Category Archives: travel

Bethlehem – Worst View


With Christmas just round the corner and I reflect on Christ’s birth, I often think of the words of my favorite carol,

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

And so, I was blessed to have just returned from a visit to the Holy Land and I got to go to Bethlehem.  And just in time too, as with President Trump’s announcement of the USA recognising Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, things there are likely to become a whole lot more complicated and unsafe.

I have to say that Bethlehem was not at all what I expected.  As per the carol above, I would always imagine Bethlehem as a quiet, sleepy little village.  The reality is that Bethlehem is a noisy, bustling, dusty town.  The streets are filled with traffic and there is a busy bus terminal a short distance from the Church of the Nativity (the supposed birthplace of Christ).  I don’t think these days there is any “how still we see thee lie” or “Silent Night” in Bethlehem.

The other thing that I witnessed in my short visit was the animosity and fear.  Bethlehem is under Palestinian Authority and Israel has built a very, very tall wall separating it from Jerusalem and Jewish settlements (part of a 708 km long barrier which the Israelis call a security barrier, the Palestinians call an apartheid wall and the International Court of Justice called illegal). In Bethlehem, the wall is up to 8 m high.

As a result of the barrier, Palestinians cannot easily travel around to Israeli controlled areas without permits and having to undergo security searches at the few gates in the barrier.  I know of one former colleague whose 5 minute walk to work was transformed to a one hour commute due to the barrier.  Similarly, Israelis cannot venture into Palestinian controlled areas with out due cause and permits and if they do, personal safety is always a worry.  These difficulties have also reduced tourism, business and jobs in Palestinian areas.

I also witnessed the tension within the community.  On the streets and in the shops, suspicion and wariness of each other was occasionally evident between the different communities.  I also saw some Islamic extremist hate literature plastered on some walls and heard the duel between the Muslim call for azan and the pealing of church bells.

There is no peace and there is no quiet on the streets of Bethlehem today.  What would Jesus think?

I think, Jesus would not be surprised.  Man will be selfish, jealous, covetous and contentious. It is the nature of man, our sinful nature and this is why he came to be born; to give us a better way which is beyond our own means to attain.  This is the hope that he brings. Peace and hope.

And if the world seems, for the most part at the moment, to be ignoring his message, perhaps it is no surprise either.  The King of Heaven was born in Bethlehem but the world mostly ignored him then too.  In fact, as we are told, there was no room for him at the inn.

On that note, I want to end this reflection with sharing about an inn or rather a hotel that I saw in Bethlehem.  It gave me a chuckle amidst all the gloom.  The hotel is right by the wall.  It faces the wall.  The management admits that it has “the worst view of any hotel in the world” and its rooms only get about 28 minutes of direct sunlight a day.  This is Bethlehem’s answer to the famous Waldorf Hotel.  It is the Walled Off Hotel.

I later learned that this hotel was set up by the famous artist, Banksy, to help create job opportunities for the Palestinians, support Palestinian artists (the hotel also functions as an art gallery) and make a statement about the political situation and the wall.

Ladies and gents ……….. I give you the Walled Off Hotel.

 

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Squirrel’s Secret Spot 17: Mouraria


If you have read my last post, you will understand that I am, at the moment,  a bit allergic to popular tourist spots and their attendant crowds of tourists.  But also, I am sure we all realise that touristy places usually don’t reflect the lives of the locals very much.

So it is with a little trepidation that I share with you this quiet little gem in Lisbon which I am nominating as Squirrel’s Secret Spot or SSS #17 because I wouldn’t want this often overlooked place to be suddenly over run by the plague of locusts tourists.  Then again, I reassure myself with the thought that the number of readers of this blog would make up a very plague or a very lonely horde.  So we are probably safe if you keep the secret to yourselves.

Mouraria is Lisbon’s secret neighborhood.  Lying on the slopes of the hill and under the shadow of the imposing castle, Castelo de São Jorge, it is the sister neighborhood to the more famous and more frequented Alfama area which is on the other side of the castle. Both neighborhoods are probably the oldest parts of Lisbon as they survived relatively intact after the great earthquake of 1755 flattened most of the city.

