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January 6, 2015

Cold Curry Cows and Cricket

Filed under: Books,Holidays — scotsabroad @ 8:23 pm


We were not prepared for the weather encountered in Agra, Delhi and Rajasthan. We felt the cold everyday. The classic shot of the Taj Mahal does not show it shrouded in heavy mist. We experienced the mist straight away on our arrival to Delhi. We crawled to Agra through the fog in about five hours following the fluorescent paint on the road. However, the mist took nothing away from the magnificence of the place.


I read Diana and Michael Preston’s delightful book, A teardrop on the Cheek of Time – the story of the Taj Mahal, a few months ago. This was a great potted history of the Moghul empire – and preparation for some of the extraordinary palaces we encountered in the region and the remnants of Moghul opulence we discovered as we drove around the region.


In Agra we also encountered the first of many local school excursions and waves of modern Indian tourists enthusiastically visiting their country’s historical sites. They often brought warmth and colour to some sun-starved places.


Some memorable moments…


Standing at the bottom of the steps of Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate) at Fatehhpur Sikri. This fortified ancient city was magnificent. We walked the courtyard where Akbar is said to have played an ancient version of ludo using colourful slave girls as pieces. And the site of public executions where Akbar’s favourite elephants trampled on convicted criminals.


Drinking creamy lassis in the early morning from a clay cup in Jaipur.




Enjoying some early morning warmth in Jaipur. Stopping to view the outside of the Palace of the Winds. Lucas befriended a snake charmer. Climbing the Iswari Minar Swarga Sai (Heaven Piercing Minaret) above the Tripoli bazaar at sunset. Walking the streets around the City Palace and visiting the extraordinary Jantar Mantar – an observatory built in 1728, with its large sculptures that are incredibly accurate instruments of calculation.


The boys sitting on the wall outside the Sun Gate to the Amber Fort for about an hour watching an unbroken line of painted elephants negotiate the steep ascent into the main courtyard. Tourists are now deposited in the courtyard, replacing the war booty once displayed here to the populace. This was our favourite palace and fort.


Visiting a paper-making factory near Jaipur after an unsuccessful tiger safari in Ranthambhore National Park. Getting a tour of the premises. Sheets of fabric paper hanging to dry from the ceiling. Everything from lightshades to notebooks produced mostly for export.


The highway was the domain of magnificently un-aerodynamic lorries. Tata or Ashok Leyland trucks rumbled across the country many with tasselled and tinselled mirrors. Massive, slow-moving cuboids with rear painted messages such as, Blow Horn and All India Permit.


Lucas delights us, innocently reading aloud another common message on the back of trucks, use diaper at night. After our laughter subsides in the car we get to thinking of the advantages of wearing one while driving in India. No disgusting service stops for a start.



We visited the mighty fort of Mehrangarh as the sun was setting and looked down on the blue city of Jodhpur.



We visited the wonderful old clock tower in the heart of Jodhpur’s Sardar Market. The old mechanical time-piece struck ten as we reached the top.






A stop for lunch (and jewellery shopping) at a 300 year old heritage hotel at Rohet. Bruce Chatwin stayed here when he wrote (bizarrely) his book about the Aborigine people. His book, Songlines, describes the importance of ancient markings and songs to the Aboriginal’s nomadic lifestyle and their ability to travel across vast distances. I read it years ago when we lived in Harrowden Road.


We admired the many Royal Enfield motorcycles on the road. Still produced in India, they may not go fast but they look good and sound menacing.


We visited a showroom in Jaipur and I ended up buying a t-shirt. On the road to Udaipur we stopped at The Motorcycle Temple.


Om Bana Temple was mobbed. A garland-decked Enfield Bullet from the 1980s is seriously worshipped. Om Bana died when his motorbike skidded into a tree. The bike was taken to the local police station but then mysteriously twice made its own way back to the crash site. Travellers along the road also started seeing visions of Om Bana.


Only Lucas was brave enough to accompany me in and have his forehead smeared with a blessing. A cow was chased away as it made a grab for the flower garlands. 


We visited the amazing Jain Temple at Ranakpur. Built in the 15th century from white marble. 1444 individually carved pillars. 


Udaipur’s Lake Pichola. Four years ago there was no lake due to drought. Very touristy but stunning none the less. We sailed to Jagmandir island as we watched locals wash their clothes and perform washing rituals on the steps. We looked on Jagniwas Island. Roger Moore swam here, disguised as a crocodile, in the film Octopussy. Indeed, many hostelries show the movie daily. We explore the City Palace. I pick up an elephant head carving from an artisan outside the palace gates.


Stunning architecture. Detail in everything. Even the glass adornments high up on the top of gates and arches catching the light.





We visited the Monsoon Palace on top of a mountain above Udaipur. The boys oblivious to how high up we were and lack of safety barriers.


