love in the time of grapes

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We reached Lungesti on a steely grey morning after a short ride from Barlad on the local train. Alex promised his mum and dad who had stayed over in their weekend farm we would spend the day helping them with grape picking.

Alex’s family on his mother’s side comes from this village. Tincuta, Alex’s mother, was born and raised here until she moved to the city to work and marry. Some of their relatives still lived in this rural settlement of around 3,000 people surrounded by timeless but unspectacular countryside.

This is the part of Romania called Moldavia (culturally and historically similar to Moldova the country on the other side of the Prut – the river that marks the international boundary between the two). It is the region that produces a third of Romania’s wines.

Our pre-planned day of labour turned out to be one of mostly leisure, laughter and home made liqueur.

The gentle but persistent rain kept us away from the vines after our lunch of boiled delta fish dipped in horseradish sauce, soup with herbs, cabbage salad and pig brain omelette eaten with mamaliga.

Instead of picking fruits I walked with Alex to a house of a relative over the hill at the back to help strengthen family bonds and drink more distilled spirits.

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city of ascending dragon

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I dodged fried dough sellers, shoeshiners and swarms of scooters before perching myself on a low plastic stool for a tall glass of ca phe da. Hanoi’s old city still gives me a child in a toyshop adrenaline rush like no other urban site in Asia except maybe night time in Tokyo’s Shibuya and Kolkata at any hour.

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Hanoi’s ancient mercantile quarter is an evocative place to wander around. It is half Paris meet Canton in the Tropics; half Communist meets Capitalist and wholly mad on a Saturday night with chock-full of humanity pouring into its narrow streets as if fleeing an advancing molten lava after a soccer game.

The old city area of Hanoi is I think the last place remaining in the world to see a classical oriental city that is little changed from the past century and miraculously undamaged by the Vietnam/American War 40 years ago. Its labyrinthine streets of narrow shops are interspersed with temples and sectionalised by guilds and trades. Here one can still see and hear the sights and sounds of street traders, vendors on bicycles and on foot carrying on poles their wares in woven baskets and pavement of people slurping hot rice noodles and drinking coffee dolloped with condensed milk.

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Hanoi is by the standards of emerging Asia a beautiful and atmospheric city. It is situated on the watery banks of the Red River about 100 km from its mouth at the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam’s North.  It is a locality steep in history with records of human settlements in and around the present city going back at least 3,000 years.

In 1010 the first Vietnamese king of the Ly Dynasty moved his base here . He named his new capital city Thang Long or Ascending Dragon. Hanoi is still poetically known by this name to this day.

Although Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam for most of the country’s existence as a political entity, it was for over a thousand years up until the 10 th century, along with most of northern Vietnam, ruled on and off and marginally as part of China.

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bucharest

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If Bucharest were located anywhere in the world but Europe, I am sure planeloads of people would travel all the way there to see it and find reasons to describe it as interesting, grand and maybe beautiful.

Many would no doubt delight in its hectares of parklands and lakes and architecture that is an eclectic mix of styles, madness and concrete.

But Bucharest belongs these days in Europe. As a poor new member of an elite club in a continent brimming with magnificent historic cities, it is seldom given the respect and praise it deserves.

In fact, Romanians have grown used to their capital city being from time to time mistaken for a famous Hungarian city further up the Danube and overlooked by tourists eagerly rushing to Transylvania to see Dracula and his doubtful castle.

Most tourists spend hardly any time in Bucharest fearing that the city is destitute, dangerous or too drab a place to linger.

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Quite remarkable for a people with a not so distant memory of deprivation, schizophrenia and collective trauma, Romanians especially the citizens of Bucharest are an honest, hardy and heartwarming lot with a noticeable fondness for large canines.

Bucharest’s love affair with animals especially dogs may be linked to the city’s legendary founding by a shepherd named Bucur. The city’s streets had a reputation for its stray dogs that made rare front news for biting their victim occasionally to death. Even so, all the dogs I saw there were happy hounds either tugging on a leash or busy retrieving a stick in the park.

Bucharest ( population 2 million ) is the biggest city in the formerly communist part of Europe, an area roughly between Berlin and Istanbul, known at one time as the Eastern Bloc.

In greatness size matters but what makes Bucharest a great European metropolis is its raw spirit and authentic atmosphere.

It is self-deprecating but hopeful. It is a real place where people have faces, food tastes like it should and young people eloquently share their views with total strangers in flawless English. It is a city that doesn’t see the need to put on any make up for visitors.

For this reason Bucharest is less a city to sightsee than one to fall seriously in love with and to return to even during its cold snowy winters.

