Earthquakes and travel

It turns out that we often travel in one of the most earthquake prone parts of the world: the plate boundary between India and Asia. This includes the Himalayas, much of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and large parts of western and southern China. Large earthquakes are infrequent enough that travelling is fairly safe. However, we have often been saddened by news of the destruction of places we loved. A year ago it was Kathmandu. This year, just as we begin preparations for a trip to Myanmar, there is news of a second serious earthquake in that country.

Learning about Myanmar is hard. It has cut itself off for so long that the world’s media pretty much ignores it. On the day of the quake there were reports across the world, but there has been no news later. When I set about investigating this, it took a while to get to Myanmar Times, which confirmed that the official count of deaths and injuries remains small: "Three people were killed and five injured, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement said." All is not well, however. Mizzima, another newspaper from Myanmar, reports: "The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has expressed her profound sympathy to the government and people of Myanmar after the devastating 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck central Myanmar, including the ancient city of Bagan, causing loss of life and extensive damage to nearly 200 historic monuments and iconic pagodas." That means about 10% of the temples have been badly damaged.

I discovered that this is not the first time this has happened. The Myanmar times had an article which said "State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi instructed the Culture and Religious Affairs Ministry yesterday to refrain from conducting urgent renovations on the 187 ancient Bagan pagodas and temples that were damaged by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake on August 24. She asked the ministry to discuss renovations with specialists from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and to make their plans with technical support from the organisation". The article led on to another which reported on the fallout of an earthquake in 1975: "More than 600 ancient pagodas in Bagan have been ruined by botched renovation work, an architect has claimed. U Sun Oo, a member of the Bagan Management Plan Organising Committee, laid blame for the destruction on the practice of putting out complex and sensitive repair work to tender."

An older news report talked about some other problems in maintainance: "The long-running “limbo hotels” problem arose when the 42 hoteliers were cleared to build in Bagan by the Archaeology Department in 2013, but subsequently ordered to stop work and not to take in guests. The guesthouses, mostly modest establishments run by local residents, are deemed to be too close to Bagan’s famed temples, a factor that could put at risk the city’s bid to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage listing. As a result, the Ministry of Culture reinstated a zoning ban put in place in 1998 but rarely enforced since then. Earlier this year, 129 properties deemed to be operating too close to the ancient site, including the 42 guesthouses, were given a 10-year deadline to move to a special hotel zone."

The most disturbing report for would-be travellers comes from Bangkok Post, which reports "Another Myanmar earthquake of at least 7.0 magnitude is possible and it may affect Bangkok and northern Thailand in the absence of an aftershock in the neighbouring country after Wednesday’s 6.8-magnitude". I tried to confirm the basic facts, and found a site called Earthquake Track which indeed confirms that there are no aftershocks.

Bagan is one of the high point of a Myanmar itinerary, so this leaves us somewhat undecided.

A little Roman market

Market at Piazza Alessandria viewed from Via AlessandriaA market inside a nice Art Deco brick building in the Piazza Alessandria in the Nomentano district of Rome was an unexpected find. I’d wanted to write about it from the time I stumbled on it in June, but with one thing or another, never got round to it. The Nomentano district is just outside the touristy centre of the city. As a result you hear only Italian in its cafes and restaurants, and see families with children comfortably ambling along the streets next to you, very pointedly ignoring your camera.

Walking through a small road, busy at 10 in the morning on a Saturday, I came across a brick building with iron gates sporting the wolf symbol of the city.The market at Piazza Alessandria viewed from Via Ancona I’d not researched this walk at all. But an open gate topped with a frieze of a wolf suckling Romus and Romulus is an invitation to enter. I looked at the building behind it, possibly a renaissance structure, and decided that the invitation in front of me was stronger.

