudumbasrees* have been motivated with initiatives such as the ‘Clean Kerala Mission’ but despite success in some areas such as Paravur and Kozhikode [which was declared India’s first litter-free city in 2004] the heaps of solid waste and their associated pollution continue to increase.  

Black-shouldered kite
Sundown in Kochi

I took to browsing ‘The Hindu’ while I was in there. The local English language newspaper is a serious publication and a good read, with a history going back some 130 years and a circulation of nearly 1.5 million. It reports on issues like the problem of garbage, fly-tipping and landfill disputes in a fair and balanced manner as well as other aspects of life in southern India; fascinating stories of Bollywood stars sat alongside vacuous promises from government officials and reports of yet more fatal road traffic accidents. The seriousness of the reporting and the depth of detail were seductive – from reading the accounts of how problems were being identified and how officialdom was dealing with them I was beginning to  think that there was real concern for getting to grips with the carpet of plastic bags and bottles. That was until another report caught my attention and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. There was positive and expansive news that India is progressing well with its planned mission to Mars. Yes, Mars. Out of the heaps on non-biodegradable waste and open sewers is emerging an orbiter that will be sent to Mars in October to survey the Martian atmosphere. In collaboration with NASA it will attempt to detect the presence of methane, which I found ironic given the mountains of waste generating it down here.

Try as I may I can’t understand why India, with its breathtaking cultural diversity but so many earth-bound problems, is spending billions on a space programme – and one that is hell-bent on exploring Mars, too – when so many of its populace have to crap on the ground that the water table is being polluted. Could it be possible that the search for methane is just a ruse and that this mission is really a disguised effort to find the ultimate landfill in the sky?

Space might be the Final Frontier but I hope by the time India’s base on Mars is in operation the Intergalactic Garbage Police are fully in control.

*Kudumbsree – this is a worthy initiative set up by the Keralan government in 1998 with the aim of eradicating poverty through the empowerment of women. Its literal meaning is ‘prosperity of the family’ and it enshrines microcredit, empowerment and entrepreneurship.

View inside the Biodome of India’s Mars base

 

 

No problem Sir!

Polished, waiting and ready to serve
Polished, waiting and ready to serve

Anyone who’s spent any time on the roads there will know that traffic in India is an absolute nightmare. Road discipline is patchy at best and the application of basic common sense breathtakingly absent; vehicles hurtle into blind bends or career towards each other in hoards down the centre of bumpy, narrow and fragmenting roads before lurching aside only to avoid a collision. For the remainder of the time they are, well, anywhere on the road but most frequently in the oncoming lane. Drivers continually sound their horns while ignoring road signs, line markings and speed limits; more worryingly, received knowledge is that any obstacles in the way – be they cows, people, cycles, carts or other vehicles – must be either ignored or passed, depending on what speed they are moving at. Crowds of pedestrians spill out into the roads due to badly parked vehicles and rubble-strewn verges, vying for space with innumerable ‘two-wheelers’ and seemingly suicidal truck and bus drivers – especially those ferrying pilgrims.

And most numerous of all, the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws – ‘tuk-tuks’ – weave in and out of the traffic trailing clouds of blue smoke and constantly tooting their horns to generate a of noise and chaos. Put simply; it’s bedlam. There are rules, of course, but as they are ignored with single-minded thoroughness by everyone, including the police, foreigners require a car and driver if they aren’t up for any of the public transport options that the sub-continent offers. And anyway, my days of sitting three to a seat with people that don’t use underwear were over years ago.

In Kerala this week we left the relative safety [and luxury] of the delightful and highly recommended surroundings of the Raviz for a few days in the forests of the Western Ghats, a mountainous region away from the humid coastal plain. Our driver, supplied by the genuinely helpful people at the hotel, was selected, I’m guessing, for his command of English rather than his ability to coordinate hand and eye movements but we didn’t know that at the time. Smiling and positive in the hotel coffee lounge where we were introduced, he readily agreed that our journey of some 160km would be a benign but wondrous adventure, punctuated with invaluable local knowledge, pearls of cultural insight and occasional roadside stops for fresh pineapple juice or opportunities to snap shimmering vistas. To each of my questions he smilingly replied, ‘no problem, Sir! I should have known better.

