Letter to a Stranger – To The Stray in Varanasi

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Perhaps it was unavoidable for your death to be a mere sideshow in a city where death is ubiquitous. Die in Varanasi, and you’ll never come back—that’s what the believers say. It’s a place where people go to be cremated by the shores of the Ganga, the prodigious river that seeps down from the Himalayas out into the Bay of Bengal, purifying all that it submerges. Death in Varanasi confers a special karmic cleansing on a person tired of the protracted cycle of birth and death—it offers them a way off the ride, to a state called moksha.  

I went to Varanasi specifically to see death. If you ever came to my country, you’d understand how death was, for me, a leaden figure obscured from view like a virgin behind a black screen, as though modesty and shame were its chief concerns. To catch a glimpse of it was to exploit an oversight. I was driven by the kind of anxious curiosity that makes you check under the bed at night before turning the lights out, that draws your eye into the mangled particulars of roadkill.

What I really wanted was to be like you: someone who’d seen the whole act, many times through. I loved life—at that time, it was the freedom of backpacking, the giddiness of possibility, the spice that burned my insides. I wanted to live as many lives as I could. I dreaded the idea of an ending, of letting go—which is why I wanted to see death up close. You ate death for breakfast, lapping it up from puddles and breathing it in with the bonfire smoke as you watched countless bodies burn with a yawn, a stretch, and a back-leg scratch behind the ear. I wanted the same kind of acceptance, and to understand why a release from repeated lives was something to be desired.


Dogen, Dharma and Discipline in Japan’s Zen Heartland

National Geographic Traveler

THE WAKE-UP BELL RINGS AT 3:20AM and within minutes I’ve shot up, changed out of my pyjamas, rolled up my futon, folded my sheets and am standing outside the bedroom ready for inspection. After a cursory assessment by a stern-faced monk I am asked to take off the tiny silver ring I’m wearing on my right hand: “No adornments, please.”

At 3:30am, I’m desperately trying not to fall behind. Padding blearily at the back of a line slicing through a succession of maze-like corridors in single file, I’m doing my best to keep step with the person in front of me while not tripping over my robes or losing the standard-issue footwear on a stair.

Ten minutes later I’m sitting upright and crossed-legged on a round, black cushion on top of a wooden platform. I’m facing the wall, a dark wooden panel, my eyes half-closed, heart beating from the early-morning workout and the sheer effort of just keeping up. I hear the footsteps behind me of a man brandishing a long wooden ‘discipline’ stick, and I know I am to stay completely still for the next 30 minutes. A bell rings three times somewhere in the distance, and I break out in a rash of goose bumps before the room is plunged into silence. All I have to do now is breathe. And not move an inch.

It may sound like boarding school or boot camp, but in fact I’m embedded and motionless among the dark wooden beams and latticed paper panels of the Sodo (monks’ training hall) in Japan’s oldest Sōtō Zen temple.

In a world when the term ‘Zen’ has been adopted to evoke anything vaguely associated with a chilled-out state of new-age relaxation and ease, it might come as a shock to learn that the regime for trainee priests here at Eiheiji, Japan’s first and oldest Sōtō Zen centre, is closer to Fort Benning than a weekend spa retreat. “Eiheiji is severe,” writes one matter-of-fact Buddhist blogger; “Eiheiji is undiluted Zen.”

Japan has no shortage of Zen temples for the inquisitive visitor looking for quiet day’s contemplation: there are over 15,000 from the Sōtō school alone, with another 6,000 pertaining to the Rinzai sect. Their sheer numbers can almost be desensitizing in cultural clusters like Kyoto and Kamakura where many of the Zen temples, though excellently preserved, have been all but emptied of their original function, and now stand stoically as hoards of tourists pass through their gates brandishing cameras and small change for luck offerings. As a Zen practitioner myself, I was a little put out by the feeling that as a tourist in Japan, I would only be skimming the surface of these incredible, sacred institutions.

Having developed a critical case of sightseers fatigue after days spent binge-gawping at the best and most impressive of Kyoto’s Zen temples (I knew I’d had enough when I found myself yawning at the famed rock garden in Ryonaji and finally completely dishonored myself by falling asleep on the steps of Sanjusangendo, the sacred temple of the 1,000 Buddhas), I decided I needed something more to really engage with Japan’s Zen tradition: I needed to get away from the tourist trail and visit a working temple to see the monks’ practice first hand. A place where I could sit, eat and walk in the company of monks, and where I wouldn’t be allowed to fall asleep on the temple steps.

Eiheiji was the perfect choice, and I discovered through my own Zen teacher back in Europe that they were open to taking visitors, by arrangement. Flung far from the crowds of Kyoto and Tokyo, there’s more to this temple than picture-perfect manicured gardens and photo-op statues of the Buddha: to adherents of Sōtō Zen (myself included), the temple is the very source of the practice, established by the founder of the Sōtō school, Eihei Dōgen Zenji, in 1244. Think the Vatican or Mecca, and you’ll get some idea of its significance. It shares the status of international headquarters of Sōtō Zen with Sojiji, another more modern temple on the outskirts of Tokyo, but what sets Eiheiji apart even from its administerial twin is the fact that it is Master Dōgen’s original temple. Its been standing here on the exact spot of its foundation among the forested mountains of the Fukui prefecture – known for their harsh winters and heavy snowfall – for 800 years, and though the buildings have been reconstructed over time, life inside the temple for its 200-or-so trainee priests follows more or less the same strict rules and rhythms that were laid out by the master in the 13th century.

Given Eiheiji’s reputation for severity, it was with a dash of trepidation that I entered through its gates the previous day. Just hours earlier I’d been traipsing under the myriad electric cables that weave a tangled awning over Tokyo’s streets, illuminated by epileptic neon signs and incandescent hoardings. I had shouldered through the throngs of Tokyo Central station, dragging a wheelie bag, clutching maps, rail passes and guide books, before boarding a Shikansen (bullet train) to the town of Fukui.

From there it was a short jaunt on the quaint one-carriage Echizen railway manned by a uniformed driver and hostess in white gloves that personally greeted every passenger on the train and wished them a pleasant journey. The tiny train ran through rural villages and miniature-backyard paddy fields as far as Eiheiji-guchi station from where I made the final leg of the voyage to the temple gates by bus.

The silence at Eiheiji – punctuated as it is by the sound of running water and framed by the stately cryptomeria cedars towering overhead – is almost unnerving after so much movement. There’s a sign written in Japanese characters at the temple’s Dragon Gate to give visitors and trainees pause for thought: “The tradition here is strict: no one, however wealthy, important or wise, may enter through this gate who is not wholehearted in the pursuit of truth.” I try to absorb the importance of this statement, a stamp of sincerity that is impressed upon all acolytes when starting their training, stripped as they are of every material possession, save the exact amount of money needed to cover their funeral fees should they die whilst in training.

Life here is definitely no cakewalk: “Never in my life had I encountered such severity,” attests Kaoru Nonomura, a salaryman who opted to spend one year training in Eiheiji and subsequently recorded his memoirs in the Japanese bestseller, ‘Eat Sleep Sit’. In his book, Nonomura outlines the various penuries imposed on the monks: sleep deprivation, manual labour, clobberings, harsh reprimands and malnutrition, recalling some kind of grim barracks procedure. The similarities are rife: the trainees are given a hard physical and psychic initiation in order to break their egos and instill a disciplined, communal spirit. The difference is, of course, that the monks are not training for combat; they are learning the principles of practice of Sōtō Zen that will qualify them to lead enlightened, compassionate and spiritually resonant lives.

The good news is that as a visitor you are by no means obliged to undergo a beating for the privilege of staying the night. In 24 hours you’ll meditate, eat, take a traditional bath, witness the ceremony and be sent on your way the next morning, having barely dipped your toes into the disciplinary mire. But the reason to go to Eiheiji is that it’s a rare chance to get a taste of the real methods of Sōtō Zen where the purest tenets of Dōgen’s teachings can still be seen first hand.

“There are three positions when you are in a Zen temple,” Ju-ichi tells me as we kneel on the tatami mats in my otherwise empty room, “sitting, standing and walking.”  We must always definitely be doing one of the three, and when moving around, the hands, instead of being thrust into the pockets or swinging by one’s side, are to be held at chest level, with the right hand eclipsing the left fist in a position called shasshu. “And please,” he adds, glancing at his watch, “do not move from your room until I come to get you.”

Ju-ichi has been at Eiheiji for over a year now. He’s one of the only monks here that appears to speak English, and I really appreciate the chance to talk with him as most other trainees that I encounter in the corridors freeze into a deep bow with their eyes firmly fixed to the floor as visitors pass by. There’s no room here for idle chit-chat.

