Two birds in the bush

Kenya has about 1300 species of birds, probably slight in excess of the number of species of birds in India. I’d known about this for a while. During my preparation for the trip I tried to order a field guide but found it would be delivered long after our scheduled departure. As a result, we landed in Nairobi without any preparation, fearing that most birds we saw would be new and unidentifiable.

Standing in the kitchen of the Mother of Niece Tatu, I heard a chirping and twittering. I looked out and a nearby tree seemed to be full of motion. MONT said, “That tree is full of nests.” The Family went off to unpack her binoculars while I picked up my camera. The kitchen looked out on an open green space bounded by trees below several apartments, with a low house set in the middle of a clearing. Perfect terrain for urban bird-watching. One of the first birds I saw was a small sparrow sized bird on the roof of the house below us (featured photo). I’d never seen anything like this before.

We saw it in close association with a red bird of similar size. “Male and female”, was The Family’s guess. We saw a little brown on the back of the bird, and the noticeably white eyes. Later we would find that the two were indeed the male and female of the Red-billed firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala), also called the Somali firefinch. It is a rather common bird, whose habitat stretches east-west across sub-Saharan Africa and in a very wide band down the east coast of Africa all the way to South Africa. Although it is so common across Africa, and its call is part of the soundscape of the continent, this was a lifer for us, since it is not found outside of Africa.

The tree had a very large number of a noisy brown long-tailed bird with a very stylish brown crest. We could see them flitting through the leaves without settling into an exposed branch. I managed to take a few shots which could together give me a picture of the whole bird. Later I would find that it was another very common bird of Africa, the Speckled mousebird (Colius striatus). We were excited by these two lifers although they happen to be among the commonest birds of East Africa, and in larger parts of the continent.

But Father of Niece Tatu had broken out a pack of Tusker’s Malt, and we left the birding to go on to another lifer.

Advertisements

Matbronze gallery and cafe

I’d heard about Nairobi’s cafes from Niece Tatu, “Fabulous.” Reviews I’d seen on the web gave me a similar impression. The Mother of Niece Tatu and the Father of Niece Tatu (I adopt the respectful Swahili way of referring to them) had our day chalked out for us when they picked us up from the airport. After a stop to see giraffes we were whisked off to the nearby Matbronze Gallery.

The bronze pieces are cast in a foundry in the grounds of the gallery by local artists. I’d read that the gallery and foundry were started in 1987 by artist Denis Mathews, but the work has been carried on by younger Kenyan artists after his death in 1997. The huge bronze head of an elephant, balanced on its trunk, which you see at the edge of the parking area is probably one of the pieces by Mathews. The only human bronze I saw was the bust of the conservationist Mervyn Cowie holding a pair of binoculars under a stylized bronze acacia. We walked through the gallery admiring the beautiful pieces. Some of the ones which I liked best were the delicate ones of birds perched on stalks of bronze grass, or pecking at de3lciate bronze flowers. The beautiful texturing of the bronze and the subtle colours imparted by mild oxidizing were wonderful devices. I wish I’d not put off visiting the foundry, because our tight schedule meant that we never went back. One result is that I’ve fallen, inadvertently, into the colonial trap of mentioning only the founder of the gallery and not the artists who sustain it now.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was well past our lunch time in Mumbai, but the odd breakfasts (yes, in plural) that we had eaten had left us feeling full. So we agreed with FONT that coffee and cake would be good. The Family’s cappuccino (featured photo) came with the signature lion’s pawprint of the gallery done in cocoa; you can always recognize the lion by its claw. The chocolate brownie was dense and moist, but the cake was taken, so to say, by the oatmeal cookies. I’m afraid I forgot to take a photo of these until I’d polished off half a plate.

The beautifully preserved skull of an immense tusker had caught my eye as we sipped our coffees. When we got up to leave, I threaded my way through the tables on to the lawn where it was placed. That’s the photo you see above. Kenya was the first country to destroy seized stocks of illegal ivory in 1989. It is not illegal to own ivory which was obtained before the 1973 ban on elephant hunting. So I guess this skull predates the ban. We were to hear more about elephant conservation and the ivory ban in the coming days, but for now, we were in the hands of MONT and FONT, who had planned a wonderful day for us.

