You are viewing writinghawk

Mr A. Writinghawk's Journal
[Most Recent Entries] [Calendar View] [Friends]

Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Mr A. Writinghawk's LiveJournal:

    [ << Previous 20 ]
    Sunday, August 17th, 2014
    7:51 am
    Foggy Malone
    I don't know how many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries there are in the world, somewhere in the thousands I imagine, but I would bet large sums that this is the only one where the monks go round singing to themselves and what they sing is 'The foggy foggy dew' and 'Molly Malone'.

    Tsering has finally decided he wants English lessons after all and has taken to turning up in the evening. Last night he invited me to his place instead, to sample his cooking. It was excellent as before and I took the precaution of watching how he made Himalistani curry. He sliced, expertly and with no chopping board, onions, garlic, peeled potato and carrot, and tomatoes into a wok, roughly cut up some large chillies (each sliced in four lengthways and cut in half), covered them in water, added a couple of spoonfuls of oil and some salt and set them to boil. (The chillies are treated as a vegetable and are the only essential element; a curry with no other vegetables is the national dish.) Then we sat and chatted, and after 15 minutes or so he tasted it for salt and sliced in a few small pieces of local cheese, of which he has large supply, and when this had dissolved into the water, the curry was ready. (He also added a slice of processed cheese; but this is not, I think, essential.)

    I made my own the next evening, which while not quite up to Tsering's standard was reasonably successful. I think I shall make Himalistani curry frequently in future. It's extraordinarily low-effort, delicious, and consisting as it does almost entirely of fresh vegetables, a great deal healthier than most of what I eat at home.
    Sunday, August 10th, 2014
    6:38 am
    The poisoned stone
    Walked into town yesterday, following the forest path the students showed me a couple of weeks ago. It is even more dramatic than I remembered; there is a riot of plant life, including all kinds of the most extraordinary mushrooms, and at several points there are views of the sweeping valley and mountainside opposite on the right. They say you shouldn't walk it alone because bears don't attack people in groups. Then again they also say the bears come out at night. Anyway, I met no bears, nor tigers, and the walk, while not a stroll in the park, seemed much more manageable than last time, as walks will on a second acquaintance. (The luxury of doing it at my own pace, rather than that of a bunch of local youths, also probably helped, though it also added half an hour or so.) Rinpoche's mate gave me a room at his guesthouse for the night so I have had the luxury of two hot showers.

    Met some workmen on some of the many building works going on around the place, as I walked up to the shedra. I thought my walk was arduous, but they while working there are walking the 11km from the village every day, up all the way.


    Phuntsho was on cooking duty at the shedra for a week. I usually stay for lunch after my morning lesson, and he is evidently a fine cook as the usually unappealing food has been reliably delicious, considerably softening the blow of missing his valuable presence in the class. As we stand chatting in the kitchen he asks about food I have been cooking and inter alia I mention omelette. 'Would you like an omelette?' he asks enthusiastically, and waves aside my objections about his being busy and so forth. Then it turns out he has never made an omelette before: 'You must tell me how to make it.' So following my directions he makes an omelette, and it is much more successful than any omelette I have ever made myself.


    I have fallen into the habit of taking a daily walk to the 'shukti' up on the ridge. Once near the top it started raining quite heavily; I sat out the worst in the shelter and came down in rain. The top part of the path is slippery and far from a cakewalk when wet, but a party of half a dozen old women passed me on their way up, laughing and chatting cheerfully and with no raincoats or umbrellas.

    On the way down, a stunted pine tree with sprays of long needles, a perfect globe of water poised at the tip of each one.


    A student who wasn't in class that day explains that he had had to go up to a yak house on the mountain to help someone whose yak had been killed by a tiger. So perhaps there are tigers around after all. As far as I could understand they were cutting it up for meat and taking it somewhere or other.


    No lessons in the shedra for a few days as the students are off each morning 'to chop trees'. Wood supplies are running low Monday is the start of the summer retreat, during which they can't leave the monastery grounds, so this is the last chance to stock upCollapse )


    A surprising story about the important C14 philosopher and saint who is a local icon - he founded the monastery and it is his statue up at the shukti. Evidently he was not always held in such universal esteem, since it turns out that while he was living here (in exile from Tibet), the villagers tried to poison him. The story is that they gave him a cup of local distilled spirit laced with poison, while he was sitting on a huge round ledger stoneCollapse )


    Previously when I've ordered milk it's come in an old Royal Bhutan mineral water bottle, but today it is in a bottle labelled 'Black Mountain Whisky'. Not poisoned, I'm happy to report.