Because of his English skills, Ju-ichi has been assigned the job of taking care of visitors at the temple, although instances of Westerners coming here are very few. Work at a Sōtō Zen temple is considered of paramount importance to the practice, and novice monks are famously given hours of hard chores to execute in order to help them along the road to enlightenment. One of the most dreaded jobs for newcomers is the cleaning of the corridors, where the doubled-over monks run up and down at speed, brandishing large cloths that polish the floors to a gleaming finish that doesn’t leave so much as a speck of dirt after a temple tour taken in white socks. It’s a wholehearted, complete way of working that chimes with Dōgen’s directions for a life where practice and illumination are one and the same thing.

I study Ju-ichi carefully for signs of duress or fatigue from the infamous Eiheiji tribulations, but he gives off nothing more than an air of light and cheery politeness, coupled with a concern that my demanding visitors’ schedule of eating, bathing, sitting, and touring (with a little sleeping thrown in for good measure) be executed to the letter. His devotion to the precise punctuality of each of these activities comes over as a touching show of hospitality, especially his patience with my clumsy ignorance of most of the standard rules, procedures and etiquette. He’ll politely whisper ‘gassho’ (bow) when a temple elder of whom I am entirely unaware passes by, or when I’m about to storm into the toilets with complete disregard for the statue of Ususama, the bathroom god, standing outside.

Back in the dusky visitors’ Sodo, a bell rings twice to signal the end of zazen, the morning meditation, and I realize that I’ve lost both of my legs. The most fundamental part of Zen practice, zazen, or ‘just sitting’, involves solely sitting on a zafu (cushion), facing the wall with the back straight and legs folded in full- or half-lotus position. This straightforward undertaking of awareness and concentration on the present moment is at the heart of Zen practice.

Dōgen wrote tomes about the simple act of sitting, which he called “the gateway of truth to total liberation.” In the Fukanzazengi, an important text outlining the instructions for practicing zazen, he gives the following advice: “Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha.”

The only designs I have at this very moment is to regain use of my legs and keep up with the monks who are almost leaping from their cushions and readying for another fast procession to the ceremonial hall. An onslaught of pins and needles follows me as I get to my feet, grappling to keep my balance and have faith that my legs will carry me in the single file that quickly builds back up to the speed of a bullet train moving through the labyrinthine corridors and endless stairwells of the temple complex.

It’s 4:30am and already the morning ceremony is underway.

Eiheiji’s 200 monks are kneeling in perfectly aligned rows on either side of the altar in the Hatto, the ceremonial hall. They’re chanting the Heart Sutra, one of the oldest and most fundamental texts in Buddhism, before moving onto other key sutras and a long list of the names of the patriarchs that have directly transmitted the dharma – Buddha’s teachings – over the last 2,500 years. The sound of the monks’ deep incantations accompanied by a drum beat and the occasional bell is absolutely mesmerizing, and I try and join in with my own alto croaks as I am ushered to also kneel in the visitors section of the hall.

Ceremonies in Zen temples last for hours, and take up the best part of the morning. As all sensation slowly departs again from my kneeling legs, I watch as the monks get up and perform prostrations, towards the altar, and towards the middle of the room. Two other monks appear from the back of the hall and race between the rows, holding aloft a lacquered tray containing a number of sutra books. As they run through the lines, each monk reaches out and picks up a book with timing so precise, it gives the impression of an impeccably choreographed routine. I gasp at the fluidity of it all – not a single dropped book – and almost want to applaud when the monks distributing the sutra books reach the end of the rows and come to a sudden, smooth stop, holding the trays up high and slowly turning around with a dancers’ control and grace.

At 8:30, it’s finally time for breakfast. My disappointment at not being able to sit with the monks and eat their traditional morning meal of plain brown rice soup in a precise ceremony involving the oryoki (the special monks’ bowl set) quickly dissipates when, kneeling upon a tatami mat in a private room in front of a low lacquered table, I am presented with a tray of at least a dozen small dishes and bowls containing morsels of food of every shape and colour imaginable.

Ju-ichi chants the meal sutra (“We regard greed as the obstacle to freedom of the mind; we regard this meal as medicine to sustain our life…”) before I begin to tentatively poke a chopstick at the foodstuffs in front of me. Though it’s not the trainee monks’ daily gruel, this is shojin-ryori, traditional temple food that has developed within the Zen tradition since monks returning from China introduced it to Japan in the 13th century. No animal products are used in the preparation of shojin-ryori, and neither are any strong herbs and spices, garlic being a particular temple no-no.

Some elements of the meal are familiar, such as a chunk of sautéed tofu, a green bean, a slice of melon and a bowl of miso soup; however, scanning the remainder of the collection of edibles in front of me, I’m at pains to recognize the white jelly-like lump or the extremely thick and sticky soup-like dish. I later learn that the former is called goma-dofu and is in fact a lump of smoked starch flavoured with white sesame, while the latter is chawan-mushi, steamed yam with vegetables.

Ju-ichi has tiny dents in his lower lip and ear lobes where I presume studs and earrings once lay embedded. I ask him about his life before coming to Eheiji and he tells me he was a hairdresser, first in Tokyo, and then in New York. Which was where he learnt English. The initial formality of his role as temple host has broken down somewhat over the 24 hours that I’ve been here, and he slowly – if not completely willingly – began to cave in to my excessive and I’m sure inappropriately personal questioning.

As my time to leave approaches, I start to get brave with my inquiries: I ask him if he’s married to which he shyly replies no. Does he ever think about getting married? “Yes, of course!” To a nun? He laughs heartily. No, not to a nun; definitely not.

The question of marriage for Zen priests in Japan is a normal one, the management of temples being very much a family affair, with priesthood typically passed down from father to son. Sons of priests become ordained as monks – usually in their early twenties – go to train at a monastery for up to three years, and return home to take over the family business.

It turns out that Ju-ichi, in his early thirties, is older than most of the novices who come here straight after finishing school or university. Whereas most Zen temples that have travelled from the east and settled in the west tend to be centres for people with a spiritual calling who practice Zen in spite of other obligations in their lives, in Japan, donning the straw sandals and knocking on the doors of an institution like Eiheiji is considered a shrewd investment in the future, much like learning the skill of hairdressing. This is the way that Ju-ichi explains to me his journey from the glitzy salons of the city to the quiet, disciplined confines of this training school.

“My uncle has a temple in the north of the country, and he has no children,” he tells me, making no mention of any spiritual incentives per se. “One day he will need somebody to take over from him.” A career move; it was that simple.

The visitors schedule sets the time of departure at 10am and you get the feeling that lingering any longer will not be appreciated. As Ju-ichi walks me to the temple gate I awkwardly present him with the traditional gift I had been advised to give monks at the temple. As no one had actually said what that gift should be, I spent hours sweating over what one gives a Japanese monk who has forsaken all worldly goods. The internet counseled some perplexing and temple un-friendly national gifts like frozen steak, cufflinks and imported scotch, and in the end I decided on a tin of traditional English toffee.

We go through the gift-giving motions of refusal and insistence before he finally takes the box from me and a cab pulls up. We wish each other luck and goodbyes, knowing we’ll never meet again. My cab pulls away and the giant cedars recede into the distance as tiredness suddenly sets in along with that peculiar feeling of having lived a month in the space of a day. I can only take my hat off to Ju-ichi and his 200 colleagues for whom a year here might even feel like half a century.

Eat, Pray, Drive

The Sunday Times
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Most stirring tales of self-discovery don’t tend to climax with a woman having a panicked breakdown on a petrol forecourt 120 miles from the finish line at midnight. Mine does, however, and though it wasn’t really what I had in mind when I set out from Mumbai three months previously, with 6,000 miles of Indian roads ahead of me, hindsight does compel me to ask: “What the hell were you expecting?”

The dismal period following an emotional break-up, can, if handled correctly, be very productive. Especially when it coincides with a career lull and the general notion that the dust globe of one’s thirties needs a shake-up. So, back in 2010, newly single at 33 and a bit down in the dumps, I decided that the most constructive thing I could do was succumb to a twisted form of retail therapy meets wanderlust. And drive around India. My acquisition was the cheapest new car in the world — the £2,000 Tata Nano — and my challenge was India’s perilous road network.

In retrospect, there were kinder things I could have done for myself. I could have gone on a yoga retreat, taken up pottery or had a radical haircut. Instead, my decision to drive several thousand miles on some of the world’s most dangerous roads was an act of cowardly escapism. Only a quest for survival could silence the droning soliloquy of romantic woe. I imagined speeding between paddy fields at sunset, sending flocks of birds into the air as I sliced though rocky desert landscapes, waving back at happy locals, who welcomed me at every step.

