Author

Arlene Rafiq

Nepal is a place associated with the distant and the incredible. I’ve always wanted to return to this mysterious country if not for this pandemic which made it impossible to travel. I can still remember the thousands of visitors who savour the spirit of Nepal each year going home laden with things considered “Nepalese” – religious objects, antiques, carpets, pottery, embroidered clothing, gems and silver. You can see the excitement on their faces as they carry their amazing finds.

It was closed to autumn when we visited, so you can just imagine the cool weather condition. Even during summer time, the weather is unpredictable and it varies considerably with elevation. Looking at the photos we took then, the skies were clear and sunny, temperature range from warm in the lowlands to crisp in the mountains. We stayed a week so we ignored the weather and just seized the moment and enjoyed its mystique.

Nepal’s splendour will forever be registered in your mind. As you walk through the roads and alleys, you experience the intense culture of the Hindus and slowly submerge into the quiet serenity of the Buddhists. The practice of religion in Nepal is a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist ways of life, which the Nepalese have merged. These beliefs are evident in their art as well as their surroundings.

Wandering into the heart of Kathmandu, up and down narrow alleys and passages, you pass little shops and old houses with intricately carved window frames. The shops sell thangkas (religious paintings) and shawls made from pashmina in different colours and quality. Their appearance startling in the dusty dimness. Every lane seems to lead to a little square. Soon you’ll find roving in Durbar Square encircled by gilded spires and domes of countless temples. I hate to think of the recent fire that gutted many houses, stores and temples in Kathmandu. I can just imagine the elaborately carved windows, pillars, domes and beams destroyed by the fire. Looking back, Durbar Square is an amazing sight. Every corner shelters a shrine which houses a God such as Ganesh (the elephant headed God) or Hanuman (the monkey God); carved on the side of a phallic representation of the Hindu God, Shiva is Buddha.  All around, pigeons flutter from rooftop to rooftop.

About thirty minutes from Kathmandu is the city of Patan. It offers a feast of diverse temple styles. The maze of temple shrines, small stupas and stupas, grinning Gods and Goddesses all intricately carved and ornamented give pleasure to the eye and bewilder the mind.

As you explore the Pashupatinath Temple area, you are surrounded by vendors selling all types of wares – from bangles to beaded necklaces with yak bone pendants to musical bowls. Swarming the temples are sadhus, Hindu holy men. Their bodies covered with yellow powder and ashes, they perform a myriad of self- mutilating feats as they go about their day to day existence. Saddhus have chosen to give up their material lives and walk about meditating in search for inner peace. They wander barefoot across the country on pilgrimage, receiving their sustenance from generous people.

At Bodnath Shrine stands the largest and most important stupa outside of Tibet. It sits on a flatland with the Buddha’s eye painted on four sides. These eyes seem to follow and watch your every move. Buddhists come from all over the world to visit this predominantly Tibetan shrine. Chanting can be heard from as far as five hundred metres reverberating around the site, adding to the feeling of peace that envelops the place. Colourful prayer flags have been strung by pilgrims. Even more fascinating than the impressive structure of Bodnath are the calm, spiritual people who throng to this temple.

At Nagarkot which is 2,195 metres above sea level with a magnificent panoramic view of the Himalayas, a splendid full moon covers the entire valley below. It’s breathtaking especially in the morning is the cleansing breeze, accompanied by chirping birds and the aroma of wild and yet delicate flowers.

Golden yellow mustard flowers fill the fields around Bhaktapur. Walking the village streets paved with bricks and cobblestones, is quite an adventure. Black eyed children peering from window smile sweetly as I pass. Men are seen sitting or chatting quietly with each other while the women are working so hard gathering wood for cooking or carrying large baskets of ripened fruits and vegetables. I see an older woman bent over almost touching the ground, carries a load of dried twigs and a younger woman driving a flock of goats.

It is a long zigzag and dusty road inside the village but it is worth it. There are woodcarving shops, you can appreciate the intricate window frames, so different from the ones found in other parts of Asia. You can appreciate the warm and friendly people. Their faces show no sign of bitterness because of poverty, instead they seem to be happy and content.

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They were expecting great wealth such as gold, silver and spices but what the Spaniards saw when they arrived in the remote province of Ilocos in the Northern part of Luzon island in the Philippines were Chinese merchants trading beads and porcelain with the locals. In the year 1572, the Spaniards under the leadership of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi were well rooted in Manila and were looking for more sites to conquer when they reached this rocky and rugged place. The ideal decision was to leave to find a better location but the seventeen year old explorer, Juan de Salcedo, the grandson of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, together with Augustinian missionaries had other plans. They stayed on and explored the islands and discovered several inlets where inhabitants were living in harmony. 

The inhabitants of the island were very afraid of the invaders and hid from them. The young conqueror admonished his men to respect the people and take only from them what was necessary. Seeing that the invaders were not hostile, they started coming out from their hiding places to mingle and make friends with the Spaniards.

Meanwhile, the missionaries thought that baptising the locals and converting them to Christianity was far better than any treasures. The Augustinian missionaries believe that their true mission was to spread Christianity. Religious conversions grew so did the Christian population in the region. The Augustinians worked without haste in building churches and bell towers.

Juan de Salcedo fostered friendship with the locals and established a Spanish city. The colonisation continued but was not completely successful due to abuses by some of the Augustinian friars which drove the locals to revolt against their colonisers. To gain political control over the growing population, a Royal Decree was signed in 1818 dividing the region in half, Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur. No one could have predicted that one day the rubble of these establishments would be conferred World Heritage status by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

With this brief history, I found my first visit to Ilocos Province enthralling and subsequent visits even more interesting and thrilling. My second visit was with friends and we all discovered the charm and beauty of this province through the help of our knowledgeable guide, Arlene Gajeton.

Nowhere in the Philippines is Spanish influence more evident than in Ilocos. Imposing well preserved churches and edifices built as early as the 16th century stand as testaments to the long Spanish colonisation. Although many of our ancestors had negative feelings about the Spanish rule era, the Spanish left behind some positive aspects of their culture. One example is the famous Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte, a stand out among the province’s attractions. This church was completed in1894 after ninety years of construction and is considered as one of the finest example of baroque architecture in the Philippines.

I mentally draw up an itinerary to rediscover the past: a visit to the museum, talks with the locals and perhaps a stay in one of the period houses. My visit of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, dazes me not because for its old fashioned look but because it has maintained such a strong Spanish identity. Houses built in the 16th century line the streets of the old city. The captivating Castilian architecture is very evident in the hundreds of stone houses still standing in the town’s main district. Most of the ancestral homes are in good condition and have been turned into cosy inns, bistros and shops.

Walking along the cobblestone roads reminds me of Rome. What makes it different are the “calesas” or horse drawn carriages with smiling faces peering out from large windows. It is like stepping back in time and viewing a romantic interlude when our ancestors used to serenade the women to whom they professed love. I remember my grandfather’s story that he used to go with troubadours to serenade some of the beautiful senoritas on their balconies, one of the most romantic remnants of the Spanish legacy. The troubadours had a varied repertoire and usually started with a fast number before going into a smooth Spanish love song. For their trouble, they either receive an overturned bucket of water from irate senorita or a return song from her. The senorita herself was rarely interested, but if she favours the man, she nonetheless basked in the lyrical attention she received.