Mouraria means the Quarter of the Moors because it was first settled by the Moors in the year 714 and even after Lisbon fell to the Portuguese in 1147, they were allowed to live on there.  It has always been a multicultural neighborhood and remains so today.

But why have I included Mouraria in my very select group of Secret Spots?  It is enchanting and it feels like a hidden secret.  One moment you are in a busy wide pedestrian avenue which seems typical of downtown Lisbon but just a few steps down a narrow opening between buildings and you enter a different world.  At once, you leave the bustle of the city  and you enter a peaceful, quiet village-like neighborhood.  It seems like magic.

Mouraria is one of several places that claim to be the place where the music genre, Fado was born (see last post).  The story goes that the very first star of Fado was Maria Severa Onofriana (1820-1846) and her house is still there in Mouraria.  Fado is all about lamenting one’s fate so it is perhaps no surprise that Maria Severa did not have an easy life.  She was a prostitute living in the slums and occasionally singing her sad songs in local taverns.  One of her lovers was an aristocrat, Francisco de Paula Portugal e Castro, the Count of Vimioso.  It was he that help elevate this song styling and made it popular among high society. Maria Severa died  of tuberculosis at the age of 26 and was buried in a common ditch at a local cemetery.

Rua da Guia is lined with portraits of famous Fado singers who contributed to the growth of Fado’s popularity.  Most are actual photographs but the one of Maria Severa is just a stylised drawing as no picture of her exists.

Mouraria’s narrow streets are also lined with 15 photo portraits of local residents.  These and those of the Fado luminaries were photographs transferred onto concrete or wood by a special process by British born photographer Camilla Watson.  She loved Mouraria and the people there and continues to be a member of the community and she wanted to thank the community for making her feel so welcomed.  These photos help the visitor enter into the community too.

There are lovely surprises around every bend.  It could be a quaint restaurant serving sardines, a charming little plaza, a park bench with a view, a street with neighbors talking on their doorstep or from their balconies, a neighborhood watering hole with no space to swing a cat but a long, long revered history, an old historic home, beautiful wall murals expressing the spirit of gratitude and hope in the community or it could be tables and chairs filling whatever space they could find along a narrow lane and serving the best samosas I have ever tasted, apparently for generations.  Mouraria is so many small gems that make me want to go back and spend a lot more time there.

But for me, my short visit ended by going past a street of brilliant murals, down a steep stairway and then with one step, emerged between two buildings and onto a part of busy central Lisbon that I had walked before without knowing that an enchanted place was hidden just out of view.

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A Series of Unfortunate Incidents


When one goes to Lisbon, there is a lot to see and with Portugal becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, a lot of what you see are other tourists.  Whether you go to the many squares like Praça do Comércio or visit the monuments like the Torre de Belem or the commanding Castelo de São Jorge or you walk the quaint neighborhood  and narrow streets of the Alfama or even when you catch a ride on their iconic trams, you will be in the company of herds of tourists.

Travel Portugal 2017 Lisbon
The busy streets near Praça do Comércio where incident No: 1 occurred just before this picture was taken (Photo by LGS)

An unfortunate fact is that where the herds graze and mingle, the predators also gather.  I refer to the pickpockets.  In all my travels, I have had no problems with pickpockets as I take reasonable care when I am in crowds.  But to my horror, in a flash, someone had unzipped all three compartments of my backpack in broad daylight while I waited to cross a busy road – and I was surrounded by traveling companions at the time.

I had no valuables in the backpack at that time so I suffered no loss but it was still an upsetting experience and it made me on edge for much of the remainder of the trip which was a bit of a damper on having a fun experience.

And it gets, worse.  I was of course on high alert after that incident.  But we were in fact on the way to take part in a three hour walking food tour with a local guide.  I tell you, I was as paranoid as the best conspiracy theorists, suspicious of everyone that came close to me.  Still, on two more occasions my backpack was tampered with.

