Thursday, July 24, 2014

Oh, Calcutta by Paola Fornari

All good stories test boundaries. The boundary here is the edge of the author’s comfort zone. Skilfully told.

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest 

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'There are 330 million Hindu Gods.'  Ajit had only told us about four so far: Krishna, Radha, Shiva, and Durga. I was brain-dead with their myriad details, though it was early morning and our tour had just started.
‘Tired already? I'll take you to have the best cha in Kolkata.' He led us to a tea stall in a narrow alleyway. 'Cows and buffaloes have been cleared from the streets. Now people have to cycle twenty miles to supply cha stalls with milk.'
We sipped mud-coloured liquid from rough clay cups. It was scorching, syrupy-sweet, and invigorating. We threw our empty cups onto a heap.
'What happens to the cups?' I wondered how many were used each day in this metropolis of fourteen million people.
'They disappear into the mud and someone makes more.'
Our next stop was Mother House, where Mother Teresa worked for forty years. One room houses a museum, in which huge panels relate her life, from her birth in Skopje to her death here. A letter written in her neat, strong hand condemns the practice of abortion of girl foetuses.
'Some criticise her movement for trying to impose Christianity on local Hindus,' Ajit said as we got back into the car.  'But she was a saint. I'm going to show you Kolkata's garbage mountain now.'
My husband kicked me and hissed: 'Where did you find this tour?'
'Trip Advisor. Highly recommended. Isn't it fun?
Hand-pulled rickshaws jostled for space with overflowing buses, cars, stray goats, and yellow taxis. We emerged onto a huge flyover. Kolkata has several upper-level roads along which traffic runs relatively smoothly, leaving the chaos below. Down at ground level, makeshift hovels with plastic awnings lined the road.
'People arrive here by rail from their villages, looking for a better future. But they end up living in squalor.'
We drove out of the city, and down a side road into the countryside. Fields of vegetables bordered both sides of the road.
A flat-topped mountain appeared in the distance, green and luxuriant. 'Once it's been thoroughly picked over, Kolkata's garbage all ends up here. This side has been cleared of recyclable material: glass, metal, plastic, paper. What's left is organic and fertile.'
As we drove alongside the mountain, it gradually changed into a mound of clearly visible garbage. Crows flew overhead, and on top of the mound I spotted people, dogs and goats.
'Fifty thousand people make a living from this,' Ajit said.
Between the mountain and us, people worked in lush fields of potatoes and spinach. ‘Half of the city's vegetables come from here. Think about it when you're next having salad at your hotel.' I gagged, and my stomach churned.
We drove off down a rough road. In front of rows of shacks, piles of garbage were neatly sorted into categories.
'This is almost the end of the cycle. See those shards of plastic? People here chop up old bottles and packaging into tiny pieces and sell them to factories. Now we're going to see Kolkata's most revered spot, the Temple of Kali. Some people say that this is where the name Kolkata originated.' I jerked awake: the temple featured strongly in Paul Theroux's novel A Dead Hand, which I had just finished reading.
'Kali, Shiva's consort, is known as "She who destroys". She overcomes evil, and we consider her a mother goddess.'
We worked our way on foot down the bustling avenue which led to the temple. Terrified of getting lost, I clung to Ajit. Stalls by the side of the road displayed white shell bangles, icons, and powdered red dye. 'For bindis,' Ajit explained. 'The dots on the women's foreheads.'
Three women were prostrate on the muddy ground, scrambling slowly forwards.
'They are giving thanks. Perhaps a wish was fulfilled. A child survived a disease, or a despised neighbour died.'
A couple of goats were tethered to posts. 'Would you like to see them being sacrificed?'
'Absolutely not.' The sacrificial scene in Theroux's novel was enough for me. We emerged into a large square.
After half an hour of hiccupping and jolting through traffic, we were in a tiny restaurant.
'My stomach is in your hands,' I told Ajit.
'In my experience people fall ill much more often from hotel food than in places like this. Leave it to me.' As Ajit dashed back to the car to fetch our bottled water, my mind drifted back to this morning's salad fields. Soon we were tucking into deliciously spicy fish and plain rice, served with what looked like an oversized chapatti. 'It's called handkerchief roti, because it's so huge and finely rolled.'
After lunch, Ajit announced: 'Special treat for you now'. We pulled up in front of the Botanical Gardens. Once inside the gates, we could have been be a million miles away from the crazy traffic and deafening cacophony of honking horns.
A couple strolled past, hand in hand. 'It's a great place for young people. You can't do that in Kolkata's streets. I spent many an afternoon here as a teenager.’ Ajit chuckled.
At the end of a shaded path, we came to a fenced-off circle, inside which there were hundreds of tall, narrow-trunked trees, forming a massive canopy above us.
'This looks like a copse, but it's one tree: the largest banyan in the world.' Ajit indicated the branches reaching out horizontally. 'See these shoots growing downwards? They sprout aerial roots, and when they reach the ground, a new tree grows. This banyan is more than two hundred and fifty years old. In the 1920s the original trunk got a fungus and started rotting away, so it was removed to protect the rest.'
We left the tranquil gardens and drove towards the River Hooghly. Suddenly we found ourselves in gridlocked traffic on the old suspension bridge. 'This is the busiest bridge in the world,' Ajit said.
On the pavement beside us, men carried enormous loads on their heads. A fight broke out between a rickshaw driver and a pedestrian. I wound up my window and closed my eyes, gripping the edge of my seat. I heard an ambulance siren, and wondered if the patient would ever reach hospital. At last we inched forwards.
 ‘Just two more stops,’ Ajit said. We drove to a narrow street where large bamboo marquees were being erected on either side.
'They're called pandals. They're for the biggest Hindu festival in Bengal, Durga Puja which is next week. Groups decorate their pandals with icons. The festivities last five days, then all the effigies are thrown into the Hooghly.'
We found the car again, and a narrow opening took us back to the banks of the Hooghly. To our left was a massive metallic box-like structure. 'That's the electric oven.' Ajit pointed to our right, where the last embers of an open fire were dying. ‘And that's the traditional cremation method. It'll set you back 15,000 rupees. The electric one costs 500 rupees. It's subsidised by the government. Our greatest Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was cremated here.'
On the way back to the hotel, exhausted and elated, I thanked every one of the 330 million Hindu gods for sparing me a corpse.