Giraffe

The first thing we did in Nairobi was to go off to the Giraffe Center in the suburb of Langata. I’d read about this effort to breed the critically endangered Rothschild’s giraffe and reintroduce it into the wild. We didn’t have the time to visit Lake Nakuru or other places where there is an established population of this giraffe species, so visiting the center was the only way we were going to be able to see this rare animal. For a wildlife enthusiast like The Family, this counts as a failure. We drove through a suburb full of sprawling colonial era bungalows, hidden behind tall walls surrounding immense gardens. The colonial era ranches were as large as some cities. That era’s greed for land is at the root of the crisis which the Giraffe Center tries to mitigate.

The Giraffe Center is open from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening. A busload of school children was getting down in a disciplined queue as we entered. You can buy a paper bag full of chips of acacia branches to feed to the giraffes if you wish. I decided to keep my hands on the camera, as The Family gingerly fed the beasts. A tall animal dipped its head down to pick up the pieces of branches from her hand with its prehensile lips. I had expected its shoulders to be higher than her head, but I hadn’t realized that a giraffe’s lip is a grasping organ! Their really long tongues are their main organ for grasping and manipulation, but the lip also seems to be able to grasp quite delicately.

I’d been primed by my reading to look closely at the pattern on these giraffes. The irregular dark patches could be roughly six, or five, or four sided. But the colour was darker towards the center than at the edge. The background was lighter, but quite a dark shade of beige at places. But most distinctive, I thought, were the “white socks”. The pattern on its hide did not continue all the way down the legs, so the giraffes looked like they were wearing socks. We climbed up to a feeding balcony which was about two meters up. The necks of the giraffes easily came up here, but not much higher. So I guess Rothschild’s giraffes are between 2.5 and 3 meters tall.

The giraffe has its heart in the right place, protected by its rib cage. This must be a huge and muscular organ, since it needs to pump blood up a couple of meters to the animal’s head. I watched all the interesting motions that a giraffe makes: it walks with both front and back legs on the same side of its body moving forward together. This is quite unlike a cow’s gait, for example. A cow moves front and back legs on opposite sides of its body forward together. I watched with interest how a giraffe sits and gets up. This did not look very different from the way a cow gets up from a sitting position. The most interesting thing is the way it dips its head to eat or drink. You would think that excess blood pressure needed to pump its blood up to the maximum height of its stretched head would be enough to burst its arteries when it lowers its head. But there must be something special about its circulatory system that prevents this pressure overload. Such an amazing creature!

Instant winter

When I booked tickets to Nairobi on a flight which left Mumbai before 6 in the morning, I was looking forward to arriving at 10 AM, with a whole exciting day in front of us. I’d forgotten that, this being an international flight, we would have to be awake half the night. As it was, we finished the formalities quickly and had a very early breakfast in the lounge before boarding. My first priority was to catch up on sleep. When I woke up we were halfway through the flight. The map told me that we were flying over the Carlsberg ridge. This is one of the more active zones on the earth’s crust, the border where the Indian and Somali continental plates are pulling apart. This geological feature is named after the brewery which financed the expedition which discovered the ridge. What a lovely and positive piece of advertisement; I promised to raise a glass of their brew to cheer their commitment to science. I peered across the still sleeping figure of The Family. The sea looked pretty calm.

A little later we were over Africa. A whole new continent! We’d sighted land a little south of Mogadishu. I gazed down at the parallel rows of clouds which you see in the photo above. I’d never seen this kind of weather before. I was to find later that these so-called cloud streets are parallel to the direction of the wind. So the cloud street showed me that a cool wind was blowing in from the sea as Somaliland heated up. The land below us remained brown as we passed over the equator. Another lifetime achievement for us; this was our first time in the southern hemisphere. In an instant we’d passed from summer to winter!

Everything would be new and different (even the style of artwork on the sachets of salt and pepper given by the airline). We peered out of windows eagerly as we landed in Nairobi. The landscape was brown and dry, as it had been as we flew over Somalia and inland to Kenya. “Karibu”, one of security men said in welcome as he showed us which way to go. The Family and I looked at the windows near the immigration queue; zebras and acacia trees, lions and elephants were painted on them. We would see them soon enough. I pulled a jacket over my t-shirt. It was colder than a winter’s day in Mumbai.