    'I think that's my friend Waggy Wagtail,' I say to Pema as we stand outside his shop. Waggy is coming towards us down the road.

    'Where?' he asks, not unreasonably, since no-one can be seen on the road. His English, though fair, is not up to decoding the subtleties of the name Waggy Wagtail.

    'There,' I say and point, increasing his mystification, since she is out of sight behind a low fence. When she comes back into view I hail her and she absolutely bounds up the steps to greet me.


    The shop sells crisps and similar snacks, and they are packed as usual in airtight bags, except that the bags are bulging to bursting point, and are so taut that it is difficult to open them. I noticed this in a casual way when I first saw them, but it has taken me till now to realise that it is due not to some peculiar Bhutanese way of filling crisp packets (they come from India anyway), but to the low atmospheric pressure here due to the altitude. I wonder how high you have to take them before they burst.


    Attendance at the class in the monastery has been patchy lately as students are always off 'working' somewhere, or at a puja in the village, and so forth. (All that will stop when the retreat starts on Monday.) One class had only four, so rather than sit in the classroom I suggested we go for a walk and chat about what we saw. A much more enjoyable class for all of us than usual, and the three of them who rarely if ever can be persuaded to utter anything English beyond a foolish grin were by the end relaxed enough that they made a few halting attempts to say something to me. (The fourth, K, has fair English and unfortunately would insist on translating everything most of the time, but still.)


    I was only ever given a 3-month visa, and no extension was forthcoming, so I will be back in the UK at the end of September.
    Thursday, July 31st, 2014
    1:29 pm
    Beware of bears and falling masonry
    Today is the festival supposedly commemorating the anniversary of the Buddha's first teaching, and there were celebrations up at the 'shukti' or 'throne' of the important local fourteenth-century philosopher, high up above the monastery. I met a group of school students who had walked up the extraordinarily long and steep path from town on a kind of pilgrimage for the day, and asked if I could accompany them when they walked back, having been trying for some time to get someone to show me the path into town. (I will get a taxi back.)

    Pema, the shopkeeper, had warned me that the path was dangerous in summer because of bears and tigersCollapse )


    K, the novice monk who looks after the 'guesthouse' in which I am staying, having come round to clear up after some temporary visitors, fiddles with his phone. 'Do you know what this is?' he says suddenly, and shows me - a trifle surprisingly - a photo of three horseradishes so arranged as to crudely suggest an act of anal sex. 'This is a radish,' I say carefully, 'and I think this is another radish. And this is a radish too, isn't it? Or perhaps two radishes.'

    'Radish' is what they call horseradish here and I seem to have fallen into the habit, though being here as an English teacher I should probably be stamping the practice out rather than encouraging it.

    K also mentions the need, as one of the novice monks, to get permission from the 'councillor' if you are going to miss a class or puja or what have you. If you don't get permission in advance, 'he will punish'. What kind of punishment? 'Punishment is very strict. He will beat' (demonstrating beating motions).


    On the downside, buying any food apart from crisps and biscuits (available in the monastery shop) requires endless enquiries about when people are driving to town, and cadging a lift on the hour-plus trip there, and even then the range of things available is strictly limited; all the bread and milk powder is stuffed with sugar; and fresh milk is not too easy to come by. On the upside, when you discover that the shopkeeper can order you some milk, and when he rings to say it is in, and you think 'I'll go and get it straight away so I can have some for breakfast', it is still warm from the cow. That is a service Waitrose on Fitzroy Street cannot offer.

    A corollary is that I can now make a cup of what is recognisably and delicious English tea. The guesthouse at my monastery must be the only place in the whole of Himalistan where this is now on offer.


    Evening walk with the American visitor to the small and pretty monastery above ours. It has only one resident, Rinzig, one of the students in my beginners' class at the shedra, who has lived there as its caretaker for the past year. He offers us tea using the formula he has learnt from me ('Would you like some tea?'), naturally one of the first things it is necessary to learn in English.