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Paola Fornari was born on an island in Lake Victoria, and was brought up in Tanzania. She has lived in a dozen countries over four continents, speaks five and a half languages, and describes herself as an expatriate sine patria. She will shortly be moving from Bangladesh to Ghana.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Scarlet Mile by Gillian Brown

"This is good journalism. Both the chosen subject matter and the execution demonstrate a good grasp of story."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay contest

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It is the first time I’ve visited a brothel. Perhaps this is why I picture a glamorous Madam, heavily made-up and provocatively-dressed – a fading beauty, with a cigarillo dangling from her mouth. In reality, she is of medium height, with a pretty, make-up free face; more like the woman next door than the rarefied creature of my imagination. This is only the first of many surprises to come.

I’m in Kalgoorlie, the epicentre of gold mining in Western Australia. Gold was discovered here in 1893 and is now a 24/7, multi-million dollar operation. The Super Pit mine is half a kilometre deep and almost four kilometres long. So far, 60 million ounces of gold have been extracted from this Golden Mile, generating a spending power for miners they could never have dreamed of. This is a town with all the accoutrements of modernity, but dig a little below the surface, and you step straight back into the Wild West.

During the Gold Rush, over a century ago, the town boomed. Shops, hotels and bars shot up. Likewise, brothels. In Hay Street alone, there were eighteen, and it soon became known as the Scarlet Mile.

I arrive at Questa Casa, early afternoon, on the recommendation of the young woman in the Tourist Office. ‘They do a tour,’ she said.  ‘Everyone who goes says it’s brilliant. I can book it for you, if you like.’

Surprised, but intrigued, I nodded. She made a quick phone call.

‘You got lucky,’ she said, issuing me a ticket. ‘It’s very popular.’

The entire building is built of corrugated tin; its roof and walls painted marshmallow pink – like a giant cake decorated in crinkly icing. The seven doors, equally spaced along the front, are the colour of crushed strawberry. It looks more like a place to sip tea and eat cakes than, well…you know what. Then I read the sign above the door: Open from 6:00 pm until the lights go out!

Fourteen of us are welcomed inside by the Madam. She seats us all down comfortably in a circle in the front room. ‘First a little history,’ she says. ‘Questa Casa is the only original brothel remaining from the Gold Rush days, and is over a hundred years old. The only other official brothel in town is the Red Room, next door, but it was built much later.’ She briefly mentions the ‘unofficial’ brothels, with a disapproving shake of the head.

There is a strange paradox here. These two brothels are ‘official’ as they pay income tax. Yet prostitution is illegal in Western Australia. ‘How does that work?’ I ask.

‘The girls pay me a percentage from their earnings, rent for their rooms, if you like. What they do inside them and how they manage their own affairs is up to them.’

‘And the police?’ someone asks.

The Madam shrugs. ‘The police look the other way.’ She grins.’ Except as customers, of course.’

‘How did you get into this?’ I ask.

‘My doctor was treating me for stress. One day he advised me to give up my corporate job and find something less demanding. So, my mother and I bought this brothel, not knowing the first thing about the business.’ 

The tour is to be an hour long and I have no idea what to expect. And certainly not what comes next.