Reading about Kenya

With banquets of game and fowl and fish,
Strange fruits, and many an unknown dish.

About Malindi
The Lusiads VI.2
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

It is hard to find books which would be useful background for a trip to Kenya. There are many books by travelers, usually western travelers. There are books by famous Kenyan authors, which are not about travel. The travel books, sometimes by intention, sometimes through unexamined cultural assumptions, tend to view Africa as exotic. I’d read (who hasn’t) Hemingway’s stories about East Africa, grown up with Tarzan and stories of lost civilizations, read about Idi Amin when I first started reading newspapers. And then, much later, I read Binyavanga Wainaina‘s short savage piece in Granta called How to Write About Africa. It is a very strong reaction to western writing about Africa. I would strongly recommend that you click through that link and read that piece, it is not much longer than this post.

At the head of my current reading list of books by Kenyan authors is Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. This is likely to be the only novel I finish before my trip, but there are a few which I would like to read. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan classic, and I think that’s the one I want to read next. The Promised Land by Grace Ogot, with its questions about women’s role in African life, is another of the founding classics of Kenyan writing. Years ago The Family had picked up Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and it had settled, unfinished, into a pile of good intentions. I think this trip will make me start on it again. Kenya has a vibrant literary scene, with many authors writing in English, so I guess I will keep meeting new and old writings.

Some Arabic words were mingled
With the language they were speaking;
They covered their heads with turbans
Of fine cotton-weave fabric

About Swahili
The Lusiads V.76
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

Soon after The Family and I shelved our collection of books together, I picked up a book from what used to be her collection called The Tree where Man was Born. This was written by Peter Matthiesen, one of the founders of The Paris Review. I flipped through this book again in preparation for our journey. The book Safari Ants, Baggy Pants and Elephants, by Susie Kelly, is now on my Kindle, in company with West with the Night by Beryl Markham (hugely praised by Hemingway) and North of South by Shiva Naipaul. Beryl Markham’s book reads like a meeting between Saint Exupery and Hemingway. Susan Kelly is a new travel writer for me. Shiva Naipual, who died at age forty, is now known mainly as the younger brother of the Nobel prizewinning V.S. Naipaul. His book promises a different perspective, since it is the only one about East Africa which is written neither by a native African, nor by an European or European settler. That’s quite a long reading list for a short trip.

Yellow Crane Tower

Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have battled and got control of pollution in the city, but Wuhan has not yet. Added to the muggy heat of summer, it is at least as uncomfortable as Mumbai is before the arrival of the monsoon. So I should have been a little more careful about choosing to walk up snake hill to see the Yellow Crane Tower than I was. It was the most uncomfortable bit of tourism that I’ve done. But the view from above compensated a bit. The featured photo shows the Yangtze river, with the first Yangtze bridge of 1957, and the TV tower of Hankou on the far side.

The Yellow Crane Tower of today is a concrete structure completed in 1981 standing on top of the Snake Hill in Wuchang. The earliest references to the tower come from the 8th century, and agree that it was a watch tower on the banks of the Yangtze river. The rebuilding of a classical tower, famous in Chinese poetry, within five years of the death of Mao Tse-Tung, in the town where the first republican revolution took place, must have been a politically fraught act. I could not find contemporary writing about it, but it is interesting enough that I will continue to search.

The statue of Yue Fei (photo above) a little bit up the hill is a must see, if only because it allows you to stop and have a swig of much needed water from the bottle you remembered to take with you. Yue Fei was a 12th century general in the Southern Song dynasty, considered to be one of the great generals of Chinese history. His greatness has grown in the 20th century, as parallels were drawn between his situation and that of the communists in the war years.

I took the stairs up the tower and was immediately drenched in sweat. Fortunately, on the balcony on each floor there was a nice breeze. The interior was beautiful. I find it remarkable that even after the Cultural Revolution, China has managed to retain the skills of painting and calligraphy, sculpture and woodwork. In fact, not only retain, but create such a ferment that contemporary Chinese art is one of the most dynamic in the world.

