Category Archives: History

Jane’s Story… The Internment of Japanese Canadians

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Jane Yoshiko Ikeda Hayes

Part One

The album is compact yet weighty, a visual archive of a Canadian history. Many of the small black and white photographs hit me like a blast of cold air, none more so than the photo of the Tashme Internment Camp. Hastily built in the interior of British Columbia, row upon row of tiny shacks stand in a bleak winter landscape. The image records a place where the freezing mountain air rendered the winters unbearable for those incarcerated there – fellow Canadians of Japanese origin. I’ve come across this same photo online and of other camps. Now, I sit across from a survivor who endured the misery of Tashme, and so much more.

The petite, elegant lady has entrusted the album – and her story – to me; I consider it an honour. White calligraphy on black, the inside inscription on the album reads, “May 13th, 1947, To Yoshiko Jane Ikeda, On Her Sixth Birthday.” 

The second photo I gaze upon on is one of Jane herself. About two years old, she’s wearing a darling white coat and dress, stitched by her mother. Standing for the camera with her older brother, it is a sweet photograph of siblings. Yet they – Canadian citizens imprisoned during World War Two and its aftermath for nothing more than being of Japanese descent – are far from their home in Vancouver.

It’s early Saturday morning as I pour green tea for Jane and myself. The first signs of autumn are visible from my office window– maples donning a plumage of crimson red, soft rain pattering on fading summer blooms. Jane had asked if we could meet early today. “As it’s a painful period to talk about, I’ll need to walk afterwards.” At 79, Jane, a retired teacher and lecturer, is an avid walker and skier.

During our two-hour conversation, we have moments of melancholy, of sadness, of utter disdain for this shameful period in Canadian history. Jane tells me from the outset, “There are a lot of strands, like the elm tree you wrote of in Kaslo, but there are two significant people who helped ‘graft’ me. Helped me strip away the past that stunted this fragile tree.”

Yet to fully appreciate Jane’s story and the common history of the some 23,000 people of Japanese heritage like her, we have to understand the stage in which these crimes against citizens, mostly Canadian born, was set. And it doesn’t begin on the eve of war, or later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Tragically, it finds its origins long before that.

Despite Canada’s present day reputation as a nation that is welcoming to immigrants, overt racism against Asians can be traced to 1871 after British Columbia joined confederation, the point at which it became a province of Canada. Of a population of 50,000, white Canadian and European origin represented about 10,000, the remaining were mostly of Indigenous, Chinese, Indian and other Asian descent. Outnumbered and concerned about disenfranchisement, The Provincial Voters Act Amendment of 1895 stated, “No Chinaman, Japans, or Indian shall have his name placed on the Register of Voters for any Electoral District or be entitled to vote in any election.”

This also served the purpose of preventing these citizens from becoming professionals; doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., as in order to work in these fields, one had to be on the voter list. Year by year, further Acts were passed disallowing Chinese or Japanese persons from working on railways, in mining, or at selected companies.

We know from the Indian (i.e. people of the First Nations) Act and its many manifestations of discrimination against Indigenous people, how the impacts of injustice still resonate. The Japanese, who began migrating to BC about 1877, initially worked successfully in fishing, farming, mining, and logging. In 1905 an Asian Exclusion League was formed, the building white resentment brimming over in events such as the Anti-Asian riots on Vancouver’s Powell Street. 

Despite this, by the early 1930’s many Japanese Canadians – or Nikkei – excelled in fishing and the forestry industry. They were respectful, law abiding, upstanding citizens, over 60% of whom were born in this land. Many didn’t speak Japanese and had only a connection to their ancestral roots. Yet still, the Canadian government adopted progressively more stringent tactics of disenfranchisement, more than 100 orders from 1931 onwards – such as fishing licenses revoked for no apparent reason being one of many ploys.

Jane’s own family story is initially one of success that mirrors many other families. Success built on hard work, intelligence, humility, love of family and of their country, Canada.

All these years later, with some research and the help of her two brothers, Jane has mostly pieced together the family history – their parents, like many others infused with a culture of forbearance, simply never spoke of their early experiences. 

“The only time I remember my father referring to it was when a friend asked why he wasn’t bitter. That was the price I paid. Look at my three children, he replied proudly.”

George Yoshinori Ikeda was born in 1899, raised in Vancouver and followed in his father’s profession as a fisherman. When Jane and I notice a photo of him sitting at a desk while still a young man, Jane seems pleased that perhaps at one time he might have studied.

“He married well,” Jane reveals as we gaze at her family in a 1941 photo. Her brother is two, she, just a baby in her mother’s arm. None could know the tragedies that would unfold later that year. 

“After several suitors were presented to the Okimura family, my father was accepted to marry my mother, Itsuko. Years later, I was happy to learn that her family was from the Samurai class,” she says, referring to the hereditary nobility and warrior class of medieval and early modern Japan.

From the mid 1700s, the Okimura ancestry includes a samurai warrior. He would have commanded 10 to 15 foot soldiers and been able to read and write, even take on a surname. Historically, as with some cultures, common folk were known by their occupations. Okimura means, towards the sea, perhaps signifying that the Samurai had chosen to live close by the shore.

All those years later, at the turn of the century, Mataichi Okimura emigrated to Canada where his daughter would marry George, a man who also felt at home on the sea.

“My mother had been born here, but was sent back to Japan to care for her grandmother. Her English was always poor,” Jane confides, “even though she returned to Canada at 16 and helped start a family business as a seamstress. She married my father and, as was common at the time, she was taught to self-sacrifice, to obey her husband and her sons. Everything she did was for us. And reflection was not in her lexicon.”

“My parents were a good team,” Jane continues with emotion. “At the time of my birth they owned several fishing boats, three houses and seventeen lots in Steveston outside of Vancouver. We were well-to-do. Yet later when we had absolutely nothing, we always had love.”

The Ikeda’s descent into poverty through their loss of freedom, the stripping of their liberties, and eventual incarceration, began as it did for the majority of Canadians of Japanese ancestry and for the newly arrived Japanese on the Pacific Coast. As the war entered its second year, racial discrimination, partly driven by the commercial success of the Nikkei, entered the next phase.

“It was the kind of resentment that slumbers, then awakens,” one assistant to then Prime Minister Mackenzie King admitted. King began to ‘soft-peddle’ racial policies, culminating in the use of the War Measures Act by Decree. The government of British Columbia also began a campaign to rid their province of Nikkei. When Pearl Harbour was bombed by Japanese forces on Dec. 7th1941, it appears that some commentators of the time reflected that ‘it seemed heaven-sent’. As Canadians, we would perhaps prefer to believe that the government made rash decisions as they reacted in haste, that perhaps they didn’t realize the injustice and suffering their policies would cause. Tragically, the response was planned and carried out with precision… all perfectly legal in the eyes of the law at the time.

Canada and her allies were now at war with Japan, and even as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police counselled the government that the Nikkei were peaceful and posed no threat, the expulsion campaign began. Even though 63% of the Nikkei were Canadian born, fanned by sensationalist press and widespread racism, almost 1200 fishing boats were impounded. Japanese newspapers and businesses were shuttered. 

Prime Minister Mackenzie King issued his Orders-in-Council under the War Measures Act on Feb. 24, 1942, ‘to remove all persons of Japanese origin from the Pacific Coast.’ A slogan of the time, perpetrated by MP Ian Mackenzie in British Columbia, demanded ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the sea,’. All Japanese Canadians were required to register. And then, the men were the first to go.

Part Two

Jane was a small baby when her father was removed from his home and business. Like many other men, George was designated to spend his captivity in hard labour.  He was sent to work on a road crew, while others were packed off to farms or railways. In deplorable living conditions, George helped construct – with only hand tools – the Hope to Princeton highway, now part of Highway 3. Any man who begged to stay with his family or resisted these enforced labour conditions, was sent to a POW camp on the other side of the country – a large orange target on the back of his work clothes. “Where would we have escaped to?” quipped one survivor.

Jane’s eyes, and mine, fill with tears when she tells me that everything they owned was then appropriated by the government… the houses, boats, the plots of land. I can only imagine the anguish and uncertainty of signing the document that stated all would be returned after the war, or so they were promised; law abiding citizens still trusted their government. And yet, that was only the beginning.