‘To break the ice,’ she says with a smile that would melt ice-caps, ‘I want to show you some things.’ She dips into a dog-basket and pulls out a selection of dildos of various sizes and colours. She passes them around for inspection. ‘Get an idea of their weight, their length, how they feel,’ she says with a straight face. Surely, tongue-in-cheek?

Right enough, soon her eyes light up and she cracks a joke for each one, mostly at the expense of men, but told in an indulgent way. She has us all laughing – some more nervously than others. The last dildo to be passed round is double-ended.

‘Believe it or not,’ she says. ‘Some gentlemen get a kick out of using this version, one end dangling from each leg of their shorts!’

‘How much do the women earn?’ someone asks.

‘For fairness, I insist on a standard, minimum charge of $280 an hour for a no-frills session. From that, they give me $120. After that, they can charge as much as they like for ‘extras’, which must be agreed on with the customer in advance. That money is theirs.’

We start our tour behind the seven pink doors I saw on arrival, which open up onto the street at night. These are the infamous ‘starting stalls’– small porches where the women display themselves, meet and greet potential customers, agree to what is required, and the price. ‘Up front. No refunds given,’ the Madam makes very clear. Charming as she is, I wouldn’t want to cross her.

She leads us to the bondage specialist’s room, which is decked out with crimson curtains and a ruby-coloured bedspread. The lighting is subdued and sexy, the furnishings twenty shades of red. Black thigh boots and a whip lie on the bed, along with other tools of the trade. What could be described as a dress, but is more like an elaborate G-string, hangs above it. She allows us to take it all in for a moment, in silence.

Her clever introduction with the dildos means I am prepared for anything, or so I think. ‘These Velcro straps, attached to each corner of the bed, are for tying up her customers’ wrists and ankles,’ she says. ‘But jockeys can be a problem,’ she admits, ‘as their arms and legs are too short to reach. But I’m sure she finds some alternative.’

The sound of cracking whips and agonised screams catches my imagination. ‘Is the room sound-proofed?’ I ask.

She shakes her head. ‘Whatever happens behind closed doors is my girls’ own business. If there’s no trouble, I don’t interfere. Remember, these miners are earning $2,000 a day, and if a client has paid up to $1,000 an hour for certain optional extras, he’s entitled to let go a little.’

She avoids any mention of her ‘girls’ personal details or backgrounds – although I assume she has some financial arrangement with the resident of the bondage room – and none of us ask. But I can’t help wondering what would force a woman to such extremes.  Let’s hope it’s just an easy way of making a quick buck, before moving on, rather than a life-time profession.

The Madam grins apologetically. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve another group waiting.’ She leads us from the room. ‘I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour.’ I’m positive she still has a headful of stories to tell, but in Kalgoorlie money talks. Or perhaps I should say…gold.

Leaving, I ponder the ethics of prostitution. I certainly feel more comfortable with it after meeting this caring, charismatic Madam, whom I believe the women of Questa Casa are lucky to have in charge. And as long as the Golden Mile coughs up its precious metal, business will doubtless continue. Unless, of course, it becomes too stressful for the Madam.

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Gillian Brown was born in Scotland. She lived in several countries before settling in France, where she ran canal cruises with her husband for several years. Her travel articles have been published in various magazines and her short stories have won and been placed in competitions.
 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bodrum, Turkey’s San Tropez by Jack Scott

Bodrum -- "the prettiest of the three Muğly Sisters"
"Very professional – a knowledgeable and informative introduction to a destination that digs beneath the surface, in an engaging style."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest

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The town of Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus) sprawls along the southern shore of a chiselled peninsula in the Turkish province of Muğla. This south-western region contains the highest concentration of expat retirees in Turkey, mainly living in or around the major Aegean resorts of Marmaris, Fethiye and Bodrum itself. Countless others have acquired a bolthole for the summer sabbatical adding to the march of little white boxes up and down the coast. Locals have confidently dubbed Bodrum the St Tropez of Turkey and while this accolade may not be entirely deserved, its smart marina, wealthy yachties, Tiffany Blue waters and tiers of sugar-cube houses make it the prettiest of the three Muğly Sisters.

A Town of Two Halves
Bodrum is a town of two halves divided by a sturdy Crusader castle. The east is the rougher, overwhelmed by Bar Street, a procession of mixed-quality watering holes, eateries and hassle shops. The west end is a swanky affair and, for the most part, obscenely expensive, a place where the well-heeled go to get well-oiled. The exemplar bar is Fink, a lavish watering hole overshadowed by an enormous red chandelier, the most photographed east of Versailles, it’s elegantly carved gate guarded by a platoon of huge, brooding bouncers. Only the moneyed sort gain entrance. East or west, Bodrum’s main drags are not exactly blessed with gastronomic delights, not the Ottoman variety at any rate. The standard Turkish offering is a service plate of rice, chips and a compost of limp shredded greenery with a kebab or plain grilled fish hurled on top. Consequently, restaurants with an international flavour are especially popular. In-season, Bodrum is party town and unlike her sisters, dominated by holidaying Turks rather than pallid-skinned bargain bucketiers from northern Europe.