Kanyakumari beach (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)

Kanyakumari beach (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)

In fact, I practically swore my way around the country in a “road Tourette’s” kind of way. Within minutes of leaving Mumbai, heading south into rural Maharashtra, I came close to death by overtaking a truck; risked near-death by insanely bright headlights; death and punctures by multiple hungry potholes; nigh-on death by herds of advancing livestock; and permanent eardrum damage — if not quite death — by honking, gazillion-decibel horns. I nearly drove off an unfinished bridge, Road Runner-style, after failing to read the roadworks-diversion signs; and I narrowly avoided slamming into an HGV that had stopped perpendicular to oncoming traffic on the motorway, while performing several last-minute swerves to miss other trucks that were driving in both the fast lane and the wrong direction.

Which is why my eventual mini-meltdown came as no surprise, even if, by rights, I should have been wiped out weeks before by something far more violent. But it was during incidents such as my squaring up to a monkey who was hogging the loo in a petrol station — or cleaning elephant-trunk slime from the dashboard with a tiny wet-wipe, or getting drunk with the “Maharaja of Omkareshwar” and his pack of rodent-scragging dogs — that I clocked how much fun being out of my comfort zone actually was. And that I loved every white-knuckle, gas-guzzling, horn-blaring, cow-dodging minute. This twisted driving remedy was working, but not for the reasons I’d expected.

For the first few hundred miles, I was concerned with the basics: negotiating traffic, navigation, finding appropriate places to pee. Once I had those nailed, I moved on to deeper road issues, such as how to disperse a herd of bullocks without causing a stampede, and the best way to overtake uphill on a blind curve. The third, more spiritual stage involved dealing with inevitable road hypnosis and taming the control freak who always wanted to go further and faster. (At an average speed of 25mph, 6,000 miles can go by excruciatingly slowly.)

A wedding blessing for Thor and Vanessa (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)

A wedding blessing for Thor and Vanessa (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)

Along the way I met the man who would become my husband. Thor is a French-American redhead with a PhD in maths and a love of meditation that brought him to an ashram in Madras on an annual basis. We hooked up in that casual, devil-may-care way that travellers in India do, except that on our first day together I had the squits and he had an acute allergic reaction to what we could only deduce was the air itself. We sat in a hotel room in Bangalore taking turns to run to the bathroom: him to empty his sinuses, me to empty my bowels. Hardly the epitome of romantic starts, but it worked for us. We hardly knew one another, but I decided to take a chance on him and let him into the passenger seat as far as Madras. Two years later, we were married and then remarried in India at Thor’s ashram.

Given the unlikeliness of it all, I’ve occasionally allowed myself to entertain the soft-focus fantasy that somehow this was all meant to be, and the fact that the book I wrote about the trip became a bestseller in India somehow supports this suspicion. Which brings me to the following metaphysical consideration. Going from a country of polite, rule-abiding drivers to a country of road anarchy and rules of thumb is an experience that, after the initial shredding of nerves, taught me the lost art of relinquishing control and going with the flow. What looked like chaos at first glance was actually a system subject to its own set of algorithms, just like any other. And once the dance was learnt, the experience was transforming.

A short sojourn at Osho Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune introduced me to the principles of sanctioned madness and letting go of one’s inhibitions, a crash course in insanity that stood me in good stead for the ups and downs that marked the remainder of the trip. After all, the decision to drive around India (why India? Why a Tata Nano?) can be explained logically (because it’s a fascinating country, because the car stands for India’s emerging economic might), but really the reasons I gave were just public alibis for the far less articulate urge that led me to open doors I never thought I had the bottle for.

They might be utterly bonkers, but India’s roads took good care of me. They were the place where I reclaimed my mojo.

On the Island of Jersey, Fortifications Turned Lodging

The New York Times
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“IT’S in the details,” said Dave Bull, the caretaker of a former military bunker on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. He heaved open a cast-iron door and ran a hand over its bolts and heavy wrench-like handle. “This was all built by slave labor, by prisoners the Nazis marched here from Europe.”

The bunker in question is located on the ground floor of a radio tower on Jersey, erected by occupying German forces during World War II. The stout concrete structure still keeps a quiet vigil over the channel.

Today, though, it serves a different, and far more festive, function: as a holiday home for travelers. The top floor, which once served as a Nazi watchtower, is now a 360-degree observation deck cum living room.

The Radio Tower is one of 10 historic fortifications, built between the mid-1800s and the mid-20th century, to be renovated by Jersey Heritage, a local organization dedicated to preserving the island’s history and culture. Profits from the rentals are then put toward further restoration.

“It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time because there are so many of these amazing buildings which the public can’t see,” Jonathan Carter, director of Jersey Heritage, said of the restorations. The latest was of an 18th-century battery tower called La Tour Cârrée, inaugurated at the end of last summer.

Then there are the Martello towers, 24 small defensive forts that dot the Jersey coast, a testament to the geopolitical allure of an island caught between long-warring English and French naval forces. The most striking is the red-and-white-striped Archirondel Tower, which stands guard over France’s once-menacing horizon, visible from Jersey’s east coast.

Inside, the tower is fairly pared down: the circular granite interior spans three floors and is bare except for a handful of wooden beds and mattresses. There is electricity, but guests must use the adjacent cafe for a bathroom and running water, and are expected to bring their own sleeping bags.

Michael McGlynn, a Dubliner, spent a week with his wife, children and dog at the better-provisioned Fort Leicester at Bouley Bay on the island’s north coast. “When I think of paradise I’ll always conjure up an image of Bouley Bay,” he said. “It’s remote and yet has everything you might require.” Split across three levels, the 19th-century fort contains two large furnished bedrooms, a living room and fully fitted kitchen area with a view over the bay.

Visitors looking to take the experience up a notch can make the mile-and-a-half-long trek at low tide to the 223-year-old Seymour Tower in the parish of Grouville; the hike is led by a guide, who stays overnight. This boxy little fortress becomes completely surrounded by water when the tide comes in and is an excellent spot for clamming when it goes back out again.

“It’s basic accommodation,” acknowledged Mr. Carter, the Heritage director, “but you are sharing an experience people have enjoyed for hundreds of years.”

Weekly rental prices for the furnished properties, like Fort Leicester, are £360 to £1,680 ($587 to $2,740 at $1.63 to the pound), depending on the season. The unfurnished stone huts, like Archirondel Tower, start at £140 for a minimum two-night stay. Bookings are made through Jersey Heritage (44-1534-633-304; jerseyheritage.org).

Beijing’s Art Scene Raises Its Profile

The New York Times
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On a recent Sunday afternoon in the sunken terrace of Beijing’s sleek Opposite House Hotel, an art event was in full swing. The wine was chilling, the dumplings steaming and a few dozen locals and foreigners were looking on with curiosity as the artists Yan Wei and Yinmai O’Connor ran their black paintbrushes over the walls, furniture and even the human occupants of a whitewashed room.

The event was put on by a company called Surge Art and was its third in three days, its contribution to Beijing Design Week that ended in early October. The turnout seemed reasonable, though Tom Pattinson, Surge’s director, told me it had nothing on the party they held the previous Friday night at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Casual art events like this one are gaining traction in Beijing: Emerging artists who were previously overshadowed by the country’s high-end art stars are increasingly being given more of a platform by galleries and dealerships. While the works of established Chinese artists are still selling well internationally, the lower end of the market is now also beginning to open up in China, helped along by online sales of artworks.

The target market is twofold: the new generation of high-salaried Chinese professionals who are turning more toward contemporary artworks than designer trinkets, and foreign visitors for whom a painting by a hot young artist is the ultimate souvenir from the country’s capital.

Surge is one of a growing number of businesses in Beijing boosting the market for works by emerging artists. Others include the Hi Art Store — another online outlet — as well as institutions like the UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) store in the 798 Art District, which also sells limited-edition prints online, and some of the more trailblazing galleries like Red Gate.

“Buying a work of contemporary Chinese art is buying a little piece of history and a window into how society is changing,” said Mr. Pattinson, whose passion for Chinese art began more than a decade ago when he moved to Beijing from England and, as an art lover with a small budget, was pushed to find affordable inroads into an art market that was, in his opinion, “elitist and lacking any depth.”

“After speaking to friends in the art world, I realized there was both a supply of great young artists looking to sell their work and a huge number of people interested in picking up something contemporary, original and yet affordable,” he said.

Beijing’s art scene has already become a staple destination on the sightseeing itinerary. Companies like Bespoke Beijing and Context Travel have been leading walking tours through the 798 gallery district in the northeast of the city for several years and setting up studio visits to meet and greet artists. What was once a small, alternative scene there has flourished, an expansion that has forced many artists to move to more affordable nearby areas like Caochangdi (home to Ai Weiwei), Huantie and the 318 International Art Village, as well as the farther-flung Songzhuang.