Meanwhile, the BC Security Commission had prepared large exhibition buildings at Hastings Park for a temporary clearing site. With many given only 24 hours to pack, Itsuko was also given the order to take only what she could carry, a pair of suitcases, her two children, and join the thousands being herded into Hastings. Indeed, it had been a cattle and horse barn; the stench and filth still fresh in survivors memories all these years later. Lack of water or proper washroom facilities, poor food, the spread of disease, families separated… for any mother, the thought of young children in that environment is unimaginable. Without knowing their fate, confinement lasted for months. And on top of this they carried the burden of not knowing the conditions their husbands were facing, or even knowing whether they were alive. This was known as the First Uprooting.

By September of 1942, the peak of those simultaneously interned at Hastings is almost 4000, though 8000 were processed in total. Meanwhile, the federal and provincial  governments had deemed all Nikkei a national security threat and conjured an idea for all of those abandoned mining ghost towns in the Kootenay region of BC. Soon trains trundled the detainees to mountain towns like Kaslo, Slocan, Lemon Creek, New Denver, Greenwood, Sandon. Others were offered the option of back-breaking working on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba where they were permitted to keep their family intact. 

Itsuko and her two children were forcibly removed to a prison camp outside of Hope BC. Many women and children initially lived in tents while the shacks were hastily built – each 14 by 28 ft which two families shared. With her husband already exiled to a road camp, the young mother would find a way to survive the so-called Tashme camp. “The conditions were brutal,” Jane’s brother Edward is quoted as saying. He is the older brother in the photo and recalls his mother receiving a jar at regular intervals, filled with the paltry wages his father earned for building BC’s Highway 3. 

It is at this point in our conversation that I find myself truly at a loss for words and struggling to comprehend. I learn that with their bank accounts frozen by the government, the captive Nikkei were forced to pay for their own food, blankets, clothing and even for building supplies to make some semblance of comfort out of the shacks they had been forced to live in.

“Even hardened criminals don’t have to pay for their own imprisonment,” I read time and time again from camp survivors.

Like Itsuko, Nikkei women had no choice but to become the mainstay of their families. If they were fortunate, their meagre diet was supplemented by food items gleaned from other sources. “My mother never complained,” Edward is quoted as saying. “She was a capable woman. She sewed my pants, shirts, and knitted.” Itsuko, Jane and Edward were eventually moved from Tashme to the New Denver camp.

I visited the New Denver camp where the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre pays homage to the internees. Nestled in the soaring, soulful Selkirk mountains, the concentration camp comprised some 300 wood shacks built and occupied by the internees from 1942 to 1949. Having stood almost reverently in one of the family-shared shacks, I could envision only too well the harsh conditions and the years of suffering. There had been a school, a temple, sport teams, a Japanese garden, and an ofuro – a communal bathhouse. Yet the artefacts are haunting and telling. On display are items from home and of their life of freedom, mixed amongst the more practical and prosaic. As with other places of hardship I’ve visited, I am reminded of the deep resources a woman draws upon for the survival of her family.

I ask Jane if she has visited the Nikkei Centre, or the Japanese Canadian Museum at the former Langham Hotel in Kaslo, another poignant site dedicated to ensuring that this episode of Canadian history is not forgotten. Approximately 1100 Canadians were imprisoned in the village of Kaslo of whom the museum points out that they ‘turned frustration and sorrow into new and honourable lives.’

“I won’t go,” she says emphatically. “I’m not introspective. I never look backwards.”

This is in fact the strength of the Nikkei, to move forward with dignity and resolve. Even as the government breached its promise by permanently appropriating property and subsequently selling it at rock-bottom prices, they persevered and found a way forward.

In 1945, Jane’s family was reunited, then displaced to Picture Butte, Alberta. Although the war had ended, unlike the US government, neither property, nor rights (including the right to return to the Pacific coast) were restored to Japanese Canadians. 

The Canadian government now gave the internees two options. Move east, at least 100 miles inland from the coastline of BC, or ‘repatriate’ to Japan. Many of course had never been to Japan, didn’t speak the language, nor had any desire to go to a land they didn’t consider to be their own. And so, compounding the tragedy of the past four years, with many now destitute, having lost their businesses and homes, the Nikkei now scattered themselves across Canada to start again. Some 4000 took the government’s offer and boarded a ship to a faraway, war-torn land called Japan. Of those who took that option, many found themselves in the limbo of being shunned first in one place and then in another.

Jane shows me a photo of the shack the Ikeda the family lived in once they moved to the prairies of Alberta. “More like a kind of chicken-coop,” she says. Then about five, Jane has some recollections of this time. “It’s not pleasant, but I remember how everything froze-up in the outhouse, everything…” 

There are some seemingly carefree images from this time. Jane and friends in summer dresses squinting into the sunshine, and bundled up in snowsuits in the winter. Other family members also move to the small farming community where Jane’s father and an uncle become builders. It is here that another brother is born.

In April of 1949, all restrictions on Japanese Canadians are finally revoked. In 1951, the Ikeda family returns to Vancouver, to no properties or jobs, to start again. The family takes temporary lodging at a hotel, then a boarding house until the family buys a house on Killarney Street. Photos of it boast profuse cherry and apple trees, smiling faces as life moves on.

Yet I’m saddened to hear Jane tell me, “It was a little shack of a house. A lean-to was built on the side for me, damp and covered with black mold.” I ask how her mother coped, whether they spoke of the hardships. “Never, not once,” she tells me. It’s here that Jane reminds me, ‘we were poor, but wealthy with love.”

George Yoshinori Ikeda, initially provided for his family as a handyman and gardener, then as a janitor at the less than salubrious Niagara Hotel. He retired at the age of 83.

Itsuko returned to dress making, working in a shop on Alma Street, often stitching into the evenings at her own kitchen table.

“She stitched beautiful wedding gowns, but I don’t think she was paid well enough. Even now, I can see the elegant white fabrics against the humble background. We never ate at the kitchen table, it was always draped in white.”

Itsuko Okimura Ikeda, resourceful, brave and proud as any Samurai warrior, died at the age of 96.

As I pour the last of the tea, Jane tells me that, besides the love of her parents, she has had two ‘graftings’ that have helped her become who she is today. “I stripped away things that hurt me, I created a cocoon that stunted my fragile tree… forever stunted, but over-reaching.”

“The first graft was encouraged by Ms. Elliott, my high school councillor. She told me I had the intellect to go to university and helped arrange scholarships. Even as I slept in a moldy lean-to and was poor, I knew I could solve it with my mind.” 

It was while completing a degree at UBC that Jane came upon the deeds to the Ikeda family properties. 

“And still I trusted the government and wrote a letter with the deeds enclosed, there were no photo copies. I sent them off feeling my family was owed some compensation.”

No reply, or compensation ever came. In fact it wouldn’t be until 1988 that the Canadian Government formally apologized and a redress payment was made. Some 1800 internees had died from diseases, many had passed away, the 13,000 remaining survivors were each paid $21,000. Additional funds were paid to a community fund.

Jane earned her degree in 1964, then taught in Trail BC. 

“I moved to Alberta to learn how to ski. I met Mike while both teaching at Western Central High School in Calgary. We married in 1972. Mike became a Commanding Officer, eventually we moved here to Kimberley where we’ve bought and sold many homes. We live a good, active life.”

“And this is where my second graft comes in,” Jane continues. “A friend of mine could see beyond the cocoon to my fragile self. She saw there was massive pain at the heart of my dwarfing… that I’ve been so busy obliterating my past.”

As we browse again through the photo album and finish the conversation, Jane admits that she’s never paid much attention to it. 

“My Uncle Arthur gave it to me. It’s his artistic handwriting; he never married and took time to pay attention to his nieces and nephews.”

I tell Jane what a tangible poignant gift it is and ask about the photograph of the lush tree in bloom.

“It was a Queen Anne cherry. I never liked it much since I preferred Bing cherries, sweeter and more prized as you had to buy them. I guess even then when you’re dirt poor, you put monetary value on things…”

“Are you more at peace?” I ask Jane.

“Oh sure,” she admits, yet something she mentioned earlier lingers. 

“I’ve heard it said that certain races such as the Japanese and the Jewish carry around pain. When you carry pain, you live through your ego. To live in the now, you must accept and acknowledge your past, appreciate the present as it is.”

As Jane leaves the comfort of my office for her walk in the moody September morning, it’s my fervent wish that her family’s story and the painful history of those other fellow Canadians be told and shared widely so that we never forget.