Back in the present, I feast my eyes on the unique architectural blend of Asian, European and Latin American influences in the buildings. It’s amazing that this very Castilian colonial site used to be the Chinese quarter, a place the Chinese immigrants called home. The Chinese merchants obviously did not settle here because of beads and porcelain but were taken by the charm of the women, married them and remained.

Old Spain is alive in the Ilocos region, coexisting in peace with the local culture. The past and present have entered into a comfortable relationship. Old edifices are merely shrines of a magnificent cultural ethnicity. I discover Spain not by plan but by chance. 

Passing through narrow lanes, I find the Heritage Village to be the strongest living symbol of the former colony. I believe that it’s Spain’s best legacy, a place flaunting its Spanish connections. With my friends, we explored the whole site, tracing history through old pieces of furniture, ageing homes and withered faces. At the nearby church, a bell still tolls for a departed soul. It is a custom as old as time informing the village that someone has passed away and that we should pay our last respects.

After almost 400 years of colonial rule, the Spaniards are now gone. I am sure they departed with much hesitancy. I have similar sentiments as I prepare to leave with fond memories. Ilocos, beautiful and charming. Hospitable people with simple lifestyle but endowed with rich and beautiful natural resources. It is being invaded once again by foreigners not to be colonised but to be appreciated and enjoyed. Surely, they will be captured by this unique place as so many others have been in the past. 

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It is during this time of the pandemic that I thought of writing about China as I remembered. So many negative stories have been in the news about China that I feel it is going out of hand. I worked for the Chinese for 21 years in my youth and I have the most memorable time with them. Whatever I know in business administration came from my previous employers and not from the four years of college education. It is to their credit what I have become today whether in the field of business, entertainment and even writing skill. So it is not surprising why I chose to visit China for the first time.

My China trip gave me an opportunity to explore one of the oldest civilizations and one of the greatest travel destinations in the world. The humongous population of over a billion inhabitants invites culturally curious visitors like me with so much enthusiasm. The spring (April-May) and Autumn (September-October) are indeed beautiful times of the year to visit China. While there are a thousand images that come to mind those images often include sunshine, people in the park doing tai-chi, blue skies or just people sitting outside watching others or looking to kill time.

Our first stop was Shanghai. Everything around me is impressive. There are so many wonderful things to see in Shanghai, an extremely walkable city. It is modern and can be likened to Paris or New York in terms of modernity and impressive skylines. It’s a perfect place to stroll and explore some of the historic remnants of the city or just watch the world go by as you sit in one of the parks. Shanghai is truly one of the most beautiful and unique cities in the world. I especially enjoyed the waterfront promenade lined with colonial era buildings. Looking at the futuristic skyline, it’s hard to believe that just about a little over thirty years ago, this place used to be all farmland. I was like a child in fairyland enjoying the fantastic lightshow at sunset and the amazing tower illuminated with “I heart Shanghai” messages. 

On our second day, we explored Shanghai’s famed Nanjing Road. It is the main shopping road in Shanghai and the busiest. Walking this packed pedestrian only road is like total madness. It is a huge place with everything and anything. It’s like Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market in terms of size and crowd but uncovered. There are hundreds of businesses on the road offering superior quality products and new fashions. Traditional stores and specialty shops selling silk goods, jade, embroidered slippers, wool and even hardware products. Looking around, they also have a variety of snacks like wantons, traditional cakes like meat filled mooncakes, sticky sweet rice dessert. There is something for everyone whether food, clothes, knick-knacks or whatever you fancy. Truly a shoppers’ paradise.

It was past noon when we decided to take a bite and we thought what better way to see the real culture but to go where the locals eat. We found this hole in a wall restaurant that had all the food that I am familiar with. We sat and ordered food and that is when confusion started. Everything of course is written in Chinese so we relied on pointing out the food pictured on the menu. It wasn’t bad at all… we actually thoroughly enjoyed our lunch.

There is an abundance of parks and squares to discover in Shanghai. Many of which you will stumble upon when trying to find something else. If you are a first timer in Shanghai and still trying to figure out, keep an eye on Yuyuan Garden. A place not to be missed. It has an interesting ambiance of typical pagoda structures, bright red lanterns, beautiful landscape and a Dynasty teahouse. YuYuan Garden means Garden of Happiness and it is easy to see why. It is a must see attraction in Huangpu district. This exquisite garden with a beautiful layout and stunning scenery made it one of the highlights of my visit. The location has a wonderful mix of things to make you happy. We also visited Jing’an Si Temple which means tranquil and peaceful temple. Apparently, this is one of the most famous temples in Shanghai. Jing’an Temple is a holy place for both Buddhism and Taoism, boasting the largest jade Buddha in China. If you want to see a glimpse of China during the olden times, this is the place to be.

Five days is really not enough when visiting China. You will hardly scratch the surface. We had to make the most of our visit because you will never know when the next one would be or if indeed there is going to be any future visits.

Lucky to have the chance to include Beijing in this visit. I had to see three of China’s widely recognised places of great interest like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square, otherwise it does not seem complete. Off to Beijing!

The Great Wall has an incomparable symbolic significance in the history of China. Its purpose was to protect China from outside aggression, but also to preserve its culture from the customs of foreign barbarians because its construction implied suffering. Our 24-year-old guide, Roma Lammar, said that at least 1 million workers died whilst constructing, and were buried in the Great Wall. The Great Wall has been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced; the majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). I could only reach up to the first tower. The uneven stairs and laid stones make it very difficult to climb. I was short of breath, to say the least. But to set foot on this magnificent wonder of the world was to me a great ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.

The entrance to the Forbidden City is through Tiananmen but Tiananmen and Tiananmen Square are two different structures. Tiananmen is the front entrance to the Forbidden City. and the entrance to the Imperial City, where the Forbidden City is located. Separated from Tiananmen just across the street is the Tiananmen Square. The square contains the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. But perhaps it is best remembered by most of us as the venue of the 1989 protests where hundreds of protesters died.

The Forbidden City was also built during the Ming Dynasty – actually in 1407 and completed in 1420. It covers an area of approximately 780,000 square kilometres. It is the biggest and best preserved imperial palace in China. The huge complex has four gates but visitors most of the time enter through the Tiananmen area or the Gate of Heavenly Peace. In the outer court are three huge buildings. This is where the Emperor conducts his state affairs or official ceremonies. The first Hall is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City. The second hall was the resting place of the Emperor before a scheduled grand event where he rehearses his speeches or presentations. The last Hall or known as Hall of Preserving Harmony is reserved for banquets. There are more to see in this humongous complex such as the beautiful Imperial garden and even more magnificent buildings in the inner court. It needs far more than a day to complete a proper tour of the Forbidden City.  

The food experience in China is not exactly what I heard from other people. They may have gone to very remote parts of China. To me, it was interesting to say the least. If you are a street food lover and relish the experience of new food tastes, try different kinds of food when you visit China. Let me just remind you that I have noticed that they do not believe in an additional sauce for dipping fried foods or dim sum. That gives me a big thumb’s down. What I had enjoyed very much though was the Hot Pot and of course the famous Peking Duck. 