In one incident, we had to walk in single file along a narrow lane because of some road works.  I became aware of two guys walking along that did not belong to my group.  So I walked quickly, turning frequently to make sure they were keeping their distance.  As soon as there was enough space, I took my backpack off and swung it in front of me.  At that moment, the two men peeled off, loudly talking and appeared to be running to catch a bus.  But when I looked at my backpack, I found that one compartment had been partially opened.

Our walking tour ended at a very popular and crowded square and there was a band playing.  As we made our way, we had to join a stream of humanity moving away from the square.  Again at a dark section of the road, I noticed 2 women walking a little too close to our group.  Then there was a very loud man who was dancing  through the crowd to the sound of the band and waving his tourist map.  Alarm bells rang.  I held my bag tightly and kept turning right and left to try to thwart any attempts.  The minute we entered a brightly lit section, the two women and the man all dispersed in different directions which was strange because almost everyone in the crowd was still headed in the same direction.   The bright light revealed that two of my compartments had been partially opened again.

Three times in three hours.  I am now looking for backpacks that I can secure with locks or something.  More inconvenient for sure but even if nothing is stolen, this sort of thing just plays on your mind.  If I disliked crowded places before, I feel like avoiding them like the plague now.  But the reality is that if you want to travel, there will be crowds ……often.

So, 1) don’t keep anything valuable in your backpack (may have to start thinking of money belts or pouches), 2) get bags that are hard to unzip or open,  3) keep the bag in front of you when in crowded situations and 4) be super vigilant.

Fado


I recently made a trip to Amsterdam and Lisbon via London.  Only after the fact, I came to realise that I had just visited the capitol cities of the three European powers that once had colonies in Malaysia (the Portuguese came in 1511, the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1786).  A fortuitous synchronicity that enabled me to learn more about my country’s own past.

I was particularly excited about visiting Portugal because Portuguese influence on Malay history, culture and language was quite significant.  There is still a Portuguese settlement in Melaka today and many Malaysians have some Portuguese ancestry.  Many words in our national language come from the Portuguese.

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As I was preparing for this trip, I got fascinated by fado; the music genre that is part of Portuguese national psyche.  Originating in the 1820’s in Lisbon, the music could be said to be a type of lament.  For example, it is suggested that, with reference to Portugal’s seafaring, exploration and global trade history, it may have been started by wives lamenting their husbands being away from them for many months and even years and sometimes never returning.

Said to be extremely expressive and profoundly melancholic, the fado songs speak of the hardships of daily life and a kind of resignation to that fate (which is the meaning of the word ‘fado’ – ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.   Someone wrote that fado has the emotional power to wring tears from your eyes.

Wow, I thought to myself, I have just got to go and see a fado performance while I am there.  I am all into laments, melancholy and resignation to one’s fate.  Not kidding.  I have always liked to wallow in self pity and say “woe is me”.

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Dancing Sulking in the Rain

So, I sought advice from a blogger friend, Ana Bica ( a fellow microbiologist and more importantly, a hometown girl of Lisbon).  “Ana”, I asked, “where can I go to listen to some great fado in Lisbon?”

Ana suggested Clube de Fado.  A very good recommendation; one that was also top of many lists on various internet forums on the topic.  Now, in most fado establishments, the  package includes both the fado performance and a fairly pricey meal.  The consensus also seems to be that while the music is excellent, the food is pretty mediocre at these places.

Unfortunately, my traveling companions were definitely foodies first above all things and were somewhat skeptical of spending 3 hours listening to melancholic music and having their emotions ripped apart.  They opted for fine dining instead……the Philistines!

So I was not able to actually go to a live performance (drats) but I did listen to some fado music and purchased a couple of CDs.  One CD was in the more traditional style of the 1960’s and I must say, as much as I like the music,  I too doubt if I could have listened to 3 hours of suffering.  The second CD is by Ana Moura and represents a more contemporary style of fado; why the music was even occasionally upbeat even if the words were still melancholic!

Anyway, I have been listening to Ana Moura more or less continuously since then and wanted to share some of this music here with you.  For you musically inclined readers, fado is usually done with a female singer (the fadista) accompanied by a Portuguese 12 string guitar(which is supposed to be very hard to play), guitar, viola and bass.

