Food of the Wabenzi

Evening in Nairobi is coffee time. Niece Tatu had thoughtfully provided me with a list of her favourite cafes in town after telling me in a long phone conversation how much she misses them. So one evening, when FONT piled all of us in the car and drove to a cafe which was number two on his daughter’s list, I was a little undecided about whether to send her photos. On one hand she loved the place, on the other, she missed it.

I looked at the display of the cakes on offer. We had developed confidence in the bakers of Nairobi right from our first experience in a cafe. So I was quite tempted by the tarts and macaroons. Lunch had been heavy and a little late, so did I dare?

I did not. The craving for something sweet was easily satisfied by a pain au chocolat with my coffee. I’ve had a soft spot for these flaky delights ever since the days when I learnt to knock, very late after a long night, on the back window of a bakery in Geneva and pay for an illegal pain au chocolat (illegal, because bakeries are not allowed to transact business out of hours) even as the morning’s batches of croissants and PaC were being baked. I’m sure that bit of illegality has been stopped decisively long ago in rule-bound Switzerland, but my love of this breakfast pastry has extended right across the day.

I asked for a few of the nicer looking pastries to be packed up for breakfast. They certainly explained why this cafe was high on Niece Tatu’s list. I was happy that I did not have too many days in Nairobi, because I was going to put on a few kilos if I was to explore her full list.

Derinkuyu overground

The village of Derinkuyu seemed a little schizophrenic. On the one hand there was the ancient underground city, and on the other the Greek orthodox church, both abandoned in the 1920s. The underground city is one of the major tourist draws in Cappadocia, but very few walk the few steps to the church. Between the two there seems to be a dividing line which cuts through the village. On the side which contains the entrance to the underground city a market place has come up; there are cafes (featured photo), and even a little hotel.

On the other side the village seems to be crumbling and falling apart. Crumbling, derelict places hold a special fascination for travel bloggers and photographers, it seems. My companion for the hour was a keen photographer, and he turned out to be a blogger as well. We walked towards this other side of the village first. The ignimbrite which has been carved into villages and troglodyte cities for millennia also seems to give blocks of stone to build houses with. Some of it was rough, and not very handsome to begin with.

Other houses had been made with care and love. The relief work in the stone above windows, and the niche, would have been part of the facade of a beautiful house once upon a time. Now it looked like an abandoned mess. A hole had been bashed into one of the stone block, probably to provide an opening for a pipe. And now the whole frontage had begin to crack.

I zoomed back a bit to take a photo of the surroundings. You can see two houses, standing side by side, each of which would have looked pretty once upon a time. Both households would have had some pride in living so close to the town’s church. Now the wall of the lower floor is crumbling. A hole gapes in one of the walls; perhaps a door frame and lintel have been removed. The facades are cracked and sagging, and will not last much longer.

Round the corner, and right outside the church I saw this small house. It hadn’t started crumbling yet. Still there were signs scrawled over it: Satilik (meaning “for sale”) and Satilik Ev (Turkish for “house for sale”). What happened to this side of the town? The Greeks who lived here left a century ago, why have the houses been put up for sale now?

The other side of the village doesn’t look rich, but at least it is not deserted and crumbling. I saw lines of cafes. Some were closed, but the chairs and the table outside seemed to indicate that the closure was temporary. Later in the day, probably, the cafe would reopen. The dappled sunlight looked cheerful.

Next to it, other cafes did some business. Each of these establishments had one occupied table. An old man sitting alone did not want to appear in the photo, but was not bothered enough by me to either tell me to stop or to walk away. You can see him holding up a napkin to cover his face. People at other tables are not bothered by me. This village sees a lot of tourists, and the locals pay them little heed, unless they are in the tourist trade.

No maga dog

While wandering around the Mawlai Phudmuri area of Shillong, I was complaining bitterly about our inability to find local music venues in town. The winding road was bounded by high walls. There was a gate in one wall and a sign on it said “Three Little Birds Bistro”. I’m always ready for a coffee, so I stepped through the gate and saw a long low building with a large portrait of Bob Marley painted on it. Could this be what I was looking for?

A young girl behind the counter said that I couldn’t get a coffee since lunch service had already started. The bistro part of the shed was quite empty, but through an open window behind the girl I could see another half of the establishment which was indeed full of diners. There was clearly no more conversation to be had. I stepped back out and found that The Family and the nieces had found props for instagram photos of themselves. I was briefly roped into helping them out, but soon I left to walk around the property.

There was another door to the bistro and this proclaimed reggae even more forcefully. Just as we were about to leave I decided to go in again and ask about music. There was an older lady at the counter now, and she said “Yes, we play music in the evening.” That was promising. I asked “Live?” She said “No, from the computer.” I smiled a goodbye. This was disappointing again. As I was leaving I saw a shed off to one side. I haven’t seen hay drying inside a town in a long time, so I moved that way to take a photo.

There was movement in the hay. As I approached I found a litter of really young pups. They were still unsteady on their legs. The mother looked at me and moved a bit to be able to defend her litter. I didn’t touch the pups, although they were adorable and just the age when you want to pick them up. These were no maga dogs. Nor was there any reggae. I left.

Puzzle mania

In Spain we tried to stray off the beaten path whenever we could. This meant that we would often get lost and tired. The hot sun would force us into a small and forgotten bar now and then. These places are either wonderful or terribly dispiriting. The featured photo shows two barflies nursing their drinks in the middle of a hot afternoon. It would seem we had wandered into a bar of lost souls.