The price of artwork bought online starts at about $75, making it a tempting foray for a souvenir hunter with no previous aspirations of art collecting.

Janice MacLeod, a 76-year-old social worker from England, was one such unassuming buyer first exposed to Chinese contemporary art at one of Surge’s art fairs, while visiting her son, a journalist, in Beijing in 2013.

“I was blown away by the exhibition, got wonderfully carried away, and bought my first piece of contemporary art,” she said, referring to the painting “Chinese Cabbage” by the artist Ma Jing, which now hangs in her Oxfordshire cottage.

Other buyers are also entertaining the possibility of some return on their vacation purchase: One potential perk of buying art in China over a souvenir porcelain tea set is that the art is more likely to appreciate a few years down the line. Artists like Sheng Qi, Zhou Jun, Hei Yue and Gonkar Gyatso, now selling their creations for five-figure sums, originally started selling their work online for just a few hundred dollars.

Bradley Schurman, a 37-year-old Washington, D.C., resident — who came away with an original sculpture by Huang Yulong after a trip to Beijing earlier in 2014 — has been surprised to discover that the work he bought online is now worth several times more than its purchase price.

Mr. Schurman said that his art purchases have always been for aesthetic reasons. “That mentality was no different when I bought this piece,” he said of the artist’s gold ceramic skull, his Chinese art keepsake. “However, there is something incredibly gratifying when these beautiful pieces grow in value at a rate similar or substantially above the market.”

Cruising the Bosphorus

National Geographic Traveler

CAPTAIN MEHMET CLIMBS UP ON DECK and hands me a beer. It’s a wind-down moment: he’s just steered our schooner through the precarious currents around the promontory of Akıntı Burnu, and now he’s leaving the plain sailing up to to one of his numerous more youthful crew. Although the evening waters are relatively calm on this summer evening, the apparent serenity of the tide can be dangerously deceiving: currents around this particular stretch of water can reach up to five knots in the worst conditions, and are legendary among sea dogs in the area.

For my part, I feel like a latter-day Cleopatra, propped up by my elbows on a mass of cushions provided by one of Mehmet’s boys to protect my delicate rump from the hard wood of the deck. Soothed by the bottle of cold beer, I am being steered like a queen, feet-first, along one of the world’s most hotly-contested waterways; the Bosphorus.

This 34 kilometre channel, sparkling azure when the sun’s shining and a dark foreboding grey under overcast skies, connects the centre of Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara to the south with the Black Sea and Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Georgia to the north. Streaming past the palaces and mosques of Old Constantinople, it cleaves modern Istanbul in two, a natural continental divide separating Europe and Asia.

It’s 7pm and the light is beginning to fade. Istanbul’s archaic pandemonium is behind us, the Bosphorus stretches generously ahead. We are sailing close to the European shore and I can see fishing rods in sillhouette against the darkeneing sky as men stand solitary or gather in groups of three, four and five to watch their lines with unwavering composure. Fishing is the strait’s oldest tradition and was for centuries the sole livelihood of Greek, Turkish and even Albanian villages that lined the shore from Constantinople to the Black Sea. Today it’s the favourite passtime of scores of Turks who spend their mornings, afternoons and evenings routinely casting baited lines into the water below.

I’m jolted out of my regal repose by the sight of a levithian hunk of steel coursing towards with the stern severity of an unstoppable funeral march. I spin round to see the captain and his young crew relatively nonplussed by the sight of the bohemoth oil tanker that just rounded the headland and appeared to be smack in the middle of our course. One of the 5,000 oil tankers annually that make the journey to and from the oil fields of the Black Sea, it’s hardly a rare sight; still, we darken in the shadow of its giant hull and rock madly on its wake.

The captain is unpeturbed. He’s been navigating the strait for years. For him, it’s a companion, an adversary and a kindred spirit. He knows each cape, bay and peninsula by heart; every erratic swirl and eddy is inscribed in his extensive mental log. Aparently, I’m in safe hands.

“The Bosphorus has two main currents,” he tells me, miming the movements with his hands. “There’s a surface current that flows from the Black Sea towards the city, and a deeper one underneath that moves in the other direction”. The lower one is so strong that legend tells of fishermen who used to put down their nets to harness its power to propel them against the force of the surface current.

I met the equable captain quite by chance, walking to Arnavutköy from the neighbouring village of Kuruçeşme. He was sat on the rear deck of his schooner drinking tea under a giant ‘for rent’ sign. On the boat next to him, two men were struggling to attach a satellite dish to the vessel’s sterm pulpit while a third was signalling to them from inside the cabin as to the clarity of the signal as a football game buzzed into life on his TV screen. Mehmet noticed my amusement at the farcical sight and smilingly lowered a gangplank for me to board his boat. Within minutes we had sealed a plan for an evening’s cruise along the strait.

Mehmet’s sailer is one of dozens moored along sections of the stunning 7km stretch of coast road that runs from the village of Kuruçeşme all the way up to Emirgan on the European shore of the Bosphorus. Vessels of all shapes and classes bob shoulder to shoulder, innocent of their vast social differences. Decrepit fishing boats loaded with swathes of orange netting partially submerged in seawater puddles on their wooden floors and invigorated by a coat of spring paint nestle next to grandeoise fibreglass yachts whose shining white sterns bob and bounce off the cut-off tyres tied with thick rope to the concrete walkway.

It’s ironic that I am sat at one of the most romantic tables along the Bosphorus and my date for the evening is an A5 spiral bound notebook. Nonetheless, I’m having the time of my life. The restaurant, Körfez is one of Istanbul’s best kept secrets; a restaurant nestled into a bay between the villages of Kanlıca and Anadolu Hisarı on the Asian shore, and a favourite among the city’s well-heeled fish lovers. Diners are ferried across to this remote location by way of a private shuttle that runs from the castle of Rumeli Hisarı on the European side, sailing under the stars and the giant metal underbelly of the second Bosphorus bridge. The whole experience is indisputably spellbinding, a must-do for any visitor to Istanbul.

Waiters with large mezze trays balanced on one shoulder weave their way through a sea of brass-buttoned blazers and designer dresses with calamari, shrimp and scallop starters to offer their clientele. When asked what they recommend for a main dish, the answer is instantaneous: “the sea bass.” And so follows a flurry of action as the entire fish encrusted in a shell of sea salt is brought to the side of your table and set alight before being hammered from its casing and served on your plate. It’s a lot of fish for me and my notebook, but I’ll willingly attest to the fact that its among the best I’ve ever tasted.

This is the life, I think. It’s not hard to see why the Bosphorus is popular with so many Istanbullus looking for a break from the city. In fact, these shores that run the entire length of the strait are all considered part of Istanbul, and are easily accessible from the centre of town by car or ferry. And still, it’s far enough away to afford some greenery, silence, good food and stunning views of the variety that I’m contemplating from my waterside seat in Körfez. This particular restaurant may be catering for the high-end crowd, but between here and the Black Sea there is something for every pocket: from $10 Sunday family outings to the far-flung Genoese castle at Anadolu Kavağı, or a $1,000 night on the tiles for a gaggle of heiresses at one of the notorious Bosphorus super-clubs. One of which happens to be my next stop.

The spectacle of a giant crystal chandelier hanging over my head in the open night sky momentarily distracts my attention from my hard-fought mission to the bar. Armed with only my bare elbows, I’m pushing my way through the thick crowd of jetset revellers clutching flamboyant cocktails and displaying for the world to see how Istanbul’s upper crust really live it up. Caravaggio himself would marvel at the composition of the richly-loaded fruit plates adorning the private tables to the side of the club, while anyone who believes Turkey is a country blanketed by conservatism will have their eyes opened by the scantily clad young girls shaking their well-toned booty in skimpy D&G dresses.

This is Reina, waterside nightclub extraordinaire, home to no less than ten outdoor restaurants and a large central dance floor, and domain of Istanbul’s glitterati; the rich, famous and fabulous make this extraordinary Bosphorus nightspot their summer haunt. Getting in is not easy; near-impossible for single men unaccompanied by women, and a crapshoot for anybody arriving without a reservation or the bling factor of their own private yacht.

