I have all but lost my way lugging my worldly belongings to the Mosaic Home Hostel by Google map when Jessica calls me on Whats App. I tell her my location – a quiet restaurant with a bar and half its tables and chairs outdoor under an awning.
We order a lunch to share of roast wild boar with potatoes. Jessica bought presents for me and the family. She gives me a wonderful surprise. Her gift for me is an expensive book. One that we saw last night in the bookshop at Skanderbeg Square. It is a book about Enver Hoxha – the communist dictator who ruled Albania and locked her people away from the rest of the world for 40 odd years.
And once again Albania cowered in a hut
In her dark mythological nights
And on the strings of a lute strove to express something
Of her incomprehensible soul,
Of the inner voices
That echoed mutely from the depths of the epic earth.
She strove to express something
But what could three strings
Beneath five fingers trembling with hunger express?
It would have taken hundreds of miles of strings
And millions of fingers
To express the soul of Albania!
Ismail Kadare, “What are these Mountains thinking About”
Of all the countries in Europe, including feudal statelets known by their postage stamps and large new nations that arose from the collapse of Communism, none is as mystifying and hard to get your head around as Albania.
On my first visit, to the southern city of Sarande sixteen years ago by boat from Corfu, I was warned that Albania was a dangerous place full of criminals and crazy people. Today although Albania’s fortune and standing have vastly improved, its oddball image remains tangled up with its lingering badass reputation
Everything about Albania marks it out as an oddity. It is Europe’s only officially atheist, muslim majority, ex-socialist, now staunchly pro-American country which once only friend and close ally was Mao Tse Tung’s China. Albanians claim that they are the oldest people in the region who are the direct descendants of the first humans in the Balkans. Their language is obscure and fabulously unique being the sole member of an isolated branch of the Indo-Aryan family that has survived the influence and onslaught of Greek, Latin, and Slavic.
Jessica’s family comes from Kukës over the mountains in the country’s northeast. Home for them is now Tirana – a city where she was born and brought up. Jessica sacrifices time to show me her city; supplementing my bookish knowledge with stories about her impossibly interesting but complex country.
Tribal geography, blood honour coupled with centuries of subjugation, neglect and misrule have gone into creating today’s Albania : a marginal and poor land that is disproportionately abundant, welcoming and generous in human spirit and possibility.
My three nights in Tirana had been tantalisingly short – barely sufficient time to scratch beneath the city’s surface to uncover its hidden past and overt idiosyncrasies. But I am closer now to understanding the true meaning of Buk’ e krip’ e zemër (bread, salt and our hearts) – the old Albanian offering to any guest who comes purely and in peace.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXTS COPYRIGHT KERK BOON LENG ALL RIGHTS RESERVED FEBRUARY 2022.
Bang Bang! My talkative driver suddenly sounded out, gesturing his finger gun at an unremarkable bridge in the dark across the road on the right hand side of our Mercedes Benz taxi. We were getting to my hotel in the Austro-Hungarian city of Sarajevo at night time, just a minute or so before approaching the narrowing streets of its sixteenth century oriental Ottoman quarter called Baščaršija.
For most of the people in the West, Sarajevo is something of a civilisational outlier – a product of 400 years of conquest of their Christian continent by an alien culture and religion. A hybrid city that is essentially but inadequately European. I saw third world highways and vaguely Middle Eastern shopfronts in their ambience and signage blend smoothly with stately Habsburg edifices. Saudi-built shopping mall and buildings in glass and concrete with giant LED screens juxtaposed with drab and bomb damaged Yugoslav communist era apartments. Catholic cathedrals and Orthodox churches that had stood for centuries next to and opposite neon-lit mosques with tall sharp minarets.
My mind quickly recalibrated to this change in mood, environment and scenery. I had just flown in from Ukraine with barely an hour of breath-catching transit through Istanbul’s large and confusing airport.
