All the walks my wife and I do around Lake Como (and now Lake Maggiore, to change a bit) start in an urban setting. We take trains, or buses, or boats, to get to our starting points and we are perforce dropped off in small towns or villages. In the last couple of weeks, as we have walked up through the back roads of these towns or villages to get to the woods and meadows above them, we have noticed a marvelous thing: whole walls of the sweetest smelling jasmine.
This person has even made a tunnel covered in jasmine (I’m guessing it’s the garage).
The scent of so much jasmine has quite gone to my head and my fingers have automatically begun doing a little research on the flower.
Truth to tell, I already did a little research on jasmine for an earlier post, when I researched the only perfume of my wife’s which I have ever liked: Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel. One of its ingredients is jasmine oil.
As I noted in that post, there are a large number of different species of jasmine. Some 200 have been catalogued, and who knows how many more are out there waiting to be discovered. My guess, though, is that those walls of jasmine which we have been passing are Jasminum officinale, the common, or white, or summer, or poet’s jasmine (and that’s just the English names).
The logic for my choice is simple: it’s the most common jasmine in Europe.
But it’s not native to Europe. In fact, there is only one species of jasmine which is native to Europe, and only the Mediterranean part of Europe at that, the common yellow jasmine.
Even in this case it’s difficult to say it’s a European flower. Its range stretches all the way to northern Iran.
The biggest “hotspot” of jasmine species is actually in South and Southeast Asia, although the west of China, especially Yunnan, hosts quite a few species. A number of species are present in Central Asia, but I suspect they may have been carried there from the Indian subcontinent. Australia is home to a few species, I suppose as a southward extension of their presence in Southeast Asia. And then there’s a good dozen species in Africa, especially southern Africa. To complete this world tour, no jasmine species are native to the Americas, alas.
If the jasmine my wife and I are seeing is not native to Europe, how did it get here? It seems that common jasmine, along with a couple of other jasmine species – sambac (or Arabian) jasmine, and Spanish (or Royal, or Catalan) jasmine – originally entered Europe via Sicily and Spain, when these were Arabian kingdoms: common and sambac jasmines through Sicily, and Spanish jasmine through (appropriately enough) Spain. Since I inserted a picture of the common jasmine earlier, I feel I owe it to these two other species to insert a picture of them too:
But none of these jasmines were native to the Arabian-dominated lands either. The Arabs had discovered them even further to the east and had brought the flowers back to their homelands. They brought common jasmine back from Persia after they conquered it (a similar post-conquest westward transfer occurred with the lilac, as I narrated in an earlier post). In fact, the European name “jasmine” is a corruption of the flower’s Arabic name, which is itself a corruption of the Persian name for the flower, Yasameen, which means “gift from God” (such poets, the Persians!). And it’s possible that the Persians had come across the flower further east still. As for sambac and Spanish jasmines, it seems that trade, not conquest, brought them westwards, in the holds of the ships of Arab traders doing business with the Indian subcontinent.
Jasmines didn’t just ride westwards on trade routes. Common jasmine and sambac jasmine also rode on them out to the east, into China (another result of the ancient trade routes across the Eurasian continent – the “Silk Roads” – about which I’ve written previously). Here, too, the Chinese adopted the Persian name: Yeh-hsi-ming.
It’s interesting that the Chinese felt the need to import jasmines, given that they had quite a few of their own. Perhaps it was the pure white colour of these imported jasmines which attracted the Chinese – many of their jasmines are yellow as far as I can tell; I throw in a photo of one of the more common Chinese jasmines, winter jasmine.
By the way, it’s called winter jasmine because it actually flowers from November to March. In fact, its Chinese name, Yingchun, means “the flower that welcomes Spring” (the Chinese, too, can be quite poetic). This quirk has meant that winter jasmine has now also been carried off to many a corner of the world.
But coming back to the jasmines imported into China, no doubt their heady scent helped too; perhaps they had a stronger scent than the native species. Or perhaps it was these jasmines’ close links with Buddhist ritual (something which the early Indian Buddhists had no doubt picked up from the Hindus). Anyone who has been to a Buddhist (or Hindu) temple in South and South-East Asia will have noticed the liberal use they make of jasmine flowers.
By this reasoning, the use of these jasmines entered into China along with Buddhism, something else which was transported along trade routes (I have written earlier about a slightly different botanical story, the cooption by Chinese Buddhists of the ginkgo tree as a replacement for the bo-tree tree so beloved of South Asian Buddhists).
No doubt the Arabs were attracted by the colour of the jasmines (white seems to symbolise purity in so many cultures). But they were assuredly also attracted by their scent (which, I have to say, is indeed sublime). The name “sambac” points to this. It is a corruption of the Medieval Arabic term “zanbaq”, which means jasmine oil. As attested by the perfume Chance Eau Fraîche, which I mentioned earlier, the modern thirst for jasmine oil in perfumery is as great as it was in the Arabian kingdoms – actually far greater, since there are so many billions more of us on this planet now. Here is a field of jasmine flowers in Grasse, in the south of France, waiting for their oils to be extracted (a field owned, by the way, by Chanel).
But there is so little oil in each flower! As many as 8,000 flowers will have perished to produce this little, 1ml vial of jasmine oil (jasmine absolute, in the jargon of perfumery).
Perhaps the way the Chinese use jasmine to scent tea is a little more “humane”. I watched a no-nonsense Chinese video on the making of jasmine tea. Cutting out all the marketing bla-bla, they mix together about an equal measure of tea (usually green tea) and jasmine buds (common or sambac), they let the mixture sit for a while so that the tea leaves get impregnated with the jasmine’s scent, and then they dry it. The result looks something like this.
In truth, I’m not a great fan of jasmine tea. I like the scent of the flower on the air, but the scent of it in tea I find rather sickly. But perhaps this is because I have never had a really high-quality jasmine tea. I am ready to be pleasantly surprised one day.
Is it possible that such lovely flowers with such a delightful scent could have an evil side? Alas, it is possible: some species of jasmine have been declared invasive species in a couple of countries and are subject to eradication programmes. It is not the fault of the jasmines. It is our desire to fill our gardens with foreign flowers that is to blame. Take Brazilian jasmine, a lovely member of the family.
For starters, it’s not Brazilian at all. It’s one of the African jasmines, no doubt taken to Brazil from one of Portugal’s African colonies (remember that the Americas have no native jasmines; perhaps a colonial administrator wanted to enliven his garden in Brazil). In the 1920s, the “Brazilian” jasmine was imported into Florida. Initially, it was planted in people’s gardens, but inevitably – as I’ve recounted in other posts in the case of other invasive species – the “Brazilian” jasmine “jumped over” the garden fence and began to spread. It has now invaded intact, undisturbed hardwood forests in the south of Florida, where it can climb high into the tree canopy, completely enshrouding native vegetation and reducing native plant diversity. Here is a picture of this jasmine at work in the forests of Florida.