In contrast to the rustic quaintness of its fishing villages, the Bosphorus is also no stranger to shows of extravagance. In fact, its shores have been colonized by bling for centuries now. In the later days of the Ottoman Empire, pashas, viziers and wealthy families living inside the cramped conditions of the rapidly growing and condensing Istanbul looked to the Bosphorus for relief. One by one, houses, mansions and palaces began to go up along the shoreline that had previously been the domain of a handful of fishing villages. And so was born the yalı, the seaside mansion that is the architectural progeny of the Bosphorus. Typically a multi-storey house made from finely worked wood built at the water’s edge, this structural tradition flourished along the waterway from the end of the 17th century onwards. More than 620 yalıs were built over the years on the Bosphorus shore, and many still survive today, having been renovated into restaurants, pricey boutique hotels and homes for the city’s elite.

And then there are the ornate palaces, reminders of the final vestiges of the Ottoman Empire: Dolmabahçe, the last residence of the Sultans, built near the mouth of the Bosphorus in a flamboyant French style; the baroque Beylerbeyi, an erstwhile guest-house for esteemed visitors of the state; the compact Küçüksu, originally a summer house for the Sultans; all are jaw-dropping in their unrestrained opulence. All three are open to visitors, who shuffle in tour groups around its decaying interiors in plastic-covered feet with a kind of reverent silence you feel is kept in check for fear of waking the dead.

If Beverly Hills moved to the Bosphorus, it’d be thrilled to settle in Bebek. One of Istanbul’s more upscale neighbourhoods, Bebek is a hotbed for ladies who lunch, professionals who coffee, and yuppies who aperitif. Home to posh specialist bakeries, delicatessens and a pint-sized branch of the local swanky department store Beymen, Bebek can also boast what is widely recognized as The Best Starbucks in Istanbul, Turkey, and possibly even the world. The coffee shop’s reputation is entirely based on the strength of its stunning view across the waters of the Bosphorus, and I’ve sat there for hours myself, nursing a mocha frapp and staring riveted at the tankers criss-crossing the strait as streams of excited high-school kids chattering in Turkish flowed around me at a steady rate.

Arriving at Bebek on Captain Mehmet’s schooner just after sunset, I disembark and cross the little park to see the lights coming on inside Lucca, the hippest after-work destination for the more affluent local office force. The sound of popping corks marks the beginning of a night’s session, and the bar is fast filling with suited yuppie-types getting ready to decompress after a day behind the desk.

At that same moment, something completely different occurs: the fluorescent tubes of the waterside Bebek Mosque just across the road buzz into life. The ear-splitting sound of the muezzin’s stentorian call to prayer siphoned through tinny loudspeakers temporarily drowns out Lucca’s jazzy lounge soundtrack. For the devout, this is Maghrib Adhan, the twilight call to prayer that brings scores of men, likely local shop assistants and waiters from the surrounding cafes and restaurants, filing inside the mosque and prostrating themselves in unison over their prayer mats in the direction of Mecca.

As a city, Istanbul has an incredible propensity for the snapshot; a passing instant that contains all the divergent elements of society, belief and culture in one single pitch. This evening in Bebek is one of them.

Less than one kilometre downstream in Arnavutköy, the vibe is a little different. The lights are coming on one by one in Abracadabra, a quirky seedbed of experimental cooking set over the four floors of a burgundy-coloured yalı overlooking the Bosphorus. “We’re here for the people who are tired of the chic, expensive, pretentious places,” owner and chef Dilara Erbay tells me from behind several hanging garlands of garlic and chilli peppers. Her hair is wrapped in a blue scarf and her skin covered in a thin film of moisture, a mixture of steam from the boiling pots and her own perspiration as she rushes around the kitchen of this cosy eatery whose open cooking spaces and pine trimmings have all the intimacy of a domestic dining room. “My husband and I wanted to create a homely, artistic and joyful venue,” she explains, “just like our home.”

Weekend dinner times and Sunday brunch see Abracadabra fill out with clientele come to feast on Dilara’s distinctive creative recipes; singular dishes like mihlama, a black sea region fondue, or deep fried snails in a hot shrimp sauce. The favourite is the ‘1’ börek, a pastry made with pastrami and dried fruit and served with a rosehip sauce, washed down with a tamarind-flavoured drink that can be fortified with a shot or two of vodka.

Dilara moved Abracadabra from Beyoğlu in the centre of Istanbul to Arnavutköy about a year ago, and hasn’t looked back. Business is booming, despite the financial crisis, and the this creaky 100-year-old yalı that was once home to an Armenian family is the perfect setting for her inventive and wholesome cuisine. For confirmation, you need look no further than the charming scene just out of the window: outside, by a small white lighthouse on the tip of Arnavutköy’s promonitory, a group of boys are throwing themselves into the water. One by one, they let the burly current sweep them upstream, where they hoist themselves up dripping onto the cement jetty and repeat the process tirelessly with ebullient shouts and screams.

Across the Bosphorus in tiny Kanlıca on the Asian shore, the pace of life slows down by yet another few notches: a smudge on the map, the village consists of a small ferry landing flanked by two wooden cafes at the water’s edge and a square containing a miniature mosque built by Ottoman wunder-architect Sinan in the 16th century. It’s just past lunchtime, and a couple of old men in flatcaps are sitting watchfully on a bench at the waters’ edge, their fishing rods bobbing in the Bosphorus while they smoke and exchange the odd word. I ask one of them about the day’s catch and he cheerfully shakes his head: “We lost a sea bass a earlier this afternoon,” he tells me. “Now it’s quiet. There’ll probably be nothing till evening.” Nonetheless, he returns dutifully to the vigil of his line.

To Istanbullus, Kanlıca is a place synonymous with one thing: yoghurt. Heading straight for the wooden cafe perched right next to the boat dock of this tiny village, I beeline for a table by the window for maximum float-on-water effect. The tall, white-shirted waiter brings me the menu, a dog-eared one-pager cataloguing variations on size and sweetness of yoghurt and the odd side dish to accompany. I order a medium sized option with extra sugar and a karışık tost, a hot cheese and pepperoni sandwich that’s more ubiquitous on the streets of Istanbul than even the time-honoured kebab. My passion for this most unsophisticated local snack is one of my best-kept secrets.

Here I meet Elif, a teaching assistant at the city’s Bilgi university who flees to Kanlıca at the first opportunity for a little respite from the urban mayhem. “Here you can enjoy a lifestyle that doesn’t suffer from over-commercialisation,” she says. Gesturing towards the European shore in the direction of Bebek and the nightclub Reina, she adds, “The European side became the easy part of the lifestyle package for modern yuppies because it’s so close to the modern residential and business districts.” She has a point. Istanbul’s European side is where the action is. With the exception of a couple of historical and commercial neighbourhoods like Üsküdar and Kadıköy, the Asian half of this bi-continental metropolitan sprawl is far more suburban in character. And at the edge of the Bosphorus it’s positively serene.

Looking at the ferry timetable, I see that the next public boat to service this little outpost isn’t due for another hour and a half, so I decide to walk down the coast towards Anadolu Hisarı, an early Ottoman castle about a kilometre down the coast from here. It was built in 1390, in the days when this land was still under Byzantine rule, and the domes of Christianity had not yet been replaced by the soaring minarets of Islam. The Ottomans had repeatedly failed to take the well-protected Constantinople, and the construction of two castles at either side of the Bosphorus’ narrowest point was part of their subsequently successful strategy to control trade in and out of the city, thus creating a commercial seige and weakening the Byzantines into eventual defeat.

The remains of the castle at Anadolu Hisarı are scant, but a walk around its tumbledown ramparts, and a stroll around its quiet harbour, stopping in at the small fish restaurant and continuing on to Küçüksu Palace, a few hundred metres downstream, is a lofty and reflective afternoon’s activity.

It’s now completely dark as Captain Mehmet’s wooden boat creaks into position at its mooring spot and his lively crew jump up and secure ropes and fenders for another night docked outside the village of Kuruçeşme. The village lights have blinked into life, winking tungsten sentinels heralding the advent of another evening along the strait.

The sea air blows onto the shore and ignites orange the coals on the tiny makeshift barbequeues grilling the day’s catch, which is to be served up in crusty bread rolls as balık ekmek. It’s a wildly popular snack that Istanbullus associate with the sea air and the squawking seagulls of their home, and I buy one, despite not being in the least bit hungry. It’s a symbolic act.

Somewhere in the distance are the glittering explosions of a firework display, most likely marking a wedding. To my far right, the fairy-lit Boğaziçi Köprüsü, the 36-year-old Bosphorus suspension bridge, sweeps for 1,500 metres into the darkness, connecting with the fronting Asian shore whose undulating obsidian landscape is layered over the lime-infused charcoal of a darkening full-moon night. The peace in the air is tangible and it’s hard to believe we’re only a 20 minute ride along the coast road back to the traffic-saturated chaos of Taksim Square and the tourist throngs in Sultanahmet.