    Visit the American and his host, Tsering, for the evening, and on the way home, two monks are standing outside the lhakang playing the long horns. Where in the puja this felt like just noise, here in the dark and mysterious night it is beautiful and stirring. There is no complex musical line but the two horns, slightly mournful, continually sound as if they are starting some long undertaking, and one seeming to lead slightly ahead of the other, rise and fall in counterpoint to each other. I sit on a ledge shared with one of the wild dogs that roam the place and listen until they finish.


    Summoned to dinner, along with our American friend, by Rinpoche, who is going away tomorrow. At first he is in a mood to complain about things as usual, but mellows later - perhaps he was hungry - and almost admits there may be some good points in my teaching.


    There are a profusion of wild dogs that one passes as one walks around the hillside. Sometimes they look at you the way dogs look, but some of them often they have startlingly human expressions, so that it is almost hard not to bid them a polite good morning. They look at you as if waiting for a reply, or pregnant with some piece of news, or impatient for you to pass, or conscious of their superior social standing and waiting for an acknowledgement.

    Some of them have other peculiarities. One small and dapper member of the clan I have never seen without its tail wagging at an absolutely furious rate, while another will start away in terror if you offer it even the most tentative hand to sniff or show any other sign of interest.


    Some of my lessons are in the shedra, or monastic institute, a short if energetic hike above the monastery. This is a little cluster of pretty buildings, two of them built precariously on the mountainside - one, the monks' hostel, somewhat too precariouslyCollapse )
    Saturday, July 19th, 2014
    11:16 am
    Monastic seclusion
    Well appointed though my quarters were in other respects my housemate and I wanted to cook very different food in the same small kitchen; besides which he accidentally locked me out of the house twice running. So I petitioned Rinpoche to be moved elsewhere, as a result of which I have been evacuated to the Guesthouse. Being built for visitors, this was beyond my wildest ideas of luxuryCollapse )


    A puja at the top of the mountain meant, for me, a very difficult hike. We went up the road to the shedra (institute), from where my guide set off up a mountain path that in my out-ofpractice state was quite hard. Just as it levelled off a little and I thought perhaps this would be all right, he struck off up a smaller path twice as steepCollapse )


    Having been hanging around for weeks with nothing to do I suddenly find myself teaching three classes a day, so I am not short of things to do. I have put my foot down about teaching on Saturday, 15 class hours a week seeming quite enough to me.


    In a class, trying to elicit the word 'hill' because it has lots of nice vertical letters, I draw a hill-shaped squiggle. 'Mountain', says one child intelligently. 'Yes,' I agree, 'and what about a little mountain?' (with hand gestures). It turns out that living much higher than most of the Alps, though they knew about mountains, they had not heard of anything so pedestrian as a hill.


    Debating practice at the shedra: a peculiar and enjoyable Tibetan custom which I've seen before at the monastery in Tibet that is famous for it whose name I forget. Two monks debate at a time, one sitting on the floor while the other stands and poses questionsCollapse )


    'What do you call that (imitating my whistling)?'

    And a few minutes later in the shedra kitchen, when I happen to be applying balm to my chapped lips:

    'This' (whistle) is whistling?'
    'And that is Vaseline?'
    'The same?'
    No. No, the words do not sound the same. At all.


    'Where do people cook in England?'
    'In the kitchen.'
    'But how do they cook?'
    'They have a hob, like that' (pointing to a portable pair of rings attached to a gas cylinder) 'and an oven, for baking.'
    'No bukhari?'
    'No, no bukhari.'
    'No wood?'
    That is correct. The centre of a UK kitchen is generally not occupied by a big cast-iron wood burning stove to complement the gas hob.


    A visiting American scholar studying the interaction of Nyingmapa teachings and the environment. He wants to interview people and has brought a local assistant borrowed from some government department. He has been here before but I am able to bring him up to date on people he might interview and what is going on - a strange and enjoyable reversal to be the local expert rather than the clueless newcomer. Enjoyable too to be able to use my kitchen and sitting room to entertain, when the pair of them come to dinner. He is an eccentric and vigorous character, though I have a slight suspicion an account of our meeting from his point of view would be the more entertaining to read.
    Wednesday, July 9th, 2014
    7:24 pm
    From the bath house
    Wandering out late afternoon after rain all day. Tashi, the Rinpoche's monk attendant (his Ananda, as I think of him) hails me and says he is taking me to Rinpoche. He leads me past a house near mine to a wooden shed which I understand to be an outside bathroom of some kind. Incomprehensibly he opens the door, Read more...Collapse )
    7:12 pm
    Monastery life
    I have not died but have no internet of any kind in the monastery. I've escaped to town for a night so here is a brief catch up of the past couple of weeks since arriving in Himalistan, which I shall follow up in a separate post with a vignette from yesterday.