I was charged 20 Euro for the 10 km trip from the airport. Fleeced but happy that I arrived, I was literally a stone’s throw away from Sebilj -the wooden cylindrically-shaped Ottoman fountain that is the postcard symbol of Sarajevo. My lodging, Hotel Villa Orient was a two-storey mansion defined by soft yellow tavern lights with a pizza restaurant next door and a quiet traditional kafana beside the entrance. It was a view that reminded me of a homely chalet of a ski resort. Sarajevo lies around 2,000 feet above sea level – defended and surrounded by the mountains of West Balkans known by an appropriate and evocative name – the Dinaric Alps.
It was cold but not unpleasant, with lumps of snow lingering on roofs and pavements like leftover unkneaded flour on a kitchen table. I stood with my luggage for a while at the roadside for a last cigarette, wondering if the nice kind girl, Lejla who had helped me just now on the phone was still on duty at the reception; and whether it was destiny or decision that had brought me here.
No sooner had I arrived there in early January this year than I fell head over heels for Kiev. The embassy had issued my visa late, just two days before my flight. I missed the Orthodox Christmas Eve and Day celebration in Kiev by a couple of days according to the Julian Calender but the carols and yuletide mood would go on until the end of the month past Epiphany.
Kiev is a sizeable metropolis. With 3 million inhabitants it is one of the ten largest cities in Europe. Beneath its 18th and 19th century exterior and Soviet era appearance, Kiev is actually a very ancient place. Its founding as a riverine settlement by roaming northerly tribes is shrouded in slavic legends and nationalistic myths but its verifiable history dates back more than a thousand six hundred years. Called the ”Mother City of Rus”, Kiev is where it all started – the site where Russia was born eleven centuries ago .
My friend Tatiana warned me about Kiev’s airport touts so I rehearse my basic Russian and haul my luggage up the airport marshrutka (taxi bus) number 322. I pay the 100 Hrivna fare to the driver, a good-natured and pleasant man about sixty and he issues me an old-fashioned printed ticket. We wait for about 30 minutes for more passengers then depart on the one-hour long journey from Boryspil on the left bank to the city centre on the right crossing one of the bridges over the Dnieper.
Along the way, tall, bare and twiggy roadside trees intersperse with housing and commercial blocks alternate and dominate the view in various shades of grey.
We are disgorged finally at a stop that looks like a back entrance to a large station. Golden domes of a new cathedral glisten in the frosty sunlight, snowflakes fall sharply on naked faces and commuters wrapped up in overcoats and hats stand waiting, stamping their boots in the cold.
I was exhilarated and shivering. Like the feeling after downing a glass of fine frosted vodka – instant, intense and head swirlingly unforgettable.
Roughly around the time of Chinese New Year this year, Jakarta leapt to my mind spontaneously. The spectre of a gargantuan city that is a poster child for cataclysmic third world dysfunction played continuously in my head like a kafkaesque daydream.
I needed an excuse to go to Jakarta for a weekend, to get it out of my system. I reasoned that I could take a closer look at this city which author and film-maker Andre Vltchek describes as “the most depressing city on earth” to try to imagine how life must be for majority of its estimated 11 million inhabitants who have to eke out a daily existence in its desperate, polluted and collapsing urban environment. **
[ ** Jakarta combined with its satellite cities Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi known by its threat-sounding acronym ‘Jabodetabek’ has a population of more than 32 million making the city the second largest in the world after Tokyo]
The ideal time to go was I reckoned between January and March – the season of lead-coloured skies and unrelenting rainfall, when the rivers, canals and drains in Jakarta bloat and often overflow. I also needed to make this trip before the coronavirus closes in, shutting off as it has done now all air travel and borders.
The old Chinese area of Glodok is not far from my hotel which is located close to the corner of Jalan Gajah Mada – 2.2 km away according to Waze. I decided to walk there under a looming sky after a hearty buffet breakfast. Keeping to a northerly direction on the sidewalk, I looped gingerly around puddles, hawker carts, and helmeted Gojek delivery boys on their shiny scooters; now and then darting between shop awnings, dripping tree canopies and tarpaulin banners to avoid the rain.