I was thinking about this this afternoon as my wife and I were walking high up in the hills. We were surrounded by beautiful wild flowers of all descriptions. Why do gardeners have to fill their gardens with foreign flowers when there are so many beautiful ones right on their doorstep? Another mystery to be solved one day.
Well, the evening is drawing in. It’s time for me to get ready to test something. I’ve read that the jasmine flower opens at night, so the scent is most powerful then. I shall persuade my wife to accompany me on a hunt for a wall – or just a modest bush – of jasmine, to see if this is true. I shall report back.
One of the fonder memories of my Boy Scout days is roasting a whole pig over a wood fire
and eating the resultant roasted pork, together with piles of crackling and apple sauce.
Not only was the food extremely yummy, but the aroma of the meat while roasting was … well, intoxicating, I think best describes it. I have already written elsewhere about this culinary experience, which I suspect tapped into something really primordial, the hunter-gatherer buried deep in us all.
Perhaps because of this experience, or perhaps simply because of who I am, I have always been extremely fond of roasted meat, both the eating of it as well as the preparing of it. My wife is the same. Unfortunately, having been inner-city dwellers for most of our lives means that we don’t get to roast meat too often. I don’t find that grilling a piece of meat in an apartment oven is a very satisfying roasting experience, and we have never had a backyard where we could roll out the barbecue set and grill the nights away. And, alas, along with old age have come restrictions on eating meats with too much fat attached to them (the cholesterol levels, you know …). This lessens the fun of meat-roasting even further: I think we can all agree that fat – melting and bubbling under the flames – is an integral part of the roasting experience, especially the olfactory part of it.
So it is only from time to time, and always in restaurants, that we indulge in a piece of roast meat. European cuisine of course has many offerings in this department. Apart from the roast pork of my Boy Scout days, which can stand in for any four-footed animals roasted whole, we have roast chicken, which can stand in for all those roasted fowl we see in paintings (or in manuscript miniatures as in this case).
It doesn’t have to be whole animals which are roasted. We can have cuts of meat which are roasted, such as grilled steaks.
They can stand in for all the meats grilled in barbecues like this one (although this lot do seem to be having excessive amounts of fun).
I think we can even throw in grilled fish.
Yes, all most delicious!
But actually, what I want to write about in this post is roasted meat from another region of the world: the kebab.
What prompted me to write this post in praise of the kebab was a quick visit we made a few weeks ago to Vienna – our daughter flew in for the wedding of one of her best friends, so we thought we would use the occasion to see her. As usual we took our daily strolls around town, and as usual we spent time admiring the döner kebab shops we passed (well, drooling over their offerings might be a better description) – without, I should hasten to add, actually partaking (the cholesterol levels, you know …). Here is a photo of one of these döner kebab shops.
For readers who may not be familiar with this type of kebab, its trademark is a long inverted cone of meat on a vertical spit. The cone is made up of thin slices of lamb, beef, or chicken. The spit rotates slowly, with the meat being kept close to a heat source to cook it.
When you put in your order, the server will slice thin pieces off the meat cone with a very long knife.
They will serve you your portion inserted into a bread bun or wrapped in pita or some other flatbread.
I have used the long winter nights since our visit to Vienna to read up about the döner kebab and all its cousin kebabs, and I have discovered a world of astonishing variety. I was partly aware of this variety from the visits which my wife and I made in the distant past to Persian and Turkish restaurants in Vienna (we don’t go so often anymore; the cholesterol levels, you understand …). The list of kebabs on offer was always long, a bit like in a Pizza joint, except that we could always understand the pizzas’ names while here we were faced with a gobbledygook of mysterious and unpronounceable names; we would choose our kebabs more or less at random. But now my reading has shown me the true depths of my ignorance. Kebabs flourish over a huge region, which starts at the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and stretches all the way to the farthest reaches of Central Asia, but which also extends down into the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as along the southern seaboard of the Mediterranean. This region maps closely onto the regions of the world which are Muslim, and indeed the kebab is considered archetypal Muslim cuisine. It is now, but actually the kebab predates Islam. It already existed in the Middle East long before Islam came into being, and it spread out of there to all the lands where the newly Islamicized traders and conquering armies brought their religion.
I do not propose to summarize breathlessly what I have discovered. I want instead to focus on the intersection of the kebab with another interest of mine, the global movement of foodstuffs and all the geopolitics which can surround that.
Take the döner kebab – which I should really call döner kebap since that is the Turkish way of spelling the name and this is a Turkish kebab. It appeared quite late on the scene, probably the middle of the 19th century, in the town of Bursa, which is on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, quite close to Istanbul. There was already an established kebab in the Turkish lands that roasted stacks of meat on a horizontal spit (there is still a kebab roasted on a horizontal spit, the cağ kebab). I suppose someone had the insight that if the spit could be made to turn vertically the juices would run down the meats rather than into the fire. The rotating nature of this kebab gave it its name: döner comes from the Turkish word dönmek, which means “to turn” or “to rotate”.
This new style of kebab-making caught on in the Levant, which was of course part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. They didn’t call it the döner kebab, though, they called it the shawarma – which is actually the same thing, since shawarma is an Arabic transliteration of the Turkish çevirme, “turning”. Shawarma has become an extremely popular street food throughout the Middle East, as this photo from Egypt attests.
And of course, as has been the case since the beginning of time, immigrants took their foods with them. We have here, for instance, a shawarma-based restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts.
The döner kebab also spread to Greece, taken there by Greek refugees from the ancient, ancient Greek populations in Anatolia and immigrants from the rest of the Middle East (victims, no doubt, of the rise of nationalism in countries which were created by the collapse of the previously multi-ethnic, relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire). Initially, it was sold a street food under the name döner kebab and became extremely popular. But politics intervened. The tense relations between Greece and Turkey precluded the Greeks tolerating the use of Turkish words, so in the 1970s, when relations were particularly tense, this street food became the gyros – which is really the same thing, since the name comes from the Greek γύρος, “circle” or “turn”.
The shift out of Muslim lands to Christian lands meant that the Greeks could also introduce a significant change to the meat used. Originally based on lamb (as are most kebabs), the Greeks started using pork as well as chicken for their gyros.
New Greek immigrants, this time to the US, took the gyros with them, so now Americans had two versions of the döner kebab available to them.
But the penetration of the American market has not finished! And here I have to go back to the shawarma, which was, as I said, popular in the Levant, including, of course, in Lebanon. The Lebanese have always been great travelers of the globe, and in the late 19th, early 20th centuries there was a wave of Lebanese immigration to Mexico. They took shawarma with them. Succeeding generations “domesticated” the shawarma, adding spices typical to the Americas to those from the Middle East which their parents had been using. Thus was born the taco al pastor, where strips of pork cooked on a vertical spit are served in a classic maize taco. We have here the server and the product, in Mexico City.
But Mexico was the host of two waves of immigration from the Middle East! The second was centred on the city of Puebla, where the taco arabe was born in the 1930s. Here, the dish stayed closer to its roots and is served in a pita-style bread.