One last photo speaks to me as I begin to write that morning. It is of a school room in Southern Alberta in 1949, the year in which their rights as Canadian citizens were reinstated. Jane is sitting behind three other girls in the first row, smiling with her classmates. The other children of Japanese heritage were likely also from families sent to work in the sugar beet fields. What strikes me is how normal this scene is, as well it ought to be, and perhaps how oblivious the other children were to what their classmates had endured. A reminder that we must know and teach each generation the past.

I close the photo album of Yoshiko Jane Ikeda – a strong, contemplative woman with a complex identity, now able to claim her past. As she bravely confided, “I’m ready to put a face to my story…”

Vancouver… Embracing its Architectural Heritage

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It’s surprising, perhaps even amusing, to think that one of Vancouver’s most popular tourist areas is named after someone who told stories… someone who talked, a lot. In fact so verbose was Jack Deighton, he was known as ‘Gassy Jack’. The story goes that with $6 in his pocket and a barrel of whiskey, the English steamboat captain rowed into town – now Gastown – and bribed the locals into helping him throw up a saloon. With the promise of a few drinks, a mere twenty-four hours later, the ambitiously named Globe Saloon opened its doors.

Today as I gaze upon Gassy Jack’s statue in Maple Tree Square in Gastown, a stetson-clad gentlemen chats with another, and I easily envision the days when the settlement was a rough and ready point for loggers, miners and shipping crews. It prospered as the site of Hastings Mill Sawmill, then with a beehive of warehouses, chandleries and outfitters. Once the Canadian Pacific Railway terminus was sited here in 1886, Gastown’s lively, burgeoning future was all but sealed.

In 1886, the town was incorporated as the City of Vancouver. Captain George Vancouver had explored the inner harbour back in 1792, the name Vancouver itself originating from the Dutch ‘Van Coevorden’ – denoting someone from the city of Coevorden. Tragically, all but two of the original 400 wooden buildings perished in the Great Vancouver Fire that same year. Rebuilt with brick and mortar, the area thrived until the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but as Vancouver spread out, Gastown became a largely forgotten neighbourhood and fell into decline.

Today it’s a vibrant area of bars and restaurants, bespoke boutiques, and a well-visited tourist destination due partly to its iconic but rather underwhelming steam clock. I watch tourists excitedly take their turn for a photo op with the steam-powered clock, built in 1977, but I’m far more drawn to the buildings that surround us.

Now designated a national historic site that includes some 141 buildings – most built before 1914 – I notice the styles ranging from Victorian Italianate to Romanesque Revival. I come upon an unusual shaped building, the once Hotel Europe.

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Built in 1909 on a triangular lot, the Hotel Europe was commissioned by hotelier Angelo Calori. Modelled after the Flatiron building in New York, the hotel was reminiscent of curious-shaped buildings at the time in Paris and Milan and must have looked both odd and ostentatious here in Gastown. Calori ensured the hotel housed one of the city’s finest bars where much of the business of the commercial district was soon conducted.

Still intact with its original tile floors, marble and leaded-glass windows, the hotel benefited from the proximity of the nearby steamship docks and a dedicated bus service for its guests. In 1916, however, the Hotel Vancouver opened its grand doors and the popularity of a newer, more opulent hotel quickly shifted the heart of the city away from Gastown to the southwest. With the eventual demise of steamship service, the employment crisis that emerged as the commercial district declined, Hotel Europe fell into disrepute, eventually housing a brothel.

Today the hotel is often used in Vancouver’s thriving film industry, despite its reputation for curious paranormal activity. It’s said that when the upper floors were being converted into affordable housing during the ’80’s, contractors were known to have walked off the job – unexplainable scratching noises and a ‘man’ dressed in a black coat with a flat cap were a little too much to contend with!

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Yet as intriguing as the architecture of Gastown is, the downtown core of Vancouver is where stately buildings have stamped their mark and defined the city; with structures such as the Hotel Vancouver and the Provincial Courthouse, now the must-visit Vancouver Art Gallery.

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Close by, I also come across the unique Marine Building on Burrard Street. Now flanked by steel and glass, it held the coveted title of the tallest building in the British Empire when completed in 1930. The tallest skyscraper in the city until 1939, The Marine was intended to evoke ‘a great crag rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea-green, touched with gold’. I marvelled how on previous visits to the city, I had managed to pass by without noticing its outstanding Art Deco entrance. And once inside, the massive brass-doored elevators, inlaid wood and depictions of sea snails, crabs, turtles, carp and sea horses, speak to its then exorbitant building cost of $2.3 million.

The Marine replaced an old mansion, there from the days when this area was known as ‘Blueblood Alley’ where the wealthy settled before the West End and Shaughnessy Heights were developed. Unfortunately for the Marine’s developer, a former rum runner, the Great Depression resulted in the loss of the building and it sold to the beer-magnate Guiness family. All lost for a paltry sum of $900,000, and yes, there’s rumours of ghosts here too!

I find delightful Art Deco elements throughout the city. Although some shrubs and spring flowers are already in bloom, the still-barren trees encourage me to observe above eye level. And what a gift it is… street lamps in delightful flowery silhouettes that remind of Paris, apartments in simple designs yet with statuesque portals, meandering outdoor stairwells, artsy wrought-iron flourishes, and theatres with dramatic signage beckoning in classic neon illumination.

Of course Vancouver isn’t complete without wandering along the water front and the seawall, strolling through Stanley Park and catching a lift on the water ferries. My favourite jaunt? Hop on at Yaletown and cruise to Granville Island at sunset. As apartment lights twinkle their magic and bridges elegantly light the way, Vancouver confirms its reputation as one of the world’s most picturesque cities.

Still, I confess there are two areas of Vancouver that I favour above all. They’ve become like home… those familiar spots that you embrace with fondness and familiarity, yet with a certain excitement each time you visit. Thanks to one of our sons who lives here, Kitsalano and nearby Granville Island, now feel like my own neighbourhood.

Vancouver, and the area known as Kitsilano, has been home to indigenous people for as long as 10,000 years ago. The name Kitsilano is a derivative of an esteemed Squamish chief. The city is located in the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish people, their way of life changed forever when explorer Simon Fraser became the first-known European to set foot here in 1808.

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At the heart of ‘Kits’, as the locals fondly refer to it, is its wide-open beach –  for contemplation, gazing across to the mountains, for swimming, beach volleyball and kayaking. It anchors a sought-after neighbourhood – though one with steep property and rental prices to match – ideal because of its proximity to downtown, quiet tree-lined streets and its hip shopping on West 4th.

Yet in the 1960’s not only was the area still inexpensive, it was a creative hotbed of the hippie culture. It’s here that Greenpeace and the Green Party of Canada was founded, where some of the first vegetarian and vegan restaurants sprang up, where many of the first neighbourhood pub licenses were issued. Kitsilano is an example of an area that become gentrified by that then-trendy new group of professionals… the yuppies. They sought out and evolved a neighbourhood.

On Valentine’s Day, the corner store – yes just around the corner – has a flourish of customers. Owner Jim has a sunny rapport and his shop is a veritable treasure trove of all you might need on any given day. Today as he helps locals choose their bouquets, his friendly banter and smile is infectious. Jim tells me he’s been here ‘a long time’ and when he greets customers by name, along with their canine pets, I’m reminded of how vital a close-knit neighbourhood is, especially within a large city.

The charming streets of Kits have long been a community with its own identity and speaks to its different periods – of middle and working-class homes built before WWI in the California or Craftsman Bungalow style with broad verandahs and pitched gables. Of low-rise apartment buildings from the ’60’s and 70’s, palm-trees decorate out front, with fanciful names like The Flamingo and The Palm Breeze. And of once well-appointed suites like The Norman, The Croydon, now subdivided into as many apartments as city bylaws permit.

When electric street-car service wended its way to the area in 1903, West 4th became the ‘High Street’ of Kitsilano and is still the place to be, to shop, to dine and drink. The eclectic mixed assemblage of buildings is fascinating and whether it’s the former stalwart and classical Canadian Bank of Commerce or an adobe-style restaurant, there’s a happy mishmash of building styles and reinventions.

Admittedly, the attraction of Vancouver itself is obvious. The ocean and mountains meld into beautiful co-existence, the architectural delights of downtown and in places like Kitsilano, Gastown, and amongst the vibrant colour on Granville Island, all unfold subtly, then dramatically… all forming Vancouver into one of my favourite cities, anywhere.