On advice we drove to a remote Mewar fort called Kumbhalgarh instead of the bigger Chittorgarh Fortress. Rulers used to retreat here in times of danger. It was only taken once in its entire history and only then by the combined forces of three armies. And they only held onto it for two days. The walls were magnificent, wide enough in some places for eight horses to ride abreast. We walked a small section of the twelve kilometres of wall in the warm afternoon sun.




A clogged street runs up from the Palace gates to the footbridge for Hanuman Ghat in Udaipur. Tourist-tack, tourist cars and beasts of burden vie for space. I’m sure the horns are pitched louder in Udaipur.



On our final morning in Udaipur we squeezed in a cooking class at the Queen’s Café. We shivered in Meenu’s home kitchen. While drinking Chai, we found out about the basic spices and the amounts to use in a curry. Cumin seeds: 2 pinches, mustard  seeds: 2 pinches. Then coriander, red chilli powder, salt, turmeric and garam masala in decreasing amounts of 5,4,3,2,1 pinches.



We… okay, Lucas made pakura, wet and dry masala, chapattis, paratha, poori and naan. We couldn’t really appreciate the food as we had been poisoned the night before in an expensive, dangerous roof-top barbecue restaurant. We certainly were not prepared for all the unwashed fingers in the mix. On the whole the food during our holiday was fine, especially since it was mostly vegetarian. Once our friends asked for mutton at a roadside service restaurant.  We think we got the gist of what the waiter said – something like it wasn’t being served today because the last diner who ate it had got a worm. This was before we ate. Kingfisher beer seemed to kill most bacteria at mealtimes.



Then there was Delhi. We flew to Delhi from Udaipur and stayed at some dodgy bed and breakfast. Freezing and not enough hot water. We welcomed the new year in with a rat in the kitchen and an intruder up at our bedroom window. For our last two nights we decamped to the Holiday Inn. Delhi was cold and dirty and hard to love.

However, we managed to see a fair bit of the city as we zoomed around in auto rickshaws. At other times we braved the underground.



We visited to Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. In our socks, we climbed the filthy steps of the narrow southern minaret for a view of the old city. We stopped outside the Red Fort. We did not go inside. The British had gutted the place after flushing out a last troublesome Mughal emperor in 1857 and upgraded it to an ugly military barracks.


We had an interesting tour of the Sisganj Gurdwara on Chandni Chowk. This Sikh shrine was mobbed. We got to see the community kitchen, providing food for twenty to twenty five thousand devotees, pilgrims, visitors and the hungry each day. Huge cooking pots and chapatti making machines. If you are hungry the last thing on your mind is prayer, explains our guide. We taste the sweet wheat halwa distributed on small foil plates to devotees entering and leaving.


We visited the Qutb Minar Complex. Dominated by the victory tower and minaret built in 1193 to proclaim Muslim supremacy over vanquished Hindu rulers. At the foot stands the first mosque built in India. Built from materials taken from demolishing idolatrous temples, the buildings are carved with recognizable pieces of Hindu and Jain masonry – some quite explicit.


Standing inside the complex is an iron pillar. It is 7 meters high and predates all the surrounding monuments. Originally from a Vishnu temple it might date from around AD 375 to 413. Mystery still surrounds how it was made – scientists can’t work out how the iron, which has not rusted after 1600 years, could be cast with the technology at the time. Still, wouldn’t stand a chance after a few winters in Greenock.


Our final day was spent at the National Museum. Some of the carvings  downstairs (from the Harappan Civilisation?) matched the best we saw in Egypt. The  surviving jewellery from the Moghul Dynasty amazing. Did I see that on the turban of the Khasi of Kalabar (Kenneth Williams) in Carry On Up the Khyber? Sorry.


A sombre visit to Gandhi Smriti. His family house where he spent the last 144 days of his life before being gunned down in the garden. Great man. When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, he replied that it would be a good idea. A flying visit to one more tomb before closing time. We started our time in India with a visit to Akbar’s Mausoleum and end with Humayun’s Tomb. It too alive with green parakeets. Bicycles… dogs…


Cricket. The most popular sport in India. Being played by the young in every conceivable place – mosque ground, parks, streets and in the roundabouts and under flyovers on our way out of Delhi.


India. What a fantastic place. Well, we only saw a bit. Love Rajasthan. Our little, point and shoot, Canon IXUS tried its best. In fact, I think this post includes just about all the pictures it took. Our penultimate foreign holiday. We will remember this one for a long time to come.


August 21, 2014

Nathaniel’s Place

Filed under: Books,Holidays,Indonesia — scotsabroad @ 8:48 pm


Ever changeable transport connections made the Banda Islands an awkward place to reach. But the wonderful week we eventually had on Banda Neira made all the logistics worthwhile. We found an amazing, as yet undeveloped place that brought Giles Milton’s book very much to life. Many people have been asking us for details about getting to the islands so I hope the information included in this blog helps in some way. 


Nutmeg, one of the medieval world’s most expensive commodities was once produced almost exclusively in the Banda Islands. Things started to go wrong for the islands when the Europeans arrived and demanded a trade monopoly. Milton’s book describes the rivalry and hostility between the Dutch and the British at this time. The book makes you want to visit the islands of Rhun and Ai. We were told that we would find discarded cannons lying in the streets. We did. But we found so, so much more.


