My first quarrel in 2012

If the sea is calm, boat-loads of people arrive at Ross Island just outside Port Blair. The defence personnel who run the island have made no attempt to create order, allowing everyone to just push and shove while buying tickets.

It’s funny how quickly one gets conditioned to one’s immediate surroundings. I have always found queue jumpers to be an annoying breed of humans. But two years of living in the UK, where forming queues seems to be embedded in the genetic code of its people, I have become ever more sensitive to the Indian way of breaking lines. I was prepared to pull by the collar if I had to even if it meant having a fight with someone on the first day of the new year.

I was standing in the security line at the Port Blair airport waiting to board a flight to Chennai. I ended up behind a large excursion group who stood in a huddle in an otherwise orderly queue. Behind me were around 20 other people, including a pair of women of ample girth, who were at least eight passengers behind me.

All was well until the next time I turned around. The two women had made considerable progress, rolling and tumbling down the line, rather like two boulders hurtling down a hill, shoving other passengers out of the way. People had been very tolerant towards them but I braced for battle realising they would hit me soon.

They made short work of the remaining three or four passengers and stood alongside me in minutes. Rather, they were now suddenly in the line just behind the large group of girls while I had been flung out into a trajectory going towards the toilet.

I tried to hurry past them to insert myself back into the queue every time it moved, but again they just rolled on as though I didn’t exist.

“Excuse me, I was in the queue after these girls,” I said finally.

The younger of the two women turned towards me with a look of mild irritation and surprise.

“Are you with these girls?” she asked. I wanted to point out that that didn’t matter because I was still in front of the two of them.

“No I’m not with them. I was right after them,” I said.

Instead of doing the courteous thing and letting me in, they just ignored me and continued on. We were getting closer and closer to the security guard and I finally snapped.

“Excuse me, do you mind?” I said at a pitch that made the entire group of girls in front of us turn around.

“Fine! if you want to go in front of us, please GO!” said the woman.

I reeled at the audacity.

“It’s not that I want to go in front of you. I was in front of you!” I said as I haughtily stepped in to occupy the space between the group and them, sniffing the air for the smell of success.

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Photo of the week: Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam

The houses in the picture are all part of a floating village in the sea, in Ha Long Bay in northern Viet Nam. Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site with hundreds upon hundreds of rocks like these rising up from the water. Tourist junks weave in and out of the rocks but every now and again you see a large ship with a powdery black cargo piled all the way to the top. Our tour guide explained that it was coal being transported to feed  neighbouring China’s hungry economy.

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Impressions of modern Yemen

This post on Yemen was written by Zoyab A. Kadi, aka, my dad.

The final verdict on Yemen was pronounced by God Himself, Who first visited New York and observed “Oh! It’s changed a lot.” Next, He visited Delhi and brightened up “Well! I remember some of it”. Finally He went around Yemen and burst out joyfully “Yes! This is how I had left it”.

At the south west corner of that climatically unsettling Arabian peninsula, Yemen is a country blessed by nature with many bounties – a long coastline with a busy seaway; fertile mountains – the Haraz – that trap copious rains; salubrious climate and daunting landscapes favourable for adventure tourism; a long, proud fractured history that has

Vernacular architecture in Sana'a, Yemen

largely remained untold beyond its borders and a stunningly photogenic vernacular architectural heritage that is indescribable.

Its prevailing status as a poor cousin of other Arab nations has kept it out of the limelight for decades; and were it not for the current turbulent “Arab Spring”, it hardly contributes any happy news to the International media. Whereas British seaports of an earlier era, like Colombo, Singapore and Hong Kong have now reached iconic status, Yemen’s once famed British port – Aden – has actually managed to slip off the shipping map.

A 'majlis' of qat eaters

The bane of the country, apart from its oppressive oligarchical government, is a deep malice affecting a vast majority of the male population, converting them into compulsive ‘lotus eaters’, brought on by the addiction to the leaves of the “qat” plant. After stuffing a wad of leaves into the cheek, it is neither chewed nor moved about, but sucked like a peppermint. More wads are added at intervals without spitting out the old, so that by mid-day an average addict’s cheek appears to be bulging as if with a golf ball inside – making it impossible for him to conduct any profitable business; not to mention the long term chain reactions and consequences resulting from such inactivity.

But matters were not as despondent a thousand years ago. In a severely male dominated, patriarchal tribal society, Yemen has been the only Arab nation to be ably governed by a

A typical Yemeni village perched on a massif

woman (not including the Pharaonic Cleopatra or the Jewish Queen Sheba) – the fearless and incontestable Queen al-Sayyida Arwa al- Hurratul Maleka (or Queen Arwa / Queen Maleka / Queen Sayyida for short), the last in line of the Sulayhid Dynasty, who remains the only female Islamic ruler to have headed both temporal and religious affairs.

The country is of particular significance to us Dawoodi Bohras and is perhaps the pivot and the fulcrum of our chequered history.