    Read more...Collapse )
    Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
    5:56 am
    Harmless drudgery
    The necessary documentation for Himalistan finally arrived on Friday, and on Monday I confirmed and paid for my flight, which is on 17 June. I had been told to expect it to be valid for 3 months and need extending. In the event it is valid for only 2 months. So I hope the process of extending it is less drawn-out than that of getting it in the first place.

    A series of minor but distressing symptoms have led to some unexpected encounters with local healthcare last week, starting when I went into what looked like an unusually spacious back-street pharmacy and ended up in a kind of consulting cupboard, with a very genial doctor with excellent English and, as it happens, the best bedside manner of any doctor I have consulted. Under his care some of the symptoms abated and others not, and when I went back he sent me off for an X-ray to make sure I had nothing worse than sinusitis. (The report came back saying 'Right frontal sinusitis.') The procedure for getting an X-ray at a Nepali hospital is like this: first you go to the emergency ward and wander past patients on beds surrounded by worried relatives, before finding someone in a white coat who writes you a chit for the X-ray; then you present this at the cash desk by the main entrance and hand over your NRP 900 (about 5 or 6 pounds); next you take the chit and receipt to the X-ray department, where an efficient operative tells you to 'open your shoes and sleep on the bed', and an hour later you come back and collect the result. If NRP 900 is beyond your means, as for the poorest Nepalis it is, then you're out of luck.

    S has exams this week, and I have spent the last four days amusing myself and taking my mind off my state of health by writing a dictionary for my Old Cool NGO Outfit (OCNO), a project I suggested while I still worked there but doubted anyone else much wanted to write.
    Wednesday, May 28th, 2014
    1:15 pm
    Writinghawk Business College
    S gets up at 5am to go to college where he is taking a bachelor's in Business Studies, and spends the afternoon keeping a pashmina shop, one of a few his family run and identical to all other pashmina shops in Thamel, until closing time at about 9, during which in the present off-season it's dubious he sells enough to pay the shop's day-rent never mind cover anything for his time. (When I said 'There must be a thousand pashmina shops in Thamel', Kathmandu's small tourist-trap district, he said 'No, only three hundred.') On the rare occasion that a customer asks for a price, he stares at the ceiling for a while, then makes up a totally unconvincing price which they know anyway is not real, and they say 'Too much'. He immediately goes on to: 'How much do you want to pay?' at which point half of them walk out. 'They want it for free,' he says irately, after naming a not unreasonable price on one occasion.

    I have just seen one of his college practice papers. Here are just a few of the questions:

    2. What is Organizational Behavior? Explain the emerging trends in OB.
    6. Define perception. Explain the factors influencing perception.
    7. With the help of work-related examples, explain the Big Five Model of personality.
    12. Critically analyze Herzberg's motivation-hygiene theory.
    16. How is equity theory of motivation relevant to the present job situation in Nepalese enterprises [namely, there are no jobs]? Discuss.
    19. Discuss with examples various types of work team.

    Now, I could not answer any of these questions and it is no doubt very admirable that they are filling his head with this stuff, but if I were to design a Business Studies degree in Kathmandu it would include some different questions.

    1. With specific reference to the example of a shop stuffed with warm woollen pashminas, in a city where it is 35 degrees and the great majority of customers are from northern-hemisphere countries where it is also summer, discuss the possible merits of seasonal variation in stock.

    2. What is a unique selling point? Is it advisable to aim for one, or better to be indistinguishable from all your competitors?

    3. Is shop-dressing an art, or does a requirement that as many wares as possible are somehow hanging on display override all other considerations?

    4. In a context where many shopkeepers pounce aggressively and unpleasantly on every passing foreigner, what problems could be caused by spreading so many wares across the open frontage of a shop that the only remaining entrance is a narrow opening into an enclosed space? With reference, if necessary, to Herzberg's or indeed anyone else's theory of motivation, discuss whether this might motivate people not to enter the shop.