As we set off I asked him if he was clear about the journey, the route we’d take and so on – the kind of amiable banter that one enters into in order to bond with someone who will, after all, be an enforced travel companion for the next four or five hours. His response was to gaze serenely into the middle distance, raise a finger in assertion, and, with a gentle shake of his head, reply, ‘God will take us there’. That, I believe, and the accompanying whimsical smile, was meant to reassure us but my faith in divine intervention, frail at the best of times, had evaporated with the fumbling gear changes and sudden braking. A brief shadow of alarm passed over Mission Control’s face and, as our little car meandered erratically across the tarmac I was advised in the most unambiguous terms that I was expected to wrestle control of the vehicle from him in the event of a confrontation with a truck, overloaded two-wheeler or washed-out road.

From previous experience I know that driving in India can be somewhat eccentric and I’m not a nervous passenger but I was already fighting the urge to grab the wheel and drag the car back onto our side of the road, especially after a bus full of shrieking worshippers avoided us by so narrow a margin that the car was filled with an intoxicating aroma of incense, garlic and body-odour. Interspersed with changes in velocity and sudden lurches, our progress became increasingly hesitant and he clearly sensed something in my tone when I asked if he actually knew the way, especially after he’d stopped and engaged in animated conversations with several taxi drivers, a shopkeeper and, at one point, a cyclist who pointed back in the direction we’d come.

At that point the road was climbing through 2000m on hairpin bends alongside precipitous drops into forested ravines. We should have been about 15km from our destination and less than an hour from the hotel but we passed a road sign that informed us we still had over 60km to go – two hours at least. Rather than invoke a spiritual solution in the face of my polite irritation our driver, clear now that my patience had gone the way of the setting sun, merely refused to answer me when I asked where the hell we were and when the hell we’d reach the hotel. I clearly wouldn’t take silence for an answer and my persistence eventually elicited a slow, deep breath and the adoption of an appropriately formal tone before he replied with dignified resignation, ‘I have no absolutely no idea, sir.’ This was surprisingly disarming and took us both aback as this is the last thing you’d expect your driver to say when you are high in the mountains of a foreign land with darkness closing in and an unknown distance still to cover. After all, that was the only reason he was there.

Well, we eventually arrived and it was dark, some two hours later than planned and a mysteriously unaccounted-for 75km extra on the journey. 

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in India tells us in its latest statistical report [for 2011] that 140000 people were killed in road accidents during the year [cows, dogs and elephants are not mentioned] as the consequence of ‘one road accident every minute, and one road accident death in less than four minutes’. It also lists the causes of fatal accidents and, while acknowledging that the majority of these are due to the fault of the driver, a significant number – I calculate that to be around 20% – is due to other related causes that include issues with passengers.

I can’t find the data but I suspect a great many of these involve the driver being murdered.

Taking Mum shopping

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Road through Kollom

Just follow the signs, dummy

Brahmin bull in the road

Look out for pedestrians and monks

Another road hazard to be passed

Sicily – a last fling; Modica

EtnaA blog ought to make a reasonable effort at being contemporaneous; this post isn’t – it’s more an excuse for posting some photographs. As soon as I’d left Sicily I was travelling again and a note closing the island adventure was put on the back burner. Our last flirtation – and perhaps a determining factor in ensuring a return visit – was the superb Modica, where antiquity and ambience provided a perfect counterpoint to the noise and pointless urgency of Dubai.

The long drive from Taormina to Palermo provided time to consider what Sicily had been for us. We were captivated but had been ambitious in attempting a brief glimpse of every part of the island; it was just too big and with each region having such a strong identity, pin-balling from one location to another had proven frustrating and self-defeating. The uncomfortable autostrada to Palermo – Sicily’s main route – was little better than we’d experienced elsewhere. We never quite got used to the bumps in the surface but, ruts aside, the journey wasn’t too unpleasant; lots of tunnels, Etna beyond the mountains on one side and misty views to the Aeolian Islands on the other. But Pollina and Sicily’s remaining forest were relegated to the bucket list as we’d arranged to meet Greg and Vibeke for dinner, who were flying to Palermo that evening for our few days together.