We booked a Garuda flight from Jakarta to Ambon a while back. Going to the Garuda office and paying with cash at Dharmawangsa Mall got us a special deal. This gave us about a two-week window to hopefully use the Pelni Ferries that stopped at Banda Neira.

The company only publishes it’s timetable a few weeks in advance so we anxiously waited to find out if we could go and for how long. We used the services of Joyce at Morning Star Tours and Travel in Jakarta. ( She kept her eye on the Pelni website and let us know when we could purchase tickets. We had to send her photocopies of our Kitas and she bought the tickets for us. We thankfully bought first class. I suppose you could use any tour operator.

Flying into Ambon on the Saturday, it turned out that we could sail the next evening at approximately 6pm aboard the KM Tidar. Having bought supplies we made our way down to the docks. We were told that the ferry was late and was now due at 8pm. We decided to stay. All around us vendors were selling pieces of matting. People were buying these to sit on. The waiting area and docks outside began to fill up with hundreds, if not thousands, of people.  Eventually the ship sailed into port about three hours late. The crowd swarmed towards the ship as passengers also tried to disembark. I still can’t believe we managed to make our way through this crowd to the gangplank. I hope the picture gives some idea of what we waded through. Not for the fainthearted.


Once on board we discovered the stairwells and corridors were already full of humanity. Stretched out on their matting and corralled within their bags and chattels. If this ship was going down any reported passenger numbers would have been just an estimate. There does not seem to be a maximum capacity for Pelni Ferries.


Stepping over some bodies we were glad to get into our first class cabins just so we could dump the bags, find a space and have some privacy. The cabins stank and we spent the night with the light on as I hit cockroaches with Shona’s Havaianas. Not the most pleasant of cruises for eight hours. The light of day brought a sighting of Banda Neira in the distance and  the ship’s rats up close. We sailed right into Banda Neira. Disembarking was easier. We waved to the remaining passengers on board – many who had found space in the lifeboats. Later, from our guesthouse balcony, we watched the ferry leave after three long horn blasts . It began raining.



We stayed at the Delfika 2 guesthouse down by the town’s public jetty. We had the only two rooms facing the water and use of the balcony and the private jetty. We had a spectacular view of a small volcano called Gunung Api. Clean and very reasonably priced (250k a night for a room with a volcano view) but no toilet roll or hot water. Breakfast was prepared by the housekeeper. They also did a great laundry service. I’ve never had my boxers look so white. Bhari runs both Delfika guesthouses. He doesn’t have great internet connection but he speaks excellent English. He was prompt and helpful with information when I booked. Indeed, he supplied the ferry information and timings before the travel agent.        tel: +62 910 21027

The Delfika 1 is an old Dutch mansion in the town and has a reputation for its café. We used it a few times but were not impressed. Perhaps, because it was Ramadan, the family seemed less than enthusiastic – especially about feeding us during the day. But nothing wrong with the location and the accommodation at Delfika 2. We had the place to ourselves. The other guesthouses are listed below.

First morning, Shona and the boys relaxed in the guesthouse as I went out to explore the town and buy some toilet roll. A quick mango juice at the Nutmeg café and a clamber around the fortress of Benteng Belgica. More cannons lying in the grass. Old colonial mansions left to slowly decay. In some places it felt like I was walking around a historical film set in the rain.


At other times we all walked around the town exploring the old colonial buildings and the older fort of Benteng Nassau.We got into the deserted Istana Mini, the residence for the Banda’s Dutch governors, and found the bust of Dutch King Willem 3 just rusting away quietly in the garden. The house that Hatta lived in when he was exiled to Banda Neira was worth a visit. We got access to the Rumah Budaya Museum which wasn’t great and it was blatantly selling artefacts. We resisted the temptation to buy small cannon-shot and padlocks with the VOP emblem on them.




On our way back to our guesthouse we often passed through the narrow market area to buy fresh fruit and delicious cinnamon snacks. We watched the islanders sell their produce and bring in their nutmeg in plastic bags to sell to one of the several collection centres. The distinct smell of nutmeg hung around the alleyways.



On our second day we chartered a boat to take us to Pulau Ai and Pulau Rhun. An adventurous and rough crossing in parts – being monsoon season. Not much left of the forts on both islands but magnificent old almond trees used to shade the prized plantations of nutmeg. Almost every household has nutmeg and cloves drying in the warm sunshine. The nutmeg is individually harvested by hand when the flesh splits to reveal the red layer below. The outer fruit of the nutmeg is dried for candy and jam making. The remains of the plant’s flower is this red layer within the fruit. When dried this is mace. Then there is the nutmeg itself left at the core, left to dry in its outer shell.


Rhun is a lovely little village, very friendly and colourful. We stumbled up to the site of the ruined fort in the rain and then walked the village that rises quite steeply from the shore.