History books recount the city’s origin as the Hindu-Buddhist port of Sunda Kelapa. To its harbour ships arrived from near and far to trade including during the 16th century fleets from Portugal that were fitted with cannons and guns. To stop the Christian Portuguese from gaining a foothold in Java, Fatahillah a part-Arab military commander sent by neighbouring Demak burned and captured Sunda Kelapa. The town was renamed Jayakarta and became part of the Banten Sultanate.
Despite the official commemoration of Fatahillah’s victory on 22 June 1527 as the city’s birth date, in truth it is to the Dutch that Jakarta to this day still owes most of its history, architecture and cultural melange.
In 1619 the ambitious Dutch governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen seized Jayakarta from its muslim rulers. He razed the town to the ground, evicted its native inhabitants and built on the site a capital and home port for the Dutch East India Company or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC).
The new harbour’s strategic location on the northern coast of Java between South China Sea and the Indian Ocean would help the Netherlands gain a dominant position in the valuable Indies trade.
Coen wanted to call the settlement Nieuw Hoorn after his birthplace. But the Board of VOC who represented powerful shareholders known as de Heeren XVII (the lords seventeen) vetoed his plan. Instead the Directors decided to name it Batavia after an ancestral Germanic tribe from their boggy windswept estuarine homeland in Europe – Batavieren or Batavi as they were referred to during the Roman period.
The city kept its Dutch-given name for over 320 years until 1942 when the Japanese Imperial Army rolled in during WWII and took over. The lightning speed at which the Japanese went about destroying and dismantling Europe’s empires in the East convinced them of their divine destiny not just to become the new masters of Asia but also its liberators in freeing Asian people from the subservience and mental grip of centuries of white men’s rule.
Japan restored back the name Fatahillah gave to the city in a move to win over the hearts and minds of native Indonesians and in doing so inspire and embolden them to rise up against their former colonial overlords.
All pictures and texts copyright Kerk Boon Leng March 2020
Wifi-ed and waiting without dinner plans at the lobby of the Victory Hotel in Kefamenanu, a major town in inland West Timor, I struck up a conversation with a man I knew was Chinese-Malaysian by the way he spoke Bahasa with the reception. He told me he was in town to mass recruit workers for his oil palm plantations in Sarawak. “What are you doing here?” Mr Hong enquired of me in Mandarin. He said he had never before in his many visits to West Timor spanning over ten years met a person from Malaysia, especially one who was there with no specific reason or mercantile purpose.
Aside from sourcing for discounted labour, he was there also for lizards. Timorese catchers supply him with geckos when they can. These spotty arboreal reptiles with specimens up to a foot long, are sold for boiling with ginseng and herbs into a kind of Chinese witch soup. The geckos (tokek in Indonesian) are now hard to come by because much of their homes in the forests have given way to mining and agriculture.
“I don’t know what brings you here. There are no places to visit or things to do; no nice food, no KTVs or women to enjoy. Last time there were a few places that had ladies from Java but nowadays not anymore” he lamented before excusing himself to go upstairs to his room. A male middle-age outcall masseur the hotel had arranged for him had just checked-in at the front desk.
I had my reasons to be there. October is three-quarter period through the long dry season, a time of thirsty fields and half-empty stomachs in West Timor. Even so fuzzy-haired children in school uniforms and skinny villagers with Afro-Malay faces outside their thatched huts wave to our passing car with welcoming looks of cheerful stoicism in an immense landscape of bereft and desolate beauty.
Timor is an island (almost equal to Taiwan in size) located at the far side of Indonesia, a mere 300-mile hop over a cerulean sea from Australia.
Geographically, it is the most easterly of the Lesser Sundas – a necklace of volcanic islands strung across the eight to nine degrees latitude south of the Equator which begins with Bali to the west. The Indonesians call these parts Nusa Tenggara. Of this group of isles, Timor’s history is the most interesting and complex.
Divided since the early age of the spice trade by vying European empires, the west of the island fell to the Dutch and the east to the Portuguese.
Today West Timor is a part of the Republic of Indonesia; and East Timor, after a torturous and bloody struggle, is now the independent nation of Timor Leste.