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2014

priponesti

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A few hours of sleep after we arrived by train in Barlad we put on old overalls and went with Alex’s parents to Priponesti. It is a village 24 km to the south west where the family keeps a small vineyard  for both commerce and consumption. It was wine harvesting time. The mainly white and some red grapes must be hand picked before rain, cold and frost arrive later in the month.

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tiraspol

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Intriguingly, one of the top tourist attractions in Moldova is not a place inside Moldova.

Transnistria or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is a confetti strip of Russian-speaking territory on the left side of the Dniester River that declared itself independent in 1992 after fighting a brief but bloody war to break off from Moldova.

No country has so far recognized Transnistria as a sovereign nation, not even Russia which underwrites the territory’s de facto status by protecting it with its army and supplying it with money and free gas.

Today all visitors (even Moldovans) need to have a passport and fill out a simple form at the border to get into Transnistria. No entry stamp or visa is needed nor given as under international law and treaties, Transnistria does not exist.

Even so, the country has its own currency, president, army and a fiery flag.

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Although the country occupies the region in Moldova where historically factories and industries are located, it now survives mainly by selling cognac, smuggling and on Russia’s goodwill.

Transnistria’s existence as a political terra nullius surrounded by unfriendly neighbours has allowed organised crime to flourish within its borders.

Many Moldavians blame Transnistrians for the bad publicity their country is getting overseas. They say that most of the smuggling of weapons and women people say are coming out of Moldova happen in fact in Transnistria.

On their part, Transnistrians (almost in equal numbers Russians, Ukrainians and ethnic Moldavians), are aghast at the prospect of being swallowed up by Romania as part of Moldova and have clung on to the security and nostalgia of the old soviet system. They held a referendum in 2006 in which they voted overwhelmingly (98%) to join Russia.

Not having visited Russia before and excited to visit what I had read on the Internet is the world’s last slice of the USSR, I half-expected to find in the capital Tiraspol, matryoshka-like matrons forming queues to buy bread, goose-stepping soldiers in huge grey public squares and rusting hammer and sickle signs everywhere.

Instead when Eugeniu drove me across from Chisinau in a red rented Chinese-made sedan on a warm and sunny afternoon a month ago, I found a surprisingly pleasant and ordinary place. Tiraspol looked to me, a spic, span and spacious place perhaps more like a New Zealand town on Boxing Day than the capital of a renegade Soviet-styled republic

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng Oct 2014

moldova

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For a person who has just turned fifty and wishes to see a bit of Europe again beyond cobbled stoned cities, cheese shops and castles, Moldova can be a dream destination.

To begin with, you get to experience a rare part of Europe with no immigrants and very few tourists – close to the kind of feeling I imagine early Asian or African visitors would have felt arriving in places like Birmingham, Berlin or Brussels in the 1940s.

Part of the allure is that not many people know anything about Moldova. There is no history or guide book written on just this country alone that I know of. My friend Jerry thought it was a country in Africa when I told him I was going there. But Moldova is actually located deep in Eastern Europe, to the east of Romania landlocked away by Ukraine from Russia and the Black Sea.

Due to its location in the western end of the great steppes and plains of Eurasia (known as Scythia in 11th century BC to 2nd century AD), the region that became Moldova was settled for hundreds of years by migrating tribesmen, peasants, armies and exiles from all corners including people with blue eyes and fair hair from the north and west , olive skin and aquiline noses from the south and also black hair and high cheekbones from the east.

A land of sun-kissed fields and black chernozem soil lying between the Rivers Prut and Dniestr known as Bessarabia, Moldova has always remained as someone else’s back garden: peripheral, exploited and forever at empire’s edge.

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From the later half of the 14th century onwards it gradually became part of Moldavia, one of three principalities which together with Wallachia and Transylvania historically make up Romania.

Bessarabia was split up and ruled intermittently as vassal provinces of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-16 th century until 1812, when the defeated Turks formally signed the Treaty of Bucharest on 28 May giving the territory to Russia as a war trophy to be appended to its expanding empire.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and under pressure from the Romanian Army who had been invited in to maintain order, Bessarabia swiftly declares its independence and in 1918 entered into a political union with Romania on condition of territorial autonomy.

During WW II following the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact between Hitler and Stalin, the Soviet Union on 28 June 1940 seized Bessarabia from Romania to create the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 Moldova became an independent country for the first time.

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Today Moldova is a nation seemingly unsure of itself and one with an image crisis partly of its own making.

Just while Moldova is often prefaced in western news as Europe’s poorest country, ordinary westerners continue to spread the image of the country as backward, crime infested and populated by beautiful women eager to marry rich foreigners or be smuggled abroad to work as prostitutes. Such simplistic depictions betray Europe’s dangerous ignorance about its own past and are clearly wrong.