We swim and snorkel off the island that the English gave to Holland in exchange for Manhattan in 1667. We then beached the boat for lunch – on a beautiful deserted strip of white sand on Pulau Neilaka. We looked back at Rhun while wading in the warm water amazed at the enormous (fossilised?) clam shells – like old open dinosaur eggs.



We also chartered a boat from the public jetty to Banda Besar a couple of times. We asked to be put ashore at Lonthor. This is Besar’s biggest town that steeply rises from the shore. We climbed the extremely long and steep steps that double up as Lonthor’s main street. We walked around the Kelly plantation at the top and then looked for Benteng Hollandia. Nutmeg trees are almost defiantly growing over the entrance. This overgrown fort was shattered by an earthquake in 1743. Great views of Gunung Api.





The boys decided to climb Gunung Api on the Friday morning. Api is 666m high. We were warned it was a steep climb and to take a stick to wave away the spider’s webs across the trail. Also, it was easy to lose your way on the top if the clouds came down. But worst of all was the descent on very loose scree. The last eruption was in 1988. However we had perfect weather. I was impressed with the boy’s climbing. We stopped a few times to empty our water bottles and watch the Tidar leave Banda Neira on its return journey to Ambon.


We walked around the old crater and edged over to the new. There was the distinct smell of sulphur and a few bubbling, steaming crevices. We could feel the heat under our feet. The decent was rough but we made it down. We got delayed at the bottom trying to attract the attention of a boatman across the water. Unfortunately, the mid-day mosques were on maximum volume and our whistles and shouts were drowned out. We sat in a shelter waiting. It was only after I slid off the concrete shelf that we noticed I had been sharing it with a snake.



Once we hired Ojeks to visit a beach on Banda Neira and passed the airstrip. We heard news that subsidised flights from Ambon to Banda Neira were just starting again. Two flights a week on a Thursday and a Monday. Thursday’s inaugural flight had been cancelled and was rescheduled for the Sunday. We knew some people leaving on this flight and decided to wave them off. We thought of our ferry leaving early the next morning. It was the Kelimutu, a smaller, slower, more congested and infested ship than the Tidar the locals said. We decided, having seen the plane land and take off successfully, to try to buy tickets for the Monday flight. A one hour flight to Ambon rather than a ten-hour ferry journey. The ticket office for Aviastar (the new operator) was a lady’s front room near the airport. Tickets were the same price as the ferry. Our only concerns were that the ferry was now leaving at 4am instead of 7:20 am. Also, the World Cup final started at 4:30 am. If the plane didn’t fly the next day we had no way of getting off the island. The ferry would have sailed. If using the ferry, check the Pelni shack to find out if there are any changes to sailing times. Anyway, we gave our first class ferry tickets away to the American brothers and optimistically turned up at the airport for 7:00 am the next day. A siren was sounded and fires were extinguished – and islanders were discouraged from crossing the runway. The plane came into view and landed. The pilots got out, shook hands with everyone, smoked cigarettes and then got ready to leave. We shook hands with the pilots, climbed in and we took off. The views were stunning as we said our farewell to Banda Neira. We landed in Ambon at 9:30 am. Brilliant.


Loved this holiday. Loved Banda Neira. Lovely people. Can still picture the corrugated roofs and brightly painted houses. The smell of paint in the streets as people freshened up their homes for Eid. Huge skies. 


Other Banda Neira guesthouses:

Mutiara Guest House

+ 6281330343377  I wish someone had recommended Abba’s place to us. If money is not an issue (and it is not really that expensive to stay here – 350 000 for a room) this is the only place to be based for comfort, brilliant food and great hospitality. We booked dinner there most nights for 200 000 Rp each. The children were half price. Abba’s wife is a great cook and prepared a fantastic selection of local dishes for us to try – she eventually got a bit stressed trying to cater for this vegetarian. Abba made his money trading in pearls but has a hand in many ventures around town. He is a great entrepreneur and his guesthouse even sells copies of Giles Milton’s book, nutmeg jam, his own postcards and pearl necklaces. A marsupial called a cuscus, unique to the region, visited his garden in the evenings. He hired out good snorkel gear and flippers. I liked Abba and didn’t really mind him taking my money. He was helpful arranging boats and even gave me a lift on his scooter to buy our return air tickets. I would have had a hard time finding the place as it turned out to be a family’s front room. He’s building a new imitation Dutch mansion beside the post office and Benteng Nassau. Can’t beat a bit of nutmeg inspired bling. VOP sells.

Vita Guest House  Cheap at 150k a night for a room. No food but cold beer. Great location on the waterfront tucked in behind the market street. Young caretaker and his wife lovely. I bought my beer here. They also let me and Cairo knock their door at 5am to watch some World Cup games on their small television set. We got to know a fellow Scot from Oban who had been staying there for a month.