Along the way there was time for a nervous peek at Cefalù and its Romanesque cathedral. The coastal town is described as the ‘second most popular tourist destination’ in Sicily and the immediate impression as the view opens up across the bay goes some way to explaining why. Its picturesque setting and medieval profile, nestled in the lee of the rock from which its ancient Greek name and original settlement originate, suggest why all the tourists that weren’t in Taormina were here. Even the guidebooks offer gentle warnings about the crowds but mass tourism and narrow streets make for an uncomfortable marriage so you’d need to be tolerant of the hoi polloi to enjoy spending time there. The number of visitors dwindled significantly as the sun went down and there followed an enchanted hour when the streets quietened and became populated only with local residents. Most would have been of an age, I guess, that could recall an economy based on fishing and a life centred around the port and communal wash-houses; I wonder what they make of it all now.

In Taormina, where we’d enquired about our forthcoming evening in Palermo, Villa Belvedere had directed us to a restaurant where we and our friends could have a ‘real’ Sicilian dinner, free of tourists. It was called Frederick III and located way off the beaten track in a neighbourhood marked by seedy streets, darkened shop doorways and occasional eye-contact with a brooding picciotto. We were welcomed like old friends; an open bottle of wine was set on the table and replenished until we protested that we really had to leave. In between, animated conversation with the other customers punctuated with a variety of excellent fish dishes made every aspect of the evening memorable. It was interrupted only by the arrival of three suited men who sat briefly around a table at the far end of the room, engaged in a hushed conversation over a glass of vino bianco and left without eating or saying a word to anyone else. Maybe I’ve watched too much American television but I had the feeling, as they slipped silently into the night, that they worked in waste management and were about to make someone an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Palermo was regrettably a short visit so we limited our outings to walking the markets and visiting the superb Norman cathedral at Monreale, yet another site that deserved more time than we afforded it. Mission Control had found us bed and breakfast on the south coast at Selinunte so we drove through a vast expanse of olive groves, vineyards and rolling hills where EU funds were replacing trees with wind turbines. The Villa Sogno was ‘award-winning’ [there are a lot of award winners around these days, aren’t there?] due to its high standards of accommodation and home-made food and, indeed, that’s exactly what we found. The manicured garden was set in a walled compound and it proved a tranquil place to swim and enjoy wine, cheese and salumi from the store in Selinunte; a pity, then, that our hosts dealt with the garbage – in a manner common in Sicily but by no means limited to it – by throwing it over the fence into the olive grove next door. Villa Sogno delivered on comfort and food but pleasant as that was, our hosts clearly had an eye on the next award as they were just a little too busy making it the best bed and breakfast in the region to tolerate, with any degree of enthusiasm, encumbrances such as guests.

Just down the road however, the little port of Marinella di Selinunte was far more welcoming. It was quiet in the off-season but relaxed and very pleasant without tourists to trouble the friendly residents. We ate one evening at a local hostelry with the unlikely name of ‘Boomerang’. It looked a little dubious but was busy and clearly very popular. No one managed to explain where the name came from but the fish – fried or grilled in more varieties than you could shake a stick at – was as fresh as it was unpretentious. This part of Sicily caters mostly for local visitors so development tends to be limited even if occasionally, er, illegal. The coast, archaeological sites and small towns are unencumbered by the hoards witnessed at Taormina and Cefalù, which was very pleasant.

Throughout our tour of Sicily we had been surprised by the number and variety of good quality wines that were produced. Some were very good indeed. Greg is something of an aficionado when it comes to matters oenological so in short time we were at the excellent Tenuta Gorghi Tondi, tasting some of the quality wine produced at this small, local casa vinicola. The south-west corner of Sicily and the Vallo di Mazara in particular is a principal area of viniculture and as a result the island produces about a sixth of Italy’s total.