What contrasts. I think of Mercan Dede, a local musician here and Sufi aficionado whom I spoke to some time ago about his love of the Bosphorus. He told me “Istanbul is where the angel and the devil walk hand in hand.” Tonight, on the inky waters of the heaving strait, giddy with the swell of the water and a stomach over-full with fish, I think I know what he means.

On Kipling’s Trail

National Geographic Traveler

The tiger was close: a fact that had finally managed to pierce the clouds of my pharmaceutical fog. Having just bolted at gut-churning speed over a series of dirt tracks in an eight-seater, open-top Gypsy, our ranger Kaustubh suddenly cut the engine and brought the vehicle to a stop next to the source of the noise we had been chasing. A tribe of Langur monkeys were going nuts, jumping between branches and emitting the shrieks and growls of their alarm call. It was a warning signal to other potential prey that there was a predator very close by and a clear cross-species message to me that there was ample cause to be very afraid.

 ‘They’re seeing something we can’t,’ said Kaustubh with Jurassic Park-like intensity. ‘It’s either a leopard or a tiger.’

I stood up to try and dispel the sleepiness. I was learning the drowsy way that drugs do not enhance the safari experience. At least not the kind of drugs I was taking. My last-ditch, self-administered dose of Diphenhydramine, a multi-faceted miracle med sold as variously as an antihistamine, an antiemetic and a sleep medication, was giving me all the benefits of bumpy-drive nausea relief but also adding intense somnolence into the bargain. Such were the perils of an adventure holiday mixed with chronic and embarrassing motion sickness: all afternoon, my husband had been prodding me as I dozed off in my seat while we passed a host of once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sightings including Spotted and Sambar deer, wild boars, peacocks, a jackal and several ominous birds of prey in a holding pattern overhead. Now, through the diphenhydramine haze, I was faintly aware of a mounting buzz stemming from the anticipation that seven hours of bumpy off-roading was about to come to a dramatic crescendo. This mixed with the sobering awareness that, should the drama become too intense, we were most vulnerably exposed in an open vehicle with not so much as a water pistol to protect us from the jaws of a hungry Shere Khan.

The Pench National Park – situated in the Seoni district in the middle of India across the state lines of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – is Jungle Book territory. These are the forests where the contentious poet and literary voice of the British Overseas Empire, Rudyard Kipling, had his man-cub Mowgli fostered by a family of wolves. As a child raised more on the Disneyfied version of Kipling’s tale, and as an Anglo-Indophile adult fascinated by the author’s accounts of the British Raj, I had long harboured a desire to visit the place where men and beasts mingled in an all-singing, dancing, morally instructive kind of way. And though in seven hours we hadn’t seen as much as the swipe of a wolf’s tail (nor that of a snake nor a bear, not to mention the elusive large cats), there was one group of characters that were out in force: the screeching grey Langurs, the reprehensible Bandar-Log, the Monkey People cast as evil, dirty, shameless outcasts and reviled by Mowgli’s mentors, Baloo and Bagheera.

Maybe it was the drugs, but looking at the little guys up close, it seemed like Kipling’s was a harsh assessment. As far I could see, the Bandar-Log were a pretty cool bunch: they hung out in groups, often clinging to one another in pairs, grooming, fiddling with stuff on the ground, eating leaves up in the trees and shaking the branches enough to send a few pickings down for the deer who waited expectantly below. In addition to this, the Langurs played a vital role in every other paying human’s raison d’être in the park, namely a much-coveted glimpse of a large, striped, carnivorous cat.

The tiger-spotters need all the help they can get: like most safari parks in India designed to simultaneously protect and make a buck from the animal, Pench is home to a mere smattering of them. Its 881 square kilometres houses only about 60 of the cats, around 12 of which live in the much smaller area apportioned to visitors. It works out at roughly one tiger per 10 square kilometres, which, when I did the maths (about six hours into the drive, as it slowly began to dawn on me that the odds were very much against us), turned out to be a feline needle in a huge jungle haystack. Still, our guides did an excellent job of remaining animated and buoyant throughout. This game of safari hide and seek that was their bread and butter was actually also their passion, and as soon as I verified this, the chase took on another dimension.

 To a punter, the jungle seems like a hostile place: it’s dense and dry and rife with teaks, frankincense, banyans and the ghost-trees whose sinister white branches radiate like the fingers of the undead through the otherwise greeny-brown vegetation. All I could see around us were vertical stripes, bark piled on bark and lots of foliage. How could someone pick out anything through all this visual noise? The trick, as Baloo taught Mowgli, and Kaustubh subsequently tried to teach me, was to learn junglespeak.

It was a language in which Kaustubh and Subash, a professional tracker riding up front with him, were highly proficient, both aurally and orally; after every few minutes of trundling over rough, bile-invoking hillocks in the heavy-footed Gypsy, Kaustubh stopped the car and switched off the engine (a mercy call for my nausea). He and Subash rose out of their seats and listened while scanning the minute gaps between trees for the tiniest sign of movement. The moment was so still and they were listening so hard, I felt like I could almost see their ears twitching. I tried to do the same: to me the noise of the jungle was the backdrop of birdsong and other unknown sounds that comprised the cacophony of feral gobbledegook. To the guides, however, it was a complete syntax, ready to be deciphered, followed and more impressively, replicated. Kaustubh had an extensive and quite entertaining repertoire of animal sounds, from Langur cries to various birdcalls and even tiger noises. As he methodically identified and repeated each sound to me, I started to recognise the noises myself. The mating cries and alarm calls were the most easily discernible: deep hoots emanating from the monkeys turned out to be the calling card of a primate in search of some tail. (It was a sound I initially took to be one of distress, a misreading that leads to me suspect some psycho-sadistic element in the animals’ sexual makeup.) The monkeys’ actual alarm call sounded more like an old man hocking up a loogie, while the spotted deer made a noise like a deep klaxon. The rhythms were quite particular – long periods of silence followed by a barely perceptible ruckus among some distant trees that jolted our guides back into action. Kaustubh restarted the Gypsy and we sped off in the direction of the disturbance, though again and again we kept losing the thread of the chase.

Still, Kaustubh (or KT as he had us call him in the national tradition of reducing to acronyms names that were challenging or tiring to pronounce) was skilled at softening the disappointment after a false tiger lead by way of maintaining a contagious zeal for every other aspect of the park: from the shrubs and smallest flowers to the benign deer that stared out from among the trees before scuttling off at the first sound of a motor engine. He brought us to an abrupt stop to point out a tiny owl camouflaged against patchwork grey bark, an osprey perched on a dead tree protruding from a watering hole, a drongo sitting on a branch above our heads or a green bee-eater, barely visible on a far-off fence post.

After the intense commotion, the Langurs started to lose interest. The noises they were making died down and it no longer sounded like we were visiting an emphysema ward.

‘That means whatever it is, it’s moving away from us,’ Kaustubh said, trying to follow the monkeys’ gazes as they slowly scattered off into the green murk. ‘It’s probably headed for the watering hole. Let’s go.’

The house where Rudyard Kipling spent his earliest years is hidden among a clutch of dense greenery in the grounds of the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. Unknown to most of the city’s residents, it’s an elegant, green wooden structure with slender columns and dispersed latticework. Under the close scrutiny of the art school’s security guard, who is bemused by visits from the occasional intrepid Kipling acolyte, I peered in through darkened windows to see evidence of modest habitation despite the general exterior air of neglect. A bust of the author’s head is situated on a plinth on the front porch with a plaque that wrongly states he was born in this house (actually it was constructed a few months later, in 1866). Due to his father’s posting as a professor of sculpture at the school, it was here that he spent a his pre-school years, frolicking through the tropical shrubbery with his little sister and in the care of their Indian ayah, whose vernacular language initially came more naturally to the young Kipling than English. In his biography, the author refers to this period as a kind of unbounded Dream Time when even such horrors as finding a child’s severed hand in the back garden, did little to detract from the magic of innocence.

The current state of Kipling’s house in Mumbai is in some ways representative of a wider ambivalence towards the author. Depending on which side of the fence you fall, either he was an imperialist, racist and orientalist in the worse sense of Edward Said’s definition of the terms, or he was a devoted product of India’s great melting pot with an insuperable fascination for the country that spawned him.

1860s India was a curious place for its population of Anglo-Indians: the Colonial Administration was really digging in its heels following a national uprising in 1857, and expat life was often difficult, distrustful and downright hot. Those who could escaped the worst of the heat by heading to the hill stations in the foothills of the Himalayas where, reinvigorated by the mountain air, the Brits bred all manner of scandal within high-society circles. Kipling, who from the age of 16 worked as a journalist first in Lahore, then in Allahabad, was witness to this strange society in summer exile – whose capital was the very English-looking town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh – and wrote copious stories of its exploits in a volume called Plain Tales from the Hills.

