Wednesday, July 19, 2017

From ‘Loitering with Intent. Diary of a Happy Traveller’ by Ritu Menon

Of the 25 million hectares of teak plantation in the entire Asia-Pacific region, 15 million are in Myanmar….how refreshing to be in a country that hasn’t yet been penetrated by globalization, where cities are free of high-rises and flyovers, where roads are safe, and crime negligible. Where ordinary people are unaggressive and helpful: where the air is clean and you can still see stars in the sky

….Angkor Wat ……the whole concept of a mountain temple is unique to the Khmer – there are none in India ……..Jacques believes that Angkor Thom is actually a far more important site than Angkor Wat because it is a whole city, conceived, visualized and laid out in a complex grid of streets, water channels, ponds and residential areas that suggest a sophisticated urban sensibility.

….in Yogyakarta. Prawirotaman is in old Yogya…..Everyone is unfailingly courteous, even the touts are polite and helpful (unlike in India where they are aggressive and overbearing)…..….it is not possible to have an interfaith marriage in Indonesia – you have to convert. There is no secular civil law that legitimizes a marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims….with Borobodur, the siting is also dramatic, with the stupa sitting atop a hill which rises from a flat plain; you see just its silhouette initially, imagining the rest, the seven levels rising up to the concentric circles of stupas, and then the crowning stupa…….Borobodur was built over a hundred years, from AD 750-850 by the Sailendras. ….And yet, and yet. The power and glory of the Bayon in Angkor Thom, it seems to me, far outstrip Borobodur.….Could it be the environment, jungle and overgrown foliage, as distinct from flat plain? Or is it that Angkor has so much more, so very many temples, so many extraordinary built structures, such impressive barais that you have a sense of the civilization, and their combined impact is far greater. I don’t know ……….Have never been one for Javanese or Balinese dancing – really, its much too slow and stylized for me……What struck us again and again is the absence of any overt poverty in both Yogya and Bali. No beggars, no obsequious hustling, nothing shifty or shady about any of the tourism ancillaries that we encountered. Its obviously not a rich society …….Clearly salaries are low, the money made from tourism doesn’t really benefit the locals ……so how do people sustain themselves? ……Government Batik Arts Centre which has students of batik …….the paintings were exquisite and you realize just how crude and undeveloped our batik is in India. No comparison. We saw such fine examples of Javanese and Balinese, but especially Javanese, batik that we were filled with awe and admiration. …….Ubud …..lives up to all the superlatives used to describe it. …stuns the senses and fills you with delight. Its just so gorgrous (The fruit on the other hand, is surprisingly tasteless. You’d think the pineapple and papaya and watermelon would be sweet and flavourful, but no. Only the bananas are good.) It reminded me of the best of Coorg and Kerala ……..its the only place in the world we’ve been to where the farming takes place at your doorstep ……There’s no real distinction between ‘town’ and ‘country’, between inside and outside. It makes for a marvelous continuity and, I do believe, is one major reason for the great feeling of tranquility one experiences. ……the really nice thing about Ubud is that homes and temples and shops and cafes are all part of each other. Many cafes have a temple right next to them ……….the Balinese are preoccupied with the ritual and ceremony of Hinduism, not its philosophical or intellectual content. …..Bali ….Its a remarkably homogenous society, and a remarkably religious one …there’s virtually no crime in Bali, and should anyone be caught stealing, they will almost certainly be done to death by the community. …There’s no pick-pocketing, you’re completely safe on the street, and all doors are kept open. Its very possible that this is one reason why the Balinese have been able to resist the tourism assault of the last twenty-five years. …..And there’s no stigma attached to any kind of labour. (In fact 90 per cent of the population is Sudra, so there are none of the caste hierarchies of India on the island.) And because there’s no separation between farm and non-farm, a man may, if he wants, drive a taxi in the morning, work in the rice-fields in the afternoon ….and wait at a restaurant in the evening…..the gap between the very rich and the modest sections of society is not that great, or visible…..