Inside was a busy municipal market. I love markets. Walking through one in Italy is a special treat because the freshness of the produce is a constant reminder of how flavourful the local cuisine is. The Family and I have often joked that we would like to bring back two kilos of tomatoes instead of a bottle of wine from our travels in Italy. I loved the vegetable stalls with their golden pumpkins, the bright leafy greens, cucumbers and carrots (see the featured photo for all of this and more). The sight of Zucchini flowers in a market always remind me of boyhood lunches at my grandmother’s place where an occasional treat was batter-fried pumpkin flowers. This is probably unknown in many parts of India; certainly The Family has never eaten pumpkin flowers.

Many of the aisles were empty. I did not see any stall selling meats or fishes. Was I too early or too late? I looked longingly at the mushrooms: the yellow trumpets which the French call the Chanterelle stood next to dark brown mushrooms which could have been procini, and a heap of the common white funghi. Mushrooms and cheese are always special treats for us when we visit Europe because these are two things which India does not have.

Fruits in the market at Piazza Alessandria

The next aisle had a stall which had huge cauliflowers and broccoli. I don’t think I’ve seen broccoli which is so large and bright green. I was tempted to buy some. Unfortunately my time in Italy was almost done, and, as a result, I had plans to eat out with friends on every remaining evening. I could still support farmers by buying fresh fruits. Spring had not yet yielded to summer in this market. I could pick up strawberries and cherries, so I did. The apricots smelt wonderful, so I picked up some. European spring and summer fruits are also special treats for me. Although they are available in India, they play second fiddle to local fruits. As a result, the variety and quality is much superior throughout Europe.

I walked out towards Via Alessandria, where some vendors had set up little kiosks selling clothes and bags. I passed by them and went on to look for some coffee.

Monsoon mela

Something weird has happened in the last decade. Very large numbers of people from Mumbai want to go and stand under a waterfall in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. The photo you see here is of the Ashoka waterfall about a 100 kilometers from Mumbai on a weekend.Ashoka waterfall in monsoon

The waterfall was steep, and the path to the crowded pool was down a steep rocky face. It seemed as crowded as a suburban railway station at rush hour. We had gone to get away from the city, and turned away at the sight of crowds as dense as any we see on a working day. Such a density of humans would be dangerous in almost any situation. We remembered many recent newspaper stories about accidental deaths by drowning. From the statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau it seems that rates of accidental death by drowning in Maharashtra are high compared to the rest of the country.

On the drive back we noticed a few spots where cars and motorbikes were parked haphazardly at the edge of the highway near a stream falling over the side. People were clambering over the stones below to take selfies in the "waterfalls". If a large number of people take similar selfies, it usually means a social-media buzz.

Why? The Family feels that more people have cars, they drive, and there are few places to drive to. This is true; most of the people we saw are young and newly affluent. But the same people could have done anything in the mountains. We did see some groups on open meadows, sitting down to a picnic lunch. A very few go trekking. Some probably go and have an impromptu dance. Could it be that some movies in recent years have kicked off a frenzy of selfies under cascading water?

Dolkhamb market

We tried to follow a road which petered out after the market square in Dolkhamb. It was flanked by two long structures. One was an office, and the other, which you see in the photo below, was a row of shops. This was one of the larger villages we had passed in the previous twenty kilometres. Off to one side was a little open space where several utility vehicles were parked: they serve as local buses. The market was crowded. We stopped to ask for directions. As we talked to the "bus" drivers, more vehicles arrived, bringing people to add to the crowd.

Market square in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra

For some time now we have been trying to eat a larger variety of vegetables and greens than what our meals had reduced to. So the sight of a village market brought out the gatherers in us. On a side of the road was a line of people who had set up makeshift stalls. The featured image shows the lady nearest to us. She had four different kinds of vegetables: tomatoes, knobbly green karela (bitter gourd), fresh okra and large green chilis. Not a large variety, but incredibly fresh. The okra was crisp and snapped easily between my fingers. After her a man sat with small heaps of dried fish. There were fruits further on. The Family bought bananas and apples. The apples were small and not very colourful, but when we bit into them they were extremely flavourful.