Not exactly. Outside the bar were a couple of retirees engrossed in books of puzzles. On the metro we had seen a couple of other people equally deeply into puzzles, and wondered what they could be. They did not look like Sudoku or crosswords. At the cafe we discovered what they could be. The sachets of sugar we got with our coffee had these two puzzles on them. Presumably the old people we saw were trying to solve bigger versions of these puzzles.

I shoulder-surfed one of them as we left. He was solving an intricate word puzzle which was not a crossword. Maybe we could try to buy one of these books and try our hands at them.

Walking through Yangon

Walking through an unknown city is always a great way to spend time. How else could I know that in Yangon even street-side eateries give you a pot full of tea with your lunch? How else would I begin to suspect that townies hid their faces when a foreign journalist took their photos; a reflex that persists even after democracy is back?

Jumble of building styles in YangonOutside the Colonial centre of Yangon every street is a jumble of architectural styles. Sagging buildings from the first half of last century share a frontage with modern buildings: some are high-rises, others are pre-fab commercial units faced in glass and metal painted concrete. Some of the architecture dates from a few decades ago. We saw these two high-rises next to each other. Decaying high rise in YangonOne was modern, the other was probably thirty to forty years old, and already ripe for demolition. This gave me one answer to my question about why Yangon was such a small city. Most cities in Asia are huge sprawls. In comparison, Yangon is like a town from the 1960s with the traffic of problems of the 1980s. The answer that this building gives to the question is that construction was costly and shoddy during the lifetime of two generations. Yangon never grew, and now it will probably do this at thrice the rate that the rest of Asia manages. How would it cope? To see that I took a walk through the Colonial centre of the city.

The town hall of Yangon

By all accounts the centre of the city is Sule square. Strange that the invading British would plan the centre of Yangon around one of the most revered temples in Myanmar, but that is one of the contradictions of Imperial Britain in India and Burma. Right next to the pagoda is the imposing town hall (photo above). The restoration of this building and the ones next to it are done with loving care. Book store in central YangonThis lovely bookstore reminded me of Kolkata. Outside of Kolkata, Mumbai and Yangon I would be hard put to name a town where there is an almost untouched colonial era district. I say almost, because the building just behind this is modern. It is interesting that the central district still has a large bookstore: banks have not yet taken over. Post office in central Yangon Two blocks down, there was a massive colonial-era building which served as a post-office. It had not yet been restored, but seemed to be in good repair. The colour scheme was no different that what you might see on a similar building in Kolkata.

Used book store on the streets of central YangonThe streets were full of informal commerce, vendors selling food, toys, socks, sun glasses. The sight of a row of pavement stalls selling used books reminded me of Mumbai in the 1980s, when I, and probably a million other people, would buy books mainly from such vendors. That past is now as foreign as Yangon.

Merit vendor in YangonIn direct contrast to such familiar sights was a vendor who brushed past me on the road, carrying cages full of birds on his shoulder. I followed him for a few paces. They were not birds which you might want to eat. Nor did it seem likely that several Burmese every day would impulsively buy a couple of birds as pets. It turned out later that this was a wonderfully cultural con. A devout Buddhist would gain merit by buying a few birds and releasing them. The birds are quite tame, so after release it would be easy for this man to catch them again for merit recycling. I guess the net result is that the vendor gains money and loses merit: something he is willing to risk.

A grand but dilapidated building in central YangonRestoration work had not yet covered all of Yangon. As we approached Strand Road, and the river front, we passed this magnificent but dilapidated building. Some enquiries led to a tiny crumb of information: that it belonged to a famous Jewish merchant from India before independence. It was sold to a local businessman, and was later bought over by a general. The Baghdadi Jews of Mumbai were great merchants in the late nineteenth century, and left their architectural stamp on downtown Mumbai as well as the Bund in Shanghai. None of the names I mentioned made any sense to the people I talked to. I’m sure the urban history of Yangon is documented well enough that one can trace the history of this building.

District court on Strand Road in YangonRight on Strand Road was this vast and crumbling building. The locked doors and the man sitting on the steps smoking reminded me of Kolkata in its worst decades. This was apparently the District Court, locked up for the weekend. I asked why a district court is crumbling away when a post office can be in good repair. There was no real answer to that. Myanmar lost decades, and it is beginning to catch up. If this district is restored and put to use, it may become a major cultural heritage: the only place on earth where the architectural style of the Raj remains untouched.

Little canteen in downtown YangonYou can probably tell by the shadows in my photos that it was now well into the lunch hour. The street food scene was buzzing. I discovered a little canteen which seemed to be full. It looked clean, and the inside was full of purposeful bustle: waiters and waitresses went back and forth, and there was a low rumble of conversation between diners. I didn’t go in, but one of the waiters noticed me and posed for the photo you see here. The place looked like a typical inexpensive eatery from my days as a student in Mumbai. Bakery in downtown YangonJust a little before I’d come to this, I saw a van come to a stop outside a building and two young women get down to unload trays and carry them in. I got a look at one of the trays as it was carried in. It was full of bread. I followed them in, and it turned out to be a cafe. It was busy with customers and uniformed waitresses. I was tempted to sit down there for a quick lunch. But the previous day I’d had lunch at a similar place, and I was planning to try out a Burmese-Chinese place in an hour. I clicked a few photos and said a reluctant goodbye to the cafe.

This had been a successful walk. I saw a slice of Yangon which emphasized the common recent history of the countries along the Bay of Bengal, and found out a little about everyday life in the city.