And now of course, with the waves of Mexican immigration into the US, these two dishes have also entered into that country.
So now, Americans have four different types of döner kebab to choose from, each hiding under a different name! (plus probably the original döner kebab, which no doubt some enterprising Turks have brought to the US)
The flow has not been all out of the Middle East. The taco al pastor has been the subject of a reverse migration. In the early 2000s, it went back to its homeland, the Levant, where it is sold as shawarma mexici! It uses the same set of spices as in Mexico, but of course dietary prohibitions have meant that the pork is substituted with chicken, and it is served in Middle Eastern flatbread rather than the maize taco of the Americas.
Meanwhile, the döner kebab itself has been the subject of migration. When the Germans called on Turks to come and work in Germany under their Gastarbeiter, or Guest Worker, programme, they came with their food. Over time, döner kebab has become a hugely popular street food, so popular that an Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe has been set up to look after the interests of those involved in the döner kebab trade. Just to give readers an idea of the size of the market, the Association has estimated that in 2010, more than 400 tonnes of döner kebab meat was produced in Germany every day by around 350 firms, and in 2011 there were over 16,000 establishments selling döner kebabs in Germany. Why, the döner kebab is so popular in Germany that Angela Merkel has graciously allowed herself to be photographed slicing meat off a döner kebab cone (but do I detect a slight anxiety in the set of her mouth?).
According to the same Association, the story of the döner kebab’s rise and rise in Germany started at West Berlin’s Zoological Garden station, where an enterprising Turkish guest worker by the name of Kadir Nurman set up shop in 1972. He had emigrated to Germany in 1960, and had moved to West Berlin from Stuttgart in 1966. His döner kebabs were a hit with Berliners, fellow Turks took note, piled into the business, carried the döner kebab all over Germany, and the rest, as they say, is history. Part of the Turkish community in Germany migrated to Vienna (a peaceful invasion unlike the earlier Turkish attacks on the city centuries earlier). They of course carried the döner kebab business with them. Which is why my wife and I find ourselves drooling over the döner kebab offerings when we are in Vienna. And the Berlin connection explains why the Viennese döner kebab stand in the earlier photo is proudly called Berliner Döner.
Of course, when you say “kebab”, most people think of pieces of meat roasted on a skewer. And many would reply “ah yes, shish kebab”. But shish kebab, or şiş kebap to give it its Turkish spelling, is simply a generic term meaning skewered roast meat – şiş means skewer or sword in Turkish. There are probably hundreds of different types of skewered roast meat dishes eaten by the local populations between Istanbul in Turkey to the west and Dhaka in Bangladesh to the east. They vary by type of meat of course (lamb is the most popular, but just about any other meat – except pork – will be used somewhere; fish is also used, as are offal like liver). They vary in the vegetables and other servings that come with them. And – probably the most important – they vary in the marinades used on the meat. Every region, every province, every village almost, seems to have its own type of shish kebab. In despair at all this variety, I throw in one photo to stand in for all these types of kebabs, that of a Çöp Şiş, which as the name suggests is a Turkish variety of the shish kebab.
As if that were not enough, there are hundreds of skewered kebabs where it’s not cubes of meat which are used but minced meat. This adds another dimension to the possible variations, that of the ingredients kneaded into the minced meat. Here, too, in desperation I choose just one kebab to stand in for this group, kabab koobideh from Iran.
And then there are all the kebabs where the meat, or minced meat, is roasted but not on skewers. And there are kebabs which are more like meat stews. But I will draw a line here, otherwise this post would go on far too long. And anyway, as I said earlier, I want to focus on the global movement of kebabs, and there is more than enough to write about on this topic when considering just skewered kebabs.
Consider souvlaki, which I have read is considered the national dish of Greece.
As the photo shows, it looks uncomfortably like that Turkish kebab whose photo I put in above. Is it another import from the hated Turk, like the döner kebab-turned-into-gyros? This is the subject of much heated discussion between Greeks and Turks, with the Greeks arguing that their ancestors were roasting skewered meat long before they were conquered by the Turks. They point to the fact that Homer mentions pieces of meat being roasted on spits in the Iliad. If that is not enough, they also point out that there are mentions of this in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others. And if that is not enough, they draw your attention to an archaeological find in some Minoan ruins in the island of Santorini, dated to the 17th Century BC, which they claim was used to roast skewers of meat. I show a photo of the find, to let readers judge for themselves.
(I’m afraid that the cynic in me feels that putting skewers on the notches rather pushes observers to see what promoters of this view would like you to see)
On the other hand, if the Greeks have been roasting skewered meat since the 17th Century BC, why doesn’t there seem to be any rather more modern evidence that this has been a continuing tradition? The modern souvlaki only turned up after World War II, more or less at the time as the döner kebab.
But I will leave the Greeks and Turks to their quarrels and go further west, to Spain. There, there is a dish of skewered meat called the pincho moruno, the Moorish skewer.
Although it is now found throughout the country, its focus is in the south of the country. As the name suggests, this is a dish that was brought to Spain by the Arabs, either when they conquered the peninsula or later through trading relations; there is a very similar dish on the other side of the Mediterranean. Of course, the meat used is different: lamb in the Muslim lands, pork or chicken in Spain. Once the Spaniards turned from being conquered to being conquerors, they were a vector for a further migration of the pincho westward, as they brought it to the lands in the Americas which they had colonized. It didn’t take root everywhere in Latin America. It flourished in particular in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I don’t know about Puerto Rico, but I suspect its popularity in Venezuela has to do with the fact that there was a very large migration of Spanish Republicans to that country just after the Second World War, after they ended up on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.
But now let me cross over to the far eastern end of the Eurasian landmass, to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Given their Muslim roots, the Uighurs there have a tradition of eating roasted skewered meat – in fact, I remember distinctly seeing a Uighur grilling them on a street corner during our visit to Xinjiang back in 2010. He looked a bit like this.
The Chinese authorities may not like the Uighurs, but the Chinese like Uighur food, and this kebab, under the name Chuan, has become a popular street food all over the north and west of China. However, with the usual Chinese inventiveness in all matters culinary, Chinese cooks have greatly expanded the type of foodstuffs being threaded onto their skewers. We have here, for instance, sweet sausages and baby octopus.
I finish with the story of the satay, from South-East Asia. Satay is now considered a national dish in Indonesia. We have here a satay street vendor somewhere in the country.
But roasting meat on small skewers was only introduced to the country in the 18th Century, with the arrival of Arab and Indian traders and immigrants. However, Indonesians took to the dish with a vengeance and then its own traders spread it throughout South-East Asia, so that it now is common in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. They also made one very significant change in the recipe, the use of peanut sauce (the peanut itself being one of the foodstuffs originally from Latin America and spread from there by the colonial powers to the rest of the world during the Great Columbian Exchange).
