A charming market

Has Şirince village been changed by tourism? There is no doubt that it has. The village contains only about 700 people, and at least that many tourists probably come by every day. The restaurants and cafes that we saw would not have been there without the tourist trade. Most definitely the charming market that straddles the square next to the mosque is solely for tourists. However, it is charming, and many of the things we saw seemed local; we never saw them elsewhere.

Ceramics are everywhere in Turkey. We’d seen wonderful ceramics in Cappadocia, but the things we saw here were quite different. In a little shop in the market a man sat over baskets of colourful fruits. They were brightly painted ceramics (see the close up in the featured photo). I saw a little group of Russian women utterly charmed by them. They chose a few and moved on while I stayed behind to take these photos.

We kept seeing this painted blue ware in many shops. From my experience this was peculiar to Şirince. The blue and white ceramic with flowers hand painted over it was not something I saw elsewhere. The Family was quite taken by them and thought long and hard about how to carry it. Eventually she satisfied herself with taking photos. That did not turn out so well for the shopkeeper, I thought. He continued to have a smile on his face though.

A nearby shop had lovely tiles. I’m not expert enough to figure out how local these are. We saw cheerful tiles in use through the village, but were these designs local? Could we have found them elsewhere? I didn’t really keep track. I think of flower patterns in these colours as Iznik tiles. Perhaps that’s too generic, and the patterns change in detail from place to place. But with the kind of mobility and fluidity of style that governs today’s market, I would think that successful patterns would be copies quickly.

I passed this Aladdin’s cave full of ceramics and moved on. The Family was braver. She walked in. I had a long time to examine the rest of the very charming market before she emerged. I couldn’t complain. I’d done the same at the shops which sold fruit wines. There is a lot of variety, and you can spend a while in tasting.

One of the first things I noticed while waiting for The Family was this man with his cats. Before visiting Turkey I had the impression that an enormous population of cats was special to Istanbul. Not so. Cats are everywhere in Turkey. I saw them in the ruins of Ephesus, in the Seljuk mosque in Selçuk, in the streets of Kusadasi, and, of course, here. Most Turks seem to be cat persons.

The market was not very large, but it seemed to have a disproportionately large number of restaurants and cafes. There must be times when when several tourist buses arrive together and the square is very crowded. This was not one of those times. I found the cafes very charming, and examined each of them. We would have coffee at one of them later, and I had to make sure that we chose one which we found to be the most gemütlich.

In most parts of Turkey an absolutely essential ingredient in a cheerful and friendly cafe is that there should be a crowd of old men sitting deep in conversation or playing a game, usually with çay. This village was not like that. Several cafes had no locals, and the one we eventually chose had only two, but without çay. The lack of a drink was probably due to it being the second day of Ramazan, but the lack of people meant that most of these cafes were meant only for tourists. Presumably the locals gathered in a completely different place.

I walked down to the end of the market, past the last shop selling wine, past the last cafe, past even the shop with olive oil. At the end of this path was another square. This is where the local buses, dolmuş, arrive to leave and take on passengers. It should be possible to come here by dolmuş from Selçuk. I’d heard that Şirince has the best peaches in the locality. I realized that the market did not have fresh fruits. I would have to look elsewhere for the peaches, olives, and figs that the village is known for.

Forbidden Shillong

I’d expected Shillong to be charming, lively, always open and welcoming. Imagine my surprise at the closed doors. It wasn’t even 10 in the evening when I passed the shuttered doors of this small neighbourhood chai shop. I could see lights on inside, so there was hope. But I didn’t want to push my luck, so I didn’t knock.

The whole line of shops was shuttered! Part of the story has to do with the single time zone across the country. In Shillong, markets open in the morning at a time when it is still dark in Mumbai. But seriously, where was swinging Shillong? We had to search a bit, but then we discovered that eateries and bars are full of people, although the roads are dark and seem lonely. It looks like Shillong is at war, dousing lights against air raids, while people secretly spend their time partying. One could set an atmospheric locked-room mystery in this town.

But forbidden things appear when you look. This gate looked very stern. I almost saluted as I passed it.

Market Day on the road: Jorhat to Dibrugarh

I walked into a little market in Jorhat, one of Assam’s small towns. It was clean and full of fresh produce. It wasn’t crowded. The Family had decided that she was not up to walking through markets where she did not want to buy anything. I took a look at the friendly face at the fish stall and took the featured photo. I moved on to the next stall of fish. This was slightly further back, and he hadn’t had as good a start as his competitor.