    5. What is alpha-beta testing? Discuss its value with regards to shop dressing and stock control. How could it be combined with the concept of 'continuous improvement' to provide an alternative to setting the shop the same old way day after day?

    6. Do customers really that much prefer haggling to having fixed prices? How do you know? If so, shouldn't you be better at haggling?

    7. What possible merit might accrue from having a business website, an E-bay presence or active Twitter account?

    8. Could there be anything to be said for smiling occasionally? [S smiles readily, except when there are customers in the shop.]

    9. As a refreshing break from parroting more management jargon, design a project over a term or a year where you actually put some of these ideas into practice and evaluate the results.

    To judge from every single other shop in Thamel, however, the other business courses on offer are identical to S's.
    Friday, May 23rd, 2014
    4:41 am
    Learning the basics
    Kathmandu has become exceedingly, intolerably hot. The shopkeepers in Thamel sit all day twiddling their thumbs, because there are no tourists. Everyone is waiting for the rains, which will lower the temperature if not bring the tourists back, but the rains may be a month away. Finding myself with time to kill I have signed up for some Nepali lessons. Besides these I have been fairly inactive this week, but last weekend was a different matter.

    My excellent former-work contact had set up an 'interaction programme', i.e. meeting, for me with the retro-sounding Computer Club at Kathmandu University, conveniently in the nearby small town of Dhulikel, yesterday, the same day I was supposed to be going to Dhulikel anyway to visit Suman's family. One of the crowd picks me up and guides me to the bus station and knows which bus to take and when to get off and which series of winding paths to take at the other end, without which I would still be looking for it. The campus is a handsome and peaceful retreat from the cacophony of Kathmandu, and the meeting is pleasingly full of open source geeks and so forth. S picks me up after the event on his motorbike and we navigate a hair-raising series of mountain roads with sheer drops on one or other side. Nepali law requires a motorbike rider to wear a helmet but puts no such burden on passengers, on whom they are never seen. S rides slowly and carefully as I rehearse in my head the terrible motorcycle accidents of various acquaintances. S draws my attention to the breathtaking views, perhaps in an attempt to divert my attention from imminent death and thus relax my grip on his shoulder. Arriving without incident we park at his uncle's house, on the road.

    S's house is up a path on a very steep slope ...Collapse )
    Thursday, May 15th, 2014
    4:00 pm
    The good and the bad
    Yesterday, good news from my contact in Himalistan: Rinpoche has at last received approval for my entry papers. Bad news: but only for three months. Good: However, Rinpoche 'will arrange for extension at a later date', so I am not to worry. Bad: he has also suddenly been 'ordered' by the government to perform a month-long prayer ceremony, which is frightfully important and will take him and all his monks, so can I please wait till the end of June? Good: this gives me another month or month and a half in KTM. Bad: that means I need to extend my tourist visa, which presumably entails some further faff, and a hotel for a month is an expensive joke. Good: however, my Nepali friend Suman has just moved into a big new room and says we can get a mattress and I can stay with him. Bad: this means living in a building with no running water for a month. Good: I'll be living like a proper Nepali. It will be an education.
    3:51 pm
    Kathmandu days
    To recap for the benefit of anyone who doesn't know me, I'm in Kathmandu, on my way to teach English in a remote monastery high in the Himalayas, in the obscure kingdom of, let us say, Himalistan. I was supposed to be travelling there on Sunday, but have been kicking my heels here while waiting for the process of obtaining Himalistani entry papers to take its winding course.

    Arriving in Kathmandu I made contact with assorted local friends. S, who is exceedingly handsome, picks me up from the airport and hugs me in the pouring rain. N, so sane in many ways yet mad as a hatter, has moved here from England to find herself and live in a monastery while running a homeopathic clinic, and makes me bring useless remedies specially ordered from the UK.

    B's travel agency nowadays handles a lot of people passing through on 'volunteer' schemes of one kind or another. Puts me in touch with a former volunteer currently passing through KTM who has just returned from Himalistan, who is not burdened with an over-active imagination. I ask him if, as I've heard from a former work contact, the descent into the country's only international airport is particularly hair-raising. 'It's fine,' he shrugs, then pauses for a moment of bovine reflection. 'I mean, you fly along this valley between mountains, and you have to do a sharp bend ...' The thoughful look disappears from his features. 'It's fine.'

