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.

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Thailand – just follow the directions

Dusk at Coral Hotel
Dusk at Coral Hotel

Our ‘Bangkok in a day’ tour completed, we were ready to head south to the hellacious Phuket. It’s difficult to overstate the kaleidoscope of elements that contributes to experiencing Bangkok; from breathtaking cuisine – we’d dined on exquisite Miang Kham* in the riverside Thiptara restaurant and meandered through street food stalls – to the people; charming, respectful and gentle in a manner that is disarming to hubristic Westerners; and that river – rich in horrific and mysterious flotsam. We’d wandered along Charoen Krung Road to shop at Robinsons and I’d established a relaxed stand-off with the security officers who never quite understood my dawn excursions, bush-shaking and pishing** in the hotel gardens.

In the taxi to Suvarnabhumi airport to collect the rental car I was mindful of the wealth of advice provided, guidance published and concern expressed about driving in Thailand. Statistically we were in the second most dangerous country in the world with something approaching 24000 vehicle-related deaths a year; that’s about three an hour. I had been counselled on the risks of drunks, un-roadworthy vehicles, insurance scams and corrupt police. In short, choosing to drive was madness.

Emerging onto a moonlit sea
Emerging onto a moonlit sea

The rental desk was deserted and the assistant who arrived to deal with her only customer [locals and Asian visitors were using a presumably cheaper outlet next door] was only matched in her warmth and enthusiasm by her apparent lack of experience. Whilst putting some of that down to language it became clear as we struggled through the process of processing booking confirmations, passport copies and driving licence details that she probably hadn’t done this before. I began to have visions of being angrily accused by a moped-riding drunk in baggy shorts and tee-shirt before being pulled over by corrupt police to find that the one piece of paper you must carry in Thailand was still at the airport. My fears were compounded when the SatNav I’d pre-ordered was respectfully presented to me in a box – cellophane intact – with a perfect set of instructions in Thai. That was swiftly followed by an invoice for the rental charge – £1200! This disjunctive and time-consuming exchange was all very good-natured but with distance to drive and the day disappearing I was relieved when her senior colleague arrived. Within minutes the SatNav was programmed, its cost moderated – she’d used the purchase price for each day of the rental – and we were wedged into a tiny but shining new car with the smiling staff waving us off at the kerbside.

Bang Saphan beach at dawn
Bang Saphan beach at dawn
Poolside at Coral Hotel
Poolside at Coral Hotel

Now – the aforementioned perils aside – all we had to do was follow the directions. Straight down the Suvarnabhumi Road to the Sirat Expressway; along Ratchadaphisek Road, join the The Rama II Frontage Road and head for Prachuap Khiri Khan. The roads were pretty good and the traffic surprisingly benign but we encountered an unexpected problem – the SatNav couldn’t pronounce Thai. We were reduced to floods of laughter at the American-accented gibberish and were forced into the nearest service station to buy a map that would facilitate our journey towards Huahin.

Once out of Bangkok the road degenerated into a straightish dual carriageway but, as one would expect, it was sort of different from what we see in Europe. A lot of incomplete road works necessitating diversions, U-turns and – frighteningly – some unmarked two-way stretches were interspersed with random traffic signals and junctions that often defied comprehension. Numerous potholes, missing bits of road and debris encouraged heavy trucks, tractors and pick-ups full of schoolgirls to swing erratically from lane to lane but it became clear very rapidly that none of this concerned the Thai drivers; they simply ignored everything in a headlong rush to get where they were going. It was truly nerve-racking but in time I became more confident and once we’d reached a velocity approaching that of the traffic it was akin to floating down a river on a log.

Pool from the restaurant at Coral Hotel
Pool from the restaurant at Coral Hotel

We had an overnight stay booked at Coral Hotel in Bang Saphan but it was almost dark as we arrived. The SatNav, which we’d by then begun to interpret, garbled a left turn onto an unlit, narrow road heading into the forest but there were no signs and the road was too small to be on the map. We could see no indication of where we should go, turned back, retraced our steps and tried again before eventually seeing lights. We emerged into a rural setting that boasted a supermarket, a rail crossing and a single traffic light. I decided to try – map in hand – to see if anyone could point us towards the hotel and was ushered to the centre of the store where a youngish guy was ministering to a hoard of local residents. This was the pharmacy and he was, I guessed from the way he was consulting each customer before dispensing pills and tubes of ointment, the local doctor. I was at the back of a queue but quickly became the focus of animated attention, being foreign and all. We collectively established that we were indeed on the right road and that we should cross the railway, turn right at the signal and look for a sign. Whether that would be transcendental or physical I couldn’t tell but the garrulous crowd quickly turned its attention back to the doctor and we headed further into the trees. Eventually a hand-painted notice directed us along a sandy track that broke through the forest onto a beach, edged with coconut palms and bathed in moonlight. A short distance further and we pulled into a bijou tropical paradise, adorned by beautifully presented Thais and a small group of trendy, French guests. For all the world we had emerged in the film set of Emmanuelle.