 

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From Italy, with love… a few unsent postcards

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As with previous years, January finds me dreamily perusing last year’s photos and notebooks. There isn’t always time to write while I’m travelling, so in the chill of midwinter, I gladly relive a few of those interesting vignettes. All three of the settings were first-time visits. Oh the joy of unanticipated discoveries! So today, let’s wander back to Italy…

 

Bologna… of porticoes, tall towers and gastronomy

I can’t think why Bologna hadn’t been on my list of Italian cities to visit. It is now perhaps in the top five of my treasured collection.

Why Bologna? It’s quite simple… the towers, the porticoes, and the food.

Let’s begin with the setting – an architectural feast of light and shadows created by kilometre after kilometre of arched walkways. In fact the over thirty-eight kilometres of porticoes (harking back to the porticus of Roman times) which through their varied construction tell stories spanning the ages – from medieval wooden to frescoed renaissance to the austere functionality of post world war II.

They are simply beautiful. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I found them entrancing, and useful as the rain dampened the streets late one afternoon. Through their evocative and protecting arch ways, we ‘mazed’ our way to another of the cities’ well-known landmarks, the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. At over 97 meters tall, the Asinelli Tower tops that of Pisa – I know, it gets all the attention – but with its little sis, Garisenda nestled beside it, these two are excellent examples of tower homes.

Becoming prominent from the pre-Renaissance period, wealthy, feuding families in the 12th and 13th centuries attempted to outbuild each other, for the purpose of defensive and sheer rivalry. Often taking as long as ten years to construct, as many as 180 of these laboriously built ‘homes’ once dotted Bologna’s skyline. By the end of the 1200’s many had collapsed or been dismantled, making these two ‘sister’s that much more valuable. I admit that despite their enduring presence, they don’t quite have the same allure as the leaning tower in Pisa. Yet, their imposing silhouettes surely transport us to a vision of Bologna’s once-soaring skyline.

Bologna understands both old… and modern vibrancy. The city boasts the world’s oldest university, rendered new by the young and edgy vibe of student life. Students gather and commune in the squares, under and near the porticoes, and most definitely in the Quadrilatero. This compact area is teeming day and night with market stalls, lavish gourmet deli shops and packed cafes.

After all, Bologna is known as La Grassa, the fat one. To say that it is renowned for its food would be an understatement to the Bolognesi. This is where ragu or bolognese originated. Where delicate pouches of ravioli melt in your mouth. Where the Palazzo della Mercanzia keeps the recipes of Bologna’s world famous dishes under ‘lock and key’. Yes, they are that precious.

So Bologna? An amazing display of porticoes and lively streets – a blend of many centuries. And a veritable feast for both the gastronome and the architectural connoisseur!

 

A Lunch Date in Cinque Terre...

There we were, eight of us on a day trip from our writer’s retreat in Tuscany – let loose in the Cinque Terre (five lands). For many visitors these once isolated villages, strung along the Mediterranean Sea, are a destination for hiking from village to village. We do no such thing.

We jump on the 9:30 train from Aulla, to La Spezia. Then onto the ‘Cinque Terre train’ where we cram toe to toe with day-trippers in sun hats, safari hats, hiking boots and backpacks. Yes, many are doing ‘the hike’ a pilgrimage of sorts, but we were definitely the ‘merry writers on excursion’. As the crowded train whisks through the countryside, we catch brief glimpses of tall cypresses against country villas, castles clinging to hilltops, and then finally, of the dazzling Mediterranean. It was official – we had arrived at the Italian Riviera.

We alight at Monterosso and soon cozy-up at an outdoor cafe. Soaking in the shimmering sea, we order our first espressos of the day. We watch loungers and bathers claim their spots under paint-box-orange and Italian-green umbrellas. We, on the other hand, wander. A hat for all is in order and carefully chosen. Then we embark upon a slow, picturesque stroll along an ancient via. It meanders, and along with prickly pears and milky-green olive trees, it clings precariously to the hillside. The emerald-green-turquoise-saphire-blue water fans out below us like a rich, shimmering fabric. Being writers, we ponder… surely there must be a word for such a brilliant colour. None is conjured!

We hop onto a short ferry ride to Vernazza, which despite swarms of tourists and cruise ship passengers, still feels authentic and genuine. It’s an old sea-faring town with car-free, narrow lanes snaking upwards, fringed with mountainside vineyards just beyond the small settlement.

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We join the fray in the busy piazza. It is seemingly laundry day, townfolk’s washing hanging from tall, peeling and faded pastel homes. As in Venice, the port’s water once lapped against the houses themselves, but now this main square folds down to the water; a beach, an impromptu soccer field, a place for passiagetta, the evening ritual of strolling.

It’s time for a late lunch and Roberto, our favourite Italian guy and in our group, manages to secure us a table at a restaurant with a view, Ristorante Gambio Rosso. It is ideally located on the square… allowing us to gaze out to the small inlet, to the crowds and up to the floating laundry. Now Roberto, our ‘gentleman on tour’, becomes our unofficial translator as we navigate the menu. We then dine in sheer pleasure. It is the scrumptious food, refreshing local wine and glorious company over a luxurious long lunch. Allore, it was surely a mix of the right place and the excellent company of ‘merry writers’.

The Cinque Terre –  and especially Vernazza – claimed a little of our hearts that day.

 

Trieste… of the grand, of light on pastel 

Trieste? Yet another unexpected delight hints that there will be yet more to find. Head north, past Venice, 150km onwards, to the very eastern top of Italy’s ‘boot’. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, on the Gulf of Trieste, this once prosperous seaport was one of the oldest cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it feels a little like Vienna, or Salzburg with stately opulent buildings, many that harken back to the days of mighty shipping companies.

We explore endlessly, we eat often, and sometimes we hide in neighbourhood bars from that wind – the north-easterly bora – racing briskly up the Adriatic. In one, I taste the sweetest, thickest, most delicious hot chocolate I already know I’ll ever savour. It’s barely noon, but the bar is busy. A place where wine and beer already flows and where the daily paper is ritually digested.

When the sun comes out, Trieste is full of light dancing on pastel-hued buildings. Its grand square is simply resplendent. I’m taken aback at how ‘unItalian’ it feels. But then this storied city has always been at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.

We also explore the coast in a little Fiat, grand castles and hillside villages dotted along this narrow ribbon of land between mountain ridge and the azure sea.

Our stay is brief; in fact, we’re on our way to Slovenia to visit our son and his girlfriend. So Trieste… what can I say. Simply splendid that we happened to be passing through!

 

 

 

 

 

Poster-perfect Banff… a century of allure in the Canadian Rockies

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Still vibrant, these classic posters leap out, drawing you into their spectacular mountain scenes and alluring pastimes; skating, skiing, hiking, or just feeling glorious as a pampered world traveller… and all in the splendour of the great Canadian outdoors. These advertisements weren’t created by happenstance. They spoke of the promise of luxury travel to the Canadian West and no place better epitomised this than Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

I admit that a few years ago, I found it impossible to resist acquiring a limited reproduction of one of these treasured posters. They evoke a distinctive time and place, and also represent one of the best advertising campaigns of the late 19th and 20th centuries – Canadian Pacific Railway decided who their market was, and captured it well. The exacting quality and style that they sought, often called for prominent artists, creating posters by the thousands in different languages, to be distributed globally. They portrayed a dream, a lifestyle and on a recent trip to Banff, I wanted to get a little more ‘into the ink of it all’. How did it come about? How did this once obscure settlement, once known as ‘Siding 29’ with little more than a house and a small log store, become world renowned Banff?

It’s quite simple. Without the Canadian Pacific Railway, there would have been no unified Canada and, without the railway, Banff would never have achieved renown, nor would that splendid ‘castle in the mountains’, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, exist. The railroad helped catapult Banff from obscurity and it all began with one man’s vision.

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His name was Cornelius Van Horne and he had a flair for railway ventures. Under his leadership, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885 and Canada had achieved its dream of becoming a united country; connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Government of Canada was a mere eighteen years old. How would the CPR recover the enormous costs of building this ribbon of steel across thousands of acres of wilderness? They now had a railway and 25 million acres of land, an area larger than Ireland, granted to them by the government. Beyond the myriad small settlements that sprouted up close to the newly laid rails and the few burgeoning settlements such as Vancouver and Calgary, the vast tract of land was largely unsettled. But Van Horne soon realised there was an opportunity to attract tourists to Canada’s western frontier. In a moment of inspiration, he was reported to have exclaimed:

“Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

Van Horne realised the potential of tourism and he executed the next phase. The CPR began building luxury lodgings such as the Banff Springs Hotel, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. They would cater to wealthy visitors from Europe and the United States and the posters would become Canada’s ‘calling cards,’… but mostly for the privileged few.