    A visit to the museumCollapse )


    Nagarkot interludeCollapse )


    A visit to BhaktapurCollapse )


    An eccentric cafeCollapse )


    Dinner with S and a friend in S's room, much like any student room - bedsit, cushions, guitar, TV, cooking ring, pile of washing in corner. Everything except running water, which is simulated with a couple of huge plastic bottles of water and a complex series of plastic tubs.


    Happy birthday BuddhaCollapse )
    Sunday, February 23rd, 2014
    11:35 am
    Occasionally I find that a thing for which I have some well-defined slot in my brain is actually two different things, sharing the slot like Cox and Box. They might have different names, but since I only ever hear one of the names at a time, I don't notice the duplication.

    A few months ago I went with a friend to hear a storyteller telling the rather amazing life of Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer and orientalist. In perfectly good faith I mentioned afterwards that Burton had also written An Anatomy of Melancholy. Well that's true in a way, of course, except that it was Robert Burton in the 17th century.

    There's a weird feeling of the world shifting when the penny drops. It happened this morning when I realised I'd done it again with that famous classic film musical that everyone's seen except me, the one about the nanny. You know, the nanny who can do magic and helps the family escape from the Nazis. I'd just never really noticed before when people were talking about it that sometimes it gets called The Sound of Music and sometimes it's Mary Poppins.
    Sunday, June 9th, 2013
    12:26 pm
    Since sitting on the roof terrace of the lovely Hotel Djoloff in Dakar last night, I have taken ten contrivances in series to get home.

    1. A taxi to Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport (which, incidentally, easily takes the record for the number of times my passport has been checked in any passage through any airport); 2. a coach from the terminal to the plane; 3. an Iberia flight to Madrid; 4. A swish driverless train between terminals at Madrid Airport; 5. a connecting flight to London Heathrow; 6. the Heathrow Express to Paddington; 7. the Underground (Circle Line) to Kings Cross; 8. a train to Royston. As usual on a Sunday there are 'engineering works' which mean the line beyond Royston is closed. What it is about the stretch of line between Cambridge and Royston that has needed so much maintenance for twenty years and counting I doubt I will ever know; 9. a rail replacement coach to Cambridge Railway Station; and 10. a bus to Drummer Street. I omit the miles of escalators and elevators and Trav-O-Lators at the assorted airports. It feels like they would multiply the total by 30, but that is an exaggeration, I dare say.

    Oh yes, did I mention I went off at short notice to Senegal on another mission to promote the gospel of Open Data? Dakar is a neat place. Ask me about it some time.
    Thursday, May 23rd, 2013
    8:00 am
    Under the volcano
    At fairly short notice a colleague was unable to go to present about open data to the Asian Development Bank, in Bangkok and then Manila, so I went. Since it is ethically most unsound to burn all that jet fuel just for two or three days in each place, I extended the trip by a couple of days extra at each end, a much more environmentally satisfactory arrangement as I'm sure you'll agree.

    Bangkok: The absurdly swish Intercontinental, where the breakfast buffet is all you need to eat all day, and flunkeys hang around to do nothing but open doors or press the lift button for you. A game to try and get to the door (or button) before they notice and do it for you. The skytrain and skywalks in the middle of an otherwise mostly characterless area of tower blocks, though with the odd feature. A Visit to A, a Buddhist monk whom I knew when he was doing postgraduate study in Cambridge: he is in the midst of organising a conference on Buddhist education. I go with him in a taxi to the University where it is being held where he has various fettling to do, and find myself doing the voiceover for a publicity video for the university being put together for the event.

    The laughing boys love red FantaCollapse )

    Manila: When you arrive at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, and as you stand in a dingy queue waiting to go through passport control, an enormous sign on the wall carries a stern warning: NAIA IS A NO 'WANG WANG' ZONE. PLEASE FALL IN LINE. CCTV MONITOR IN USE. As you stand in line, nervously wondering when you will be in Naia and whether you are committing wang wang, you remember what you've heard of Manila: a horrible city of 10 million people, ten-lane freeways everywhere, road barriers and no crossings, no pavements, and ugly tower blocks, unrelieved by anything of character. At first glance it's true; at second glance, it's still true.