Bintang Laut              

Some young American brothers were staying here and a young German couple. Again, down on the waterfront with its own jetty. Looked clean and sold beer. The water below the jetty teeming with life at sunset. We chartered a boat from them to go snorkeling off the lava flow and a boat to try to get to Banda Hatta – the sea conditions were mad after we turned past Besar and the boat began to slam violently into the waves. The boys were genuinely afraid in their fibre-glass coffin so we turned back. We were told the weather had not been good enough and we should not have been told by the guesthouse operator that the trip was possible.  


Being Ramadan the days were quite tough. However, the Nutmeg Café did some good mango juices. We ate lunch at the Delfika twice but both times the food was poor and they definitely do not do the best pancakes in town. If not at the Mutiara we used the Namasawar Restaurant just up from the port. Meals were cooked to order in the family’s kitchen and if they didn’t have enough ingredients family members were dispatched to the market. Clean and cheap but painfully slow. We used them for packed lunches too – 100K for four Nasi Gorengs to go. Snacking, we feasted on peanut and almond brittle, local bananas and cinnamon biscuits.




May 5, 2014

Raffles Rust

Filed under: Books,Jakarta — scotsabroad @ 6:56 am


The name Stamford Raffles is famous for being the founder of a settlement that would become the city-state of Singapore. Hence the iconic hotel bearing his name in Singapore… and also our theatre complex at school.

However, Victoria Glendinning’s blurb, on the back of her biography about Raffles says … the life of the man defies definition: an English adventurer, disobedient employee of the East India Company, utopian imperialist, linguist, zoologist, civil servant and troublesome visionary. He was quite amazing. What he endured and the losses he suffered are unimaginable. He died of apoplexy in 1826. All biographers make it clear that he adored his first wife, who he married in England before sailing to Penang in 1805. Raffles took over the island of Java by force, defeating the Dutch,  in 1811 and became Governor. However, the island was to be unkind to him, as he lost his best friend within days of reaching Batavia – and Olivia died while they lived at Bogor in 1814. That same year he had to leave Java when Britain handed the island back to the newly formed United Kingdom of the Netherlands. We still drive on the left though. Batavia was known as the white man’s graveyard. Distempers were common. The Dutch had built canals that became stagnant and breeding areas for nasty stuff in the heat. They’re still there and they stink. The joke at the time was, if you met a guest for dinner that person would most likely be dead before you met them again. From malaria or dysentery usually, but also typhoid. Unfortunately, some things don’t change, the poor of Jakarta are still suffering from all of these.


We found the graveyard where Olivia Raffles rests at Taman Prasasti. The graveyard is a lovely place just beyond the national museum. The majority of the gravestones in the cemetery are, not suprisingly, Dutch. They begin with the words, Hier Rust… There are a few old cannons and carriages on display at the entrance and an old horse-drawn hearse inside. It took a while to find Olivia’s grave. There is nothing to direct you to the left side of the cemetery by the railings. Cairo spotted it first. Her grave has some ugly concrete bollards around it.


Needless to say the Scots get everywhere. Very close to Olivia’s grave is the chest-tomb of their very dear friend Dr. John Casper Leydon. He seems to have been quite a character and it is said, in love with Olivia. From Teviotdale in the Borders. Not always in good health, Jakarta had him dead in two days. He was friends with Walter Scott back home who wrote and published a poem as a memoir to him:

Quenched in his lamp of varied lore,

That loved the light of song to pour;

A distant and deadly shore

Has Leyden’s cold remains.

Today the weather was hot but we stayed and walked around the graveyard. Some interesting memorials. Ship’s captains and merchants. One large tomb had Dutch writing as well as some unusual text. There was a replica skull on the top of it – impaled on a spearhead. Fallen hunters of head-hunters? A Japanese memorial to their soldiers during WW2. I was wishing for some more references to the East India Company and the Dutch East India Company (VOP) but couldn’t find any. Around the back things were not so tranquil and ordered. There were numerous broken gravestones piled up against a wall. Has the graveyard been desecrated in the past?


We come across the grave of a banker from Broughty Ferry. No change there.

September 6, 2013

Permanent Wave

Filed under: Books,visits — scotsabroad @ 3:47 pm

I can remember where I was as I watched the first news footage of the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. Safe on a treadmill in Fitness First in Inverness. Bizarre, that almost 10 years later we are holidaying in Thailand and on what was one of the worst-hit parts of the Andaman coast.


While staying in Khao Lak in July we searched for the Police Boat memorial. Was this something to do on a rainy day when the sun wasn’t shining? Off the highway and 2km inland sits a beachedpolice boat, a memorial to the power of the waves. The boat was patrolling the waters in front of a resort where a member of the Thai royal family was holidaying. Beside the boat they were beginning to landscape the area and build what looked like a wave-shaped building. We wonder, is this a replica of the memorial at Ban Nam Khem so tourists don’t have to make the journey there? 