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Banff had it all from the outset. Health-giving natural hot springs, spectacular scenery, legendary mountains, all rooted along and backdropped by the Bow River. Older than the mountains themselves, the Bow is a place where as long as 11,000 years ago, the First Nations people gathered wood for their bows along the banks… hence the name. They camped and fished the rivers, replete in trout: brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. They lived in what could be a harsh, but spiritual environment which they deeply revered. It was a place of seven-hundred year Douglas Firs, a landscape shared with grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, lynx, cougars and wolves.

Few Europeans had yet passed through the region: Simpson from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few military detachments, one Reverend T. Rundle in 1847 and explorer J. Hector in 1858. But in the autumn of 1883, the first tracks made steady progress up the Bow Valley passing and in 1886, through what would become Banff. This pristine wilderness was now part of the important link in the nation’s transportation and commercial corridor. Railway workers had noticed a natural hot springs and eventually Van Horne would convince the Government to reserve 26 square kilometres of land around the springs – the beginning of Canada’s national park system.

 

We spend our few days in Banff feeling as if we’re tourists. I’ve been coming here since ‘forever’, but this time we’re hosting family from The Netherlands and we savour the experience as a small holiday. We stay in a woodsy lodge where a roaring fireplace and a  colossal stuffed bison head presides over the grand room watching tourists from around the world come and go. We stroll the streets of the small town, the prominent Cascade Mountain aligned perfectly on the axis of the bustling Banff Avenue. We admire a cluster of small cabins, some of the first homes of the original settlers, now part of the excellent Whyte Museum. People like David MacIntosh White, who in 1886 followed the adage to ‘Go West, Young Man’ first working for the CPR before becoming one of Banff’s founding businessmen. More brothers followed David from Eastern Canada and the White (later Whyte) family would become naturalists, poets, painters, park wardens, mountain guides, ski adventurers; they and the mountain community thrived.

Enthusiasm abounded and by the end of 1887, settlers had applied for almost 180 lots, both for home ownership and for businesses. There were six hotels, nine stores, two churches, a school and a post office. Along came a log railway station, roads were built. An impressive new hotel was under construction and, anticipating what would follow, access to the Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs was improved.

We luxuriate in those same Upper Hot Springs one evening. It’s -5 degrees below outside and under a waxing gibbous moon, steeped in curative minerals, vapours steaming around us through the frigid mountain air, it is nothing short of breathtaking. In that idyllic setting, we all understand the long-attraction of these health giving waters. We return to our lodge room and gather around a crackling fire – it’s a winter getaway to perfection!

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The next day, I’m determined to explore a little more of Van Horne’s iconic creation. Van Horne himself, occupies a commanding position near the entrance to his Banff Springs Hotel, his statue presiding over the arrivals and departures of guests. Testament that  without his vision of bringing the people to the mountains, none of this might be here. When the hotel opened in 1888, its architect Bruce Price of New York, described it as a ‘bastion of luxury’. And bastion it was – with 250 rooms that opened seasonally from mid May 15 to early October. CPR’s advertising strategies soon paid off and they continued building their chateau inspired masterpieces. Even as round-the-world tours began in  association with P&O, CPR also acquired their own steamships, bringing the international set from afar to the Canadian Rockies.

The increasing popularity of the hotel as an international mountain destination (assisted by a fire) cried out for the need to replace the original wooden structure. Soon an eleven storey tower was added, then more wings, and in 1928 new styling was unveiled ‘in the spirt of a Scottish baronial castle’. Little expense appears to have been spared as stone-cutters from Italy and masons from Scotland were brought in to render this masterpiece!

As I wander through the sprawling hotel, it is rich with carvings, tartan carpets, soaring fireplaces, ballrooms that seem to beg for bagpipes, and million-dollar views. I easily imagine global travellers arriving at the station and being whisked to the ‘castle’ in a ‘tally-ho’s, the original Brewster carriages. Many arrived for their four-month stay, with stacks of luggage and a $50,000 letter of credit in hand to see them through the season. Their’s was a life of luxury… just as the evocative posters had promised.

 

 

I peer out to the Bow River beyond. It’s always been a multi-use kind of river – perhaps a curling sheet, a hockey rink, a backdrop for one of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, or a royal visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Yet as I gaze a little longer, I’m also reminded of those who laboured to bring the tracks to this setting. Those like the legendary Swedes, who they say handled the railway ties as though they were mere toothpicks. And the mixes of other ethnicities who contributed to unifying this country; Italians, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, British, Americans and Canadians. Most suffered hardship, many lost their lives, some stayed to settle this vast land. Their perseverance enabled more than two million settlers from Europe and the United States to pour into the west between 1886 and 1914 – the first and greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history. By 1901, this new country would have a population of five million, some 700,000 born overseas. Many would acquire plots from the CPR, choosing to homestead, our first farmers and ranchers. All of them welcomed, and needed in the new cultural mosaic of Canada.

For me, Banff is much more than the opulence of a beautiful hotel, the lure of stupendous scenery or world-class ski hills. It is about the stories that still echo around these grand peaks.

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If you go, allow me my suggestions:

Stay at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, besides the lobby, fireplaces are also in individual rooms.

Stop, or stay, at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Take the stairs to the second level and wander!

Be sure to luxuriate at the Upper Hot Springs. Eat at the casual and fun Magpie and Stump. Don’t miss the iconic Hudson’s Bay store on Banff Avenue. Visit the Whyte Museum. Stop on your way, or afterwards in nearby Canmore, stroll the shops and the the beautiful scenery along the river.

 

 

 

An ancient Greek meander… in the footsteps of a father, part one

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I had loved Rome, Paris and Istanbul… but Athens! It is profoundly special and awe-inspiring in its expanse of history and graceful beauty.

It was the perfect choice for our brief interlude. Keeping in mind that we would be laden with a pile of suitcases as we moved from India, we wanted somewhere en route to our destination, ideally warm, and a contrast to Asia. Greece was the perfect choice… and there was another poignant reason.

My husband’s father had been a classical scholar, a longtime philhellenic; a professed lover of all things Greek. George Greenaway Wilson was a didactic dad who took great joy in sharing his love of literature and military history, his bookshelves crammed with the works of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Euripides. He notably earned a Doctorate in Classics in his later years, studying the Ancient Greek language in parallel to better read the texts. Visiting Greece often with Bruce’s mother, Isabella, they had mostly forgone the tourist streets in cities such as Athens, Heraklion and Kalamata, preferring the clubs and haunts of local Greeks.

“He would unleash his Ancient Greek to the bemusement and delight of patrons in back-street tavernas and working men’s clubs,” Bruce recalled fondly, visualizing the scene with amusement.

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I had heard some of these stories through the years yet now being here, I could more easily imagine George as he transformed into Georgios during his visits. Bruce’s mother was very much a willing accomplice to the twice-yearly forays to Greece and Turkey.

“I can see why your mom loved it here so much,” I proclaimed on the first afternoon as we lingered over a languid lunch of Greek salad, spanakopita, bread, olives and a carafe of local white wine. “And how could you not, the food is enough to never want to leave!”

We were sitting in an outdoor taverna, Scholarkheio, a family run restaurant since 1935 situated in the quaint streets of Plaka. It became our local ‘go-to’ and from that first long indulgent lunch, the stress of the move from the past few months was lifted; a sense of recovery from the planning, packing and heartfelt farewells of India.

 

“Mom loved it here,” Bruce confirmed, as we imagined them walking these streets. “The sun and the heat. And the very drinkable cheap wine of course! There was never a problem with Dad luring her along with him,” he said, refilling our tumblers with local wine.

I understood this immediately. Athens is alive with colour, great food, wandering minstrels, and of course even arrays of Greek sandals to choose from! And wonderfully, it is a very approachable and walkable city. At its heart are the magnificent buildings of the Acropolis, overlooking the ancient settlement since 450 BC or so. Life radiates gently below – the charming streets of old Plaka, for dining, browsing and shopping. The ancient Forums and Libraries, the most excellent Acropolis Museum, and parks where grand sculptures rest amongst silvery oaks, fragrant olive and eucalyptus trees – I was quickly beguiled and in the city’s thrall.