    Exploring ManilaCollapse )

    On my last day a trip to Taal. By van to Tagaytay, let off just before the city to take a tricycle scooter to a 'resort' whose oily owner charges me double the going rate for a boat over to the island; I realise that Tagaytay is high above the lake as we turn a corner and start to descend towards it, a beautiful green valley with the big, long, snaking, mountainous island rising from the middle of the lake. Arriving on the island, which is an active volcano, surprised to find a small village: to live here is dangerous and officially forbidden, but to these informal residents the incentive is too great of offering guides and ponies to tourists going up the trail, where neither guide nor pony is needed. Tiny children play in the village by easily riding tiny ponies. In a desperate attempt to interest me in a ride, the first local to collar me tells me it is a two hour walk ...Collapse )
    Friday, April 5th, 2013
    2:25 pm
    Sutra is an astonishing, moving, funny, gripping piece of work. It's performed by monks from the Shaolin temple - whose discipline blends Buddhist contemplation with highly-trained martial arts - on a set by Anthony Gormley, with choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. I am no frequenter of dance shows, so I have never heard of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, but quite possibly if I were his name would be as arresting as those of Gormley or indeed the Shaolin temple. It's about belonging, loneliness, authenticity, compromise, non-self, the quest for meaning, enlightenment - that kind of thing - and in so far as it has a star performer, it's a novice monk of about 12, like the adult monks in the show a performer of incredible virtuosity. The show was devised in 2008 and some of the younger adult performers previously played the child part.

    Did I mention that it's funny?

    It's been all round the world, and if it comes anywhere near you, I advise you to let nothing prevent you seeing it.
    Sunday, March 24th, 2013
    8:18 am
    His Tenebrous Majesty
    I almost never remember dreams, but sometimes when I'm very tired my brain goes into a kind of weird uncontrolled random mode and comes up with odd things. I've just come down with a nasty lurgy, presenting the perfect conditions for this. Just now I found myself seeming to recollect some recent news article about a historian who had discovered the existence of a shadowy and previously unknown king of England. It could now be revealed that he was called Mugar, and he reigned in the dark ages, which in this scenario extended up to the seventeenth century, when he lived. Shakespeare was one of his children. Go figure.
    Friday, January 11th, 2013
    4:50 pm
    For my last three days in Male' it rained solidly, as I scampered round under an umbrella trying to buy assorted curiosities and round up as many people as I could to say goodbye to. My erstwhile colleague jasminefegredo wanted a coconut-scraper, I wanted a set of the characteristically Maldivian turned wooden chessmen, all so confusingly similar, and since my flight back was just in time for Christmas, I planned to get a variety of local foodstuffs as presents.

    The chessmen proved a much greater challenge than I had expected. Read more...Collapse )


    Most of the foodstuffs that I gave at Christmas to assembled family members had become familiar to me while living here; a few were new to me when I saw them in the local market. In no particular order, they were:

    Mas mirus
    Dhiyaa hakuru
    Foah (with foah-valhi)
    Heerapanna nuts
    Addu bondi
    Gaily-coloured rice crackers - whose name I never discovered
    Fried drumstick leaves

    Read more...Collapse )


    The morning of my departure I took a taxi through the rain to the jetty, my bags stuffed with all my improbable purchases, and hurried awkwardly onto the airport ferry. Throwing together the last items in a hurry, I had suddenly wondered whether a jam-jar type twist-off metal lid is safe in the unpressurised hold of an aeroplane. Uncertain and short of time, I put the dhiyaa hakuru, and a jar of rihaakuru, in my hand luggage. Rihaakuru is the thick brown fish by-product somewhat like Marmite, and very much the last thing on earth you would want leaking all over your clothes and other possessions.

    But in my hurry I forgot that, modern airport security being what it is, my bag would go through a machine at the airport designed to ensure that I don't have any 'liquids'. Both of these jars are 'liquids' within the meaning of the act, and the machine did not fail. 'You have some liquids in your bag,' said the polite but efficient security officer, and my heart sank as I suddenly realised what they were. But when I rooted around in my bag and found the rihaakuru and the dhiyaa hakuru, to say nothing of telulikeyo and bondi peeping out at every orifice, she could hardly help laughing. 'Are they presents?' she asked, sympathetically. She consulted briefly with a colleague, and told me that though I was not really allowed the jars, they would let me keep them this time.