This interior was not dynamic and contenporary, but more of a theme park. The two story high ceramic work of a yellow crane flying over a representation of the tower is a study in contemporary kitsch. Two women posed below it for a photo. One of the upper floors had a special room for visiting poets. I guess I will have to practice being drunk enough to mistake the reflection of the moon for the one in the sky before I am let into this room.

This kitschy park, a recreation of an imagined past, as unreal as the 19th century reconstruction of Carcassone in France, embraces its kitsch very openly. A huge bell can be rung for luck, and a man sits in front of it collecting money. Stone lions sculpted recently sport deep moss. Everyone knows that this concrete tower dates from decades after the destruction of the original site to make way for the Yangtze bridge, but thinks of it at the same time as a Taoist holy place. China shows how fungible human beliefs are. We just need to believe, and anything can come to stand for what we believe.

Five hours in Fatih

It was hard to say goodbye to Istanbul. We walked until the last possible minute and left the dealing with fatigue for the flight back to Mumbai.

Constantine’s column

Our last day in Istanbul started with a tram ride down the central axis that Constantine built for his new city: the street once called the Mese, now Yeniçeriler Cadessi.

We hopped off at the stop called Çemberlitaş. The square here is as old as the city; it was part of the Roman forum. The column is Constantine’s column, today called Çemberlitaş, meaning burnt column, The base has been raised over centuries, the old base lies well below the level of today’s ground. The mosque behind it was built by Atik Ali Pasha. The single minaret designates that the Pasha was not of the royal family. The sultan’s family was allowed to put up two minarets in mosques they financed, the sultan would normally use four. There’s a nice hamam right in front of the column, across the square from the mosque. One reason we need to go back to Istanbul is that we didn’t find the time to go to a hamam.

Nurosmaniye mosque

We were at the northern end of the square. At the other end we could see the Nurosmaniye mosque, one of the exemplary Baroque Ottoman mosques, and our second stop for the day.

I should write more about this grand 18th century structure, which may, quite deservedly, be included in the World Heritage list soon. Started in 1748 CE during the reign of sultan Mahmut I and completed seventeen years later in the time of his successor, sultan Osman III, the architect Simeon Kalfa built a structure bathed in light. I should write more about it, but, for completely different reasons, I must repeat the words of Evariste Galois, “Je n’ai pas le temps.”

Grand bazaar

Just outside the mosque was the covered bazaar which is the big destination for tourists. So many carpet sellers in the rest of Turkey had told us that their prices were much lower than we would find in the Grand bazaar, that we were looking forward to it.

The Turkish name, Kapalıçarşı, literally would mean covered bazaar, but grand is a good description. Its construction started immediately after the Turkish victory over the Byzantines in 1453 AD. This area stands just across a hill from the ancient port on the Golden Horn, and the end of what used to be Theodosius’ forum (now Beyazit square). So there must have been ancient market here even earlier. In the 17th century the Ottoman empire controlled trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe, and this market was deemed to be the biggest in the world. It remains picturesque even today. The Family and I could roam through this market for a full day, looking for carpets, ceramics, calligraphy, meerschaum pipes, and even food. So it was hard to walk through quickly in half an hour.

Streets of Fatih

The Beyazit mosque was under repair. On another side of the vast Beyazit square was Istanbul University (which produced two Nobel laureates and the founder of Israel). We walked up to the enormous ceremonial gate (featured photo), then detoured into the used-book market. The only planned stop in our walk after this was the Sulemaniye mosque. The rest of the time was for immersing ourselves into the life of Istanbul.

We walked past a few meyhane. My subconscious went into overdrive and reminded me that the Turkish hane is the cognate of Urdu khana, so meyhane is the same as the Hindi maikhana, a pub. They were closed now. Could it be because of Ramazan? Nerval had come to Istanbul in Ramazan in the 18th century, and described it as a fast and a carnival. We’d expected nights to be livelier than they were. Much has changed in the intervening years. Nerval’s friend, Theophile Gautier, walked through these streets (“labyrinth”, he called it) a few years later, terrified by snarling packs of dogs. The Turkish writers Yahya Kemal and Tanpinar followed in their footsteps in the 20th century and called then “ruined, poor and wretched.” Now, as we proceed beyond the beginning of the 21st century, the area is quite gentrified.