Nearby Mazara del Vallo is described as being the town with the largest immigrant population of Arabic origin on the island, harking back to its roots when it was occupied by Arabs in 827;   it’s further south than Tangier and nearer to Tunis than it is to Rome or Naples. The centre of town is known as the Kasbah and it does have the feel of an Arab town even though there are remnants of several occupying cultures. And typically, while the Polpi in Umido might just have been the best we had in Sicily, the driving was certainly the worst – we saw two serious accidents as we parked.

We wanted to see Modica before we left Sicily; it would be the last stop so we drove the interesting and at times picturesque coastal road that would allow a pit-stop along the way at Agrigento and the Valle dei Templi. This is an impressive site and worth seeing but it’s popular and very much on the tourist bus route. That means crowds, souvenirs and expensive gelato but at least you can take comfort in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, from Japan or Korea will have captured your embarrassing image as you crouched in diaphoretic inquietude whilst trying for that one photograph of the Temple of Concordia that didn’t have a small crowd leaning against it.

The route from there, through Licata and Gela, before the land rises to the west of Ragusa and Modica, is a microcosm of the chaos and uneven distribution of wealth that’s prevalent on the island; a seemingly random pattern of new and unimproved roads, uncontrolled development, an occasional high-quality villa juxtaposed with a decrepit ruin, piles of rubble and garbage, agriculture that is, on the one hand, well-funded and thriving or, on the other, almost medieval in its lack of facility. It made one wonder how those people not on the Sicilian gravy-train could ever improve their lot. Ashleigh Brilliant had it about right when he wrote ‘I either want less corruption or more chance to participate in it’.

After winding our way up from the coastal plain and traversing the Ponte Irminio – 140m above the valley floor – Modica came into view, raking down the hillside in a breathtaking, Baroque backdrop. Not content with seducing us with its pastel splendour, the townspeople were preparing for an annual street race that had filled the centre with every living soul in the region. Our spritz on the crowded terrace along the Corso Umberto was taken amidst hoards of runners; young and old, experienced and novice. Teams in matching tee-shirts exchanged banter with shopkeepers and waiters while individuals in Lycra shorts – altogether more serious and focussed – worked their stretching routine. And in-between, coaches, water carriers, mothers, hangers-on, small children and dogs wandered between participants. We watched with growing enthusiasm as the motley throng sped easily or, in some cases, limped back and forth up the road, the event eventually being won by a very slim and very competent young woman. As the evening drew on the crowds were supplemented with students from the local university, filling the pavements, cafés and bars. We picked our way through the milieu for the essential visit to Modica’s famous chocolate shops and especially L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, where it’s made in a fashion said to date back to the Aztecs. Cadbury’s it isn’t and the shop is an experience in itself. Modica’s sense of self was further reinforced when we ordered dinner after the race; the offerings on the menu at Osteria dei Sapori Perduti were described in the local dialect, served with enthusiasm and were superb examples of local cuisine.

That was our last evening with Greg and Vibeke before spending a couple of nights in relative luxury at Donna Carmela before heading to Catania and the Emirates. Sicily had delivered. There were some aspects that irked us – the stripping of the native vegetation and loss of natural habitat [not unexpected after a couple of thousand years of cultivation, I guess, but still an issue]; the shooting; the corruption and the consequences of nepotistic and self-interested authorities. But there was so much more to savour – the history and the culture; in the broadest terms a friendly populace; a unique cuisine; a surprising variety of wine and, eventually, more birds than I’d expected to see with no ‘serious’ birding on the agenda; 109 species in all. Yes, we’ll be back.  

Aeolian islands Lipari and Vulcano

Cefalu

Cefalu Duomo

Cefalu laundry

Palermo market - gamberi-a secret artist-lamps and pesce

Palermo market - old buildings

Monreal duomo - apse of Christ Pantocrator

Monreale duomo - nave with ornate golden mosaics

Monreale duomo - mosaic detail

Monreale duomo - window

Selinunte olive plantation

Selinunte acropolis looking over the site of the port

Valle dei Mazara cherubs

Valle dei Templi

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Concordia

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Juno

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Juno detail

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio in Modica Alta

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio dome

Modica - housing in Modica Alta behind Duomo di San Giorgio

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio ceiling detail

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio sundial - noon, average midday, time in Italy and signs of the zodiac