He looked busy behind his aluminum topped table. I like the way the fish vendors had nailed sheets of the metal on top of a sturdy wooden table to make a surface which is easy to work on, and to clean. This man was ready to point out the fish and talk about its origins.

I always like the small fish (the photo on the left), usually because they are local and their flavours change from place to place. This was no exception. When I asked, my friendly fisher-guide told me that this was right from the Brahmaputra, a little upstream. The big fish (on the right) was not local. It is produced in Andhra Pradesh, and transported across the country. How contradictory. With the amount of fish we now eat, growing fish is important, because we might otherwise remove all the fish from seas and rivers to feed ourselves. But is it worth the carbon cost of moving fish about 2500 kilometers in deeply refrigerated trucks?

The vegetables were another matter altogether. By the variety of aubergines which you can see in the photo on the left above, it is clear that the produce is local. I’d never seen the small, long, light purple variety before. At times like this you feel the lack of a kitchen. The cabbage was crisp and fresh, and so were the spinach and the red saag, The cooking bananas looked like a local variety too. Right next to this was a more mixed basket. Three kinds of beans! Fresh karela, slices of sweet pumpkin, beetroot and a really tasty variety of carrots, and a variety of tiny potatoes which I’d eaten for the first time earlier that day. There was a vegetable that was new to me: the pale green cucumberish thing piled at the top edge of the photo. I was told that it is called iskos, and can be cooked like a gourd, after removing the skin.

The people with the vegetables were very amused by my interest. Although I didn’t buy anything, they were happy with my photos, and spent a lot of time showing me what they had. The vegetables are grown nearby; the banks of the Brahmaputra are fertile lands. But this farming is at the expense of rain-forests, and the rapid decline of the very animals that was the main reason for our trip. There is never an easy resolution to any of our deeply felt problems.

I loved these potatoes, and can’t resist giving them star billing in a photo of their own. They range in size from that of a fat cherry to a small cherry pit. I ate them cooked two ways: once in a saag of pumpkin leaves with garlic, and the second time in a semi-dry curry by itself. They are incredibly tasty.

In the meanwhile The Family had found a wonderful bakery. I can’t say whether this is the best, or whether there is such a tradition of local baking that there are more such shops in town. The biscuits that she found here were absolutely delightful. Two were recommended to us by the quiet gentleman whom you can see behind the counter in the photo above: one was a coconutty thing, the other was full of peanuts. We decided that we could go back to Jorhat for them. We also got some cake for the drive to Dibrugarh, and that too turned out to be a good decision.

This is not the best time for fruits. Mango and jackfruit are still ripening on the tree, and the rest of the seasonal fruits are still just flowers. The only local fruit we saw was the bananas which you can see hanging in the shop in the photo above. They look green and totally unripe, but have a good flavour. The rest of the fruits are shipped from across the country, and sometimes forced by WTO rules, and are what I think of as high-carbon-cost fruits.

Our driver was keen to start off as soon as possible. “It is Sunday, and a market day,” he said. “The roads will be jammed”. As we drove along, we found farmers with their produce sitting all along the highway between Jorhat and Dibrugarh. As you can see from the photo, each stall has less variety than a vendor in the town. That’s probably because each farmer has only a few things ready for the market each week; it is the market as a whole which has variety. The Family was sitting next to Rishi the driver, and soon got his biodata. Rishi was clearly a Sikh, but his mother is Assamese. He speaks Punjabi and Assamese at home, and Hindi and English with his clients.

The Family and Rishi chatted like old friends, and he paused to let us have a look at the large cattle market which had developed on the side of the road. It’s been a long time since I have walked in a local cattle market. This one was not very large, but bustled a bit, and I regretted not being able to get off to walk into the mela. Rishi explained in his round-about way, “There are these 10-wheeler trucks which now drive along these roads, and spoil the surface completely. The government will build a good 4-lane highway, but until that is done, traffic is very slow.”

His anxiety got us into Dibrugarh two hours before we needed to. The market had spilled into the town. As Rishi honked his way through the crowd, I got off a nice few shots of the city’s people at the market. Assam is highly diverse ethnically, and in a large industrial town like Dibrugarh this variety is enhanced even more. On a busy market day like this a good fraction of the population must have been out buying the ingredients for their Sunday lunch. Somewhere on the way The Family had induced Rishi to stop for a bit, so we had our fresh vegetables from the banks of the Brahmaputra in our hand baggage when we arrived in Mumbai.