 

Yet Athens is not a trivial holiday experience, it is humbling if one sets the span of a life against its timeless presence. It speaks of the founding of democracy and art, poets and scholars, and theatre of the great odeums where orators and actors guided and chided the world into independent thinking, towards democracy itself .

We stayed in the shadow of the Acropolis. The breathtaking view of the Parthenon held us spellbound as we lingered over drinks that first evening on the rooftop bar of the Herodion Hotel – feeling close enough to reach out and touch its aged, elegant marble. Its Ionic columns still evoking the power and refinement of ancient Greece. But life then, as now, plays out on the stage beneath its glorious prominence, fanning out over the plains and hills of old Attica.

After climbing the limestone crag of the Acropolis (literally ‘highest point of the city’), the magnificent ruins stood before us. While there is evidence that the hill was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC, it was the astute and forward-thinking statesman Pericles (495 – 429 BC) who coordinated the construction of some of the site’s most important structures and others that followed: the delicate Temple of Athena Nike, the grand entrance of the Propylaia, the Erectheion with its maidens columns – all stunning even in the fractured mosaic of their sun-bleached remnants.

I thrilled in the ruins, content for them to hint at the once glorious past. My engineer partner suggested that he would rather see the Parthenon fully reconstructed and on that point I had to protest. I loved imagining it in my mind. Like all Greek temples, it was richly ornamented in vivid natural colours of blues, reds and golds. Statues honouring Greek mythology posed dramatically – Apollo and Athena Nike the goddess of victory,  Zeus, Hercules and the messenger god Hermes. I can imagine the beautifully adorned women in their flowing tunics, the chiton or the sleeveless peplos, maybe a himation (cloak) for cooler winter months. Perhaps their exquisite gold jewellery glinted in the sun as they strolled the temples with offerings of incense and honey-dripped sheafs of wheat.

We had visited the excellent Acropolis Museum before the site itself, its trove of treasures depicting everyday life, allowing ones imagination to easily meander to that time. In fact I learned that meander, one of my favourite words, comes from the Greek meandros, the ancient Meander River which was exceptionally winding and twisty. The meander design was a common theme, replicated on pottery, clothes and jewellery. As one of the most important symbols of Ancient Greece, its connotation of unity and infinity in continuous interlocking lines represents eternity, an unbroken flow of things, like the meandering of life. And to this day it permeates Greek design.

The Parthenon is the crowning glory of classical Greece ethos and standing in the midst of it, we understood George’s deep appreciation of Greek philosophy and its role in the dawning of democracy.DSCF5838

“I wish he was here to share his knowledge, bring it to life for us,” Bruce said with a tinge of regret. “He always thought he was better suited to this time. Perhaps it was the philosopher-warrior in him, the deep thinker and the stoic.” His maxim might have been a quote from his favourite general, Thucydides, subject of his doctorate, who said that ‘The State that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.’ Having once been a soldier himself, this resonated.

“I wish I had asked him more questions while he was alive,” I lamented and Bruce agreed. “I feel the same, but he’d be pleased to know we are now trying to understand his Greece.”

From the high outcrop, it’s possible to understand how Athens became the dominant power of the numerous Greek States, though nearby Sparta was long its rival as were the Persians and even the Venetians, to name a few.

But beyond the impressive and dominant Acropolis, the daily life of ancient Athens played out on the gentle hills and plains below; in the temples and agoras where people gathered to trade goods and ideas, and in the odea where orators spoke and playwrights provoked their audience into thought. These impressive outdoor auditoriums were often set into natural bowls in hillsides. The Theatre of Dionysus was created in 530 BC, believed to be where ‘drama’ and ‘theatre’ was first presented, where Thespis (yes where the word thespian derives) was likely the first to perform in a play. The impressive Herodeion is a later structure, from 161 AD. It’s stone-chiseled seats could accommodate 6000 spectators and still hosts events during the Athens Festival.

“Oh to have been here to see Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, even the Foo Fighters,” I commented to Bruce, remembering this is also a backdrop for world class performers… the Greek god drama and theatre, Dionysos, must indeed be smiling!

 

Our last day finds us meandering through the Roman Agora, the Tower of the Winds, and past Hadrian’s library of 132 AD, complete with music and lecture halls. I sit happily on a bench and contemplate… Athens is a lot to take in.

IMG_5587I muse over the people I’ve met and how they all showed me something of their kind nature. The lovely mother I happened to chat with as I appreciated her daughter’s May Day laurel that her father had crafted. And the waiter at Scholarkheio who found one of my camera memory cards and tracked me down to return it. Or the shopkeeper I met as I perused modern day chitons. We connected immediately.

“Do you feel like you’ve been here before?” She asked, as if she could sense how connected I felt, how I was claiming Athens as my own, even to having my own chiton.

Taking out one of George’s books that I had thought to pack at the last moment, I read quotes from the great poet and playwright Euripedes who lived around 400 BC. How fresh, how poignant his words are still today. And I think of George who was always one to ponder…

Nothing is hopeless, we must hope for everything.

It is a good thing to be rich and strong, but it is a better thing to be loved.

There is just one life for each of us: our own.

Experience travel – these are an education in themselves.

Yes, the last one particularly rings true to me and as much as Athens has thrilled me, it’s time to meander to the small island of Hydra… to be continued

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘India 101’… The Taj Mahal and to Dehli, part two

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It is a haunting image, Shah Jahan the great Mughul Emperor, peering out over the Yamuna River towards the Taj Mahal, year after lonely year. Imprisoned for eight long years by his own son in nearby Agra Fort, Shah Jahan gazed out to his own ethereal creation, a soaring mausoleum to immortalise his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. In helpless captivity, it is believed the Emperor’s last breath was taken while looking out to his exquisite monument.
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It was Valentine’s Day, 1989, when Bruce and I first ventured to the Taj Mahal. We had driven past the monument the day before. Young romantics that we were, we averted our eyes to save the first glimpse for that special occasion. Alighting from our cycle rickshaw, we paid a few rupees and quietly strolled into the grounds, walking directly into heart of the great edifice. It was so casual yet magical, breathtaking and yes, incredibly romantic.

Fast forward to the day of our second visit, we now join many thousands of people. Walking through the grand portal, we behold the luminous marble icon, a collective gasp issuing from onlookers, thrilled at this first glimpse, murmurs and exclamations of delight rippling the air; one of the seven wonders of the world is before us! There is no doubt, it is still as breathtakingly stunning as on our first visit.

Long lines of visitors patiently wind themselves around the perimeter and yet more stroll the grounds, serenity and solitude now firmly of the past – this time the experience is a shared one. Shared too with our family – and we’re all unanimous in our surprise at the sheer magnificence of the monument. As the visit turns into two hours maybe three, I realise that I’m surrounded by a sense of communal joy. We all wait patiently for a spot that affords that perfect backdrop for a photo. Cameras exchange and we take each other’s pictures. Snatches of many languages can be heard. Our ‘kids’ are asked to join group selfies… simply, there is a collective exuberance in the air.

“Are you happy to be back sweetheart,” my husband asks, squeezing my hand. I feel as if every pore of me is smiling – the answer is most definitely yes.

A mixture of Indian, Persian and Islamic influences, the Taj seems to have been transported from the heavens themselves and placed ever so gently on earth. Its construction however was indeed by mortal men – all 22,000 of them, aided by 1000 elephants. Masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans were requisitioned from the across the Mughal empire, Central Asia and Iran. The Taj Mahal was completed in 1653, after 22 years of construction.

IMG_2770Mumtaz had been Shah Jahan’s third wife and by all accounts his closest confidant. She died giving birth to their fourteenth child and during two years of mourning, the king shunned the court’s previously lavish lifestyle – of dancing girls and harems, of rich furnishings, jewels and grand processions.

His sons would battle for the empire they soon hoped to claim from their father, and, when Shah Jahan did not fully recover from an illness, he was declared incompetent to rule and placed under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb.

The house of his arrest was in fact Shah Jahan’s stately home, Agra Fort. We make our way there early the next morning. It’s a cold and misty start, two pashmina scarves attempt to keep me warm. And similar to the previous day, rickshaw drivers almost come to blows over who gets our fare. Tension levels in Agra can become a little elevated and, save for its spectacular monuments, it is not an attractive city – you visit the Taj, the fort, perhaps Fatehpur Sikri, and you leave. Many tourists choose to day-trip from Dehli.