Despite earnest claims to the contrary by locals invested in pushing the Kipling buck as far as they can, the writer never actually visited the Seoni Hills. All the detail he included in his Jungle Book stories came, as he himself stated, from something called the Sterndale’s Gazetteer, and in fact he didn’t write the Jungle Books until five years after he left India. If it wasn’t clear to readers already, it needs to be reiterated that The Jungle Book is a work of pure imagination.  Which made sense. If not, where were the bears, wolves and lumbering elephants?

About 10km from the entrance of the park, the mud-and-brick village of Amajhiri straddles a concrete road that disappears into dust at its edges where it meets the rounded whitewashed walls of the village compound houses. The doorways and courtyards are spotlessly clean and still bear the fresh rake-marks of a broom’s bristle. We were there on the invitation of Raj. Born and bred in Amajhiri, father of one-and-counting Raj works at the Baghvan Safari Resort, the place where we were staying. Upon our arrival there, he was assigned to us as a general granter of wishes and organiser of whims, as well as local oracle. As such, I had one huge favour to ask of him: could we take a few hours break from the safari and go and check out his village?

Tea on Raj’s mum’s front porch was enamel-strippingly sweet, and served in the midst of the dozen or so children that had gathered around us to eye the proceedings with cautious curiosity. A flock of geese waddled down the high street, while a gang of kids (*baby goats*) teetered nearby on shaky, barely functional legs. Kaustubh, who was accompanying us on our visit, sighed.

‘I’d love to live in a place like this,’ he said, holding one of the baby goats up into the nape of his neck. ‘It feels like such ideal living.’

Perhaps. But now, as in Kipling’s time, village life also had its drawbacks: on the way back that night, as the Gypsy’s giant treads threw the road’s dust up into the beam of our headlights, Raj recounted a couple of incidents of latter-day tiger sightings that were too close to home: one night he actually saw the eyes of a tiger reflected in his motorbike’s headlight, just metres away in a field. He was understandably less than cool with the idea of a Shere Khan padding around the peripheries of his own habitat.

In Kipling’s day, tigers were for hunting. The British Raj’s insuperable taste for gunning down the cats has carried into modern-day poaching, since China especially provides a hungry market for Indian tiger body parts. A century ago, India was home to around 42,000 tigers; today there are a mere 1,800. But even this number may be too large, given that the animals’ territories and the corridors between them are also shrinking and altogether disappearing.

Tigers are solitary creatures. They live alone, hunt alone and only really get together with other tigers for mating or child-rearing purposes. The rest of it is a very unsociable game, to the point of hostility: if a tiger catches another on its own territory, it’s liable to fight its rival to the death. And if it is pushed out of its hunting grounds, it will wander into human settlements and pounce on whatever it can find: a cow, a goat, a dog, or – if particularly hungry – a person. (At the time of writing, there’s a hunt on for a man-eater who’s picked off ten humans to date around the peripheries of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in the northern state of Uttarkhand.)

That night, we slept on the Machan (a rooftop terrace) of our bungalow at the Baghvan lodge. It was a daring opportunity to bed down under the stars and foliage of the jungle within the relative safety of a netted, curtained tree house.

‘Are you sure tigers can’t jump this high?’ I asked my husband as we both clutched at the hot water bottle placed between the chilly sheets. It wasn’t an altogether ridiculous question, given Raj’s story and Kaustubh’s earlier disclosure of a recent photo of a tiger paw print in the dust just metres away from our room.

The tigers were always close – but when you were actually looking for one, they were nowhere to be seen.

We arrived at the watering hole, and I was still toting a little tiger anxiety. On the way, we had spotted an enormous paw print in the dust, as well as the hair-curling sight of a set of claw marks ripping through the bark of a tree that a tiger had been using as a scratching post and had left like a beastly mark of Zorro to chart its passage.

Two other Gypsies were already pulled up on the same spot, having deciphered the same set of signs as we had. You could have cut the silence with a knife. Kaustubh was standing like a sensory beacon on the Gypsy’s bonnet, raising and lowering his binoculars and scanning the sound spectrum for the slightest rustle of a nearby kitty.

Then the apotheosis: KT shot out a finger in the direction of the trees in front of us, a gesture that carried in a silent wave over to the other two vehicles. In the tiny gap between the trees about fifty metres ahead, I made out a flash of a pattern that flickered between the sedentary barks. But those weren’t stripes; they were spots.

Kaustubh fixed the animal with his binoculars. ‘It’s a leopard.’ He gasped like it was his first sighting.

I thought I’d be disappointed; Bagheera in the place of Shere Khan. Somehow seeing a tiger was supposed to be the point of the whole thing. But as we watched the leopard move cautiously through the forest, it was like following a vision. And when he came to the roadside, only a few feet away from the Gypsy, I felt like I was in the presence of royalty. He put one foot very tentatively in front of the other as he felt out the ground of the road and slowly crossed, never for a second taking his eyes off us. I completely forgot about the diphenhydramine, my urge to vomit, and even my fear of large cats charging the Gypsy; all I could do was watch Bagheera, (‘as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo’, but thankfully this time not ‘as reckless as the wounded elephant’), as he receded into the distance on the other side of the road, and out towards the watering hole.

And then he was gone and all that was left behind was a bushed void of satisfaction. Everybody exhaled and it was all we could do not to high-five each other. The sky began to darken as we trundled our way back out of the park and I felt the last traces of the diphenhydramine give way to a more lofty euphoria. Some of the Bandar Log lined the trail and eyeballed us nonchalantly as we returned back out to the realm of the humans, of the rectangular fields, the villages, the fires and fences, the domesticated dogs and cows and herds of buffalo also slowly making their way back home.

A chill prickled the back of my neck as I gauged that Shere Khan was still out there. We hadn’t found him, but I figured he knew where we were, and that he would decide when and where he wanted to be found.

What I Learned About Life and Love Driving the Roads of India

Yahoo! News
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From within the irrational fog of a postbreakup rut, I resolved that the optimum remedy for my mid-30s crisis would be to fly to India, buy a secondhand model of the world’s cheapest car, and spend three months in solitude, driving it more than 6,000 miles around the country. 

That was five years ago, and in retrospect, a heinously expensive pair of Christian Louboutin pumps might have served the same purpose. But at the time, I was convinced the only way to reclaim my mojo would be by motoring through India’s romanticized, magical landscape. I imagined speeding among shining paddy fields at sunset, sending flocks of birds flapping into the air as I sliced through rocky desert topography, waving back at happy locals on the roadside, whose smiles would reaffirm my revitalized existence.

It turned out, however, that there were some hard realities about driving in India that I failed to properly register until the moment I put the keys into the ignition of my newly purchased canary yellow Tata Nano: These intriguing, exotic roads were also unequivocally bonkers and unarguably deadly, claiming up to 110,000 lives each year. 

Within minutes of leaving Mumbai at the start of the journey, I was in the middle of merciless, impenetrable traffic. I learned the horrors of being sandwiched by doddering, backfiring trucks, the blinding terror of oncoming full-beam headlights on perma-glare, the hungry jaws of bottomless potholes, impotence in the face of advancing herds of livestock, and permanent ear damage incurred by gazillion-decibel horns.   

My learning curve resembled a Six Flags vertical corkscrew. I had to adapt fast or risk becoming roadkill. And it turned out, as terrifying as they were, India’s roads were in fact excellent teachers, though their method was all about learning the hard way.

First on the faculty agenda was learning to let go. There were no hard and fast motoring laws, just a system of heuristic rules of thumb. The usual signifiers — road markings, traffic lights, lane divisions — were for the most part ignored and overwritten according to the needs of the drivers. I came to accept this only through a deranged process of shedding my rule-breaking inhibitions. Once I mastered the knack of this anarchic style of driving (and of blasting my horn like it was going out of fashion), my confidence grew and I found I could weave, swerve, and overtake with the best of them.

This led to lesson No. 2: People are more alike than they are different. In India, the road is the second-biggest equalizer (I didn’t dare linger too long on the prospect of death as the first), and inside my little yellow avatar, my gender, age, and the color of my skin made no difference to other road users, who treated the Nano with the same (dis)respect afforded every other vehicle. As such, I was able to muck in at frontlines on railway crossings, in city gridlocks, and on blind mountain curves, immersing myself in the volatile bedlam of Indian traffic in the guise of a regular player, temporarily relieved of my status as a foreigner.

I also learned tomes about patience. Dealing with animals, having to share the road with other species for the first time in my life, I quickly cultivated the art of of shepherding livestock across highway crossings, of shooing monkeys from gas station toilets, and racing camels at stoplights; I discovered that elephants have runny noses and make proficient car burglars and that dogs in hot climates like nothing better than to take shelter from the sun in the undercarriage of a small yellow car. I became a regular Doctor Dolittle. 