Sana’a, the capital, is one of the oldest living cities of the world and, set within a mountainous region is also one of the highest situated capital cities. For the most part it is not a very remarkable city, nor very scenic. As you drive in from its ramshackle El Rahaba Airport, to a mulish welcome, along a fairly modern expressway, the impression that slowly builds up is of a city that has an indifferent sense of aesthetics. The roads are lined with monotonous buildings of uniform colour and of more or less similar appearance. Adding to the incongruity are a large number of nondescript and incomplete structures that reveal stories of frugal funds sent in by bread winners  from overseas. Seen along with the rickety and battered vehicles on the roads, the overall picture that emerges is of a city that is not doing too well economically.

But come to Bab-ul-Yemen – the Yemen Gate – and the change is dramatic. Confined within its walled rampart is an area of amazingly beautiful vernacular buildings, in a style that is completely unique and regional. The first thing to be said about these buildings is they are so tall, some as high as seven floors, and crudely hand crafted, you wonder how they have managed to stand for so long. Only then you notice the colourful glasswork in the arched windows, the semi primeval designs in white lime that border the openings and the coarse stone and brickwork of the walls. And finally you notice the throbbing activity in the narrow, winding alleys – a typical Arab Souq, full of items you can barely begin to identify.

About an hours drive from Sana’a is the formidable escarpment of Zimarmar, rising a

Zimarmar rises nearly a thousand feet

thousand feet like an ephemeral hazy shadow, a massive concave wall in a barren rock strewn countryside. For the Dawoodi Bohras of all age groups the climb to the top is a challenge they accept unhesitatingly, sometimes to be rewarded seemingly miraculously by a complete cure of any prolonged ailments.

Heading south from Sana’a, our next major stop was at Ibb, a fairly large city with a taste for Bollywood movies and raunchy Hindi songs. The garbage and the grime everywhere, partly occasioned by the rainy season, were appalling.  Close by is the ancient town of Jibla, the capital of Queen Arwa. The callous indifference to the magnificent history all around is heart breaking. The

Ancient Yemeni town of Jibla, once the capital of Queen Arwa

Queen’s museum, with the most basic and poorly presented information, is a farce that even at a leisurely pace can be covered in less than half an hour.

West of Ibb, the drive up along the coastal road on the Red Sea is remembered notably for those extraordinarily shaped palm trees that look like huge tuning forks stuck into the ground.

Back into the mountains, our final stop was Hutaib and the difference in the quality of life is immediately visible. Here, a concerted attack against the cultivation of the “qat” plant is beginning to show promising results; with the crop being replaced mainly by coffee plantations. (Yemeni coffee, originally brought in from Abyssinia – now Ethiopia – has always been top class, with Mocha, a small port town, lending its name to a world class brand).The lamp of education has dispelled much of the darkness all around and more importantly has generated a much needed global connectivity.

The Haraz mountains offer spectular views and arduous trails for the seasoned adventure seeker. The little outpost of Manakah, perched on a flat massif, close to Hutaib, is the place for victuals and dependable guides.

One lasting regret that will rankle for a long time is that our itinerary could not include that magical desert town of Shibam in wadi Hadhramawt – an architects’ and photographers’ delight and home to the world’s only mud skyscrapers.  Having read this far, let me take the liberty to suggest to see pictures of this town on the Net. It will be well worth the effort.

Yemen’s current uprising is a late wake-up call for a people long cloaked in repression. The regime would like to believe that being a copycat revolution with insufficient grass root support, the troublesome elements can be weeded out and suffocated. But one hopes that the exigencies and torrent of global trends will finally prevail.

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Photo of the week: A lovely B&B outside the Brecon Beacons

We were heading to the Brecon Beacons national park in Wales in 2010 during the Easter weekend but foolishly hadn’t made any bookings. I called at least a dozen B&Bs inside the park but couldn’t find a vacant room anywhere. Finally I came across a link to a place called the Ty Shon Jacob Farm situated just outside the Brecon Beacons, on a hill above the town of Pontypool. At £25 per head per night, it was a good ten quid lower than other places and the website was so basic (I’ve learnt over time not to judge a British B&B by its website) that I immediately felt a little suspicious about what the deal promised.

Anyway, I called Agnietta Harris, the British-Swedish woman who runs it, and she sounded so friendly that I felt a little more assured about what lay in store for us.

We’re glad we got there during the day because once we were off the expressway, the GPS directed us down a narrower and narrower path going uphill till we found our car being slashed and scraped by branches on both sides with barely any room even to open the door if we had decided to stop there. At the end of that we emerged at the top of a range of hills and tucked down a long, narrow driveway with open fields and horses on all sides we finally reached the loveliest little B&B we’ve ever been to.

The bathrooms are luxurious, the rooms very comfortable and the biggest bedroom has a large, wooden balcony overlooking a green valley. Agnietta is very much a working woman on a working farm, tending to her horses one minute, and dashing about her kitchen cooking you breakfast the next.