We went looking for the main local tsunami memorial on the beach at Ban Nam Khem. It took us a while to drive there after turning off the highway. Built by the Thai army it is (as the Rough Guide says…) an evocative installation. You walk in front of a 4m high concrete wave with a memorial wall showing sun-bleached photographs and plaques of mostly foreign victims. A window has been created in the wave. You look through it and see a fishing boat that was swept inland. The boat miraculously stopped just  short of ploughing through a house. An exhibition of photographs, mainly showing some important Thai and foreign dignitaries who visited the area in the tsunami’s aftermath, are in an unoccupied, stuffy, mosquito-inhabited, soul-less building in the memorial grounds. But there is nothing to suggest or highlight that this village lost half of  its’ four thousand local inhabitants.


I’ve just finished reading Erich Krauss’ book, Wave of Destruction. The book tells of four families from the village of Ban Nam Khan before, during and after the tsunami. The book describes how many of the inhabitants of Nam Khan had been struggling with life well before the wave hit. It also provides an insight into the scale of human generosity, compassion, cruelty and corruption in response to the world’s largest natural disaster in recorded history.


Tourists have returned to this area in large numbers and the construction of new resorts and hotels seems to be endless. Being one of these tourists visiting this quickly revived coastline I must be honest and say that I had forgotten the scale of the disaster; and only later realised that many of the people we came in contact with must have had a story of terror and loss – and scars both physical and emotional. The waves must visit their thoughts every day. What magnificent will power to rebuild and carry on. What incredible resilience from those who survived. I hope I will take a few minutes on Boxing Day this year to remember.

October 1, 2012


Filed under: Books,Indonesia,visits — scotsabroad @ 8:24 pm

In 1883 the original island of Krakatau vaporised into history. Having read Simon Winchester’s book about Krakatau, the children’s book, 101 balloons and watched the film, East of Java, I desperately wanted to see the setting. However, we thought it best to go West.


We had thoughts of doing this trip with friends last year but the weather broke down before we could go. This weekend we ventured out on our own despite a recent eruption earlier this month. The weather proved to be perfect and the sea was calm. Anak Karakatau  (child of Krakatau) emerged from the sea in the 1920s and continues to grow.

We set out for the town of Carita on Friday after school not knowing what we were driving towards. Everything was fine on the Merek Toll Road but as we hit the port town of Clegon, with its constant stream of trucks coming off the ferry from Sumatra, we were reduced to a crawl in the  dust-filled darkness. We began driving through an enormous industrial landscape without any reasonable roads. It took us over two hours to travel the 15 kms to Anyer because of the volume of traffic, road works and incredibly selfish driving. 

Anyer, once a big Dutch port was destroyed by the tidal wave produced in 1883. We drove past the still operational lighthouse dating from 1885 and headed towards the Rakata Hotel at Carita.  Six hours after leaving Jakarta we checked in, to be offered a family room with one double bed. We upgraded to another room, without shower, sink or toilet paper – but two double beds. We couldn’t get anything to eat and didn’t hold out much hope of a good breakfast. We drank Bintang and collapsed. 

Next morning we woke early and drove to a more luxurious hotel for breakfast. To be fair, at the Rakata the beds were clean and it was only $25 for the room. 

We returned to the hotel to meet our guide and the boat that left from Carita beach. For 3 million we had a boat to ourselves with a captain and a mate, drinks and lunch provided. The journey out across the Sunda Strait (about 50 kms) took about 90 minutes.

As we sighted and then approached Krakatau our excitement increased. We passed the real Rakata, a fragment of what is left from the original cataclysm. We landed on the beach of Anak Krakatau and walked up through the tree line towards the first level. Huge, recent expulsions from the volcano have cratered the  dusty-ash slopes. We  came across many scorched trees ignited from the falling debris and hot ash. We touched huge lumps of lava and rock that had been hurled out the volcano, some as big as cars, like black lumps of dough from a giant bread maker. A hot 40 minute climb allowed us to see a recent lava flow, taste, smell and spit out the sulphurous fumes. A film set from Blake’s Seven.

The recent lava flow descended right down to the sea, still smoking and giving off tremendous heat, while turning the water a sulphurous yellow. We descended covered in dust, the boys running down the slope. At the bottom Lucas turns back to meet us… and thanks us for a brilliant trip.

We then sailed right around Anak Krakatau and landed on the beach of Rakata. We eat cold Nasi Goreng with a cold fried egg out of styrofoam boxes – delicious. A cut melon is magically produced from the boat. The remaining prawn crackers were crumbled and used to entice the fish as the boys snorkel off the beach.  We headed back to Carita and arrived at the beach about 3pm. Instead of facing another night at the Rakata we checked out and drove home, this time across West Java, avoiding Clegon, towards Pandeglang. Brilliant.  

PS Today (Tuesday) the weather broke.