The day went by smoothly. With my sister, we explored the city which to us was the China that I had seen and remembered from the many historical books I had read. It is ancient and it felt eerie at the same time but to my amazement, no one bothers anyone else. In every corner there is a map of the area although written mostly in Chinese. One has to review the illustration to see where you are, where you came from and where you are going. It is actually a very efficient map, that despite the fact that you do not read Chinese, you will understand the whole thing. Walking aimlessly, we decided to try the food at this very simple restaurant. Food here must be good because it had so many customers. The restaurant was like a museum because they had restored the ancient structure and décor of Old China. Visiting Chinese, especially the seniors, had tears in their eyes because what they saw reminded them of their hard life in the past. There are private rooms that showed the sleeping area of the old people and their little kitchen which brought back old memories. The food was excellent as I expected.

As the saying goes, “All good things must come to an end” and so my wonderful trip to China had to come to an end to but I promise to visit again and next time to the remote part of China to explore the neighbouring villages hopefully free from the deadly virus.  We ended our trip having a nice Hot Pot dinner.

感謝您度過美好的時光,中國

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When I hear Russia, what comes to mind is that of apprehension maybe because of its history. But I am not covering its history but what it is today. I am curious about this country after friends visited and how much they had enjoyed their Russian escapade.

It was seven degrees when we arrived in Moscow… all excited but in spite of the tiresome journey and lack of sleep, we proceeded to start our excursion. Our local guide, Daria took us around Moscow as a familiarisation tour of the city followed by a three hour cruise on Moskva River appreciating the beautiful ancient buildings in Moscow along the river banks. The city looks ancient and the style of the buildings complements the ambiance. To me, it was interesting and had me envisioned the life in Russia then. Lunch was served while cruising and we were all relaxing comfortably inside the boat savouring the dishes that were served to us. Nothing was familiar except for the Russian salad. They served saucy food and all the servers were amused while watching us probably because we were all scrutinising the dishes. After the three hour boat ride, we felt really exhausted, we were all taken back to the van to head towards the hotel. We got to our hotel around eight in the evening completely fatigued. That was our first day.

The following day, as early as eight we were picked up by Daria to go to Tretyakov Gallery. Although still sleepy and a bit tired, I was looking forward to the gallery visit as I’ve read a story about this man, Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakow who collected works of famous Russian artists known all over the world with the aim of creating a collection for posterity. The gallery is impressive, well preserved with thousands of works of art done by famous Russian artists. Well, today not only did Mr. Tretyakow leave his collection to the Russian people but to the world. The day went by quickly. Traffic in Moscow, despite the six lane road, was I thought worse than Bangkok. As a result we did not get the chance to change for dinner at the posh Dr. Zhivago restaurant which served us up a wonderful set meal. We all felt underdressed and obviously not very happy. But we had good meal though so that made up for our frustrations.  We all went back to our hotel with full stomachs, experiencing for the first time, Russian food.

I came to Russia primarily to see Red Square and the Kremlin. Red Square had so much history that it was first on my list of places to visit in Moscow. Stepping on the ground that used to be a huge marketplace, a place to stroll and kill time and the venue for making public announcements was awesome. In 1919 the first Red Army parade was held here with Vladimir Lenin, its new leader who spoke to the nation. ‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth’ the great man said. From the entrance, looking towards the right is an old imposing building called the GUM. There is a touch of class as you enter the department store. The décor, quality of merchandise, layout and products on sale looks expensive. The merchandiser surely had thought of everything to make it look inviting, exciting and interesting. I was not planning to purchase anything but due to the beautiful display of products, the browsing ended up into buying. What a relief when it was time to meet up with the rest of the group to enter the Kremlin and also visit the iconic St. Basil Cathedral, otherwise it would have been a disaster financially.

Kremlin’s history is the drive for people to go there for sure. As you enter, the left side is full of ancient, small and big cannons all lined up as a testament to the Russians winning the war against the French. The small cannons were confiscated from the French army and the big cannons side by side with the small ones are the Russian’s. One could readily see the pride over winning against the French. The office building of the president on the right side as one enters is under renovation to our disappointment. Apparently, it’s called the senate building where the president holds his meetings.

About five hundred metres from the senate building is the St. Basil Cathedral also known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin which is an Orthodox church and the symbol of the city of Moscow. It is a most imposing building that if you had been to Russia but have not been to St. Basil Cathedral, it is like not visiting Russia at all. It is the most recognisable building in Russia built in the 16th century by order of Ivan the Terrible.

So much to see in so little time. It seems that we haven’t really scratched the surface and we have to go for another train ride to St. Petersburg. Our guide, Daria picked us up so early in the morning to catch the early train to St. Petersburg. We had breakfast packed for us by the hotel only to find that breakfast was served on the train. After four hours, we arrived in St. Petersburg but had to walk miles to reach our van. Sleepy, tired body and soul, we went on our scheduled journey. Our English speaking guide took us to Hermitage Museum, where the largest collections of European and Western arts in the world are. It was a feast to the eye as beautiful paintings and works of art are on display. Our time inside was limited, as hundreds of people are waiting to enter the museum, so it’s a sneak preview like in the movies. Our next stop is Catherine’s Palace. I thought, I have seen this type of interior all over Europe. Exquisite furniture and decorative objects, a unique collection of porcelain and the famous Amber Room, an entire room made of amber panels, mirror and gold leaf with a fascinating history. We drove back to St. Petersburg for dinner at the Nicholas Palace. This was grand and very memorable for me as it was my birthday. However, we were all disappointed to dine in a palace where all the waiters and attendants were in period costume reminiscent of the past. We also had the chance to feel Russian during the evening watching a folkloric show experiencing the history, spirit and tradition of the Russians. It is a must see show. We were all treated like royals in a most delightful evening.

The following day, most of us were totally exhausted so we have decided not to join the day’s tour and just kick back at the hotel for much needed relaxation. With a friend, I went on a shopping spree and arrived back to our hotel feeling refreshed and rejuvenated ready to face another challenging day.

On our last day in St. Petersburg, we were driven to Peterhof for an excursion of the summer palace. If you have been to Versailles in France, Hermitage Museum and Catherine’s Palace, entering Peterhof’s Palace is almost the same as the other three I’ve mentioned. Peter the Great visited Versailles and when he got home, he had ideas for his summer palace which was under construction and renovation that time. It was well worth the visit as the beautiful palace, park and fountains are breathtakingly beautiful.

Our tour to Russia is nearing its end. Again, we woke up early to catch the train to Moscow. We got to Moscow in the afternoon and part of the tour was the visit to Bolshoi Theatre. We tried to get tickets to watch the ballet but it was all sold out. We did not anticipate that we would be getting a much better deal. The manager of the theatre is a friend of our guide so we were allowed to enter the premises with an official guide and lucky to have watched the rehearsal of the show for that night and appreciate the grandeur of the Bolshoi Theatre. That to me was a real treat. 

The day has come that we had to leave Russia. Despite the strenuous trip, we had good and fun memories of the country. We have seen famous landmarks and works of art that we may never see again.

До свидания и спасибо россия! 

Goodbye and thank you, Russia!

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Gion 1

The God of rain was obviously cooperative as I walk to explore the nostalgic path this traditional village evoked. Gion is Kyoto’s famous old world and entertainment district. It is filled with traditional wooden houses called machiya. While these types of homes can be seen all over Japan, it’s mostly typical in the historical district of Gion in Kyoto. Looking around Gion, you can say that it has maintained and saved its architectural treasures.