Modica - church of San Pietro in Modica Bassa

Modica - roofs

Modica - tiles

Modica - looking up to Modica Alta

Modica Alta

Modica - bicycle

Sicily – a tantalising taste of Baroque

Although we were aware of just how big the island was the poor quality of the roads, appalling traffic in towns and difficulty in parking when we actually got somewhere meant that we were in the car far too much. It was an important point that we’d remember for next time as it became a little frustrating, especially when we didn’t get as much time to explore as we would have wished. We’d planned a trip that would take us through as many places as possible and while that has good and bad aspects, on balance we were satisfied that we were seeing as much of Sicily as we could and were getting a real impression of the place.

We liked the south-east corner of the island and before embarking on the long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo we spent a few more days looking around. We stayed at the very pleasant La Corte del Sole. This is a country hotel in a rebuilt masseria, set on the side of the flat river basin of the Val di Noto. A masseria is a farmhouse that is fortified or, at least, capable of being defended and typically dates from the late middle ages. The appellation is used somewhat loosely but then the marauding hoards that invade Sicily these days come with easyJet or Thomson so a degree of poetic licence is forgivable. To be fair, Le Corte doesn’t look old and actually feels pretty new but it has a satisfying solidity that we liked nonetheless. The rural location balances country walks to the relatively empty beach with a short drive to nearby Noto, one of Sicily’s Baroque towns. It’s also well-placed to see most of the region between the Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari and Isola delle Correnti, Sicily’s southernmost point. A very pleasant dining terrace overlooks the verdant valley and has views to the sea. We had a memorable dinner; spada alla griglia con finocchio selvatico [grilled swordfish with wild fennel] for Mission Control and maccheroni con le sarde for me. This is one of my favourite Sicilian dishes – local pasta, sardines, saffron, currants, pine nuts all turned in fried bread crumbs. The food and substantial breakfast were actually very good. La Corte del Sole is a bit off the beaten track and quiet but well worth finding.

Noto is a particularly attractive town that was largely rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and we liked it a lot. The splendid buildings are faced with the local honey-coloured limestone that develops a unique luminosity in evening sunlight. It’s laid out on a grid and this adds a formality to the ornate architecture that is frequently absent elsewhere on the island. Noto’s UNESCO world heritage status is apparent when wandering its streets; taking time with a cool aperitivo delivers, in many respects, both the charm and the acute fascination of Sicily in a single bite. During our visit it seemed that all of Noto’s residents were either strolling back and forth along the Corsa Vittorio Emanuele or watching life pass by from church steps or the piazzas. And Caffé Sicilia produced simply the best cannoli that we found, with the finest scorze [that’s the pastry shell]. Equally interesting, however, was to walk off the main streets and find, as I did, evidence of a less comfortable side to life away from the mainstream. Browsing a row of local shops I found myself gazing at a display of weapons. Not small guns for target shooting or keeping the sparrow population in control and not a few but dozens of AK series assault rifles, carbines, Berettas, machine pistols and shotguns – the kind of weapons that are used to kill people. And there they were, on open display between a hairdresser and a pharmacy. It was sobering to ponder what ‘I’m just popping to the shops, dear’ might mean in Noto.

We resolved to return as the town deserved far more time than we were able to give it but we had a rendezvous and there were more places to visit on the way. I wanted to see Messina again after gazing at it under a smouldering Etna from across the straits as a student. And now that I’d finally decided to visit the island there was also that remaining piece of endemic woodland in the Nebrodi Mountains.

Getting to Palermo from Noto was tortuous; driving between the ‘three points’ of Palermo, Messina and Catania makes travellers heavily dependent on the autostrada network, which peters out away from these centres. Fortunately Noto is linked to it and getting to Palermo by way of Messina would take about the same time as using the cross-country route through Enna we’d arrived on. We headed for Messina and north of Catania the autostrada became a toll road. The rates are not high but not for the first time I found myself wondering about how the fees don’t appear to resurface as improvements, maintenance or repairs.

While we were thinking about that and trying to keep our Autogrill coffee in the cup – almost impossible on Sicilian roads, by the way –  Taormina and its teetering, cliff-top buildings came into view.