Village Kolakham

Kolakham village had the charming look of the villages up in this corner of the Himalayas, in the part of Bengal which nudges up on Sikkim and Bhutan. It is not just the Nepali language that distinguishes people of this region from the rest of Bengal. I walked into the kitchen in the morning to hear a song on the radio playing softly. It wasn’t in Nepali. The Tibetan song was a religious tune which the cook, a Buddhist, was listening to. None of these are the essential distinction between people in these villages, 2 kilometers above sea level, and those down at the foothills. Our driver put it neatly, “The people down there speak the same Nepali as us, but they don’t smile and help.”

Every house is built on two levels. This log cabin has an upper level which faces directly on to the road, and serves as a combination shop and roadside restaurant. The lower level, partly log covered over with metal sheets (perhaps as protection against wind) is where the family lives. This opens out into a garden with a gate which leads up from the road below. You can always build multiple views when you make a house on a slope.

Not all houses are made of logs. More common are these timber-frame houses. Woven cane mats are nailed to the frame, and daubed over with a thin layer of plaster. It is a mixed technique: wattle-and-daub meets timber-frame. In these forests of oak, pine, and bamboo, these are easily available material. Also, when there is an earthquake, as there is once or twice in a person’s lifetime, you will not be buried under heavy building material.

The simplicity of construction means that most people try their hand at building their own houses. This beautifully constructed door was clearly built by an amateur. It is slightly out of true, the frame not quite a rectangle. The elements of the door have been joined together by an amateur carpenter. I loved this. When you travel through the country you see a lot of naive folk art. It is wonderful to see the same naive aesthetics in architecture.

I am over-simplifying, of course. There were at least three concrete houses in the village. These are built by specialists. But these are mountain villages, after all. Even the workers and their employers have a pleasant relationship. In a different village, at a house under construction, I saw three workers take a break as the lady of the house brought them cups of tea and some snacks. Life is hard up here, but, by and large, people pitch in together. The most visible part of life up here are the flowers that you find in the garden and porches of each brightly coloured house. You could not miss the fact that it was early in spring.

The village has a little movie theater. Not as old-fashioned as the hand-cranked movie projectors that you could see in villages in the last century; this movie theater probably shows videos. 4G connectivity was easy, but I guess there is a market for things you cannot stream. I also liked the physical distancing marks on the road, in a village which hasn’t had a single recorded case of COVID-19.

My first walk with a digital camera

I realize that I’ve been using a digital camera for fifteen years now. I was in Germany, and The Family was supposed to join me at Christmas, which we would spend in Vienna. We had all our bookings done, including tickets for concerts and shows. Her bag, with her passport, was stolen before we left Duesseldorf airport. That’s when we realized that the old borders of EU were not really forgotten. We were not allowed to fly without a passport. So we tried to cancel whatever we could and changed our Christmas plans. On the 23rd of December we decided to make a day trip to Bremen. The featured photo shows a pub sign which incorporates the fairy tale characters of the town musicians of Bremen, one of the stories collected by the Grimm brothers.

The weather was grim when we got off the train, cloudy and a temperature just above freezing. We walked to the old town, past the town hall, the square where the Christmas market surrounded the sculpture of the four musicians which was a local landmark, and on to the picturesque region of Schnoor. Bremen has been an important port since the middle ages, and therefore seen a lot of wars. It was pretty heavily bombed in the second World War, but the old town still had a few medieval timber-frame houses standing. They were fitted with pretty modern doors and windows though (I guess bombs must have blown out all the glass even if the structure was not damaged). The quaint houses stood out against the brick walls of the buildings that were put up at the beginning of the German recovery.

Bremen is considered a little special in Germany: a member of the Hansa trading league, then after the end of the first World War a Socialist republic for less than a month, later a holdout against Nazism until it was brutally taken over, and even now more working class, Green, and left-wing than much of Germany. Still, it is Germany after all, pretty prosperous and orderly, a pleasure to walk through, stop for coffees and beers, and the hearty lunches that make so much sense in that weather. I had still not got the hang of digital photography: the idea that you take an enormous number of photos and preserve them forever.