Once upon a time these were available in all markets in Mumbai. Now WTO rules force us to import apples which are too expensive to be sold anywhere except in big towns and cities. As a result, these profitable markets are almost completely shut to local apples. We love to eat, and we are not politically committed to local produce. We do like the fact that globalization brings us food from far away, but we are also aware of the variety that local produce can bring to our table. We have read enough about the carbon cost of pushing fruits around continents to begin to take the trouble to visit farmer’s markets.Woman selling farm produce from a truck in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra It would be a pity if we were forced to make a choice between the planet and the economy without thinking through sustainable middle paths. (I’m afraid that sentence might succeed in offending both sides of a political divide which exists, but need not).

The most exciting discovery was a truck of assorted greens, presided over by a lady in a red sari (photo alongside). People walked up to a boy, probably her son, paid him and asked for the greens they needed. He would shout out the order, and she would throw it out of the truck. We bought a bunch of fresh fenugreek and coriander greens from the duo. This family also pushes vegetables around in a box which burns hydrocarbons. But they travel tens of kilometres, not thousands. With fresh produce in the car and virtuous thoughts in our heads, we ignited the non-renewable fossil fuel in the tank of our car and drove out along the road the local drivers told us to take.

Lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara

Mumbai is a megapolis reclaimed from the sea, windwards of the Sahyadri mountains. An hour inland, the terrain is usually rocky and inhospitable: cliffs and oddly shaped peaks tower over a seared land. But, during the monsoon the land turns lush green, and waterfalls cascade over every cliff.

It seems that every monsoon weekend a large fraction of Mumbai’s population spreads out over the mountains. This is a special week, with many holidays. In the afternoon of last Friday there were long traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city. The Family decided that Saturday was a good day for a drive. We started out in the morning, took the highway towards Nasik, turned off it at Shahapur, and got lost soon after as cellular connectivity faded. We were near Dolkhamb, and wanted to reach Kasara. We knew there should be a road, but there were no signboards.

Farmer and rice paddy near Kasara

The result was hours of blundering through an incredibly lush and beautiful landscape. This area is normally dry, and the farmers barely eke out a living. In this season the only way to figure that out is the fact that the land is almost empty. Now and then you come across a small cluster of huts, where each family tends a small plot. Even in the middle of such a heavy monsoon, rice grows only in the lowest parts of the terrain. Hillsides are an inch of soil covering volcanic rock: not suitable for farming. Earthen dams husband water for the remainder of the year. In spite of the fluorescent green cover, this is a harsh country.

Chicken shop in the middle of nowhere

There were no signs at crossroads telling us which way to go. We often took the wrong turn and drove for kilometers before meeting someone who told us to back up and take the other fork. At an empty crossroads we found this little shack sporting a battered board which proclaimed that it was Arbaaz’s chicken shop. They were out of stock, but easy with directions. There were no villages in sight, but I guess the road has enough traffic to keep Arbaaz in business.

Soon after, our cell phones began to receive signals, and we came to the highway again. Fifteen kilometers on we reached a roadside restaurant just before their lunch service closed. This had been a wonderful drive, although really slow.

Correa with rain

It became necessary to travel to Pune on one of the rainiest days in the year. The night before I was to travel, the floodgates in a dam over one of the rivers which run through Pune had to be opened. The resulting surge of water apparently washed away ten cars parked inside the city. The next morning, when I was to return to Mumbai, there was a flood warning in Mumbai.

The Mumbai-Pune Expressway makes it possible to drive between the cities in a couple of hours. The rain caused traffic jams at both ends, and increased travel time by more than half an hour. The continuing rains had damaged the surfaces of the roads leading in to the Expressway, adding another half an hour to the trip. Even so, I enjoyed the taxi rides. The hills along the way were the fluorescent green that the monsoon engenders. Streams leapt over mountain cliffs in ribbons of spray, paused at high meadows, and then fell in gauzy curtains to the sides of the road. Through the closed windows of the taxi I could hear the gurgle of water rushing through channels next to the road. When I passed Lonavala, the fields that I could see had turned into shallow lakes.