I’ve been there twice which is the only reason I’m happy to share the recommendation widely now. But remember that its convenient and enjoyable only if you’re getting there in a car.

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Photo of the week: Hungarian Dobos Torte

We were sitting near a large open door of a café in the castle area of Budapeset and I love the way the hard, caramel top layer of the Dobos torte catches the sunlight in this photograph. This post is dedicated to this Hungarian invention – a light, creamy, five-layer cake often simply called “Dobosh” named after its inventor József C. Dobos.

Think of Dobos torte as a five-layer club sandwich of simple sponge cake and chocolate buttercream  topped off with a hard outer coat of caramel. Its nicest feature is that it is not overwhelming sweet and the cream tastes rich and smooth. The cake was first made in 1884 and introduced to the public at the National General Exhibition of Budapest the following year.

József C. Dobos popularised his cake further by traveling through Europe and introducing it wherever he went. He is said to have kept the exact recipe secret until his retirement in 1906 after which it was finally revealed to the Budapest Confectioners’ and Gingerbread Makers Chamber of Industry, who were allowed to use it freely.

The place to eat a Dobos torte in Budapest today is at the spectacular confectionary house – Gerbeaud.

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Photo of the week: Plantation resort in south India

The contrast between the two worlds couldn’t have been starker. We stepped off a cockroach-infested train in Mysore, a journey that had kept me awake most of the night; and a short drive later stepped into the green, plentiful, luxury of the Orange County plantation resort in Coorg, in Karnataka in south India.

I’m not crazy about resorts because the universe of a vacation can become quite limited but the number of things Orange County had to offer within a few short days has now made this one of my favourite resorts.

The rooms are tastefully decorated, the food is fantabulous, the staff is genuinely friendly and efficient and you can get free cups of gourmet coffee all day. If you’re into Arabica and Robusta, can it get better than this?

I swear they aren’t paying me to say these things.

One of the things I enjoyed the most was a tour through the coffee plantation and a guided walk through the Dubare Reserve Forest, right next to the plantation. You can even pay homage at the end of that walk to the agricultural lifeline of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka – the Cauvery river.

I went to the Orange County plantation resort back in 2009 so I don’t know if they’ve managed to sustain the high standards of hospitality they had then. But if they have, then it’s definitely worth making a pit stop here on a swing through south India.

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“Protect our culture”…pleads Luang Prabang

Monks gather for evening prayers at one of the many wats around Luang Prabang.

We were splashing in solitude down the Nam Khan River in our kayaks when Muang, our guide, abruptly forced us to paddle to the shore and asked us to get off.

“I have a surprise,” he said.

My husband and I were just outside the UNESCO world heritage town of Luang Prabang in Laos and all we could see before us was a steep bank covered with trees. This is how we wanted to explore the town –away from the tourist watering holes – but what surprise could await us behind those trees?

Curious, we followed Muang up the slope till we reached a clearing in the woods where a grey statue of a bearded man stood next to his white grave.

This surprise-in-stone turned out to be the legendary Henri Mahout, a French explorer famous for popularising Angkor Wat to the west. He had died of malaria in the jungles of Laos in 1861 and his grave had become overrun by vegetation until its accidental rediscovery in 1991.

Around the same time communist Laos itself was being discovered as a tourist destination. Tourism makes up 18% of Laos’ GDP today but it still didn’t prepare me for the fine restaurants and new resorts coming up in an otherwise very poor country. The side-effects are evident in a small town like Luang Prabang.

On Sisavangvong Road, the main high street that runs through town, we had seen signs urging tourists to “protect our culture.” But we hadn’t realised exactly why until we headed down there early one morning to observe the Buddhist ritual of giving alms.

Orange robed monks appeared in the first light of dawn from the wats around Luang Prabang, gliding silently past kneeling tourists and townspeople who were dropping alms of sticky rice or bananas into the monks’ baskets. According to Buddhist belief, giving alms is ‘making merit’ or reducing the negative consequences of one’s bad deeds.

Unfortunately, marching alongside the monks on Sisavangvong Road was an army of tourists wielding long, intrusive lenses. The calm of the morning was shattered by flashes as they tried to capture the ritual from every angle, doing exactly what the notices were urging them not to.

To observe the ritual quietly, we retreated with the monks down the inner streets all the way back to their wats by which time most of the camera battalion had thankfully dropped off.

Later that day I wandered into Wat Nong Sikhounmuang and found a young monk, Kham Souk, standing by the window. I couldn’t resist asking him if he thought the morning ritual had been debased.

I expected him to echo my concerns but instead he said, “The tourists come from different religions and different countries so they don’t know. It’s okay.”

He must’ve attained nirvana, I thought to myself.

Kham Souk headed off inside to prepare for the evening prayers and soon the monks raised a hypnotizing chant. The tourists sat still at the back. Watching the monks at prayer made it feel okay after all.

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