Gion

Gion creates nostalgia while leisurely strolling the historic town. I even felt happy spirits that seem to be present in the air. Perhaps I am just feeling the good energy of the people of the past centuries having a good time especially when night falls and all the lanterns are lit.

KimonosTake a pictureWhile the evenings have an air of romance, there are also many interesting things to see during the day. I can just sit in a corner and observe which took me to a world of silence. To Japanese culture, silence is golden. My eyes wandered around and I see quite a number of vending machines with all kinds of beverages and snacks. Women and men in kimonos not really sure if they are locals until I saw them entering a kimono rental shop and coming out in their normal clothes. Walked up the hilly road and rows and rows of shops on both sides of the road selling all kinds of things Japanese, from fans, knick-knacks to kimonos. Lots of food stalls are also in vibrant business. I tried the famous rice crackers called senbei and they were addictive. From nori covered senbei to soya sauce with sesame seeds… all flavours were yummy up to the last bite. To my wonderment, an antique looking Starbucks coffee shop suddenly became part of the scenario… that was unexpected!

Road view

Traversing the cobblestone road and going up and down the hill, a beautiful pagoda can be seen from a distance. Although it would take me another two kilometre walk from where I stand, it would be a sin not to see it. The walk was not bad at all… the scenery was awesome. The roads are clean and guests and locals are disciplined by not throwing their rubbish anywhere. Everywhere you look trees are healthy and blossoming with flowers… but I felt bad seeing an old man pulling a trishaw to pick up tourists to enjoy the tour to the old district.  Sunset

On my last day of the tour, albeit fatigued, we climbed a much steeper road to go to another temple. I had to rest several times as I was catching my breath, the walk was not easy. We entered a beautiful teahouse overlooking a fantastic panoramic view of Kyoto and sipping freshly brewed coffee on a hot day overlooking one of Gion’s beautiful vistas.

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I was born and raised in a predominantly Roman Catholic country. Naturally part of our annual celebration is Christmas. In fact, we are so obsessed with this holy day that as soon as the “ber” month starts, you could already hear Christmas carols in the air waves.

Commercial establishments start preparing their individual décor and I must admit, the country prides itself in decorations, nativity scenes, traditional songs and celebrations. The main thoroughfares have some of the best Christmas decorations in SE Asia.

Gifts

This Philippine tradition have been passed on to me that even though that I am a convert Muslim living in a Buddhist country; I continue to celebrate Christmas through entertaining and decorating my home during the season. Growing up in this type of environment, you can just imagine my excitement when I had the chance to visit some of the best Christmas markets in Germany.

A thousand images of Christmas decoration often include drummer boy, trinkets, nativity set or people drinking glug sitting out in a cold winter especially at night. These visions I see is one of the compelling reasons for travelling to Germany in the winter season. The day I arrived the temperature was 6 degrees. For a girl from the tropics, this was cold but I have got to bear that if I wish to pursue my plan of hopping from one Christmas market to another. Still jet-lagged, I was taken to the nearest Munich Christmas market on Marienplatz. They say that this is the original and oldest Christmas market in Bavaria.

Christmas Markets

The mood was festive… too many people drinking a hot beverage they call gluehwein. Gluehwein is a German/Austrian winter drink. It looks so innocent because of the water, orange, cinnamon, and cloves concoction until they pour the red wine and heat until steaming. It’s supposed to be a warming drink but looking at the extremely happy result from everyone, I decided to order the virgin one. I was happy but not to the point of kissing or hugging everyone. I continued exploring the market, it has everything you need for a really happy Christmas celebration such as a variety of handmade items. The assortment of ancient German Christmas decorations like hand painted glass, different glass decors even sheepskin jackets to fresh chestnuts, Stollen and fruit cakes emanates a real festive Christmas. The various decorations were impressive but the real attraction was the giant Christmas tree covered with lights. That was just the beginning. The Munich Christmas Market will definitely lure you to stay a while, look around and taste their gluehwein, traditional delicacies and experience the locals’ culture and tradition.

Market

The following night, I strolled the streets of Munich. A few steps from Marienplatz Square is I believe is the Nativity Market. This market is a feast to the eye. It has a variety of décor to complete a manger and authentically made from local crafts. Various nativity on display, you’ll have a hard time choosing which one to take home. The party like atmosphere with lively music, local bread made with nuts, dates, Stollen bread and the cool temperature is to me a truly white Christmas experience. My Christmas hopping has just started. I intend to visit as many Christmas markets as possible. At the former Bavarian seat of government, a farming village was recreated in the Emperor’s Court of the Munich Residence and made it into a Christmas market. It’s a cosy and bustling Christmas market. This is where the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales come to life in various stalls. Imagine all the best of Christmas and they seem to be here: handmade toys, music, gluhwein stalls all over the place, festive huts crammed with ornaments, grilled sausages, ham, and the best Christmas bread. I can stay here the whole night through because it’s a fun place, very enjoyable but the tormenting scourge of the cold wind wasn’t too convincing for me to stay longer.

costumes

Well, I spoke too soon. In another area came a very unique Christmas market. There were people in medieval costumes and the market is reminiscent of the past era. This was something new to me so I thought I won’t pass this chance. True to its name, Medieval Christmas Market, the area looks like a true medieval village. Vendors in almost a hundred stalls wearing historical costumes offer their goods for sale, the way they did ages ago. Local artists perform with music, juggling and whatever they feel like doing. Here, I was fascinated because it differs from other Christmas markets, there are basketmakers, rope makers, glassblowers all demonstrating their craft. The smell of Bratwurst being grilled is so tempting, and the highlight is a whole roasted pig… which was hard to resist as they taste so yummy indeed. People were friendlier and Glughwein has always been part of the celebration. I filled my stomach with virgin Gluehwein in order to endure the cold temperature on a rainy night. This Christmas market in Germany is one that shouldn’t be missed if you happen to travel to Germany during the Christmas season. I promise you a good time most especially if you are a historical buff.

I was still in awe for last night’s market experience but there are two more markets that I intend to visit. I was supposed to go first to Nuremberg Christmas Market but unfortunately, the train going there was on strike. My companion searched for an alternative one but that would also mean longer travelling time. I was there to explore so like a real trooper, we took the next train to Ulm. Ulm is a German state situated on the River Danube. It is the 7th biggest city in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg and popularly known as the birthplace of Albert Einstein.

I had a bit of apprehension as I was traversing an unfamiliar area of Germany but with a lot of enthusiasm and sense of adventure, I said to myself, why not? It did not disappoint. Bright light and smell of freshly roasted nuts will get anyone in the mood to stroll around.

church

The Christmas market in Ulm is like a little town directly in front of the world largest church spire surrounded by wooden stalls selling crafts and toys for the old and young alike. They even have live animals in pens which was popular with children. The whole market was illuminated with happy friendly people and hundreds of beautifully decorated stalls, nativity sets, fairytale canopies and not to forget sausages on the grill and different kinds of bread, pastries and almonds. What a truly festive atmosphere that I will never forget for the rest of my life. This Chrismas Markets adventure is worth it and hope to be travel to that part of the world for another Christmas adventure. Fröhliche Weihnachten.