It is simply not possible to describe the Cappadocia landscape…….There are rocks and there are rocks. And then there are the Cappa rocks. …….enter any one of the thousands of cave dwellings that dot the entire region, or you can stumble onto an ancient church, early Christian – or a Hittite home, prehistoric. ….At last count, there were 20,000 cave dwellings in Cappadocia and more are being found every year. They have been lived in for over 4,000 years by the Hittites, the early and later Christians, and by the Turks, till the government of Turkey took them over in the 1970s…….Cappadocia’s population is 300,000, of whom 50,000 are employed by the tourism industry ……..A region that had been more or less isolated for thousands of years, is now humming with tourism….The first humans in Cappadocia can be traced back to 500,000 years ago. The Hittites inhabited the region till the 1200s BC, followed by the Persians in the sixth century BC….Macedonians under Alexander replaced the Persians, then Julius Caeser, and after the Romans came the early Christians, fleeing the Roman armies. The caves of Cappadocia became their refuge, and Cappa itself offered a safe haven for the propagation of Christianity. …….Finally, the Turks from Central Asia conquered the area and brought in Islam….There are over 700 rock churches in all of Cappadocia, some just modest family shrines…..the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, and many of them fled east to Anatolia and the cave shelters of Cappa. It was in these shelters that the early monasteries were founded. ……we went to Kayamakly, one of thirty-six currently known underground cities in Cappadocia (there aer said to be almost a hundred more!), and one of the largest in the region…..was discovered in 1964 and is dated to the early Byzantine era. Underground cities were of enormous value in the early Christian era, as they provided shelter for extended period, to Christians who were being persecuted by the Romans. We were told that you could live in them for over two months at a time, with adequate provision of the four essentials: light, air, food and water…..Undergound cities were lived in from the earliest times – by the Hittites, who descended into them during the bitterly cold winter (the temperature in these cities remains an unvarying 11-17 degrees  Centigrade, year round); by first-century Christians who hid from the Arabs. ….As ventilation was crucial, the first things to be dug were ventilation shafts, some 70-80 metres deep. At the base of the shafts were wells for water, which would be transported up to the upper levels. ….these incredible air shafts that were the oxygen cylinders for these vast cities, capable of holding 4,000 people at any one time. Smaller cities might accommodate only 150 families, but Kayamakli and Derinkuyu, the two largest, held many more ……..You enter ordinarily enough at ground level …..then begin descending. Kayamakli goes down fifteen storeys……Each of the fifteen levels had ten ‘doors’ – massive stone wheels, weighing 300-500 kg each, that were rolled across the opening to prevent entry. Once in place, they could only be operated from the inside. ….An ingenious system of smoke signals and mirrors established on the higher levels warned inhabitants of imminent danger …..the more privileged families lived closer to the surface where the air was fresher. They fed on salted meat, dried fruit and nuts. Potatoes store very well in these underground temperatures ……Primitive and rudimentary these underground cities might have been, but you have to wonder at the ingenuity and skill of those Hittites and everyone who followed………Turkish jewellery design is definitely different…..more imaginative and artistic. Also very well made……..There are probably more Greek ruins in Turkey than there are in Greece, and Ephesus is certainly among the most spectacular…..I’m so glad we went to Aphrodisias after Ephesus……the stadium. We gasped in amazement. The only fully preserved ancient stadium extant, a perfect oval, 270 metres long, with seating for 30,000 ………We thought we had seen quite fantastic sculptures in the Ephesus Museum, but what we found in the museum at Aphrodisias was far richer and more extensive.

……Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world……Syria has the oldest recorded history in the world, going back as far as 2500-3000 BC at least……

In Palestine…..90 per cent of your land is under the Israelis, and only 10 per cent can be claimed as your own – with their permission. When the colour of your Identity Card – blue for Jerusalem, green for the West Bank, brown for Gaza – determines your mobility within your own country, when there are 570 checkpoints controlled by the Israeli Defence Forces in the tiny area of the West Bank.