Yet I feel the fort is an integral part of Shah Jahan’s story and a must-see. Once a red sandstone edifice from which the Mughul’s ruled from 1558, it was rebuilt to Shah Jahan’s own specifications after ascending to the throne in 1628 as the fifth Mughul Emperor. As with the Taj Mahal, his penchant for white marble is evident and the misty morning renders it even more ethereal, more translucent, more serene than I remember. It’s as if he commanded, ‘Let there be columns by the score, exquisite arches in abundance, vast quarters for my harem!” The effect is beautiful, almost mirage-like. So too is the ‘magic imagery’ that our tour guide encourages us to have fun with. Yet he becomes somber when relating Shah Jahan’s ‘fort arrest’.

On this morning, it is impossible to view the Taj just across the river from where the deposed Emperor languished. But I know it is out there hiding in the mist, and I envision the ruler on his fort balcony – counting his prayer beads, meditating, hoping and waiting for release, for the chance to visit Mumtaz Mahal’s grave just once more. He was laid to rest beside her at his death in 1666.

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Back on the streets, Agra has come alive as shopkeepers and vendors hope to entice the thousands upon thousands of tourists – with street food and tiny Taj replicas, with marble this and marble that. Or in my case, with a chess set. “We’re on the train today, let’s buy one!” I declare, this experienced traveller unknowingly about to encounter a classic North Indian scam.

It takes place in front of a shop and a fellow has interested me in a small chess set. I negotiate and we agree on 500 rupees (about 10 dollars), I only have a Rs. 2000 note and hand it to him. I watch him go into the shop with my money. He comes out followed by two other men with 1500 rupees in his hand.

“Give me the 2000, here’s your change,” the shopkeeper demands.

“No, I already gave you a 2000 note,” I protest.

“No, no note. Now you give me 2000,” he insists.

I check my wallet. Yes, I have already given him the 2000. Unbelieveably, the two men who followed the shopkeeper out, are also now insisting that I had not yet handed over the 2000, despite not being witness to the initial transaction.

“I absolutely gave you 2000 rupees. Come on, I live in India. I know what you’re trying to do here,” I say furiously.

One of my sons confirms that I’ve already given the money, but by this time a crowd has gathered. We argue but he doesn’t back down. Finally, grabbing the 1500 rupees from his hand, I practically throw his chess set back at him.

“You’re a thief! I don’t want your goods and you should feel ashamed of yourself for taking advantage of people.” The crowd looks on bemused and the man has made another easy 500 rupees. It is not a lot of money, it’s the principle, but it isn’t worth causing a scene. Besides, it is life in India… always a contrast of the beautiful and the wanting, the gentle soul and the manipulative, of reconciling our privilege against those working so hard to feed their families. I’m upset with myself, but the nearby street food wallahs soon help me forget my wounded pride. They are endlessly pleasant and when their hard work and long days are rewarded with compliments about their food, they are pleased and proud. Our middle son has become a bit of a street-food connoisseur and brings smiles to their faces as he partakes in the local offerings.

Making our way to the train station the next morning, the busy platform is welcoming as we’re greeted repeatedly by local travellers. We’re anxious to board the train and make the four and a half-hour trip to Delhi. We’re on the ‘slow train’ and due to fog it’s seven hours late, yes seven! We’ve been tracking its arrival into Agra since the morning. No, surely not ideal on New Year’s Eve.

The train pulls into New Dehli just in time for us to check into our hotel and to then celebrate. We reminisce about the trip’s experiences, the highs and lows, the laughs and the precious moments we’ll always cherish. But then the night isn’t only about India, it’s about family and the adventure that seven of us were able to experience together. It was magical all those years ago but to retrace those footsteps with our family… well, I’m so pleased I broke that ‘rule’ and returned!

Delhi is still to be explored, but with Andrew and Ayla having returned back to university in Canada, and one of us in bed with a serious bout of ‘Dehli belly’, the last fews days of our India 101 feels like a gentle footnote.

We briefly visit the Red Fort, yet the crowds on New Year’s day prevent us from entering its expansive grounds and even though it’s currently wrapped in bamboo scaffolding, its early 17th Century walls are impressive. Shah Jahan, feeling that the streets of Agra were not wide enough for grand processions, had sent his royal engineers to find a suitable site for a new city. Long a capital of empires, Dehli was chosen and with its strong Hindu traditions, the muslim Mughals felt they could reinforce their legitimacy to rule in the eyes of the people. In 1639 the vast plan for the Red Fort was begun, its extensive palace buildings were a small city within itself, where the emperor’s court lived in great luxury. A vibrant culture and commerce rejuvenated the ancient city, and with a population of 600,000, (greater than Paris at the time), its grand intellectual and cultural history is well recounted.

We find ourselves in the renowned bazaar area of Chandni Chowk, just outside the walls of the great fort. Designed by Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, Jahanara, it once boasted precisely 1560 shops. It radiates along a broad street and in that time, a central canal led to the square and reflected the moonlight, the chandni. Prominent residents enjoyed the evening air on caparisoned elephants passing through the bustling bazaars stuffed with spices, rich textiles, jewels, gold and silver.

Today the narrow streets are choked and hectic, noisy and alive – old Dehli in the truest sense. The air is pungent as mounds of spice sacks are laboriously hauled through the streets or piled precariously on bikes. We pass through the silver souk, the saree souk, the book and the stationary street, the spice and dried fruit bazaar, the ironmongers row, the purveyors of brass pots and cauldrons. Nothing seems changed since our visit in 1989, in fact if anything, it looks more aged as the buildings stand in various stages of decay and faded glory.

At Lodhi gardens however, the 15th Century monuments are still resplendent and echo the once great Lodhi empire. Perhaps their demise at the hands of the Mughals encapsulates our India 101 trip. Empires have come and gone, those before the Lodhis and those after the Mughals. Even as the East India Company morphed into the British Raj, ousting the Mughals, it too was destined to ultimately fall. From Varanasi, to Agra, to Dehli, the rich storied past is still here to embrace. On more trying days you must draw upon your resilience, but mostly, you are simply humbled and exhilarated to behold it all.

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

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

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

 

DSCF5086A passion for trains…for a mountain lifestyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

A passion for Whistler, and for hats

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The pride of a ‘forever hometown’…

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

“Are you from Kimberley?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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A train passage to Enchanting Hampi…

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Night train to Hampi – day one

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

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

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

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

Hampi unwrapped – day two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

A coracle across the river – day three

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Bangles are offered from a turbaned peddler.

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

“How far have they walked?” I ask.

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

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

 

 

 

The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people

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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?

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Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”

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“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? What did you know of the city before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government to educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.

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So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.

 

 

The Cameron Highlands…tea plantations and intrigue in Malaysia

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img_2936Forgive me for musing that death by trampling elephant, marauding tiger or mysterious jungle disappearance would have been more intriguing. Instead, and rather ignominiously, Sir William Cameron succumbed to an accidental overdose of medication for insomnia.

Needless to say, I’m not wishing for any such wildlife encounters here in the Highlands. A visit here had long been on my wish list – the romance of a hill station, vestiges of colonial life, sweeping tea plantations, and the mystery of a man who truly did disappear into the jungles of the Cameron Highlands. But more of Jim Thompson in due course.

In 1885 after the British cartographer’s death, his detailed maps of this area were somehow lost. Yet Sir William’s stories of a Shangri La-like plateau lived on in popular lore and fuelled the imagination of the generation to come. Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands pay homage to this intrepid explorer. His explorations would often last for months…risking malaria, leeches, snakes, tigers and Malaysia’s ferocious sun bears.

We begin the 60 kilometre ascent from the main highway towards the promise of the temperate retreat. Kuala Lumpur with its modern skyline and grand hotels is now a few hours behind us. This road, the infamous Government Route 59, snakes treacherously to an altitude of 1600 meters with its precipitous and ‘prone to landslides’ slopes.

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The narrow thread of tarmac hugs the contours, dipping in and out of verdant valleys past whale-sized palm fronds, dense creepers and riots of wild hibiscus and tall, crimson poinsettia trees. And bamboo, so tall and wayward, it arches into a natural canopy shading the road below. I am struck by the sheer enormity and improbability of forging a trail though this impenetrable, primal landscape.

I imagine Cameron’s forerunners hacking a pathway for the convoy, elephants steadily plodding, shouldering and crashing through. I picture the explorer sleeping atop his sturdy pachyderm, safer there than on the ground below. His is an image of the quintessential British adventurer; intense and curious, indomitable and stalwart. Perhaps like others he hoped for fame, but the spirit of the times also created remarkable individuals driven by sense of duty…and many who simply craved the adventure.