"There is Turkey and then there is Bodrum."
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Bodrum by Day
Bodrum by night may be a loud neon strip, rocking to earth-quaking Turkopop but Bodrum by day is a lazy, laid-back kind of place. Visitors and locals saunter along the promenade, gorge on gossip in the cafés, graze in the posh shops or relax under the shade of an old palm tree. The fit and the adventurous will leave the shore, wander up through the narrow streets and catch glimpses of Bodrum as it used to be. The ancient town is sprinkled with tumbledown stone houses, often open to the elements and slowly crumbling like a Turkish version of Pompeii.

Fink

Some Like it Hot
Bodrum’s south-facing aspect and natural amphitheatre of low hills protect it from the prevailing north winds and this can ramp up the temperatures, making it hotter than the surrounding peninsula. Mercifully, the searing heat and soaking humidity of July and August is occasionally moderated by the dry Meltemi Wind, a welcome respite that blows down from the Balkans and sweeps across the entire Aegean basin. The wind can last for days and gust to gale force, scuppering sailors, sand blasting beach bathers and fanning forest fires.

Bodrum’s Crusader Castle
The Castle of St Peter, Bodrum’s Crusader heirloom, is the town’s jewel in the crown and its handsome silhouette dominates from every direction. The fortress was built in the fifteenth century by the Knights Hospitaller and remained in Christian hands until Suleiman the Magnificent unceremoniously booted them out in 1522. The picture-postcard castle last saw action when it was bombarded by a French frigate during the Great War, presumably an act of wanton vandalism as it had long lost its strategic importance. Several towers were badly damaged and the minaret of the mosque (a former church) was toppled. Today, the reconstructed castle is a major tourist draw and home to the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, the biggest of its kind. The grounds also play host to the annual ballet and dance festivals, atmospheric and sweaty affairs that draw in the arty types at the height of the season. Rambling over the castle ramparts is a popular diversion for camera-toting tourists. The views are spectacular, the dandy peacocks entertaining and the well-tended gardens offer plenty of shade to catch your breath and soak up the atmosphere. The exhibits are absorbing enough if you’re into old wrecks, chipped anfora and ancient glass, and the castle towers provide drama and a fun way to spend a spare afternoon. The English Tower is particularly striking, a ready-made Ivanhoe set. All that’s missing is Richard the Lionheart and Elizabeth Taylor in a kirtle.

The Castle of St Peter, Bodrum’s Crusader heirloom


The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
Bodrum is home to one of the Wonders of the Ancient World (the first of two in Anatolia, the other being the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus) and the meagre ruins of the once magnificent Mausoleum of Halicarnassus are well worth the modest entrance fee. The vast tomb was constructed to inter the remains of King Mausolus in 350 BC (hence the word ‘mausoleum’). Remarkably, the tomb survived virtually intact for seventeen centuries before it was felled by an earthquake in the Middle Ages. Many of the toppled stones were plundered by the Knights of St John to build their castle and all that remains today is a large hole in the ground with random pillar drums and dressed stones scattered about the undergrowth. A bijou and rather tired museum attempts to fill in some of the finer detail but its naff video on a loop is more of a tourist-board promo than a serious attempt at explaining the significance of the site. Typically, there is more to see at the British Museum in London but with some imagination and a good guide book, it is perfectly possible to visualise the monument’s former splendour.

A Liberal Oasis
Traditionally, Bodrum was where political dissidents were exiled and the unconventional sought refuge from the stifling conformity of everyday Turkish society. The liberal vibe continues to this day and a tour of the small Zeki Müren Museum drives the point home rather well. This was the home of Turkey’s answer to Liberace, an entertainer whose prodigious talent had Turks emptying shelves of his music, flocking to his films and weeping at his poetry. This was also the man who single-handedly advanced the cause of diversity, even though he never actually stepped out of the closet. He didn’t need to. Festooned in gaudy jewellery and layered in silky foundation, Zeki Müren showed that difference was okay and the Turks loved him for it. His museum is a shrine to camp, kitsch and the liberalism of Bodrum Town. 

Bodrum, Bodrum so Good They Named it Twice
Bodrum occupies a special corner of the Turkish psyche, so much so that the town even has its own song. ‘Bodrum, Bodrum’ is a haunting melancholic ballad that sells by the shed load and brings a tear to the eye of every Bodrumite. There is Turkey and then there is Bodrum.

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Writer and blogger Jack Scott is the author of the 2011 best-selling, award-winning book Perking the Pansies, Jack and Liam move to Turkey. The sequel, Turkey Street, Jack and Liam’s Bodrum Tales is due out late summer 2014.