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Maiko

I’ve always had this fascination for geishas. Their life is a mystery to me. The overall personality, their history and story seem to be very interesting and exciting. They are elusive and perplexing but how and where to find them isn’t easy because I was told that one has to be invited to a teahouse by a prominent person to be able to see an aspiring geisha. In Kyoto a geisha is called Geiko and a Maiko is an aspiring Geiko apprentice. I deliberately chose and stayed in Gion, an old world district in Kyoto known to be famous not just for traditional wooden houses (Machiya) but for the birthplace of the geiko and maiko culture. Immediately after I unload my things in my hotel room, I joined a walking tour that night in the hope to see one because they are often spotted around eleven in the evening after their work in tea houses or private homes. I am one of those people who thought that maikos are sold to this industry and I am here to find out the truth about them. Reading about them gave me that feeling of wanting to know more and to confirm if the stories I’ve read and the movies about them that I’ve seen are accurate. There were a lot of misconceptions about maikos that I would rather know reality from fantasy or works of a writer’s imagination.

MaikoJust as I thought, It’s not easy to find geikos and maikos around the streets of Gion in Kyoto. It took us two hours of walking around the alleys and the only thing I’ve seen are Japanese women and tourists clad in kimonos to my utter disappointment.  Kimono wearing Japanese women in Japan has become scarce that the government started promoting the wearing of kimonos. Every nook and cranny has kimono rental shops where men and women can rent a complete kimono ensemble for five thousand yen or fifty dollars. In return, they get discount in stores and restaurants as an incentive. Tourists take advantage of this by renting kimonos during their stay in Japan and they swear that it’s comfortable and they get a lot of attention on top of having their pictures taken as a remembrance of their visit to Japan. But these are not what I was seeking. Until from out of the blue a beautiful maiko appeared she seemed to be in a hurry so like a paparazzi, I took her photo. That walking tour wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

MaikoI was not giving up on seeing just one maiko. It would be nicer to speak to one but how? With the help of a tour guide who used to work inside a teahouse as an interpreter, was the answer to my question. We went to a teahouse in an alley where a maiko was performing. For a fee, the guide made the arrangement to introduce me to a lovely, young maiko so I could interview her. Her name is Fukuna. Fukuna could understand more English than she could speak so my guide was my interpreter. The young maiko was a bit shy but after our exchange of pleasantries she felt comfortable and interviewing her became like we were both telling stories to each other. Fukuna started laughing at my questions and with a hand gesture of agreement, she started to tell her story. According to her, most foreigners think that maikos are sold into the industry but it’s not true. As one of them, she chose to be part of this culture on her own. She came into the house of maiko at sixteen years old. She had no idea what to expect, the only thing she knew are the beautiful geikos on television, their beautiful, colourful kimono and so she dreamt of becoming one someday. She has been training as a maiko for four years now and she has two more years to become a fully-fledged geiko.

MaikoMaiko Fukuna is just nineteen years old and is under the care of a okasan (house mother) in an Okiya or geiko house. The okasan (most of the time a retired geiko) is in charge of training a young maiko, teaching her dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument, studying Japanese tea ceremony and learning the rules to becoming a geiko. They are highly trained in etiquette. This was Fukuna’s life since she joined four years ago and would be for another two years. It was tough but also has its privileges such as dining in the best restaurants, wearing the most expensive kimonos and meeting very important people. It was a different life she had when she was still at her parents’ home. In today’s modern world when a Japanese girl want to become a maiko, she can just look up in the internet. During the olden times, someone of high status in society has to refer a girl to a tea house okasan to take her to become a maiko. The okasan becomes the surrogate mother of the maiko trainee. Fukuna’s first year was kind of hard, sad and lots of crying because she missed her family and friends but after a year she was adjusted and happy in the company of other maiko trainees who became like sisters to her. She can’t go home during her six years of training but her family can visit her once a month.

MaikoAs a maiko trainee, Fukuna is not allowed to have a boyfriend, access to telephone, Facebook, McDonalds, Starbucks or even convenient stores. As a trainee, Fukuna doesn’t receive a salary. The okasan takes care of everything. From her hair, accessories, makeup, kimono etc. The training is quite rigid and challenging for Fukuna. Dancing is in slow move and controlled and her knees get sore. Serving tea is a challenge for there are several steps to follow. To top it all, her kimono weighs at least ten kilos and she had to learn how to walk in Okobo (wooden shoes as high as 10cm). She often twisted her ankle or fall as she was not used to it. During the day, she learns the ropes and at night performs at tea houses or in private parties or banquets. I asked Fukuna why her makeup is all white. She told me a bit of history that during the war, there were no electricity most of the time so in order for them to be seen in a dim light, they would wear white makeup and this became part of a tradition. She did her own makeup for thirty minutes now that she has a lot of practice. It used to be hours and hours of hit or miss and at first it was horrible.

MaikoThe hardest part is painting the nape with a shape. The purpose of this is to make the neck seem long like a swan as Japanese men prefer women with sexy long necks. She now can do it fast by using two mirrors one for the front and one for the back. When I ask her about her hair, she said that some maikos wear a wig but hers is natural. She goes to a specific hair salon to do her hair once a week and in order to keep their hairstyle perfect, she sleep with her neck on a small support, a Takamura or wooden pillow. Fukuna reminded me that she takes pride as a maiko, they are not out to sell their bodies as some people thought. For some, geikos and maikos are a shameful reminder of centuries old moral decline in Japanese society but in today’s society these geisha’s do not sell their body for money. It’s a glamorous job liken to the supermodels of today. It’s a chosen field amongst the young girls of 14 to 16. The idea of wearing a beautiful, colourful and priceless kimono is enough lure for these young girls.Some maikos graduate to become geikos but Fukuna has plans of getting married in the future.

However, she can’t leave the house of maiko until she finishes her training for six years. When she become a geiko, she can talk to the okasan to release her but she has to pay for all the expenses during her training period. That will make them stay in the Okiya unless a wealthy man pays for her debt and become his wife. For now, Fukuna will concentrate on becoming a geiko. It is a beautiful world and she enjoys wearing very expensive kimonos and entertain in exquisite teahouses. She is an artist living in a world full of fascination, enchanted evenings and growth.

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Malta

Malta is often described as a one big open air museum. This is not only a museum with trendy cafes and shops but also an impressive entrance. With some of the nicest windows and doors around. With its capital city of Valetta, with calm and peaceful surroundings. Then you have Mdina, dating back four thousand years. The walled city has a timeless atmosphere where getting lost in small alleys may be a lot of fun for others but could be scary for some but then stumbling into a great dessert may not be too bad after all.Join me in my short but delightful escape to Valleta and Mdina. I will try to guide you about my time here, the places I have visited and a few places that I missed that maybe you should explore. My companion and I arrived early in the capital city at 10:30 in the morning. We would have a few days here so we wanted a mixture of exploring, sightseeing and possibly writing about this place.It is for this last reason that we chose an apartment just across the water and walking distance to almost everything so I can cover as much in a short time. What we did not anticipate was the road leading to the apartment. I thought it was a joke but no, we had to climb at least 50 cobblestone steps to reach the main entrance to the apartment building carrying our heavy luggage and another four floors of winding steps to our main apartment. It was torture! Catching our breath, we sat on the terrace for a short while and completely forget what we had gone through after seeing what we saw. We immediately dumped our bags and headed out to explore the place. I already loved it! From our terrace, we could see the Forts, the beautiful body of water, the port and school of birds flying above us. It was breathtaking to say the least.