Malay traders then took the satay further afield, working back, it seems to me, along the shipping routes which led from the Netherlands – the colonial power in Indonesia – to Indonesia itself. Malay traders brought the satay to Sri Lanka (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where a Malay community put down roots. It is now a common street food there. They took it to South Africa (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where they also formed a small community. It goes under the name of sosatie there: a combination of the words sauce and sate (the Indonesian form of the word). The Malays put down roots there too, and the dish has now been thoroughly localized.
Indonesian immigrants even took the satay back to the Netherlands itself, where it has become a popular mainstay of Dutch cuisine. This link, for instance, gives you the addresses of the 11 best places in Amsterdam to find satay.
Well there you have it, nice examples of how food dishes have followed in the steps of people as they have moved around the globe, for conquest, trade, or simply to find a better life. In the meantime, I have built up a formidable list of all the kebabs which are cooked in the Muslim lands. I propose to take it with me whenever we travel in those parts of the world, so that I can know what kebabs to try rather than just choose them at random from the menu. Always assuming that the cholesterol levels will allow us this dip into the world of kebabs …
I’ve just come back from Yangon, where I was giving a training course on the implementation of cleaner production methods. An interesting topic, but not actually the subject of this post. It so happens that on the first night I was there I stumbled across this picture.
This is Popa Taung Kalat, a monastery perched atop an old volcanic plug some 50 km away from Bagan. I immediately sent my wife a WhatsApp asking why we had not visited this place on our visit to Bagan. The question was rhetorical since I know the answer: we didn’t go because neither of us knew that Popa Taung Kalat existed until I came across this photo.
Which is a great pity, because I have a certain fascination for places perched on knolls, buttes, tors, or other rocky outcrops, especially if they sit in a flat plain and are visible from miles around. My wife and I recently spent a very pleasant evening in a similar place to Popa Taung Kalat, the small town of Laon close to Reims, when we did our tour of French battlefields of the First World War.
In this case, although it sports a magnificent 12th-13th Century cathedral
the outcrop’s original use by the Gauls was martial rather than religious; they built a fortress on the top. The outcrop’s military vocation continued for centuries thereafter. Given its position, this is not really surprising. Whoever commanded Laon controlled one of the major entry points into the Île de France.
Polignac, in the Auvergne, is another rocky outcrop where military considerations seem to have been paramount in its original colonization. The Velay family built the first castle in the 11th Century and continued to live there and rule the surrounding country for some six centuries.
Edinburgh, too, where my wife and I met more years ago than I care to remember, when we were both university students there, sports a magnificent castle atop an ancient volcanic plug.
Here, though, that rather special effect of being able to see it from miles away is lost, the old sight lines having been obscured by the urban jumble that has spread out from the historic core of the city which lay huddled at the base of the castle or which clustered along the long road, the Royal Mile, that led down from the castle to the royal palace below.
A similar stony promontory lies close to my French grandmother’s (now my sister’s) house near Mâcon, the Roche de Solutré, one which I spent many happy hours in my youth climbing.
It was first used by our ancestors 20,000 years ago to kill wild animals in large numbers. They would drive the poor beasts up towards the edge where, in their panic, they would fall off to their deaths below, to be butchered on the spot. The archaeological finds gave the name Solutrean to a phase in the Upper Paleolithic. But coming back to our martial theme, it is of greater interest that a certain Raoul de Bourgogne built a castle on its top in 930, and his descendants used its dominating position to harass those passing by and demand protection money. Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, finally decided that enough was enough and ordered its destruction in 1434. Popular jubilation was such that several people were killed in the crazed desire to rip the castle apart, stone from stone. Since then, no human constructions have gone up on the Roche; as the picture above shows it only sports vineyards on its lower slopes, vineyards which, I may say, make excellent wines – Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Solutré – and which have made millionaires of the local viticulturists.
Thousands of kilometers away, in Sri Lanka, another outcrop similar to that of Popa Taung Kalat, Sigiriya, is now the site of peaceful gardens.
There was a time, though, back in the 5th Century, when it was a fortress built by King Kashyapa. But it seems he was also a lover of the arts. There is only a small piece of fresco left now in a concavity
but apparently the whole western side of the rock was once frescoed. It must have been an incredible sight. Perhaps for the good of his soul King Kashyapa turned his palace over to monks at his death, who installed a monastic community. They stayed until the 14th Century, then moved on. It’s a pity that the last time I was in Sri Lanka the country was still being torn apart by the civil war, making travel outside of the capital Colombo risky. Who knows, one day maybe I’ll go back there with my wife and we can go and visit this enchanting place.
But actually, coming back to where I started this piece, at Popa Taung Kalat in Myanmar, while I understand the cold logic which drove warlords to view these outcrops as natural fortresses, I prefer the more mystical impulses which have driven men, and sometimes women if they have been allowed to, to perch a monastery, a church, or just a simple hermitage on top of such outcrops, where they can pray in peace far from the madding crowd. It’s given us some wonderful blends of nature and architecture. There are the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora in Greece.
There is the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, in France, which was first established in 969.
There is the little hermitage/monastery in Katskhi, Georgia.
The last picture makes me think of Simeon Stylites, the 5th Century Christian monk who, it is reported, spent some 30 years on top of a column, and who started quite a craze in holy men perching themselves on columns. There is of course no picture from the period but this is an imaginative rendering.
As for his column, this is all that is left of it after centuries of devout pilgrims chipping off pieces as relics.
Over the ages, monks have shown an enduring enthusiasm to climb up to inaccessible places to be left alone, leaving behind wonderful creations in the process. When my wife and I were in China, we once visited the Hanging Temple near Datong, a Buddhist monastery literally clinging to the side of a cliff.
The monks had excavated a series of caves in the cliff face, connected by a series of suffocatingly narrow internal staircases or alarmingly rickety walkways pegged to the rock, and then had clamped a temple facade onto the exterior. The effect is quite magical.
Meanwhile, in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, Christian monks had also burrowed into mountain sides to create their communities far from the world.
Some of the churches they dug out of the rock still carry their frescoes.
And up in the Ethiopian highlands monks have built their churches high up on cliff faces, like the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray province, which can only be reached after an arduous climb
and some sphincter-clenching shuffling along narrow ledges with long, long, long falls if you take a false step.
But once there, you are greeted with delightful frescoes in the Ethiopian style.
How much trouble those monks went to to get away from it all! I can’t complain since they created such wonderful places for me to visit one day. But surely they could have made their lives a little bit easier and still managed to pray and contemplate to their heart’s content. But hey, who am I to judge? The contemplative life never attracted me; the real world, with all its troubles and vicissitudes, but also with all its joys and satisfactions, is much more my scene.