This song is ‘Amor Afoito’ or “Reckless Love’ which seems to be about a woman’s love for a man even when he has not proven he is deserving of her love.

The ‘Creaking’ Horror


Great Pumpkins!  I nearly missed out on doing a Halloween inspired post this year.  Nearly……but not quite.  I have been absent from the blogosphere because I was on a righteous quest to destroy the undead creatures of the nightmare dimension ……. ummmm….because I was traveling.  Ah, but now I am back and you cannot escape my Halloween expose!

Here it is…….the secret lives of Ghosts!

ghost criminals

But on a more serious and creepy note, let me tell you now, the story of the ‘Creaking Horror’!

A long, long time ago ……well, not that long ago……..actually last week, I found myself in what is rumoured to be the oldest hotel in the world in continuous use.  I refer to the Parador de Santiago de Compostela or, as it is also known, Hostal dos Reis Católicos.

Santiago de Compostela is at the end of the long distance trails that has been traversed by pilgrims since as early as the 9th century.  The object is to reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela which is said to hold the remains of St. James the Apostle of Christ.   Coming from Portugal, Spain and as far as France to this town in Galicia in the north-west of Spain, pilgrims could be walking in excess of 800 km.  The difficult journey was part of the spiritual experience.

Needless to say, things were a whole lot more difficult and dangerous during the ancient times and many pilgrims would arrive in Santiago de Compostela in a bad state.  So, in 1486, the Hostal was set up by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel to give shelter and aid to these road weary pilgrims.

My own journey there was by car and I arrived there on a dark, wet and foggy night.  The place was huge, ancient and quite imposing in the dark.  After checking in, we went through dark corridors with long shadows and creaking wooden floors.  Sometimes, the ancient timbers felt soft underfoot as if it might fall away due to rot but we couldn’t tell as it was covered by heavy carpets. Well, this is creepy, I thought to myself.

After dropping off our luggage in our room, which also felt every bit as ancient except for a very modern bathroom, my wife and I went snooping around.  By now, the lights had come on and most of the corridors were dimly lit.  We could also look out over the balconies onto grand courtyards.  But the place was confusing.

There were a number of courtyards and after a while you could get quite turned around, not sure how to get back to where you started.  All the time, as we walked, the sound of the creaking floor would resound along the dark, empty corridors.  Here and there, some brightly lit areas appeared.  Some were outside other guest rooms and some were outside larger rooms that had been re-purposed into small meeting rooms. And there was sometimes a plaque on the wall to tell a story or two about the rooms.

We found these plaques quite interesting.  There was a room where one of the Pope’s stayed on his first visit to Santiago de Compostela and other rooms to tell of famous digntaries, clergy and even musicians that laid their heads to rest there.

As we were moving along, we found a particular meeting room and the plaque duly informed us that many pilgrims used to arrive in critical condition and many were not even able to attend mass at the cathedral at the end of their pilgrimage.  For them, their journey would end in this room, where they could hear the priests carrying out mass in the courtyard below one last time before they expired.

Hmmmm.  This place has served as a hostal for over 500 years.  But a hostal was not just a place to find shelter, it had also served as a hospital, a hospice and invariably as a morgue at the same time.  And, over 500 years, many, many, many died there.

We don’t believe in ghosts and we reminded ourselves that as we hurried along the maze of darkened corridors (the creaking horror) trying to find our way back to the light……….

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Editor’s Note: Despite the squirrel’s mad Halloween tale, this is actually a very beautiful and historic 5 star hotel.  If you have the opportunity, stay here.

Bamboo Forest (Arashiyama)


What can you say about bamboo?  Bamboo is just a wonder.  Despite being relatively light weight, it has a greater tensile strength than steel and withstands compression better than concrete!  Not bad at all for something that is considered to be a primitive grass! In China, it is used as scaffolding for building construction.  It is also used as water containers and piping, creating chopsticks, building material, creating activated carbon etc.

But, you know, bamboo is beautiful too.  There is something magical, spiritual almost watching the bamboo sway in the breeze and listening to the sound of the leaves.  All the more so when you find yourself in the middle of an old age bamboo grove.