February 11, 2011

How the Mighty Fall

Filed under: Books,visits — scotsabroad @ 6:58 pm

Before the Egyptian people’s demonstrations against President Mubarak started,  I got the opportunity to look for the pieces of a few (more ancient) fallen idols and some historical graffiti. I have just finished reading a brilliant book written by Stanley Mayes in 1959 all about Giovanni Belzoni – the circus strongman who discovered Egypt’s treasures in the early 1800s. Belzoni was an Italian who moved to London due to Napoleon and was able to use his great size to gain work in theatres as an actor and with shows-of-strength. There is record of him touring Scotland and getting a hard time from a Glasgow audience for not being affectionate enough to his on-stage mother in a scene – his mother being played by a very bad-tempered, but very real, bear. While in England he became interested in water pyrotechnics and invented his own hydraulic machine. He was convinced his machine for pumping water was much more efficient than those used abroad and set out to convince those of influence. He travelled eventually to Cairo and met an agent of Muhammad Ali, Pasha of Egypt. He was allowed an audience and an opportunity to demonstrate his machine but the Pasha was not interested. Belzoni then met up with the new British Consul General in Cairo, Henry Salt. They decided that there was money to be made from gathering artifacts from ancient Egypt on behalf of the British Museum.


Circumstances last month, a job interview and a marathon, allowed me to follow in the footsteps of the Great Belzoni.


The head of Thothmes 3 in the British Museum was taken from the Ramesseum where the body still rests. While in the museum, I went looking for the colossal granite head of the Young Memnon, brought to London in the early 1800s by Belzoni. Again this was taken from the Ramesseum.

The head and shoulders of the colossus of Ramses 2, toppled and smashed, inspired the English poet Shelley to write Ozymandias. Belzoni had a habit of chiseling his name quite blatantly on many of the temples he visited and on many of the artefacts he discovered. I traced this traveller’s name with my finger on the base, by the left foot, of the colossal seated statue of Amenhetep 3rd  in the British Museum and then just a week later on the walls of the Ramesseum. We are in Glasgow this week and a statue (probably acquired by Belzoni) in the Kelvingrove Museum displays the name Salt.

A significant date today…..

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Egypt. Great history. Great country. Great people. A Great future I hope.

September 18, 2010

Ice Cold in Alex

Filed under: Books,Running — scotsabroad @ 1:04 pm


NCBIS staff, parents and friends descended on Alexandria this weekend with the purpose of running the corniche.

The theme throughout the build-up and run day was around the 1956 book (and subsequent  film made in 1958) called, Ice Cold in Alex. At the end of the film John Mills downs a beer at the bar slurring the immortal line, ‘worth waiting for’. He and his companions had just crossed the desert from Tobruk to Alexandria in an Austin K2 ambulance avoiding minefields and the Afrika Corp.

Our purpose was to run a half marathon along the corniche finishing at Qaitbay Fort then head for what remains of the original bar used for the film, that has been butchered and relocated within the Cecil Hotel. Eventually 32 runners and walkers accepted the challenge. A challenging 6am start was rewarded with a beautiful sunrise and a fresh cooling breeze. Fantastic run that played with your mind at times. You could see the finish temptingly close but the reality was you had to follow the shoreline. No injuries or bad memories. Photographs in the bar and a meal on the roof of the hotel finished off a satisfying run.


Shona was a great help as were the boys distributing water along the route then handing out medals and run bags. As a family we descended with our friends on the Greek Club on Friday afternoon where the children splashed in the Mediterranean and we began to rehydrate. Lousy food but cheap beer and one of those magical stuck in a time vacuum places, brilliant. I was intending to use the run as part of my training for the Beirut marathon in November but I got a bit carried away and competitive. However, finished feeling strong and in under 1hr 45 minutes, a personal goal for a long time. Fourth again. Despite leaving our passports and my wallet in our hotel room’s safe, we left early this morning to get back to Cairo for Cairo’s first youth soccer league match (and mine as coach) –  this was a very enjoyable weekend with a few (well-earned) ice-cold beers along the way.

May 22, 2010

Writers and Riders

Filed under: Books,Cairo,School — scotsabroad @ 7:28 am

We are very frustrated at the moment not having a telephone connection at home. We can’t blog from home anymore so it has been a few weeks since we last posted. Our relationship with our landlord has become very strained – to the extent that we are moving to a new apartment on the first of July.

The last few weeks have been quite exciting here at school and in Cairo. Through connections in the British Council the school was visited recently by the writer Anthony Horowitz. Cairo devours his books and rereads them on an almost continuous basis.


Last Thursday we all went to hear the dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah at Al Azhar Park. He was charming and extremely entertaining. The Genaina theatre was a fantastic location at the foot of the old walled city. We all sat outdoors in the returning warmth, a packed audience enjoying the poetry and politics. Lucas loved his turkey poem.

The day after it was another late night as we all went to Giza to see the Red Bull X Fighters perform in front of The Sphinx. Not something we would normally make a point of going to see but the location was different and the tickets quite reasonable. Real showmanship from these gymnasts on motorbikes. Incredible stunts performed to loud music. I don’t know how long this link will last so  Click here  I didn’t take my camera so the pictures are borrowed from the showing a One Hand Indy and a Double Hart Attack Indy! I’m sure we all sat with our mouths open for most of the night. The highlight was a performance called the gravy train where the riders who had failed to make the final simultaneously jumped from one side of the arena to the other. Made the final a bit of an anti-climax.