Sierpinski gasket in Correa's courtyard in IUCAA Pune

The rain made it difficult to travel inside Pune. The only thing I managed to see was the famous architecture of IUCAA, the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics. This was designed by Charles Correa, one of India’s most well-known modern architects.

IUCAA is built as three interlinked courtyards, with low buildings and galleries running between them. I liked the courtyard called Akashganga, the Sanskrit name for our galaxy (the two photos here). Poincianas were planted in two rows. The ground beneath them was marked out in a triangular tiling which is supposed to call to your mind the fractal called the Sierpinski gasket. The trees were gloriously in flower; parrots fed on the fruits, and a wagtail skipped around below the trees.

The galleries would have been great in winter. In the monsoon they were traps. One of the galleries had artful holes in the roof which is supposed to look like the vault of the sky studded with stars. During monsoon it is a mini waterfall. The cemented floor with a compass rose is a slippery mess.

The flagstones set into the next courtyard have sunk in places, creating pools of standing water. The main building next to this has two open inner courtyards: one with a grove of bamboos, and another with a tree I could not identify. Both had turned into shallow pools. I need to come back in winter to see Correa’s creation at its best.

There was the fragrance of good coffee somewhere. I followed my nose and came to an espresso machine. Just the thing for a wet day!

Burma telegrams, all waiting to be read

map of MyanmarI found a present for The Family’s birthday: a trip to Myanmar. For practical reasons we can only make this trip months too late, but it will be a birthday present in spirit.

We have discussed a road trip to Myanmar for long, but when you start planning it looks uncomfortably romantic. We just do not have the time for a drive in the single week that we can take off from work. So we are forced to fly; we will miss the continuity that a journey by land would give us. There are flights from Kolkata to Yangon. However, the only convenient flight from Mumbai to Kolkata and then on to Yangon is on a Monday. We do not want to waste the weekend, so we decide to go through Bangkok. This gets us to Yangon in a reasonable amount of time.

We have little more than a week for this trip. This calls for a lot of reading. My knowledge of Myanmar has been restricted to stories I heard from my grandmother. This was a country which many Indian families had contact with before the second world war, mine being no exception. When the Japanese air force started bombing erstwhile Rangoon in 1941, children and mothers came back to India to stay with relatives. When Burma was captured by Japan, Indians had to flee, many on foot, during the extreme monsoon weather that strikes these parts. I remember the story of someone in my family, I forget who, walking back to India. I was too young then to appreciate how bad this must have been, but impressionable enough to remember the horror stories.

A few years ago, when we travelled to the Mizo hills and heard about American pilots bailing out of burning planes and seeking shelter with the local villagers, I did not connect it with old family stories. A few weeks ago I mentioned my grandmother’s story to a friend, and she said that someone in her family also walked back home. She remembered hearing that it took half a year. As we talked, we began to connect these up with stories like those we heard in the Mizo hills. How is it that a whole nation has forgotten stories of this long walk home?

We will spend a dozen days travelling to Myanmar and back. So many travellers have written about their experiences in recent years (here, here, here, here, …), that it will take me weeks of reading. I have weeks, so that is fine. These are our Burma telegrams, as Kipling once wrote, waiting to be read.

Frascati

Before I saw the little town perched on top of a dormant volcano, I always thought that Frascati was only a good wine. Make that a wine region, it is a DOC wine after all. So it is kind of silly not to think of Frascati in terms of a place. The first time I went there, and had dinner in a square overlooking Rome, I thought to myself, "How charming. I must spend some time here." I did, and it was.

Little street in Frascati

The town has long been a refuge for well-heeled Romans looking for a quiet place when Rome becomes too hot. England’s Bonnie Prince Charlie, a pretender to the throne, is buried in the cathedral here. A lovely and always breezy square, Piazza di Rocca, has a wonderful view of Rome, and is lined with restaurants. It is named after the palace of the bishop, locally called the Rocca. There are lovely villas that you can visit, or you can just walk around the town, eat in its wonderful pizzerias, ristorantes, and sample the local wine. I wandered around the streets and occasionally stopped to admire cars (photo above).