Welcome to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.  Located to the west of Kyoto, it is one of the top destinations for tourists and locals alike.  Beautiful.  I would easily included it in my Squirrel’s Secret Spot series except for the @#%*!@  crowd of people there!  Definitely recommend visiting off-season, during weekdays and as early as possible.  I went in early December.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Kyoto (Dec 2016) Arashiyama – Photo by LGS
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Kyoto (Dec 2016) Arashiyama – Photo by LGS
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Often said to look like the bamboo forest in the movie, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. (Photo by LGS)

It’s not all bamboo though.  There is also a UNESCO World Heritage Temple (Tenryuji), the scenic Hozu River gorge (go on a boat ride or a scenic train ride or combine the two), a monkey park and other attractions.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)
It’s not all bamboo!  View of the Hozu River (Photo by LGS)

And then, it gets even more excellent!  For about  a week in December, the forest is illuminated and it turns into a wonderland (Arashiyama Hanatoro event).

Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Magical Forest (Photo by LGS)
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Only distraction is the light of everyone’s handphones! (Photo by LGS)
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Another world. (Photo by LGS)
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Slow walk to Hozu River (Photo by LGS)
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Hozu River near Togetsukyo or ‘Moon Crossing’ bridge. (Photo by LGS)

All that wandering around and gazing at the wonderful sights will leave you famished.  Make a pit stop and refuel at one of the many restaurants, tea houses, food kiosks found all along the access to the forest from the railway station.  I am sure that its all good but I want to make a mention about this stall that makes yuba donuts from scratch.  Familiar yet different and tummy warming.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Yuba (skimmed soyabean skin) – Photo by LGS
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Yuba made into donuts. Delicious. (Photo by LGS)

I loved this place so much.  I will be back!

 

 

Golden Pavilion (Kyoto)


My very first trip to Japan was many, many years ago.  I was there on work assignment to attend a meeting of conservationists.  It was a great opportunity to discover this singularly unique land and culture.  But at that time, the cost of living in Japan was probably the highest in the world.  Furthermore, I had only been working for a couple of years and I soon found out that I could barely afford more than a meal of instant noodles.  I certainly could not afford to make the train trip from Tokyo to Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto.  It was disappointing to be so close but…….no.

Then in December last year, I finally got to scratch my travel itch by going to Kyoto (only some 20 years late).  Over the next couple of weeks, I would like to share some highlights of my trip.

Let me start it off with the stunningly, radiant vision which is Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)

This beautiful site dates from the 14th century but the pavilion had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1950.  There is a saying that “all that glimmers is not gold”.  However, in this case, it is! The structure is covered in a thin layer of gold leaf.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)

We went on a cold December day but the sun came out from behind the clouds and the pavilion seemed to be radiating rays of light.  Definitely go when it is sunny for full effect.

I am usually not a fan of ostentatious, gaudy and self indulgent architecture but in this case, it works!  The pavilion seemed to naturally belong amongst the tranquillity of the reflecting pond and zen-like gardens.  The heron seemed to think so too.  Can you see him in the foreground of the picture above?

Kyoto (Dec 2016)

There was of course a whole gaggle of tourists on that day as well as a number of school groups making a nuisance of themselves.  But the magic of the place was still able to give inner peace.  If you do plan to visit though, try going on a weekday and as early as possible to avoid the crowd.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)

This was the first time I had ever seen anybody sweeping the moss!  There were a lot of beautiful landscapes in the temple garden with water and moss which as you can see here was lovingly maintained.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)

One can follow the trail up the hill behind the Golden Pavilion and look back down on the pavilion, the pond and the gardens.  There you will find a number of viewing points, a shrine and the unavoidable gift shop.  You might also find this charming lady tending to the moss with the pavilion in the background.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)

Another gem is this tea garden located in amongst the trees.  A great place to meditate on the wonders of a warm cup of tea on a cold day.  I actually did not stop here for tea but went back to the entrance where we could get Japanese soft serve ice cream.  So on that crisp and brisk winter morning, my wife had black sesame and I had green tea ice cream.  Very ying and yang.

More of Kyoto to come.  Watch this space!

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