The fate and fortune of Timor has been inextricably linked to the aromatic sandalwood tree (Santalum album). In the 14th century Chinese merchants, followed by Arab traders, were lured to Timor by this fragrant and precious commodity.
Not long after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea passage to India by rounding the bottom of Africa, the Portuguese raced to conquer Malacca, expanded to the Moluccas and set up base on the coasts of the Oecusse-Ambeno Kingdom (now the autonomous Timor Leste enclave of Oecusse) making themselves the dominant player in the export of this rare wood, later to be supplanted by the Dutch.
Despite the depletion of its forests by the heedless harvesting of sandalwood and territorial bisection of the island for commerce and Christian conversion, the interior of Timor was not so long ago still a place of petty kings, tribal warriors and betel nut chewing headhunters practising their traditional lifestyles and beliefs .
A British handbook prepared and printed in 1920 by His Majesty’s Foreign Office provided readers living in the early age of motorcars and cameras with a Marco Polo-like description of then Dutch (West) Timor:
“The future of the colony depends entirely upon the successful pacification of the native tribes or ‘kingdoms’. Of these there are about forty, usually in a state of enmity with each other. There are certain number of nominal Christians among the natives, but the bulk of both the Timorese, in the south-west of the island, and the Belonese, in the centre, are pagans, and most of them are dangerous and vindictive savages. The most troublesome people on the island are the black Christians, descendants of Portuguese half-breeds: they are proud, treacherous and cruel. The mountainous interior is not likely to be law-abiding for many years to come. The native hate strangers, and mostly live in small hill kampongs of a dozen huts.
The numerous Rajahs are constantly fighting amongst themselves, and, although most of them are pledged not to buy or sell slaves and to refrain from torturing and mutilating their subjects, such pledges are in most cases unfulfilled. These Rajahs are nearly all blood-thirsty tyrants. Even the tractable Rajah of Kupang claims to be closely related to the crocodiles in Kupang Bay, and till a few years ago virgins used to be flung to them, so that the family ties might be maintained”.
All Photographs and Text Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2019
The English North is in many ways England at its truest. Here in a land of strong tea, strange-sounding dialects and scenic rain-soaked cities a foreign visitor will readily find most of the things that can turn many dye-in-the-wool followers and fans of Great Britain misty-eyed with nostalgia.
I went there for the first time this year, dispatched by a client to hunt for hummus – the humble chickpea spread created centuries ago by the Arabs that has now become, like croissant and curry, part of mainstream British cuisine.
My Yorkshire Journey was made possible by the friendship, generosity and kindness of Simon Philips, an ex-Southerner originally from London. He rose very early in Leeds on a cold Saturday morning in March to pick me up from the airport in Manchester, the North’s leading city located an hour’s drive away on the other side of the Pennines.
All Texts and Photographs Copyright Kerk Boon Leng March 2019
I am reluctantly checking out of your apartment this morning to catch the 10 o’clock bus to Ljubljana. I have enjoyed my three nights stay very much.
Your place is truly an astonishing airbnb property. Everything about it from the white and baby blue furnishings to the soft scent of the face flannels and towels exudes a rare sense of class, passion and thoughtfulness.
The house is nicely located above Hocus Pocus cafe – a local rendezvous where quiet streets intersect next to a small park lined with beautiful bald trees. In the evenings the deflected glow from the cafe downstairs afford the bedroom a feeling of snuggly solitude tempered with a safe dose of drowsy distractions.
Reading your whatsapp text now I realised that there is so much of Zagreb that I missed, for there is far more to Zagreb than I imagined.
Travel Guides unwittingly paint a wrong picture of Zagreb as just another mid-level Mitteleuropa metropolis munificently bequeathed with Austro-Hungarian architecture – a smaller, poorer and duller copy of Vienna that thanks to history is fortuitously situated within the southeastern limits of western Christendom !
Truth is Zagreb as the capital of the recently famous country of Croatia is a well-deserved destination in its own right. Maybe not in the same global league as London, Rome or Paris but definitely worth a 12-hour flight to get there and a stay of four or five nights to soak in the sights and sounds.