I also became a believer in the juicy platitude that love will always come knocking when you least expect it. Cupid raised his arrows in the city of Bangalore, where I teamed up with a redheaded mathematician called Thor, who then accompanied me on my road trip as far as Chennai.

I was schooled on compromise as romance blossomed, in spite of the combined anaphrodisiac forces of stomach upsets, sinusitis, (my) control issues, and disagreements as to the level of poor Thor’s driving prowess. Road trips are apt to drive a wedge through the best of relationships, but I’m happy to report that ours had a joyful conclusion, with a wedding ceremony in Chennai two years later.

But the best lesson I got on the road was from India’s oldest and wisest inhabitants: the bullocks. Bullocks are castrated bovines used for rural farm work and transport of goods. It was to these contemplative, plodding animals that I dedicated the title of my book. It was their calm, unruffled demeanor that taught me the true way to travel — with patience, humility, and a blind eye to the chaos all around; above all, enjoying the ride.

Vanessa Able’s book, Never Mind the Bullocks: One Girl’s 10,000km Adventure Around India in the World’s Cheapest Car, is out now.

New Face of Mercado Santurce in San Juan, P.R.

The New York Times
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“BUSINESS isn’t what it used to be,” Ramón Tellado Rosa said from behind a pile of bananas at his stall at the Mercado Santurce in the Campo Alegre district of San Juan, P.R. — for decades the place where Sanjuaneros have come for fresh produce.

Mr. Tellado Rosa, 86, blames the fall-off in business on a transformation the area has seen of late, as myriad bars and restaurants have gradually cropped up around the market’s plaza. Now the plaza — La Placita, as it’s known — along with the surrounding area, has been undergoing a fresh wave of popularity as it is rediscovered by a new generation of young professionals.

A short walk but a far cry from the whitewashed high-rises of Condado and the manicured streets of Old San Juan, La Placita is a worn world of wooden Creole porches, brightly colored shop fronts and — most important to the new crowd — cheap beer and cocktails sold in plastic cups.

The Mercado Santurce itself has been active for almost a century. Merchants once would teeter atop heaps of fruit and vegetables with a pair of scales and a fistful of cash. Today the vibe is a little more subdued, but it’s still one of the most atmospheric places in Puerto Rico to forage for local fare, like giant avocados, guineitos (small and very sweet bananas) and mameys.

El Coco de Luis (787-721-7595), a hole-in-the-wall joint nestled in a corner at the front of the market, has locals lining up for the soup of the day or a cup of a brew indigenous to the plaza: whiskey and fresh coconut water.

Across the street, a spot for regular live salsa and a relaxed rum and coke is Taberna los Vázquez (Calle Orbeta, 1348; 787-723-1903), an open corner bar with a fried-food counter for late-night alcapurrias (meat enclosed in grated yautía, a tarolike root vegetable) and sorullitos (deep-fried cornmeal fingers), about $2 a piece.

From the market, head down Calle Dos Hermanos and take a right on Juan Ponce de León for a taste of culture at the MAC, Puerto Rico’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Parada 18; 787-977-4030; http://www.museocontemporaneopr.org) with an extensive collection of modern local works exhibited in blissfully air-conditioned rooms.

For a classic Placita dining experience, try the Tasca el Pescador (Calle Dos Hermanos, 178; 787-721-0995). The green polka-dot tablecloths and garish neon lighting may be uninviting, but the handwritten daily fish menu is a no-nonsense bill of freshly caught and simply prepared seafood. The grilled white sea bass is delicious and arrives with mofongo (mashed, fried plantains) or tostones (flattened fried plantains). A meal for two costs about $40.

Since it opened in 2008, Piropos (Calle Iturriaga, 1361; 787-723-5577) has become a go-to spot for dining and drinking, especially on Friday nights. It offers a modest tapas menu that can serve as a satisfying dinner, with options like stuffed peppers, chorizo and churrasco ($8 to $22). The owner, José Martinez, who vividly recalls the squeal of pigs being led to the market in the early mornings of his childhood, agrees that the face of La Placita is changing and thinks his old family neighborhood is now worth investing in. “I think of this area like SoHo in New York,” he said, “though I don’t think it should be limited to just a drinking hole.”

Beyond Napa and Sonoma: Wine Tasting in the South Bay

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The majority of California’s wine tourists flock to Napa and Sonoma, but Oenomad founder Kelly Whiting recommends raising a glass at the other end of the Bay.

The Santa Cruz Mountains stretch from the San Francisco Peninsula southwest towards Monterey Bay, a geological uprising where two tectonic plates meet to form the San Andreas fault. It’s hostile terrain for most farming purposes—but, in some places, the decomposing limestone and shale substrate provide excellent conditions for pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon, packing the grapes with an earthy, mineral punch. And while the appellation is one of the oldest in the country—winemakers have toiled here since the early 1800s—it’s also one of quietest, especially compared to Napa and Sonoma.

Up in the mountains, it’s easy to forget just how close this bucolic region is to the world’s most densely moneyed technological hub. But that’s not to say the worlds of Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz don’t overlap. One self-confessed oenophile from the world of tech is Kelly Whiting, an entrepreneur who recently launched OenomadThe website and iPhone app helps travelers choose from thousands of California wineries based on their personal preferences and travel plans.

Whiting herself enjoys visiting the boutique winemakers of the South Bay, including the Santa Cruz Mountains. The wineries tend to be intimate, family-run places with as much charm as their northern neighbors. Moreover, the option of walk-ins and lower fees make for more spontaneous tasting trips. “During quieter times, you’re likely to get some one-on-one time with the tasting room managers or even the winemakers themselves,” says Kelly. “Hearing their stories is what makes many winery visits exceptional. Well, that and the wine!” Here, she shares her favorites in the region.


Santa Cruz’s highest-profile winery, Ridge shot to fame in 1976, when its Monte Bello beat out many top-notch Bordeaux wines in the so-called Judgement of Paris. The wine—dominated by cabernet sauvignon but usually including a touch of merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc—is still highly rated, but Ridge is also loved for its zinfandels. Chief winemaker Paul Draper prides himself on the winery’s pre-industrial methods and remains a proponent of minimum intervention and respect for natural processes. Whiting loves the “gorgeous location” but warns that the steep, twisty drive is not for the faint-hearted. “But it’s worth the trip.”


East-facing vineyards at this certified organic winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains grow cabernet sauvignon grapes—arguably the region’s best—from cuttings of Paul Masson’s original French imports, dating back more than a century. The vineyard also grows high quality cabernet franc, chardonnay and syrah grapes. And the winery doubles as a horse ranch: Whiting suggests saddling up and taking a horseback tour of the estate.


The newest kid on the block, Clos La Chance grew from a vine in Bill and Brenda Murphy’s backyard in 1987 to a full-blown family enterprise hidden in the Hayes Valley in San Martin, adjacent to Rosewood CordeValle. Check out their Designate Series, particularly the cuvées like Hadley’s from 2015 (a white blend of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc) and Lila’s from 2013 (leading with grenache and petite syrah). Aside from a regular tasting, you can also sign up for classes on wine making, tasting basics and different wine regions.


One of California’s oldest wineries, Testarossa was built in 1888 by Jesuits, and the original three-floor gravity-flow winery in Los Gatos is still in use. One of the only wineries to flourish during Prohibition (due to increased demand for altar wines), Testarossa still specializes in limited production pinot noir and chardonnay. Whiting recommends taking a cellar tour “so you can really understand how much work goes into the wine.”


The Burrell School, which was part of a 19th-century homestead in the Santa Cruz Mountains, first planted grapes in 1854. Its vineyards pick up cooler air from the Pacific fog, which hangs some 600 feet below the west-facing parcels during the summer—perfect conditions for chardonnay and pinot noir, though it also grows merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. The pinot noir grapes have their genetic origins in Burgundy, as they were cloned from four different varieties of Dijon grapes. “Dry red wine drinkers will love this hidden gem,” says Whiting. “I love the laid-back atmosphere here with the beautiful rooftop view of the vineyards and mountains.”


Testarossa: 300 College Avenue A, Los Gatos, CA; 408-354-6150

Ridge Vineyards at Monte Bello: 17100 Montebello Road, Cupertino, CA; 408-867-3233

Cooper-Garrod: 22645 Garrod Road, Saratoga, CA; 408-867-7116

Clos La Chance: Rosewood CordeValle, 1 Hummingbird Ln, San Martin, CA; 800-487-9463

Burrell School: 24060 Summit Road, Los Gatos, CA; 408-353-6290