Popa Taung Kalat: http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Burma/Mandalay/PopaTaungKalat.htm
Laon cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
Edinburgh Castle: https://erasmusu.com/en/erasmus-edinburgh/erasmus-photos/princes-street-gardens-and-edinburgh-castle-75483
Old print of Edinburgh: https://phrenologyandcrime.com/2014/08/31/edinburgh/
Sigiriya frescoes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya#Frescoes
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece: http://www.touropia.com/meteora-monasteries/
St-Michel de l’Aiguilhe: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Puy-en-Velay,_%C3%89glise_Saint-Laurent_et_Aiguilhe_PM_48569.jpg
Katskhi Pillar Church: http://orthochristian.com/89130.html
Simeon Stylites: https://www.vimaorthodoxias.gr/theologikos-logos-diafora/agios-simeon-o-stilitis/
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites
Hanging temple, China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Temple
Cave churches of Cappadocia: https://www.expedia.com/things-to-do/full-day-tour-of-cappadocia-region-goreme-open-air-museum-with-lunch.a395058.activity-details
Cappadocia cave church frescoes: http://www.aydinligoremetravel.com/goreme-open-air-museum/
Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN67Zsxx-Vo
Arriving to the Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_GxzdGS84M
Abuna Yemata Guh inside: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html
It wasn’t until our first Sunday back in Milan that I realized what it was we had been missing all those years we had spent in China and Thailand: church bells. The carillon that pealed out from the campanile of the nearby Church of San Giorgio
for morning mass startled my senses, and I found myself actually listening. Probably Italians, after a lifetime of hearing church bells, simply shut them out: “church bells? what church bells?”
It’s not as if the soundscapes of the cities we have lived in these last seven years have been very different from what we were used to in Europe. Like for everything nowadays, there was a depressing uniformity. The noise of traffic predominated; given China’s building craze, construction noises came a close second in Beijing. The one typically Chinese noise which we often heard in Beijing was the machine-gun sound of strings of firecrackers going off to celebrate the opening of a new business.
Since the economy was doing nicely, this happened quite often. The noise of firecrackers grew to a huge crescendo as the Chinese New Year rolled around.
We were always in awe of the massive amounts of firepower, in the form of firecrackers, fireworks, and other noise-making products, being sold on the streets in the days leading up to the New Year.
Bangkok was more interesting, noise-wise. From our balcony, as we admired the view over the Chao Phraya river, we would often hear the local muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. Muslims are a more-or-less tolerated minority in Thailand and as a consequence tend to be very discreet. The Muslim community in our area was no exception. So discreet were they that I never located the minaret and its associated mosque. Was it this one, I wonder? I saw the sign once or twice but never went down the narrow lane to investigate.
These calls to prayer were counterbalanced by the morning chanting from the Buddhist monks in the temple across the river.
In Thailand’s current politically charged atmosphere, where an aggressive Buddhism is emerging, one has to wonder if the loudspeaker-enhanced chanting was not calculated to remind the local Muslims of who was in charge, just in case they had forgotten.
There was also a period when a government institution across the river would blare out the royal anthem twice a day, at 8 am and 6 pm, to remind the populace to venerate their king.
Mercifully, from one day to the next, the loudspeakers fell silent. We never figured out why. But we were thankful for the respite.
Noises from the new religion of our time, fitness, would assail our ears in the early evening, as an aerobic class would start up in the nearby park at Phra Sumen fort, with the disco music booming out over the river, interspersed with the trainer’s shouted instructions and encouragement.
Memories, all memories now. From now on, our soundscapes will be made up, at least in part, of church bells. Christianity may be fading in Europe, but the bells will remain. They will be ringing out the hours of the day and night (even as I write this, the nearby church bells are striking seven pm). They will call the few remaining faithful to Mass on Sundays. They will toll somberly for our brethren who have departed from this world (“Cold it is, my beloved, since your funeral bell was toll’d: / Cold it is, O my King, how cold alone on the wold!”). I may even witness once more, in a Catholic nation somewhere, the bells of a whole city ringing peel after peel in a mad cacophony to speed the soul of a dead Pope on its way; I heard this in Vienna when Pope John Paul II died.
Yes, these sounds are part of my Christian heritage to which I return after many years of absence.
So my wife and I have finally left Thailand, after having spent two years there – we lifted off one last time from Bangkok international airport six days ago.
What memories of things typically Thai do I take with me?
Well, there’s tamarind.
Readers may find that a little odd, but tamarind is actually a very common ingredient in Thai cuisine. In fact, it was animatedly discussed at the goodbye party my staff gave me. It’s a fruit I had never actually come across until I arrived in Thailand. I had heard of it, but it existed as an exotica on the far periphery of my knowledge, rather like those strange beings which Medieval Europeans imagined lived on the far edges of the world.
I was introduced to tamarind by the kind lady who brought me my morning coffee in the office. She was in the habit of also bringing me any of the fruits which Thai colleagues had brought in for sharing. I was conversant with the other fruits she served with my coffee, but this large pod-like thing had me stumped.
I had to go down the hall to ask colleagues explanations of what it was and how to eat it (split open the brittle shell, extract the pasty fruit from its stringy support and eat, making sure not to crack your teeth on the small, very hard seeds buried inside the sticky pulp).
Thai cooks will extract the pasty fruit and use it as an ingredient in many of their dishes. I mention only two here, Pad Thai and Kaeng Som.
As probably every foreigner knows, since every foreigner coming to Thailand seems to eat it, Pad Thai is at base a dish of rice noodles, these having then been stir-fried with a whole bunch of things: shrimp, both fresh and dried (other meats are used but it’s not very Thai), shrimp paste in oil, soybean sprouts, firm tofu, chopped peanuts, scrambled egg, sliced shallots, sliced Chinese chives, sliced preserved radishes, minced garlic, sliced chilies, and I don’t know what else. What foreigners probably don’t know, because it’s not obvious in the final dish placed before them, is that a tamarind-based sauce has also been added to the mix during the stir-fry. This sauce is a blend of sour-sweet tamarind paste, salty fish sauce, spicy chili sauce, and sweet palm sugar; the particular balance to strike between these four tastes gives rise to much passionate debate in the Thai recipe world.
My wife was particularly fond of Pad Thai, but it is as popular with Thais as it is with foreigners. In our wanderings around Bangkok, we discovered a Pad Thai joint a little south of the Golden Mount, where the people patiently waiting in the long lines outside (which we quickly joined) were primarily Thai.
Pad Thai may seem very typically Thai, but actually in its present form it is quite a recent dish, having been invented only in the 1930s as a move by the-then military dictator to promote Thai nationalism. I suspect that Kaeng Som has a much longer culinary pedigree, since it has speciated, with every region of Thailand having its own variant. The variant I describe here is from Central Thailand, this being dominant in Bangkok. It seems that every street food stall sells Kaeng Som, although cognoscenti mutter that this is rat’s piss (my words) compared to the Real Thing. I wouldn’t know; I avoided street food stalls like the plague, desirous of avoiding seriously upset stomachs and consequent absences from work.
Kaeng Som is really a curry base to which you then add other ingredients. You will first grind and pound together, preferably in a stone mortar, chilies, salt, shrimp paste, sliced shallots, and meat of a freshwater fish stripped off the bones, until you have a smooth paste. You will add this to a simmering fish stock (preferably made with the remains of the fish), followed by tamarind paste, fish sauce, and palm sugar. Once again, the sour-salt-spicy-sweet tastes have been brought together, and you will fuss around at this point trying to get the “right” balance.