Notte di Musica at Piazza Roma in Frascati

Frascati takes its leisure very seriously. There was a night of music the weekend before midsummer’s night. I’d skipped lunch and wandered out to look for some porchetta and olives late in the afternoon. Amateur groups were already setting up in various squares.Notte di Musica at the Piazzale Olmo, Frascati I found a cart with porchetta and stuffed tomatos, and sat down on a bench to enjoy the sun. The roads are steep, so you get enough exercise to keep the wonderful food from sticking to your ribs.

I met friends in Piazza Roma, where a large band was going through its repertoire of hits from the 70s and 80s. The band was good and loud. I enjoyed the sight of one of the apartment windows opening and a man leaning down to enjoy the music (photo above). As the evening’s light faded, we walked over to the tiny Piazzale Olmo where a little enoteca gives you the fresh white wine it makes, to have with food you bring along. We got some pizzas, and sat down with a couple of litres of wine to enjoy the classic rock being played pretty competently in this square.

Frascati is only half an hour from Rome by train, but its a very relaxed place.

Gelati

Call me fussy. There is one thing I eat only in Italy, and that is ice cream. Not that it cannot be done well elsewhere, but because I do not want to waste my daily calorie count on a dessert that may not make me feel like I’m walking on clouds. But in Italy this caution is not needed. The gelati will be good even if I eat it in a small cafe in a little village (as in the featured image).

Gelateria La Romana on Via XX Settembre

Whenever I walked past this gelateria on Via Venti Settembre in Rome, I looked at the board outside which said "Founded in 1947", and reminded myself to come back for a taste. Eventually I managed to do it in the last week before leaving Italy. Unlike many gelaterias, the selection was not on show. I had to read through a long menu to make my choices. I take a long time to choose flavours even when I look at the stuff. Here I kept going back and forth over the menu and then decided on a really straightforward combination of sour lime and dark chocolate. Then, as the girl behind the counter was teasing this out into spectacular filaments, I suddenly asked her to add biscotti to the mix. As she combed and teased the mixture into a fantastic shape, I thought I should take a photo when she finished.

But when she did I just took it from her, sat down at a table and ate it all up without thinking of taking a photo. I also skipped lunch after that. I could do the same thing again. No wonder the place has lasted 73 years.

Garbatella

The Garbatella metro station (featured image) is definitely not on the tourist circuit. It is fairly deserted at a time when Repubblica, Barberini, Spagna, Cavour and Colosseo are bursting at the seams with tourists. This is the metro station for the interesting Roman district of Ostiense. Via Ostiense, which gives the district its name, is the old Roman road which connected the city to the port of Ostia Antica.

Exit towards Via Ostiense from the Garbatella metro station

If you look up Ostiense in a tourist guide you will find only the Centrale Montemartini museum listed here. But when I arrived to visit the museum I found the place was full of spectacular splashes of colour: graffiti artists had been hard at work in the area around the metro station. A pedestrian bridge takes you across the tracks from the station. As you descend, the brutal concrete of the stairwell is softened with bright graffiti (photo above). After one flight of stairs there is a little terrace from which one sees a brick building with a colourful mural across it (photo below). I learnt later that the building belongs to ATAC, the company which runs the public transport system in Rome, and the mural has been painted by a Berlin artist called Clemens Behr

The ATAC building outside metro Garbatella has an eye-catching mural

The bridge was being used as an impromptu gallery for a group show of photography. On my way to the museum I’d looked quickly at it and told myself that I would come back to look more carefully. As I was strolling back, camera in hand, after photographing the nearby roads, a girl on a phone strode towards me. "Are you the official photographer?" she asked "I’ve been waiting." I’m quite happy to be mistaken for a professional, but I told her that I wasn’t. She smiled and said there was an exhibition of photos I might want to see. I replied that this is where I was headed. The exhibition had some very interesting photos. While I was looking at them, I heard the stuttering sound of a camera set on exposure bracket. The official photographer had arrived, and he looked nothing like me.