Egyptian bazaar (spice bazaar)

Our final stop was the spice bazaar, behind the in-repair Rustem Pasha mosque. The area outside the covered bazaar was truly a bazaar in the Indian sense; lots of little shops, a huge press of people rushing about, others, like us, holding up traffic by taking photos. But we would be back in such places the very next day, so we passed by familiar pleasures and walked into the Misir çarşısi, ie, the Egyptian bazaar.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Located just behind the New mosque (Yeni cami), the spice bazaar had an astounding variety of things to eat. I was really taken by the balls of nuts held together by a gummy matrix like lokum, and bought a single piece by weight. Istanbullus are like people in any other city; shopkeepers are a little surly when you do things that no local does. But tis man sold me a weirdly small amount of food after a little grumbling. There was a lot of lokum on display, but I’d earmarked a special shop for the sweets I wanted to take back. Did I want rose water, or orange essence? No. “Time to move on”, The Family said. Indeed, we were back in Eminönü after a five hour walk. Time to leave Istanbul.

Kedi coy

Kedi is Turkish for cat, and they aren’t at all coy in Istanbul. Although the featured cat sat in a little plot of garden in the cemetery in the Sulemaniye mosque in Istanbul, the words which popped into my mind reminded me of the district of Kadıköy, which is on the other side of the Bosphorus. Köy is Turkish for village, but Kadıköy is not named after cats. The folk etymology is that it means the village of the judge (kadi in Turkish is cognate to the Hindi and Persian kazi). I understand that it is considered more likely that the name comes from the ancient Greek name for the area, Chalcedon. Taking over an older Greek name into Turkish is not unusual, since Istanbul comes from the Greek phrase stim poli (meaning the city) which was used to refer to Constantinople.

We met this cat near Tophane in the Karaköy district of Istanbul. The word hane in Turkish is the cognate of the word khana in Hindi, so Tophane becomes top khana, which is literally, cannon place, and therefore means armoury. It is named after a 15th century factory of cannons and cannonballs, and has not survived until today. The cat must have mistaken us for someone else, since it stood at attention while we walked past. “Do we need to salute him?” The Family asked. It wasn’t necessary. It is a singular honour for a cat to give you a standing ovation, so I took a photo.

The last Lokanta

It was our last day in Istanbul and we’d done a long walk through Eminönü. Now, late in the afternoon it was time for a small indulgence with a çay (pronounced chai). Just as I was about to say this to The Family, she indicated a lokanta in front of us. We’d eaten at lokantas before, but hadn’t looked for one after coming to Istanbul. Going into one would be a nice way to say goodbye to our experience of Turkish food.

The food that we’d eaten in lokantas ranged from wholesome to stunning. This one must have been somewhere within this spectrum judging by the number of people who were having a large meal at this odd time, halfway between lunch and dinner. We found our last baklava with the çay. This looked like it was a self-service restaurant, but there were some waiters around. We were told that our order would come to us at the table, and it did very quickly. We looked around the tiled interior, the mirrors on the wall, the interesting lampshades, the railing on the upper floor where there was more seating, and elegant marble-topped tables and spindly chairs. “Nice way to end the day,” The Family said. I agreed.

Street art and ambush photography in Karaköy

Parts of Karaköy seem to be in terminal decline. The Family and I walked through back streets of these “old, poor, historic neighbourhoods”, as the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk calls them in his memoirs entitled “Istanbul”. The large number of tourists gave me an opportunity for ambush photography: the photographing of people who are being photographed by others. Where tourists thinned out, the walls became dense with graffiti. Plaster was falling off the walls of some of these buildings, revealing weathered brick. This is the area downhill from the Galata tower.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The outline of the 14th century tower, a tall grey cylinder topped by a darker cone, is so clear and visible that I got used to orienting myself by it. I don’t suppose that there is any trace left here of the Genoese colony which built the tower, since the whole area became a fashionable district during the 18th century. Most of the crumbling buildings in these back streets are likely to be from the 19th century. I should really locate a street by street architectural guide to Istanbul when I go back there.