Now you are ready to add the remaining ingredients. Vegetables dominate, and it seems that Kaeng Som will marry well with a large number of different vegetables. I report, in no particular order, the suggestions given in the blog of Thai cuisine SheSimmers: morning glory, water mimosa, summer squash, cauliflower, green beans, daikon, Napa cabbage, green papaya, chayote, and watermelon rinds. This last interests me greatly, since I have always wondered, as I have thrown away the rinds after a good watermelon binge, what if anything could be done with them in the kitchen. I now have an answer. The same blog warns against the use of certain other vegetables: eggplants, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, starchy root vegetables, and green leafy vegetables such as collard greens. Vegetables as an added ingredient seem quite enough, but if you want you can also add shrimps or pieces of fish.
At this point, I have to confess to one major unpleasant memory I bring back from Thailand, and that is the (super-)abundant use of chilies in Thai cuisine. As I have reported elsewhere, I very much dislike chili and its ‘hot’ spicy cousins. This has been a major difficulty for me in eating – and enjoying – these or any other Thai dishes. I have also reported elsewhere how I made another popular Thai dish, Tom Yum soup, without chili and found that for me at least it worked perfectly well. If I can find a source of tamarind paste in Milan, I can try making Kaeng Som without the chilies and see what it’s like.
My dislike of hot spices also cuts me off from properly enjoying the use of tamarind in Indian cuisine. The use of tamarind is very popular in India, where the tree is widespread. Unfortunately, every Indian recipe using tamarind also seems to use chilies or something equally spicy. So I guess I will have to make do with Lea & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce, a small bottle of which graces the condiments section in our kitchen in Milan; as every aficionado of L&P sauce knows, it contains tamarind extract.
Legend also has it that this sauce has its roots in India. It is said that Messrs Lea and Perrins, pharmacists in Worcester, created their sauce back in the 1830s on the basis of a recipe brought back from Bengal by a certain Lord Sandys, a nobleman of the county. Although I suspect that this story is a bunch of bull, I’m quite happy to believe it, because it allows me to pretend that I am enjoying an Indian sauce, suitably adapted to English tastes, in particular with the use of chilies eliminated. This is yet more support for my argument that chilies are simply not necessary in cooking.
I think I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. I really should spearhead a movement to eliminate chili and its evil cousins from the kitchen. Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, this is my chance to walk the talk. Chili growers beware!
My wife and I have just returned from a short visit to Bagan, in Myanmar. Back when Harold Godwinson received an arrow in his eye, losing his life and his English throne to William, Duke of Normandy
the kings of Pagan (as the kingdom was then known) had consolidated their hold on the valley of the Irrawaddy River, swallowing up their neighbouring city-states, and had created the first Burmese kingdom. The kingdom grew rich on trade but also on agriculture, harnessing irrigation for the first time in this dry region of Myanmar. As befits the capital of a prosperous kingdom, the population of Pagan swelled. The kings and the richer citizens, anxious to gain merit for their next reincarnation, used their wealth to heavily sprinkle the city and the surrounding plain with stupas, temples, monasteries, and other religious edifices. At the height of this building frenzy, more than 10,000 such edifices covered an area of some 100 square kilometres.
Alas, this well-meaning search for merit undermined the edifice of state. More and more land was donated to the Buddhist monkhood, land which then became exempt from tax, thereby gradually emptying the state coffers. The resulting internal strife weakened the kingdom, and invasions of its borderlands by the Mongol dynasty of China finished her off. By 1287, the kingdom of Pagan was no more, and its capital city had shrunk to the size of a very modest town. Sun, wind, and rain began their work. The plaster moldings with which all the religious edifices had been covered peeled off, and the exposed brick began crumbling away to mud and dust. Trees and bushes did their part, inserting roots between brick and brick and slowly leveraging them apart. Earthquakes played their part too, toppling walls and cracking open stupas. And so the religious edifices so lovingly erected by earlier generations slowly slumped back into the earth from whence they had sprung.
A score of temples and stupas, which continued to be sites of pilgrimage, were maintained, often with infelicitous results as frescoes were painted or whitewashed over and badly crafted statues took the place of the originals. In the last century, conservation work was carried out – haphazardly – under successive military regimes. This has halted, or at least slowed, the dissolution, but even so only some 2,000 edifices remain standing, more or less, today.
But 2,000 is still a big number. Climb, as we did, the Shwesandaw stupa, and you will find yourself gazing out over flat, wooded farmland thickly sprinkled with red-brick stupas and temples of every size and state of disrepair.
Get off the paved roads, as we did, and take the dirt roads and paths which crisscross this farmland, and you will come across lonely stupas brooding by the side of fields
where the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi come to mind:
The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars
An owl hoots in the towers of Samarkand
(it is said that the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II murmured these lines as he visited the desolate ruins of the imperial palace after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453)
It comes spontaneous to compare Bagan to other places. Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia is often cited, but the comparison doesn’t hold. Angkor has edifices which are splendid in their art and architecture.
The edifices of Bagan, on the other hand, now have little if any intrinsic merit. My wife and I saw nothing superlative in any of the stupas or temples we visited. Pleasant, yes, interesting sometimes, but nothing to take one’s breath away.
No, it is the overall landscape that makes Bagan noteworthy, and it is to landscapes that we must turn for comparisons. Since many of the edifices in Bagan are funerary in nature, my wife felt a certain affinity between the Italian cemeteries of her youth and Bagan, with the latter of course being on a much larger scale.
In such a comparison, I would perhaps lean towards the abandoned part of Vienna’s biggest cemetery, the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, which contains many of the tombs of Vienna’s Jewish community, wiped out in the Nazi concentration camps.
I myself favour a comparison with Ancient Rome, not the Ancient Rome of today, swallowed up in the concrete and bitumen of the modern city, but the Ancient Rome that was the subject of many a painting in the 17th to 19th centuries. This is Claude Lorrain
and this, Lear
In these paintings I see an echo of the Bagan I looked out on from the heights of the Shwesandaw stupa.
As the lines I cite above show, the melancholy of ruins has always excited the imagination of poets. Rome’s ruins are no exception, with reams of poems written about them. I quote one here, by Alexander Pope.
See the wild waste of all-devouring years!
How Rome her own sad sepulchre appears,
With nodding arches, broken temples spread!
The very tombs now vanished like their dead!
Imperial wonders raised on nations spoiled,
Where mixed with slaves the groaning martyr toiled:
Huge theatres, that now unpeopled woods,
Now drained a distant country of her floods:
Fanes, which admiring gods with pride survey,
Statues of men, scarce less alive than they!
Some felt the silent stroke of mouldering age,
Some hostile fury, some religious rage.
Barbarian blindness, Christian zeal conspire,
And papal piety, and Gothic fire.