Waiting for Emanuelle to appear
Waiting for Emmanuelle to appear

So, we’d passed the first test by avoiding death on the highway – narrowly, at one point – and were in a tropical paradise.

*Dried shrimp, roasted coconut, roasted peanut, shallot, ginger, lemon wrapped wrapped with betal leaf and served with palm sauce.

**If you’re not a birder then this explains pishing.

I use a SatNav, especially when I’m in the Middle East and have to tackle remote places but I’m not a big fan. Here’s a post from some time ago.

pool-and-sky

 

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

Thailand – the wrong side of the river

A comfortable location on the wrong side of the river
A comfortable location on the wrong side of the river

It was an original and exciting thought to celebrate a birthday abroad although when Lars told us where we’d meet I had conflicted views. You see, I like Thailand – a lot, to be truthful – and was very enthusiastic about visiting again but I’d been in Phuket before and anticipated finding it further down the toilet than it was last time. As a centre of gravity for the worst kinds of tourist activity it has form and, despite retaining areas that remain essentially Thai, it embodies most if not all that the dark side of Thailand has on offer. The island is continually ravaged by development – much of it illegal – that ranges from pretty bad to goddamn awful and is a prime example of what I strive to avoid.

The shuttle boat
The shuttle boat

But the Kantary Bay hotel on Cape Panwa looked good; it ticked a lot of boxes and had hosted our fellow revelers before. It also provided, we were assured, a very nice beach, excellent bar service and egg and bacon at breakfast. But what attracted me most was its location at the southernmost point on Phuket, which is far, far away from the Gomorrah-like Patong Beach.

Dining terrace alongside the river
Dining terrace alongside the river
The city from the quiet cool bedroom
The city from the quiet cool bedroom

Mission Control hadn’t seen Thailand and flying into and out of Phuket without experiencing something more of the real thing seemed a wasted opportunity. We had to work out how we’d make the trip and enjoy the celebration but still see more of the country than Phuket had on offer. I wanted to see Bangkok again and there was also the not inconsiderable opportunity to get some exotic birding under my belt, so to speak.

The answer was simple – we’d aim for Bangkok and have a few days there either side of renting a car and driving south. That way we’d see some of the country and enjoy the freedom of the open road. The eight-hundred and fifty kilometres would present wonderful opportunities to see aspects of the country that tourists often miss and we’d be able to take in a few sights while we enjoyed the freedom of the open road. Of course, anyone who’s seen the traffic in Bangkok or feared for their life in a tuk-tuk would appreciate that there was a downside to the idea but, what the heck? All I had to do was keep the traffic accident statistics out of any conversations.

The excellent shaded pool at the Peninsula
The excellent shaded pool at the Peninsula
Chao Phraya traffic
Chao Phraya traffic

Bangkok looked and smelled as I recalled it. It is exotic and quintessentially Asian; a heady combination of decrepit buildings and spectacular temple roofs; spice, traffic fumes and drains. The monsoon was about done and the humidity was promising to reduce – in fact, every Thai we mentioned it to assured us with absolute certainty that the rainy season had finished the previous day! Bangkok is evocative and mesmerising but it’s also crowded, dirty and noisy. To enjoy it fully you need two essentials; a bedroom that insulates you from the noise and a refuge from the humidity but with those essentials taken care of you can get on with absorbing the essence of a wonderful city. Just watching the busy and congested river as well as what floats down it is an experience in itself.

Reflection of the hotel across the river in an office building afternoon
Reflection of the hotel across the river in an office building afternoon

So we parked ourselves centrally, alongside the Chao Phraya River, in the Peninsula Hotel – a place that gets it and knows how to take care of you. And we made that point to a manager over chilled drinks on the dining terrace one evening. He was preoccupied, however, with a recent post on that bane of hoteliers, TripAdvisor. Apparently the hotel [together with it’s complimentary, atmospheric and liveried river shuttle] had been marked down by a recent American guest because it was located ‘on the wrong side of the river’. I guess ‘wrong side’ implies there is a ‘right side’ but after several visits I’ve yet to work out what there might be a right side for.

Houseboats with flags celebrating the Nation,on the left, and King Bhunibol Adulyadejs on the right
Houseboats with flags celebrating the Nation,on the left, and King Bhunibol Adulyadejs on the right

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

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

 

 

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