The plateau that Cameron spoke of would later entice the British Government to the Highlands. They desired a hill station – a retreat of cool, misty air – also ideal for cultivating tea and vegetables and flower gardens.

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Forty years on, Sir George Maxwell launched a new expedition. Starting where Cameron had left off, it was soon evident that elephants were not suited and Maxwell diverted to the once bridle path that we are now cruising on.

Route 59 weaves its way through settlements of the indigenous Orang Asli people. Their traditional wooden houses are set back from the road and stand on short stilts, protection from floods and ideal for air ventilation. Dogs laze out front and roosters peck all around. We pass the most basic of settlements, a woman cradles a pet monkey like a precious baby and children play with make-shift toys. I take a photo of a vendor’s baskets. They are brilliant against a striking vista and I buy something…anything…just to contribute to the family’s income.

Between the villages, the road is punctuated with hut after hut, in reality just rudimentary lean-tos with atap roofs. They are crucial venues from which to sell, providing income for the Orang Asli and other locals. Often just a few bunches of an unknown fruit, bananas and long, long runner beans dangle from the lengthy bamboo beams. And maybe some vivid dome-shaped baskets (to protect food from flies)…it isn’t a lot to sustain a family. But then, I don’t know the whole story.

This contrasts a small, hectic village where a gaggle of tourist buses threaten to block the junction. Mass tourism has reached the Highlands and stalls are grouped to entice the crowds, and the odd backpacker more prone to jungle treks than shopping.

A young man at a well-stocked stall notices me eying the mysterious fruit. Wedging out a piece from the tough, unadorned skin, he offers a sample of the fleshy fruit inside, “Jungle mangosteen,” he tells me. It tastes like the anti-oxidant-rich mangosteen I’m familiar with and this variety seems to be in abundant this time of year.

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Further down the road we pass a trio on a motorcycle. Junior is napping on the handlebars, nestled into dad who threads the family vehicle along the twisty road. A tall basket hugs the young mother’s back. I know these rattan vessels are used for collecting the ‘King of Fruit’, the durian. Despite its spikey armour, the durian is a fickle fruit. Once it has tumbled to the jungle floor, it must be collected quickly before its freshness fades.

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img_2827Risking tiger attacks as they scour the jungle undergrowth, durian pickers rush to bring the costly commodity to market. The putrid aroma of durian belies its creamy, sweet taste. Or so I’m told…I can’t bring myself to try the noxious fruit. In hotels and public transportation throughout S.E Asia, signs strictly forbid durian on their premises.

As we arrive in Ringlet, the first township in the Highlands, we chance upon Mr. Lee offering the coveted produce from the back of his battered Land Rover. He has an awarding-winning smile and does his best with his limited English. Yet he seems distracted, peering up and down the road for potential buyers. Mr. Lee needs to sell his ‘heavy as a bowling ball’ fruit…durian has a short shelf life.

Nearby, Sun and Crystal run the family nursery shop. “The Cameron Highlands is also the land of orchids,” Sun shares, “and for vegetables and strawberries.” She shows me stalks of spear-like asparagus, while Crystal peels back the husk of a sweet corn cob and proffers it raw. “It’s how we eat it here,” she says. When I attempt to buy some strawberries I’m refused, “No these aren’t tasty enough today, can you come back tomorrow?”

Sun shares that she has lived in Kuala Lumpur, yet prefers life in the hills amongst family, friends and fresh mountain air at the family farm. We’ll soon see the vast number of small farms for ourselves as they compete for prized terraced land alongside tea plantations. As I bid farewell, Sun and Crystal insist on having a photo taken with my business card. Promising to include them in this blog, Sun’s radiant face beams even brighter.

img_2894We arrive late afternoon at one of the former colonial hotels, The Lakehouse. Upon retirement Colonel Stanley Foster opened it in 1966; relatively late as guesthouses and bungalows sprung up here from the 1930’s onwards. The Lakehouse is how I envisioned.

It sits pretty in Tudor style and stately atop a manicured terrace with its white picket fence and pristine gardens. Once inside, reminders of the past conjure days when British government employees left their ‘posts’ and retreated to the hill station…or indeed decamped here to work for ‘The Empire’.

Victorian furniture and Persian carpets decorate The Lakehouse, objects from simpler times: archaic desk telephones, copper vases and spittoons, framed polo photos and worn church settles, cozy next to walk-in stone fireplaces. Yet a framed collection in the hallway conjures the true tonic of the Cameron Highlands, its flora and fauna. On display are green blumeis, lemon migrants, jewelled nawabs and Malay lacewings – delicate butterflies of breathtaking beauty.

Lemon migrants have flitted around us in abundance today. But as we enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, it isn’t what we see…it is what we hear.

Dusk is approaching and if you have not heard the ‘call of the jungle’, it is an awakening in itself. A rousing masterpiece, a veritable soundtrack of curious and mysterious notes. The din of frogs, insects, birds and monkeys. A sizzle of an electrifying buzz that vibrates the dense evening air. A backdrop for a second melody of chirps, coos, hoots and howls, of slow languid flutters and then long, rattling rattles crescendoing to a lingering his-s-s-s-s.

From the gorgeous terrace view, the silhouette of the jungle provides a provocative  backdrop. All aglow under the luminous super-moon, magical and mysterious. Nevertheless, I simply cannot contemplate the thought of stepping into the clamour and its known dangers (and I now fully understand how poor Cameron could not sleep.) And then I remember the afore mentioned Jim Thompson.

It was 1967 when the American architect, former spy, art collector and founder of the Thai Silk Company holidayed here with friends…just up the road at another colonial guesthouse, the Moonlight Bungalow. After an Easter church service and tea on the terrace, Thompson chose not to take an afternoon nap as the rest of his party had. He fancied a light stroll. Perhaps he donned his straw trilby hat and grabbed a walking stick before stepping into the jungle. Jim Thompson would never return.

I know of Thompson from his House On The Klong. On my first trip to Asia I visited his home, now a museum. The art collector assembled a number of houses into a luxurious long, open air home along a muddy canal in Bangkok. I was bewitched. Its art, sculptures, thai silks, and the sultry air intoxicated this young traveller. Was the wonderment due in part to the disappearance of the flamboyant owner who simply never returned?  And so this is where the mystery lies, in the thick of a Malay jungle…

At the time of the disappearance, local guides with extensive knowledge spent days searching for the 61-year-old. But to no avail, Thompson’s body has never been found. Any number of theories exist – devoured by a tiger, a planned disappearance, or being a former OSS agent, perhaps an elaborate kidnapping? But I digress…we are here to visit the tea plantations after all…img_3007

By chance we only have time to visit one of Cameron Highlands tea estates. The narrow road leading to the BOH Plantation is layered with small farms, providing a peek into daily life on the terraces.

Verdant terraces of vegetables…colossal cabbages, patches of mint and scads of corn.

Greenhouses with creeping strawberries, silky orchids and festive poinsettias.

And places to worship; a Chinese shrine, an Indian temple, a simple sacred family alter. It is a picture of cultures in harmony.

Yet before we arrive at the oldest plantation in the Cameron Highlands, we do stop once or twice. I must capture these dated Land Rovers that are ubiquitous and innumerable in this highland terrain. They have clearly been the work-horses for decades – rather endearing in their rusty, run-down, yet reliable condition. The Rovers ply these roads with produce on its way to market, with workers back and forth to the fields.

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The family business of the BOH Tea Plantation reveals itself like an emerald, undulated carpet. Rather than busing it to the base of the entrance, we choose to walk the kilometre to the factory. img_2995We pass barrack-like cabins where the pluckers live and we take the liberty of skirting the road, treading on water channels that double as steps and define the vast fields of the Camellia Sinensis.

The higher the tea plantation’s altitude, the better quality of the tea. A tea plant can live to 100 years, the BOH’s planted their first  in 1929.

The estate sweeps in all directions. One wants to roll a hand over their manicured patterned rows. Glide it across their unblemished, waxen leaves. How is it, how are they all plucked? One can’t imagine.

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We climb to the lookout for the view that must be one the finest in the Highlands. We sip tea on the terrace and sit contentedly. Yet now I’m distracted. One can’t help but theorize about poor Mr. Thompson. Yes, it must have been a tiger…