Perhaps, by its own ruins saved from flame,
Some buried marble half preserves a name;
That name the learned with fierce dispute pursue,
And give to Titus old Vespasian’s Due.
But this poem is far too frothy, as are all the poems about Rome’s ruins. I prefer the fragments of an Anglo-Saxon poem of the 8th Century, part of an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems in the library of Exeter Cathedral, whose subject is not Rome but the Roman ruins of Bath.
Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,
For those of my no doubt many readers who, like me, are not conversant with Anglo-Saxon, let me continue with a translation by Siân Echard, of the University of British Columbia, with some modifications on my part.
Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,
Walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age.
A hundred generations have passed.
Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
In the hard grasp of the grave. How often has this wall,
Hoary with lichen, red-stained, outlasted the passing reigns,
Withstanding the storms; the high arch now has fallen …
(At this point, there is a gap, for the parchment itself has suffered badly from the passage of time)
Indeed, the high arches, now fallen, of Bagan have witnessed the passing of many reigns, the last being but a few months ago, when the decades-long military government in Myanmar finally gave way to a democratically-elected civilian government. Knowing the history of neighbouring Thailand, where military meddling is a way of life, I offered a silent prayer in the Ananda temple
that this would be the last of the military governments in this beautiful country, which has suffered so much and deserves so much better.
It’s the rainy season in Bangkok. The normal schedule sees the day start dry with perhaps some cloud cover, which then builds up into impressively nasty-looking, black, whorly cloud piles by late afternoon.
At that point, lightning rips the sky from cloud to ground
followed moments later by thunder. And what thunder it is! The air itself seems to crack and splinter, the clouds angrily boom and hammer, over and over again as lightning keeps bursting out of the clouds. Instinctively, my wife and I step back, retreating into the safety of the apartment, and murmur comments to each other about the elemental son et lumière playing outside our windows. And then the rain starts, so dense that the other side of Chaophraya River, normally perfectly visible from our terrace, is blotted out.
At moments like these, I feel pity for our early ancestors cowering in their rock caves or flimsy huts watching the same grand spectacle. With the benefit of science, I can rationalize what I am seeing: why, thunder is just the noise of the sonic shock wave created by the very sudden expansion of air caused by the almost instant increase in pressure and temperature brought about by the passage of a lightning bolt! That’s all … But they did not have this intellectual crutch to lean on. They must have found such dramatic displays by nature very frightening. So I suppose it’s not very surprising that all the early religions had a god of thunder, who no doubt had to be ritually appeased.
What I do find surprising, though, after a quick zip around the Internet, is how decorously many of these gods of thunder have been portrayed in art. If I were cowering in my cave 50,000 years ago, or even in my flimsy hut 5,000 years ago, listening to all that tearing, splintering, and booming mayhem going on outside, I think it would come naturally to me to depict the god of thunder as a mean, nasty, angry son of a bitch. Some portrayals do seem to go in this direction. For instance, those of Tawhirimatea, the Maori’s god of thunder
make him look satisfyingly nasty. So do portrayals of Raijin, Japan’s god of thunder
who to my eyes looks apoplectic. Chaac, the Mayan god of thunder also looks suitably nasty
although as in so much Mesoamerican art he looks gruesomely nasty – they really seemed to have a need for downright disgusting-looking gods, the Mesoamericans did. I think Thailand’s own god of thunder, Ramasura, could perhaps be added to the list. I suspect he has a nasty monster’s face, but the nastiness of it is offset by the graceful balletic poses he is depicted in, a pose common to any flying spirit in Thai art.
After that, it gets difficult to find angry-looking gods of thunder. Take Zeus, for instance, the Greek god of thunder and lightning. The angriest depiction I could find was this one, on a vase, where frankly he just looks a little snippy rather than rip-roaring mad.
His usual mode of representation seems to be that typically Greek one of Olympian calm and good muscle tone, like this magnificent statue of him in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (the lightning bolt which he is, calmly, throwing has gone missing).
A rapid whizz through the pantheon of thunder gods in the Middle East gave me nothing better than this representation of Teshub, the Assyrian and Babylonian god of thunder
who, let’s face it, is looking petulant rather than angry as he wields his axe and lightning bolt.
I was hoping that the Norsemen, who after all seemed to spend most of their time stoving in their enemies’ skulls and drinking mead from those they hadn’t stoved in, would come up with a suitably horrible portrayal of Thor, their god of thunder. Not a bit of it! The best I could find was this
which, let’s face it, is a really pathetic representation of this god, who, if I’m to believe the Icelandic sagas, was testosterone-fueled and badly in need of anger management classes. Marvel Comics have done a much better job at depicting him
(and, by the way, have done a much better job of depicting Zeus too)
What to make of all this? Perhaps that the trick of our ancestors was to personalize these frightening phenomena. By personalizing them, they could clothe them with known and understandable personality traits, thus rendering the unfamiliar familiar. And/or maybe the ruling classes who arose out of the early agrarian societies and needed the acquiescence of the masses to their rule, if necessary through force, rather liked the idea of the masses equating their power to that of natural forces like thunder and lightning – but also wanted that power to look regal rather than just plain nasty; the fist of iron in the velvet glove, as it were.
Well, that’s my two-cent’s worth of pop-anthropological musings. My wife and I can now go back to watching the spectacle through our apartment windows – but from two steps back; you never know.
It was a few minutes before we turned back to the boat that my wife and I spotted them, a school of pale lemon yellow fish, browsing on the bottom of the reef. Much internet surfing suggests that we saw yellow runner fish.
As we watched, another school of fish, light blue this time, floated by, pulled by some unseen current. They were fusilier fish, I think
During our two-day snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands National Park, just north of Phuket, we saw much more besides on the four or five reefs we visited.
The last time I’d snorkeled was half a century ago, in the shallow waters of a bay near Buea, Cameroon. My father had some work to do there, and he had brought me along. An English family living in Buea had taken me with them on an afternoon outing, and so it was that after a merry hour spent sinking up to my thighs in the micro-quicksands which dotted the bay, I spent another hour floating on my stomach, watching with fascination the tiny, brilliantly coloured fish darting back and forth across the black sand, fruit of the nearby volcano, Mt. Cameroon. A badly burned back was the result of this excessive curiosity. Still remembering the pain of that red and peeling back, I snorkeled this time with a shirt on. Alas! In the intervening five decades, my hair has thinned so I found afterwards that my scalp was burned from floating face down in the water (my wife instead got burned just below her swimsuit, on what our personal trainer calls the glutes).
All of which has not taken away one jot from the pleasure we derived from the wonderful sights we took in as we paddled slowly hand-in-hand along the reefs, with no sound but our breathing, witnessing a riot of colour as fish swam into our line of sight and then disappeared, intent on their business. Below is an incomplete catalogue of our sightings:
Powder blue surgeonfish Rainbow parrotfish
The wonderfully named Moorish idol
Melon butterfly fish
Blue lined grouper
We saw other denizens of the reefs too:
A powder-blue starfish
The aptly named crown-of-thorns starfish
Squamose giant clams, which would snap shut as we floated over them
Magnificent sea anemone, whose green tentacles would wave this way and that, revealing a wonderful blue-mauve body beneath
And of course there were the corals, around which all these other species revolved:
Staghorn coral, whose tips seemed to glow phosphorescently
But really, although it was fun to point out to each other new species that we spotted, it was the reef communities as a whole that were most fascinating
those tens of species all working in and around a coral mount which surged up from the bottom towards the light.