Despite the unflattering statistics about low per capita income and human development, the country has a well-educated and culturally sophisticated population of 4 million that speak both Slavic and Latin-based languages, a nice capital city with good roads lined with handsome deciduous trees, affordable food that are grown from the earth including apples with a crunch and taste amazingly better than any I have ever eaten.

Moldova is rich in agriculture and human potentials. It is a country that is better than what outsiders and tragically even its own citizens believe. In my last evening in Chisinau as I stood with my new friend Eugene drinking coffee and eating his favourite hot dog in front of the city’s French School I felt a strange reluctance to leave this quiet, humbling and slightly surreal country.

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All images Copyright Kerk Boon Leng Oct 2014

hua hin

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Thailand on the map is shaped like the head of an asiatic elephant with its trunk extending southwards to form the Malay Peninsula. On jumbo’s tusks you will find Hua Hin, a coastal town widely known as the beach resort of Thai kings and these days also one of Asia’s rising holiday hotspots.

Hua Hin gets the year’s nicest weather from around mid December to early February when dry northeasterly winds blow over from China cooling down Thailand’s central plains. At this time Hua Hin and the nearby beach of Cha-Am look half-populated by Europeans. The seasonal residents can be seen shopping for groceries at supermarkets or else frolicking on warm soft sand or dining al fresco on fresh seafood with friends.

Property developers have taken advantage of this influx with Russians now making up quite many of the town’s new apartment buyers. Asian visitors too have discovered the simple joys of Hua Hin. Many Taiwanese, Chinese and Malaysians follow the rich people of Bangkok in making the three-hour road trip south to shop at the factory outlets and spend time with loved ones in a beach resort wholesomely free of girlie bars and other Pattaya-styled entertainments.

How Hua Hin became a royal beach town is partly a result of Thailand’s quest at the turn of the 20th century to modernize itself to avert being swallowed up by marauding western powers.

To secure its independence, Siam (Thailand’s former name) on 10 March 1909 signed the Anglo-Siamese Treaty (aka the Treaty of Bangkok) with Great Britain, then the most powerful country in the world, giving away Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu for inclusion into British Malaya. The treaty also gave Britain the exclusive right to finance and control a railway linking Bangkok with Singapore.

The Straits Times on 28 October 1909 reported:

“ The construction of the 600 to 700 miles of railway that has been provided for in the treaty will be begun at once… This work will probably extend through several years and will be open to competent men of all nationalities. The climate is humid and the heat tropical, but the line runs its entire length along the sea-coast, and there is no reason to believe that the white man cannot, with proper care, live here with a fair degree of comfort and safety. The entire management will be under a Siamese official of British nationality, who is well acquainted with the country and the people, as well as with the region through which the line runs and who has already secured on his staff both British and German engineers”

The rail link south from the capital enabled the western educated Thai Royalty a convenient way to have a holiday home by the beach. Hua Hin’s royal connection started with Prince Chakrabongse, a son of the great Thai King Chulalongkorn. The Prince who had spent his teenage years in Russia and married a Ukrainian wife visited Hua Hin on a hunting trip with visitors from Russia. He liked the place so he built himself a villa by the beach. After him a succession of Thai Kings came to build holiday homes in Hua Hin. The most famous of these is a palace named Klai Kang Won (Thai for “far from worries”) built by King Rama VII.

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng February 2014

karachi

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It is better not to read too much about Karachi before you go there. To be warned that you will be setting foot in the world’s most dangerous city that is not located officially in a war zone or one that is voted year after year as amongst the least desirable places to live not only takes away the joy and serendipity of judging the city for yourself, it is also acceptance of a view that is a little misleading and overplayed.

A long time ago before Pakistan became a country, Karachi used to be a pretty pleasant place, a salubrious port city of tidy lighted streets and swimming beaches on the Arabian Sea closer to Muscat than to Mumbai. To its original Sindhi and Baluch population were added Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsees from all across the Indian Subcontinent. In fact up to 1947, on the eve of the partition of India the majority of Karachi’s people were Hindus by faith. Today most of the Hindus have gone, mostly to India, small communities of them as well as Christians remain but they and their places of worship except for a few colonial churches are inconspicuous and not so easy to find.

Today unabated migration into the city from all across the country and from Afghanistan and its borderlands (in the 1980s) has turned Karachi into one of the most populated urban areas in the world, the city with world’s biggest Afghan population and also the largest city in the Islamic world.

Karachi is an urban planning nightmare suffering from lack of water and frequent power outages that has affected its industries and encouraged many of its factories to shut or move abroad many to Bangladesh.

Despite its reputation as an unsafe city and a fighting turf for guns and gangs, Karachi has a soft, savvy and sophisticated side with shiny shopping malls selling stylish and high quality clothes, great restaurants serving world class food and a population that donates more to help its own poor than any other big city its size in the world. Since my first visit in 2008 I have visited Karachi many times, each occasion vowing never to go again.