Church

Climbing up and down the stairs was momentarily forgotten. I love the neighbourhood, just across from our apartment is the Basilica of Mount Carmel, a Roman Catholic Church, one of the most famous churches and is part of UNESCO Heritage Site which includes the whole city. Passing the Basilica is a very old building called Manoel Theatre, an important performing arts venue. It is a very old building built in 1731 but still being used. It was closed the whole time we were in Valleta so we did not get the chance to see inside or watch anything as we had planned. Walking pass several restaurants and bars… examining some front doors along the way, we wandered through the quiet picturesque until we got to the city centre.Valleta is Europe’s smallest capital city so it’s perfect for walking. Hidden streets and views appear around almost every corner so it was great just admiring. The architecture alone, especially with the sun setting, added to its glow. This small island with a population of 439,000 is perhaps the safest place in the world. You can walk in a dimly lit alleys without being bothered. People are friendly and will go out of their way to assist anyone. My companion and I walked at least a total of 40 hours during the 5 days of stay in Valletta excluding the 2 hours a day of break for lunch, coffee or touring the many heritage sites… well, the whole of Malta is heritage. You have got to see it, to believe it.

Malta gained independence from a dwindling British Empire in 1964. History can be seen throughout the city however, with Valleta’s roots on display, over the last two thousand years, Malta’s timeline reads like a who’s, who of conquerors. Naming a handful, the Romans, the Normans, the Turkish, the Spanish, the French and the British. Even as the recent Second World War, the Maltese islands were a highly prized base being fought over. Due to the bravery and courage shown by the Maltese people during the prolonged invasion, they are the only country awarded with the George Cross. The George Cross is typically handed to individuals, it is the second highest award in the United Kingdom’s honour system and is even part of the nation’s flag. Built following the siege of Malta, was the Barakka Gardens, which unfortunately we’ve missed, overlooking the great harbour. We continued walking until we reached Republic Street.  Feeling a bit hungry, we found a nice, cosy coffee shop, Caffe Cordina. We sat outside for a while to view the statue of Queen Victoria. I thought this is more than just a coffee shop. My conversation with one of the owners, Luca Cordina, revealed that it is a famed establishment with a two hundred year old history and considered a minor landmark within the bustling streets of Malta’s stunning capital, Valleta.

Malta city

After a long full day, we struggled through cobblestone steps to our apartment and caught up with a much needed rest. I sat in front of my laptop and started planning for the next day. It would be another exploration day with a mixture of Cathedral hopping, trying out Maltese food. I will definitely go for a taste of Aljotta, a fish soup and some other renowned Maltese food.The following day, the sun was shining brightly and the cool breeze energised me. I had latte macchiato and chocolate croissant for breakfast overlooking the Grandmaster Palace now known as the Palace which was built between the 16th and 18th centuries as the Palace of the Grandmaster of the Order of St. John who ruled Malta. Had a quick visit to the Grand Masters Palace to view the Armoury Collection dating back to the 15th century and the Palace State Rooms and corridors which displays the glory of the Order of St. John. As per the manual given to guests, it says that this Palace was one of the first buildings in the city of Valleta founded by Grandmaster Jean de Vallete a few months after the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The Palace was then enlarged and developed by successive Grand Masters to serve as their residence. It became the seat of Malta’s first constitutional parliament in 1921. It is now the seat of the Office of the President of Malta. Close to the Grand Masters Palace was the house of Nobility, Casa Rocco Piccola a 16th century Palace, home of the Noble de Piro family. We were asked to sit in the courtyard whilst waiting for the guide and while being entertained by a parrot, named Kuku. I tried to talk to Kuku but the only word he knew was “hello” so we exchanged hellos several times until the guide came to show us the interior of the Palace.

museum

The Palace is a living museum. A privately owned and much loved home of the Marquis and Marchioness de Piro. They were actually home that time but were entertaining guests so we were not able to meet them but apparently, they do oblige whenever possible.  The Palace is open to the public from 10am to 4pm every day except Sundays and holidays. It is a beautiful home full of antiquities and collections from the past. Not only did we see the important rooms inside the Palace but also the underground passages and tunnels which were used as a safe place during the war.We missed going to the restaurant located in the Palace’s old kitchen as we had made reservations for a nearby Maltese restaurant. It was a delightful visit to this nobility’s home.Our next stop was the St. John Co Cathedral. I wouldn’t miss this Roman Catholic Church as it has always been mentioned by my Humanities professor in college and for some reason I didn’t pay much attention then, as I had no idea where Malta was at that time, and had no interest in knights except for Sir Lancelot of the Round Table.

The queue was long and it was already four in the afternoon and the Cathedral is about to close. Luckily, we had pulled some strings and were able to enter the back side of the Cathedral. I stood in front of the altar with mouth open and eyes so wide totally mesmerised. It had me dumbfounded as it dwarfed all the churches and Basilicas that I have visited in this trip. There are no adjectives to describe the magnificence of this church interior. It is Baroque all the way. I was awed at the style, design and particular attention to detail. It was an overwhelming feeling of respect and admiration. St. John Co Cathedral is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and built by the Order of St. John between 1572-1577. It is one if not the most beautiful Cathedral’s that I have ever seen. From ceiling to walls, including the floorings, are decorated with inlaid colourful marbles creating a beautiful tapestry. Photographs just would do it justice to its beauty, but viewing it yourself will give you a feeling of wonderment, just as I felt.

Rocco

Our next visit is the St. Elmo Fort which became the location site for my companion’s photography project. The Fort is huge and to walk inside the fort in the late afternoon is doubly tiring and even more so if you had been a subject in a photography project. In between modelling and looking around, I was reading a brochure about the Fort. Fort St. Elmo is considered Malta’s five-star Fort as it protected the main ports of Malta during the Great Siege in 1565. Inside the Fort is a War Museum with collections of various items from prehistoric times starting from the early Bronze Age of 2500BC to present time. There are several videos to watch to better understand the history and greater appreciation of Malta. With Fort St. Elmo as the setting of Malta’s historical episodes so it is a must see place. Give yourself at least two hours inside the Fort. You will be surprised at the historical value of the place and be proud of the courage and bravery of the Maltese people. The sun had set and whilst I could see our apartment building from a distance, it took us at least an hour and a half to reach the area, because most of the streets are like in San Francisco, USA. Fatigue caught us so we just decided to buy cold cuts and bread and make a sandwich for dinner and called it a night.

Silent City

Not really surprising, the days went by so quickly. As they say time seem to move faster when you are having fun. I have now fallen in love with Valleta. I have documented on a daily basis my trip and posted them on Facebook so a good friend of mine, a Maltese Knight of the Order of  St. John suggested that I should visit Mdina. That’s exactly what my companion and I did. Mdina is a walled city with a history spanning four thousand years, it’s named the “Silent City” and it speaks for itself. At the lone entrance, I was totally stunned by the medieval look and feel of the place. The town was the old capital of Malta, and with its narrow streets, few inhabitants and beautiful views it is truly a magical town. There are no cars allowed in the walled city except those of a limited number of residents who have permission to enter Mdina. The town provides a relaxing atmosphere among the visitors walking its narrow streets and alleyways. Horse drawn carriages are available at 35Euro for an hour of sightseeing inside Mdina.