I suppose we’re lucky to have seen this. As we were floating over the reefs around Surin Island, an article appeared in the Guardian about massive coral bleaching going on at the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The immediate cause is El Niño, which is leading to much warmer waters than usual; coral dies if the water is too warm, and all you are left with are the bleached bones of coral, devoid of that blizzard of life with which it would normally be surrounded.
But behind this latest episode is climate change, which is making El Niño events ever longer and more intense. Two days before this article appeared, the Guardian had another announcing that the month of March had been the hottest on record. But so had February. And so had January. And so had 2015 as a whole.
One of the many, many – many – impacts of climate change will be the die-off of coral reefs the world over. Coral reefs everywhere are showing signs of increasing strain. And with that die-off will come a steep decline in fish species: coral reefs are home to an astonishing 25 percent of the world’s fish species. That favourite cartoon character, Nemo, will lose his real-life counterpart.
Can we really let this happen? Surely we humans can collectively take on our responsibilities for controlling climate change. Let’s not destroy this beautiful planet we inhabit.
We’d climbed up the 173 steps to the Surprise Grotto, we had politely looked at the stalactites and stalagmites (“stalagTites from the Top, stalagMites like a Mountain” had helpfully intoned our guide) and been quite taken by the cave’s ceiling, a tracery of dimples formed by wind and water, a natural flamboyant gothic.
We had climbed back down the 215 steps to the dock, we had puttered back to the boat, and now we were lying on the sunless sun deck waiting to be ferried to our next activity, a bicycle trip to a small village on the island of Cat Ba followed by lunch. All around me, rising sheer out of the water, were cliffs of greying limestone, topped with vegetation which tumbled down to the water’s edge.
I spotted, high above me, a black kite, hovering, scrutinizing the water’s surface. With a slight trim of its tail feathers, it wheeled out over the little bay, waiting. A quick flap of its wings and it made up for lost height. Again it circled, and glided, waiting and looking. In an instant, it plummeted down to the water, grasped its prey with its talons, and soared upwards again. And there rose unbidden in my mind the lines by Tennyson:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
I said in my last post that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In that case, I was talking about citrons. But this homey dictum is that much truer about the subject of this post, betel chewing. To explain what I mean, consider this picture of a betel chewer.
Now, if I were to meet such a fellow, I would be nervously looking for an escape route, half expecting the man to make a lunge with his pointed canines at my jugular. But in the village where he comes from, where no doubt half the population have red goo drooling from their lips, this man would be seen as a nice, friendly village elder. Perhaps a little less on the extreme side of things, if I were to meet this smiling Indian gentleman
my earlier post on teeth would come to mind and I would make a mental note that he badly needed to see a dentist rather than thinking what a lovely smile he had and what a nice man he must be. As I said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I first came across the habit of betel chewing in Delhi. I was there for a meeting of some sort, and after it was over and I was being walked back to my hotel my colleague stopped at a betel stand such as this one
and ordered himself a betel quid to chew. He asked me if I wished to try one, but I politely declined. I watched with curiosity to see what might happen to him, but nothing untoward did. I did realize, though, that this habit explained his somewhat orange teeth.
I was reminded of this scene from long ago when I was in Myanmar recently and saw the tell-tale signs of betel chewing all around me in Yangon – the orange teeth, the betel stands, and – most revolting of all – these bright red splotches on the pavements.
Betel chewing generates a lot of saliva, which the chewers either swallow or spit out (which if not done vigorously enough no doubt leads to dribbles on the chin as in the case of the old gentleman with whom we started this post). The fact that these are spit is revolting enough, but their bright red colour further gives the impression that half the population have advanced cases of TB and are coughing their lungs out (my childhood memories have retained stories of older generations with consumption coughing hard into their handkerchiefs and seeing with horror that the handkerchiefs were stained by bright red blood from their lungs; the end was nigh for them).
For those – I hope – many readers who have no idea what is in a betel quid, allow me to elucidate. At its most basic, the betel consists of slices of the “nut” (actually fruit) of the Areca palm
wrapped in leaves of the betel vine
which have been liberally smeared beforehand with slaked lime. Depending on your fancy and which part of the world you come from, your local betel stand holder can add tobacco, spices, and various other ingredients – note the various little pots which our betel stand holder in the picture above has spread out before him.
Since I had first come across the betel chewing habit in India, and since every betel stand holder in Yangon seemed to be of Indian extraction, I sort of assumed that this was an Indian tradition which had been exported elsewhere. Not a bit of it! It’s actually the other way around. Although it’s not yet clear where the Areca palm and the betel vine originated from exactly, there is general agreement that it was in South-East Asia somewhere. But they didn’t originate in the same place. Evidence points to the betel vine and Areca nut being initially consumed separately, their use spreading out from their point of origin until they overlapped, at which point some bright spark had the idea of putting the two together. Early trade between South-East Asia and India brought betel chewing and then the plants to the subcontinent – and migration brought them out to New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, where the dreaded signs of betel chewing are to be found.
But why, some readers may be asking themselves, does anyone bother to chew betel quids in the first place? Because both plants contain mild stimulants: arecoline in the case of the Areca nut, eugenol in the case of the betel leaf. So chewing the quid gives the chewer a mild high. It joins a number of other plants which are chewed for their stimulating (in some cases very stimulating) effects: coca leaves in the Andes,
khat leaves in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula (I remember a colleague once telling me that Djibouti came to a halt on Fridays as everyone waited for the weekly supply of khat to be flown in from Ethiopia)
kola nuts in West Africa.
And then there are the plants that are smoked, those that are swallowed, those that are made into infusions and drunk … Early humans were exceedingly resourceful in figuring out how to get a high from the plants which surrounded them. I wonder, though, how they ever figured out which of the thousands of plants around them gave them highs.
Luckily, the practice of betel chewing seems to be dying out. For instance, Thailand was once a hot-spot of betel chewing, but I have never seen anyone in Bangkok, or anywhere else for that matter, chewing it. Nor have I ever seen anyone chewing betel quids in Cambodia or Laos. I say “luckily”, even though this perhaps betrays a cultural imperialism. I mean, one could argue that if people want to chew betel why shouldn’t they, as long as they don’t kill me or their family or themselves in the process, and don’t become a burden on the public purse because of it. Normally, I would indeed be tolerant of cultural diversity, but for this particular practice I draw the line: people with red mouths and teeth à la Dracula generating bright red spit marks all over pavements are beyond the civilized pale. This should be the new normal, everywhere.