Admittedly, I was rather taken with Zagreb. I found the local food agreeable to my Southeast Asian palate, the buildings attractive with more authentic atmosphere compared to Vienna or Prague and the people especially those in the tourist trade kinder and more honest than Budapest.
And Zagreb has the best cafès in Europe in my opinion. They are also the most ideal places to retreat to on a cold February morning. The coffee is always strong, cheap and good. It is served to you while you are comfortably seated, a dark solid wooden table away from a regular patron contemplating on her steaming cup and lighted cigarette to a background of smooth jazz.
Thank you once again for being such a kind host to me.
One day I will return to see the rest of Zagreb and Croatia and if I am lucky to find your apartment available I hope I can stay there again.
All words and pictures Copyright (c) Kerk Boon Leng March 2019
Last year a day before Wesak I went to Dharamsala, a town in the far north of India situated at the foothills of the Himalayas.
Wesak or Buddha Purnima as it is called in the land of his birth commemorates the buddhahood or enlightenment of Siddharta Gautama on a full moon day under a fig tree two thousand five hundred and fifty years ago – almost six centuries before Jesus was born.
Once a domain of the semi-nomadic goat-herding Gaddi tribal people, the area now known as Dharamsala was annexed by the British in 1848. Enchanted by its English weather and scenery, the colonial newcomers constructed a cantonment for their Gurkha soldiers and established headquarters there for the surrounding district of Kangra.
Dharamsala soon developed into a popular hill station, attracting people of position and power including the Viceroy of India, the Earl of Elgin who on a visit in 1863 died of a heart attack while swinging across a river on a rope. He is buried in St John in the Wilderness, a small stone church just outside town.
The name Dharamsala came from a religious term in Sanskrit loosely translated as “sanctuary”. It is an appropriate and prophetic name as Dharamsala has become a shelter of sorts for generations of disquieted humans running away from something somewhere.
The refuge seekers included Raj-era Englishmen escaping from India’s heat; Tibetans from Chinese persecution; post-conscription Israeli youths from troubles and tensions in the Middle East; and legions of spiritual tourists of every nationality from society’s contaminating influence and stress.
Perhaps I too was seeking something, tired and anguished by the condition of my then ailing late father. I was drawn to Dharamsala by stories I had heard and news I had read about the hardships and yearnings of its exiled Tibetan community and by the happy and peaceful teachings of their deeply revered leader Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
I got there just as the sun started to sink slowly behind the stately stands of cedar trees around McLeod Ganj, the town’s upper suburb perched scenically on the slopes of the Dhauladhar Mountains.
With its meditative monasteries, noodle and dumpling shops and high-cheeked sunbronzed faces garbed in maroon robes, McLeod Ganj exudes so much in the manner of Tibet they nostalgically nicknamed it “Little Lhasa”.
It is absolutely a place worth going for a break. Many people get it wrong that there is nothing to see in Brunei. The truth is there is more to Negara Brunei Darussalam than its oil, king and islam.
For a country slightly less than twice the size of Luxembourg with a population of just over 400,000 there are surprisingly interesting things to see and enjoyable experiences to be had in Brunei.
It need not be a boring place at all but visiting the Sultanate of Brunei is a bit like going on a spiritual retreat. You’ve got to let go of all expectations, judgment and even your fear to gain amazing insights. You need to quiet down your mind and abandon your ego and all you think you might know about global travel before this lightly-touristed kingdom and its wondrously kind inhabitants open up their generous hearts to you.
The most unique and under-appreciated attraction in Brunei has got to be its calm, quiet and quirky capital Bandar Seri Begawan (called Brunei Town before 1970) which is home to the largest above-the-water city built with wood in the world.
Over preceding centuries people from near and far had come to know Brunei as a powerful Malay kingdom. Even the name of the island of Borneo came from Brunei.
The earliest detailed description of Brunei was given by an Italian explorer who travelled in Magellan’s ship on the first voyage around the world. His name was Antonio Pigafetta. He was from Venice, a famous city also built on top of the sea.