Nightlife

The medieval town is a mixture of Norman and Baroque architecture and is home too many Palaces, most of which today serve as private homes. We went around the narrow, winding roads on foot stopping by boutique shops selling glass jewellery and various souvenir items while appreciating the Baroque buildings the knights have left for humanity to appreciate. Mdina is a sight to behold.Our last day were spent tasting food, walking the narrow alleys, taking photographs of the amazing buildings, chatting friendly with the locals and expatriates alike. We walked for hours hoping to find a real market where the locals went but unfortunately what we saw was an establishment with a sign Market but it was just a small supermarket not the kind that I was looking for. It was getting late so we just watched the sunset and walked back the cobblestoned steps to our apartment. It was a wonderful visit to a magical place… something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Thank you, Malta for a memorable insight of your country… whilst we only scratched the surface, what we have seen so far definitely left a strong impact on me and I will definitely come back again.

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Palermo-architecture 01

by Arlene Rafiq

I have been to most parts of Italy but that was thirty years ago. I haven’t been to Sicily because when I hear the name, I only think of the Godfather stories of crime, hate and revenge and Don Vito Corleone’s famous quote “Revenge is a dish best served cold” so it wasn’t on my bucket list. However, thirty years ago was a long time, people change, circumstances differ and I have also grown mature and had travelled far and wide so now I knew better. My friend talked about Palermo, a city in the island of Sicily, I was intrigued. I have heard about it in passing, have not been there and have not heard of any friends or relatives who had been there so it was quite intriguing to find out about this place.

My initial plan was to be in Germany for the Christmas markets but I couldn’t possibly stay that long in a freezing temperature. I was waiting for any travel opportunities south so I could make the most of my vacation time.

Palermo-architecture 02
Palermo-architecture 04

After a few days in Bavaria and Munich, my friend suggested a week in Palermo. At that time I was going to say yes, no matter what, as my body couldn’t take the weather. There was of course a bit of apprehension because of the crime stories but I thought “I am a grown up woman, I can take the challenge”. Off we flew to Palermo.

As soon as the plane touched down, my worries disappeared. I was telling myself seize the moment, appreciate the cool but sunny weather, have fun and not worry about anything. We stayed in an apartment with enough rooms for a family of six right in the heart of the Main Square or piazza overlooking the first opera house in Europe, the Teatro Massimo Vittorio di Emanuele. Looking from the outside the teatro is gigantic… I thought it would be awesome to watch an opera and of course the chance to enter and see for myself the interior of this magnificent teatro dressed to the nines. Bought tickets and made my wish come true. That was my first activity.

Looking at the guidebook and map, everything in the historic area of Palermo is pretty much in walking distance. Besides most of the sites we want to visit are all here. So the plan of renting a car was of no use as all the roads leading to most of the sites are barricaded in the early afternoon. Even if it was allowed the alleys are too narrow anyways to rent a car or you will end up parking it somewhere far away or hard to find.

Palermo-architacture 05
Palermo-architecture 06

Palermo is a site to behold, no matter where I turn, I find cobblestone alleys, chapels, fountains, incredibly beautiful churches and basilicas or building structures that fills anyone’s heart with awe and you are purely in a world of your own to waste any time dreaming of anything else but enjoying to the max. My first impression was it felt like I was doing a pilgrimage as I plan to visit as many churches as possible during this visit. The most imposing architectural wonders in Palermo are the churches dating back the middle ages. As we were walking on the busy street, we passed about a hundred metres more on the crossroads four tall and impressive buildings called Quattro Canti. This is to me is like the centre of Palermo. It became our landmark because we came back to this crossroad so many times after going to places of interest.

After the tiring walk we sat in a coffee shop at the piazza to drink latte macchiato and a piece of Cannoli which is the most tempting of all the Sicilian pastries and also had freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice watching people go by. Just relaxing and engrossed in looking at people, both locals and tourists, loving life without qualms was already an entertainment. The day went by swiftly and the walking street suddenly turned congested with hundreds of people, shoulder to shoulder walking or checking on the various vendor tables that were installed on both sides of the road. It also turned dark so quickly because at 5pm the sky was as dark as midnight. The following morning was welcomed with enthusiasm as I received a message from an excited friend suggesting to include the Chiesa Della di Martorana knowing I am interested in art and culture. It was a fifteen minutes walk to reach the World Heritage church but it was all worth it because what I saw was spectacular art form from different artistic styles. We stayed inside the church for at least close to an hour to take photographs and to view the colourful mosaic posts, walls and ceiling which was breathtaking. Just a few steps from the Cathedral is another World Heritage site, the church of St Cataldo, an example of Arab-Norman architecture.

Palermo-architacture 03

The church obviously has Islamic and Byzantine features as is evident in the red domes on the roofs and the ornate decoration typical of Byzantine art. The church is very simple and despite the statue of Jesus on the cross at the altar, it felt like entering a mosque because of its simplicity.

Continuing my historic tour on foot, just around the city centre is the Piazza Pretoria or also known as the Square of Shame. I thought it was beautiful, quite imposing and didn’t see why it was called the Square of Shame. The visitor’s guide said that in 1573 the government bought a fountain intended to be for the Palace of San Clemente in Florence. Obviously, it didn’t happen because homes were demolished to give way to this project and the fountain was installed on the square. The fountain was the central point surrounded by nude statues. Historical records say that the square since the 18th century became a representation of the corrupt government and nudities so they nicknamed it the Square of Shame.

Palermo-fruit-stall
Palermo-Bread
Palermo-seafood

Quite a distance from Piazza Pretoria, is the Palazzo Real of Palermo. The main palace was not available for viewing when we came as it is now being used as a government office but we were lucky to see the Capella Palatina. It was used as the Royal Chapel of the Norman Kings of Sicily. The interior of the chapel is filled with elegant mosaic. It will take a historian to give an accurate description of the chapel which is of Byzantine architecture. But Islamic and Christian influences can be seen vividly in its art form. It was awe inspiring to say the least.

Two more days and we are out of this spectacular city. After a few days of strolling, sightseeing and being with locals, I could already tell that the people of Palermo are friendly and accommodating. They genuinely enjoy life and are not letting anything get in their way. I had that same feeling… it was contagious! That love for life is seen vividly in a market place. Nothing gives me more pleasure than being in a market and to me a Sicilian market like the ”Mercato della Vucirria” completed my day as a foodie. We were forewarned though that this market is the watering hole of pickpockets and snatchers but when we got there we felt safe. It was lunchtime and the smell of grilled fish was enough to pull us to a table. We had steamed sea bass with just olive oil and squeeze of lemon and pasta aglio Olio. After a hearty lunch, our opera singing waiter disclosed that the area used to be a notorious mafia den.