    Sitting in the plane as it started taxiing towards the runway, the rain still falling, I heard my Maldivian mobile phone ring for the last time. I didn't recognise the number. 'Hello? Who is this?' It was Moosa, the carpenter. 'Hello Moosa! I found a set of pieces!' Click! He had hung up. I suppose he was ringing with news of some other set - perhaps real or perhaps another wild goose chase. Hanging up abruptly was not a sign of pique, but of Maldivian phlegm. There are no formal niceties - no native words for hello or goodbye, or please or thank you. When there is nothing else that needs to be communicated they get up and leave, or hang up. It is a little unsettling at first, but it has its attractive side. I switched off the phone, and the plane edged out onto the runway.
    Friday, December 14th, 2012
    4:43 am
    Addu and Foammulah, the two atolls in the far south - south of the Equator and quite a distance from most of the country - are quite independently minded. They seceded briefly - the Suvadive Republic lasted three years in the 60s. The British had a base on Gan in Addu at the time and their inconsistent and lukewarm support for the secession was a local sore point, but despite this, it seems most people regret the passing of the British - it provided employment with good pay and much better infrastructure than other islands - and the foreign influences perhaps gave people a somewhat different and broader outlook. Several people suggest to me that the British should have stayed, and considering that the alternative they adopted was to behave so disgracefully to the Chagos islanders, I am inclined to agree.

    I'd heard a lot about these atollsCollapse )
    Sunday, December 9th, 2012
    5:30 pm
    I've had no internet lately, so no time to talk about the three weddings in the space of two weeks, or learning to make short eats, or the overnight picnic trip to the uninhabited island of Vattaru with half a dozen guys, or the fact that I'm now back in Male' and am flying down tomorrow to the southmost atolls of Addu and Foammulah, which I hear are interesting and worth seeing. It will be my first ever trip south of the Equator. Then a couple of days back in Male' before flying home.
    Thursday, November 29th, 2012
    7:31 am
    Cigarette Greenpeace
    A local environmental 'NGO' ('club' would be a more accurate word perhaps), spearheaded by the island youth and rather grandly called Kaanu Greenpeace, is having its grand opening this evening. The deposed president is supposed to be coming. There have been ongoing preparations for some time rising to a frenzy the last couple of days. The Community Centre is the centre of operations where an endless stream of stencils are being cut and banners made, some in English and some in Dhivehi, and draped on nearly every street corner on the island (examples: 'BE PROUD OF MY KUDAFARI', 'WE DO RESPECT OUR ELDERS', 'TREES ARE FOR HUGGING', 'FRESHWATER AQUIFER DEPLETION THREATENS WATER SUPPLIES'). My favourite is in Dhivehi - someone read it to me - and says simply 'fehifehi mage kudafari', 'Green, green, my Kudafari'. Invitations to the grand opening tomorrow night appeared yesterday at every house, which really is advance planning: party invitations are often taken round to houses but only ever, in my experience hitherto, on the actual day (this was true even for last week's double wedding). On the beach a pier-cum-stage has been built out into the sea from scaffolding poles, carts go back and forth carrying things, a group of boys take a sack of empty Foster Clark's glass jars down to the shore to scrub them clean with sand to make lanterns to hang in trees, beaches and roads are swept, and stout bamboo poles have been lashed together to make bicycle racks all over the island. These will be populated in time with bikes which you will be able to take and ride to another rack. It's nice to know that this scheme will be undisturbed by even the slightest hint of bike theft (bike locks are unheard of here), unlike a similar scheme in Cambridge in the early 1990s masterminded by the totally bonkers Simon Sedgwick-Jell where all the similarly unsecured bikes, entirely predictably, had vanished within the first 24 hours of the scheme, set up with billboards and racks at great expense. The Kudafari bike scheme is an attempt to head off an increase in motorcycles, which are of course entirely unnecessary on the samll island, though there are already one or two.

    Kaanu means 'drain', I understand, but the name comes from Kaanu City, a kind of loose youth group and the name of one of the many football teams on the island. The word was adopted as a code word at school by the cohort that left school a couple of years ago or so, to mean 'cigarette', then a forbidden item to them (once they turn 16 all the boys smoke almost without exception). It doesn't strike me as the most auspicious etymology for an environmental organisation, but let us hope it transcends its carcinogenic origins.
[ << Previous 20 ]