Medical services are free across Italy, whether or not you have insurance. Yet few among those in real need – immigrants, mainly – ever go to a hospital, because once they’re registered they’re on the government scanner and are likely to be deported if they’re illegal. A great number of Sicilian businesses and agricultural produce entrepreneurs employ such labour, primarily from Libya, Algeria, Tunisia ….But mainly Libya. The general hospital at Modica is one of the few in the country that protects the status of anyone who comes to it because it desists from reporting them…..all towns date back mostly to the eighteenth century, rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1693 when almost everything in Sicily was razed to the ground…..The seas have been fished to near-depletion now and…..many other Sicilian towns, is supported substantially by tourism.  ……Migration out of the country is fairly high, because employment is hard to find if you have skills that are marketable. And yet immigrants flock to the cities here, willing to do the menial labour that the locals wont……You think of Sicily as sparse – and poor. But the towns are densely packed, every available space built-up. The soil is rich and dark, volcanic, so very fertile, and the countryside now has miles and miles of plastic greenhouses ……..for export. Its true that there are large stretches in central Sicily that are dry and brown, where only the hardy olive trees survive (and thrive, it must be said) but even so, there must have been great wealth to support all those churches and noble estates. An extreme and resolute feudalism must have appropriated the greater part of this bounty, for there were no less than 750 feudal families on this small island…..the Mafia. As early as the fifteenth century, restrictive commercial opportunities were so stringent in Sicily that even the over-privileged feudals were forced to make changes in order to survive. They introduced a policy of resettlement that forced thousands of peasants off the land and into new towns. The feudals themselves moved to large cities, leaving the job of collecting rents to their bailiffs. The bailiffs in turn employed the early Mafiosi – small gangs of armed peasants – to do the dirty work. And although they were feared by the peasantry, they were also supported by them because they were destabilizing the feudal system by robbing the largest estates as well. This ‘common cause’ became the origin of the term Cosa Nostra (Our Thing), and the code of protection or silence (Omerta), the peasants’ way of protecting the Mafiosi from the police. …..Southern Italy and Sicily sent their poorest to the US and among them were the Mafiosi of Corleone and other depressed areas of the country……. Illegal migrant labour from North Africa is employed on all the greenhouse farms, working for little money and in conditions that no locals would accept……Sicily must be the sweets capital of the world…the varieties of scrumptious confections in its pasticcerias……It was all those nuns servicing all those priests and churches who exalted pastry-making to a fine art. They baked and baked, they trained new initiates, as well as children sent to their orphanages and convents, and they left a legacy of confectionery that flourishes to this day. ……….Its always seemed to me that there are more Greek ruins outside Greece than in it, so it was no surprise to find that the most perfectly preserved Greek temple is in Agrigento, a coastal town in south-western Sicily. The temple of Concordia perched on a hilltop, perfectly proportioned, ……Preserved because it was converted into a church in 600 AD ………..In the foreground an 800-year-old olive tree, still bearing fruit, and also in the foreground, a most stunning bronze sculpture made as recently as 2011 by Hungarian sculptor, Igor Mitoraj, of the fallen Icarus. Broken wings, shattered legs, lying on his side, but with the most beautiful face in repose that I have ever seen. Of such surpassing beauty as to be god-like. …….So many temples of sublime and lofty near-perfection on the island, and the one in Segesta, nestled in verdant forest….You rounded a curve on the hill road and there it was, supreme and magnificent in its isolation. … isn’t as if we haven’t seen mosaics. Istanbul, Ravenna, Venice, Damascus, but the wealth and extent of them in Sicily is something else. At the Villa Romana del Casale, near Armerina, we saw what must be the largest expanse of secular mosaics in Europe. Every inch of floor in every room it seemed, had been decorated with scenes of extraordinary detail and depth…….every aspect of life and living depicted, all in the span of twenty years, from 286-305 AD.
The villa was the country retreat of Marcus Aurelius, built when he was a co-emperor of Rome, with Diocletian. The villa itself is enormous ……After a twelfth-century landslide it was submerged under mud for 700 years, which …is why its so well preserved. ….it needed a massive and sophisticated restoration …opening for visitors only in 2010…..the Great Hunt, a 64-metre mosaic can be seen …..The skill of the draftsmen was exceptional and the colours……..Glowing with a subtle radiance even in the dim light……….I have really never seen such fluidity and movement in animals poised for flight or tensed for attack, nor faces of such mobility and animation, in stone. In chips of stone, whats more.
And then we saw the mosaics in the Capella Palatina in Palermo, and agreed that never before had we seen religious mosaics of such dazzling brilliance, as here. Not in Ravenna, nor in Istanbul, not in Damascus either. Even Venice. ….covered with the story of Jesus and every Biblical tale………And on the floors – geometric designs that are such a clear reference to Islamic art ……..

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