Palermo-Market
Palermo-cooking

Wanting to sample more of the real Sicilian lifestyle, we decided to go on another market adventure… go where the locals go. On foot we went to Mercato Ballaro. To our disappointment, there were no activities so we sat in a family owned cafe and had cappuccino and a piece of pastry to share. It was almost ten in the morning so we reckoned that this was probably not a real marketplace. Before we even had our first sip of coffee, the place suddenly turned wild with throngs of people setting up their tables, singing or talking loudly. There was excitement and in less than thirty minutes, the market was there. Table after table of fresh produce like vegetables, herbs, olives and many other items are on sale. Vendors taking turn screaming at the top of their lungs calling attention to their products, such as fish and seafood. It didn’t disappoint after all. This market is a cornucopia of interesting activities and a happy place of exciting mix of people.

Palermo-menu-fish
Palermo-street-food

My eyes feasted on a lot of food. If you are adventurous and have a strong stomach there are a lot of dishes you can try and one of the most popular delicacy is Stigghiola. Just the look of it, it can be disturbing especially when I found out it is made from either veal or lamb intestines, grilled to perfection and eaten on a stick. Another traditional Sicilian food is Frittola. If you are game enough to order this food, the vendor opens a basket covered with cloth and digs a mixture of greasy looking animal organs and then put in bread. Sicilians find this very delicious… hesitantly; I bought a sandwich upon prodding of the young vendor. I tried a bite. It wasn’t bad but knowing it’s pure cholesterol I decided to get rid of it in a subtle way. We walked the huge market with lots of excitement, then it started to rain. The bad weather didn’t hamper our spirits a bit… we continued strolling and went through the various eateries. We found all kinds of food, but we didn’t even know what to eat first. The rain had us seated in a corner street food area. We ordered marinated sardines in olive oil because it seems that this is their famous dish, sfincione a bread that looks like pizza but never make the mistake of calling it pizza… not to offend the Sicilians. It is bread that is spongy with olive oil on top and fresh tomato, a plate of pasta fruitta mare and fried calamari.

One thing I’ve noticed though… the Sicilians have a good sense of humour…

They seem to be all happy campers but they can be hot tempered when it comes to their food. It’s a big deal to them to be appreciated and to see customers enjoy their food. Appreciating the chef came easy to me as the food that was served to us was delicious to the last bite.

We spent our days wandering long hours through the streets of Palermo, chatting and being entertained by locals in the markets, going to museums, entering and appreciating the architecture of churches and almost all the buildings. Enjoying the food, the friendly locals and making new friends. Being in awe at everything we see, touch and feel. Despite the exhaustion, I went to sleep every night looking forward to get up and start all over again. That is how incredibly wonderful Palermo was to me. There is more to see in this beautiful city but in the mean time I just want to say Arrivederci Palermo until next time.

Palermo-inside-maket
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Batik: Truly Indonesia

by Arlene Rafiq

Thailand and China has elegant silk, India has cotton and the Philippines have pineapple fibre that is unique in the world but Indonesia has beautiful v to boast about.

Visiting Indonesia would never be completed without exploring the place where the most important and highly developed art… Batik. Batik came from the word “ambatik” or its meaning in English ‘a cloth with small dots’. Some say the word Batik originated from the Javanese word ‘Tritik’ which is a process of dying, similar to tie dye techniques. The Far East, Middle East, Central Asia and India show the presence of Batik from over 2000 years ago. Likewise, Batik making was practiced in China as early as AD 581-618. These were silk Batiks and have also been discovered in Japan in the form of screens. In India, frescoes in Ajanta caves depict head wraps and garments which could all have been Batik.

But the island of Java in Indonesia, particularly Yogyakarta is where Batik has reached the greatest peak of success. The art of Batik later spread not only to the Indonesian archipelago and Malay peninsula but to other SE Asian countries. Knowing a bit of the history of Batik, the trip to Java was a welcome treat. Our group had the rare chance of touring a Batik factory and museum. Thanks to Madam Anita Rusdi, the wife of Ambassador of Indonesia, H.E Mr Ahmad Rusdi for making it possible. It was interesting as we had experienced a lot of excitement just looking at the many different patterns in beautiful colours of indigo, magenta etc.

A one time visit is not enough to know the origin of the designs but just looking at the display was enough for enthusiastic onlooker like me. Why it does have that effect on me may have started in my youth when my dad would bring Batik clothing in various patterns and colours so my grandmother can make dresses for me and my siblings. I have always been fascinated by how it is made that during my first visit to Indonesia, I bought a few wood blocks which is now in use as a decorative items. While at the factory, the owner kindly invited us to a small workshop to show us how it is done. Natural materials such as cotton or silk are used so that the cloth can absorb the wax that is applied in the process. The cloth should have a high quality thread count so that the quality of the Batik can be maintained. What was shown to us was a technique that instead of weaving with thread, patterns are applied by drawing.

We were given a cloth and the design we traced from stencils. The shadow of the design is then traced with a pencil. While the process seems to be very intricate, the tools were simple. A small thin spouted copper container called canting (wax pen) is connected to a small bamboo handle. The container that holds the melted wax is called ‘wajan’. Next is the wax made with a mixture of beeswax, which is commonly used. Wax ingredients are a highly guarded secret. We were ready to make our own handmade Batik. Looking at the artisans at work seems so easy but when it was our turn to try, we sweated like anything but had so much fun watching and doing it ourselves. Using our canting and the boiled wax inside a wajan, we scooped the wax to make our handmade Batik. We were often reminded to make sure that the wax must be at the proper temperature because leaving it cool will clog the spout of the canting and if it is too hot it will flow too quickly and it’s hard to control.

Next was the dyeing technique. The cloth was soaked for at least ten minutes in a dye bath. The colour that was used is the traditional blue made from the leaves of Indigo plant. For darker colours, the cloth is soaked for at least days and submerged eight times a day. The second colour was brown called soga and could range from light yellow to dark brown. The final process depends on how long the cloth was soaked in the dye bath. Artisans can create varied traditional colours. Apparently, the methods of decorating fabrics were practiced for centuries by the Javanese. It consists of applying a design to the surface of the cloth by using melted wax. The material is then dipped in cool vegetable dye; the portions protected by the wax do not receive the dye, and when the wax is removed in hot water the previously covered areas display a light pattern on the coloured ground. It was a full workshop from painting to washing and drying the cloth.

The finished products were given to us as a souvenir. Next stop was a high end Batik museum. The clothing found in museums of Java indicates that the same patterns have been use for about 1,000 years and were handed down to families. There are certain designs reserved for royalty and high officials. Motifs are either geometric or based on conventional natural objects. After our Batik factory and museum visits, we went to give a courtesy call to the Queen Consort of Special District of Yogyakarta, Ibu Retu Hemas, wife of the 19th leader of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta and Governor on the region.

The Queen of Yogyakarta is known to be a great patroness of the Batik art and provided support to develop many other art forms such as silver ornamentation, wayang kulit, etc. It was said that the Batik was originally reserved for Javanese royalty. Apparently, certain patterns were reserved to be worn only by the Javanese royals. Some countries like India, China and Africa have their own interpretation of this art and use these techniques and their own ideas knowing the importance of this art form. The Javanese Batik artisans develop their product using traditional technique and incorporating them by experimenting patterns and inspirations from different places. Most of the patterns have stories to tell just like in carpet making.

It is hard to imagine Indonesia without its world famous Batik. It should continue to thrive and let today’s generation learn this art form using new techno ideas.



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