Improvised doors

After a long morning spent watching wild life in the rain forests of Kerala, we came back to the village where we were staying. It was a little late, and the market had closed. The roads were deserted. It was clearly time for a siesta. I noticed for the first time that the shops lacked doors. That’s not a problem clearly; it is easy to indicate when a shop is shut.

The Boqueria market

When you walk down Barcelona’s La Rambla, you feel that it could not have changed much through its history. Your feeling may be correct. As far back as 1217 CE, there was apparently a pig market near a gate which stood where Miro’s mosaic can be seen at Pla de l’Os. This was then part of a larger market, which now seems to have taken over the whole of La Rambla. But if you want to see a real food market, you have to duck into the Boqueria market, whose entrance is on this road. Among the things we didn’t know about it was that you can find Catalonia’s oldest nougat here. The sample we had did not taste 242 years old!

The Boqueria market

The meat stalls stand at the entrance to the market. The variety of hams hanging there left me stunned. Most of the sales people seemed too busy to have a chat about the differences between the meats, even if we had a shared language. The pig market was moved here in 1840 after a convent was removed. As you can see in the photo above, the current structure is very modern, but atop it stands a high structure of iron struts which is clearly older. At the edge of the photo you can see the even older stone pillars, which mark out a covered gallery running around the market. This older structure houses lots of restaurants and tapas bars.

Vegetables at the Boqueria market

We moved into the crowded fresh produce section of the market. Although I saw nothing which I have not seen before, all the produce looked extremely fresh. The chilis that you see in the photo above are wonderful when they are grilled. We had a plateful of that much later in the evening. Some of the fruit stalls have fresh juices available. It was still extremely warm and the fluids looked welcoming. We took our time selecting the juices we wanted to drink. Fresh pressed orange juices were our breakfast staple in Spain, but here there was a large variety: from tropical fruits like guavas to European summer berries.

Relaxing at the Boqueria market

We moved on, and found the usual selection of cheese. Stopping there would have been sad, not just because I don’t know much about Spanish cheeses, but also because we did not have the leisure to select a few of them to taste over days. I wish we had the time to go back and walk through the market a few more times at leisure, sampling a larger variety of tastes. It would have helped us enjoy what the city calls one of the world’s largest markets if we had access to a kitchen while in Barcelona.

Wandering through Bumthang

Past Trongsa we had entered eastern Bhutan. It had been a while since we had seen any tourists.Bumthang, Bhutan Our experience in Chakhar Lhakhang told us that there are seldom any Indians who venture this far east. Dinesh was now our guide. He said he knew a hotel in Bumthang. We drove there, found three rooms, dumped our bags and decided to take a look at the town’s market before it closed down. We’d spent the whole day in the car and a little walk was welcome. Also, since we were going to stay in these rooms for two nights, we could eat in the market today, and try the hotel’s dinner the next day. Our rooms came with balconies. I opened the door, went out and took the photo you see alongside.

Shop window in Bumthang, Bhutan

The market was close to shutting down. The evening’s last shoppers were hurrying in to finish shopping before dinner. We had a leisurely time doing some window shopping. Shoes were clearly in demand. So were recharge cards and SIMs for B-Mobile; strange considering that along most of the road we had no mobile signal. DVDs were another hot segment of the market. Most offers were current Bollywood hits, with a dash of very well known older ones. Children at the Bumthang market, , BhutanI could see a few Nepali movies, but there were no Bhutanese movies on display.

The Family and I watched two children for a while. They were busy jumping into a puddle, with their school books in hand. Their father came out of the shop behind them to tell them to sit and do their work. He had quite a few customers, so as soon as the two sat down he went back in. Instantly the girls were up and at the puddle again. We laughed, and I tried to take a photo. They realized this immediately and sat down in a big show of studying their books.

We turned round and realized that the Sullen Celt had disappeared. As we walked around looking for her, she emerged from a store with a brown bag in hand. It was a brandy from a smaller Bhutanese distillery. Bag in hand we began a search for a place to eat in. A small restaurant just off the main square had rainbow trout on the menu. This is another atrocity that the British left in this part of the world; they seeded trout in the local rivers, created a disaster and a class of people who love to "conserve" this monster for future generations of fly-fishers. Quite as much of an atrocity as the industrial product that passes for brandy in this part of the world. We had a satisfying dinner with two things which the Himalayas would have been better off without.