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2008

sao paulo

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Less than half a century after they arrived in Asia and conquered Melaka (Malacca) the Portuguese busied themselves in another part of the world fighting off other European claimants especially the French and laying the foundation for their empire’s latest and greatest acquisition Brazil. It was in this period that Sao Paulo had its beginning when in January 1554 a Jesuit brother named Jose de Anchieta climbed over the hills from the coast and built a school around which a town soon flourished.

Sao Paulo’s pioneering years were anarchical and ruthless as the early settlers made an industry out of capturing indigenous tribes and selling them off as slaves. In those days the word “Paulistas” was one that struck terror amongst settlers on the coast and in other parts of Brazil. According to historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto the Paulistas were “big men, well nourished, and bulgingly muscular, their girth enhanced by folds of quilted armour, bristling with arms and shaded by hats of roughly woven reeds”.

There is really no reason to go half way round the world just to see Sao Paulo but if you happen to layover (like we did) then you will find at least something to like about this city of nearly 30 million souls located on a vast coffee plantation-strewn highland plateau on the same sub-tropical latitude as Rockhampton, Australia. Sao Paulo is scary but, like the rest of Brazil, indulgent, exhibitionistic and (if beans form a big part of your diet) also an interesting food destination.

Our hotel was in Itaim Bibi a district adjacent to Jardins (Gardens in Portuguese) in the upscale parts of Sao Paulo but I still felt uneasy and nervous when walking down the streets. I was afraid I might get robbed or stabbed with a knife especially if I was not alert or got momentarily distracted by a waxed brazilian beauty bending forth in tight tiny apparels. I had read about frequent crimes in Brazil’s cities and was by then in some suitable state of preparedness and paranoia.

The next day on a warm and quiet Sunday morning I walked to Parque do Ibirapuera.  On my free city map the park is located just a few streets immediately east of the hotel. There were very few cars or people outside except for a few commuters waiting at the bus stop, a lone pedestrian here and there and families riding bicycles together. I crossed the road to a mainly residential neighborhood mixed with businesses offering legal advice, diet counseling, slimming massage, dental cosmetics and other services catering to the discreet needs of the rich. All were housed in flower-festooned villas protected by high gates, electrical fences and unsmiling men with rifles. I strode past warily with my camera tucked away inside my bag pack. Arriving quickly at the park I was relieved and happy to see and sense police presence everywhere. I felt like a camera totting tourist again only this time caged inside a sylvan sanctuary where police armed with guns and anti-riot gear had been assigned to watch over legions of cyclists, joggers and couples in love.

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2013

buenos aires

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These days when great cities around the world all aspire to look, eat and speak like each other, Buenos Aires stands proud and apart as an icon of idiosyncrasy.

Originally a struggling Spanish colonial outpost surrounded by endless fertile  fields of grass facing an important sea, Buenos Aires grew rich exporting beef, grain and wool. People from all over Europe especially Italians came by ship settling in the port city. Millions arrived between 1880 and 1945.

Wealth, immigration and Buenos Aires’s end of the globe location helped it develop a unique character, a keen idea of cultural superiority and even its own street lingo called lunfardo.

Today Buenos Aires is a somewhat old fashioned and dignified looking place full of impressive late 19th century European urban architecture. The buildings are built of wonderful marble, wood and stones when Argentina was the fifth richest country in the world but have since been grimed by age, neglect and lots of graffiti.

Buenos Aires is beautiful in a besotting kind of way. I like Buenos Aires very much but cannot explain why. Perhaps it was the tango on dim street corners, the energetic banner and flag waving soccer fans in the plaza, generous glasses of malbec with giant beefsteaks or the most elegantly beautiful waitress I have ever laid my eyes on serving us our lunch menu of pork with Dijon sauce on chips.

Maybe it is better left expressed in the lyrics of a famous tango song by the city’s eternal hero and heartthrob, Carlos Gardel

 Mi Buenos Aires querido, cuando yo te vuelva a ver, no habra mas penas ni olvido. 

El farolito de la calle en que naci fue el centinela de mis promesas de amor, 

bajo su inquieta lucecita yo la vi a mi pebeta luminosa como un sol. 

Hoy que la suerte quiere que te vuelva a ver, ciudad porteña de mi unico querer

 

[ My beloved Buenos Aires, the day I see you again, 

there will be no more sorrow or forgetfulness 

The lamp of the street where I was born was witness to my promises of love, 

It was under its dim light that I saw her I saw my babe as bright as a sun. 

Today luck wants me to see you again, you my beloved port city ]

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2013