The boys post:

I was part of the  committee chosen to speak to Anthony Horowitz. He asked us questions to find out what life in an International School in Cairo is like, for his next book. This book is going to be set in Egypt with Alex Rider at school in Cairo. He signed Snakehead for me. Anthony Horowitz said his favourite Alex Rider book was the first one, Stormbreaker.  (Cairo)

The motorbikes were awesome. They did tricks. One of them went up in the air and flipped. The track was small. The best bit was when a man went up in the air and put his hands on the saddle and when he lay down on his bike. They showed us the riders on camels at the start. It was funny. (Lucas)

March 20, 2009

Security at the Khan

Filed under: Books,Cairo,Merchandise,politics — scotsabroad @ 7:47 pm


We all ventured down to the Khan El-Khalili today. We didn’t know what to expect following the bombing outside the Mosque of al-Husayn last month. Was the car park we use still there? There did seem to be tighter security all round but the bazaar was busy with locals and tourists alike. Shona was down to renew her jewellery making supplies while Cairo bought an old French coin and Lucas was content bargaining for an old key. On the way back to the car on the busy  pavement  we spotted a street vendor selling these toy soldiers.  It made me remember a wonderful description from Nabil Shawkat’s book (a collection of his newspaper articles) called Breakfast with Infidels. He and his companions are heading out for dinner in Mohandisin, a congested suburb of Cairo.


Soon, we find ourselves trampling over American soldiers. They are doing ditch training on the sidewalk, crawling on their bellies and firing away. They wear very small fatigues, because they are very small soldiers, and plastic. I want to buy one for my niece, but one companion protests. Why propagate violence? I promise to hand over the soldier to my niece with an illustrated copy of the Geneva conventions. And since they are not strictly soldiers, only enemy combatants moonlighting in foreign streets, the conventions, I can tell my niece, are to be used sparingly, like dusty umbrellas on a rainy summer day.

We also did not want to propagate violence and walked on without buying one. Let us hope Cairo remains at peace and conventions (and indeed human rights) are not used sparingly.

May 24, 2008

The Yacoubian Building

Filed under: Books,Cairo — scotsabroad @ 3:21 pm


Downtown Cairo is not an area we have walked much since we arrived in the city so on Friday we decided to spend some time exploring the streets. We have often been stuck in horrendous traffic in central Cairo but yesterday, being early Friday morning, it was bizarre to find the streets eerily quiet; like a setting from a John Wyndham novel. Coincidentally, Alaa Al Aswany used a building on Talaat Harb St. as inspiration for his novel, The Yacoubian Building, and this was one of the landmarks we had come to find. A couple of planned cafe-stops were added incentives to Shona and the boys. We walked from the Metro station to Talaat Harb. The streets and many of the buildings go back to the 1860s when Ismail had the area rebuilt in the style of New Paris. If you look hard enough (often upwards) you can imagine how elegant the area looked. Groppi’s is a famous coffee house on Midan Talaat Harb where the Free Officers (Nasser et-al) supposedly plotted against the monarchy. It is one of those cavernous places that is living on past glories but doesn’t have a clue what to do at the moment. Great facade but we didn’t stay. Cafe Riche also claims to have stimulated the revolutionaries and also helped kick-start Umm Kalthoum’s singing career. It was shut. We ended up in another restaurant called Felfela that was a wee oasis (it serves beer) with a few fish tanks to amuse the boys. 

Layout 1

The Yacoubian Building is not yet a prominent landmark for tourists and we took a while to find No. 34 on Talaat Harb. There is no sign at the entrance. I ventured inside to see a most magnificent old lift. I asked the doorman if I could photograph it and he refused. We all went back in some minutes later and the lift had gone but so had the doorman. Shona noticed the name inside the entrance that merited a quick photograph before leaving hastily. It is no surprise, being in this great city, to notice the cobwebs and dust accumulating on such a literary landmark. If you’ve not read the book it is worth a read, as is his most recent novel set in Chicago. Aswany is still a practicing dentist in Cairo which makes me wonder about the last time we all had a check-up.

It has been quite a busy week for the boys and the school. On Wednesday Cairo had his Sports Day. He won lots of points for his house Fire. Lucas had an Egyptian day on Thursday and went to school dressed in his galabeya. The nursery sampled Egyptian food.  The same day I took my Year 1s to the Modern Art Gallery; it turned out to be fabulous. Just enough, not cluttered with sculpture and pictures that stimulated the children’s inference skills. I have got the next art lesson sorted (see painting below) but also children now very much up for creating sculpture of their own.

Then it was Family Day at NCBIS yesterday from 4 -8 pm. Shona and I were in charge of the Water slide. The boys had a great time on campus mostly unsupervised! Lucas is at a birthday party today and Cairo cycled to Katameya with me for a swim. I managed a run in the Wadi yesterday as well. The only negative is the sudden emergence of cockroaches. I killed a monster last night in a colleague’s flat and there were a couple this morning dying on their backs downstairs in our villa. We spray regularly.



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