Pigafetta wrote this in his journal in 1521:
“This city is entirely built on foundations in the salt water, except the houses of the king and some of the princes: it contains twenty-five thousand fires or families.The houses are all of wood, placed on great piles to raise them high up. When the tide rises the women go in boats through the city selling provisions and necessaries. In front of the king’s house there is a wall made of great bricks, with barbicans like forts, upon which were fifty-six bombards of metal, and six of iron. They fired many shots from them during the two days that we passed in the city.
The king to whom we presented ourselves is a Moor, and is named Raja Siripada: he is about forty years of age, and is rather corpulent. No one serves him except ladies who are the daughters of the chiefs. No one speaks to him except by means of the blow-pipe as has been described above. He has ten scribes, who write down his affairs on thin bark of trees, and are called chiritoles. He never goes out of his house except to go hunting.”
Unlike other cities built with oil money such as Qatar, Baku and Astana with their crass consumerism and future-pretending architecture, Bandar Seri Begawan surprises many new visitors with its shabby low-rise, down-to-earth and retro seventies appearance, attitude and ambience.
The city lies along the waters of the Brunei River which spouts from its mouth into a sheltered inlet that opens out to the South China Sea. With about 200,000 people living in its urban precinct and the nearby district of Muara, Bandar Seri Begawan passes off easily as a large town in neighbouring Malaysia except here the streets are free from rubbish, the trees are taller and cars reliably stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings.
Eating and getting around is quite easy and cheap. Mini buses ply between stops around the city on 20 to 30 minutes interval charging a normal fare of B$1.00 each trip including the route that stops at the international airport 6.5 km from downtown Bandar.
For these reasons and more I like Brunei.
All photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2018
Honestly, it is hard to think of a city in the world with a name as sweet-sounding and redolent of a tropical bygone era as Surabaya.
But the origin of the name Surabaya that hints strongly at the bestial instincts of struggle and survival is not quite so romantic. The name, it is said, comes from two words in the local Javanese language. ‘Sura’, meaning a big shark-like fish and ‘boya’, meaning crocodile.
Surabaya is situated on the northeastern coast of Java along a narrow straits facing the island of Madura.
Kali Mas (Golden River) which is a branch of the Brantas River flows through the centre of Surabaya from south to north. Chosen for its location, on the busy sea lanes linking multifarious waypoints in the world’s largest archipelago that is Indonesia, Surabaya has always served as a port.
Surabaya’s seagoing connection goes back more than 600 years when Java was ruled by the mighty Majapahit kings.
Around 1800, about two hundred years after the arrival of their first ships, the Dutch finally gained control of Java. They conquered Java by cunningly playing the island’s local muslim rulers off against each other and destroying those who dared to stand in their way.
True to form, the Dutch in the Age of Imperialism, were cold-hearted, efficient and bent-on-profit administrators. They cared little for the lives (much less the livelihoods) of the Javanese peasants, chieftains and noblemen over whom they governed.
Through a colonial policy introduced in 1830 known as Cultuurstelsel or Cultivation System the Dutch compelled their Javanese subjects to plant commercial crops like indigo, coffee and sugar instead of rice. Such export orientated policy brought huge profits to the colonial government, as well as to their middlemen and merchants but led to widespread misery, starvation and sickness among the population living in the coastal and central regions of Java.
Indonesia was then called ‘Hindia Belanda’ or the Dutch East Indies and Surabaya grew to become its foremost city and most important port. But by the time of the economic depression of the 1930s Surabaya’s fortune was on its way down and its position as main city had been overtaken by Jakarta (then Batavia)
Surabaya is still today Indonesia’s second biggest city, a vibrant centre of commerce, industry and an important travel hub. Many travellers fly into Surabaya to get to somewhere else. Some of them may choose to stay a night to take in a handful of sights but Surabaya is really not yet a traveller hotspot especially for texting teenagers or tourists chasing big-ticket attractions.
For visitors looking for vestiges of the Dutch East Indies in the delapidated doorways and grunge-covered gables of a nineteenth century colonial city separated into European, Chinese, Arab and native quarters, the old city of Surabaya is an absorbing place. It is also a veritable walk-through history book and street photographers’ delight.
All text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng April 2018