JB looks back at a classic road journey, a drive on the wild side, albeit one done in more peaceful days, early 2001.

Karakoram Highwy, China

“Ava Gardner, the renowned showbiz of Holly Wood stayed in this suite in the year 1955 during the shooting of Bhawany Junction,” declares a tarnished brass plaque at the old Faletta’s Hotel, Lahore. I can only hope that Ava’s suite was a cut above the exhausted quarters I occupy.

Then again, who cares? A brief night in this crumbling, colonnaded ghost of Empire is a fitting start for a Karakoram Highway journey, from Pakistan north to China, that’s all about seeing time – cultural, geological and who-knows – in dramatic rewind.

The Karakoram Range is a seven-thousand-metre speed hump, Nature’s way of slowing everything that would move north from the Indian subcontinent towards Central Asia, including the subcontinent itself. Fifty million years in the making, these massive earthworks aren’t so much the hand as the fist of the gods.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007Copyright John Borthwick

For millions of years, the only force to penetrate this white-knuckled seismic knot was water – rivers like the Indus, Hunza and Gilgit. In much more recent times, pilgrims, Silk Route traders and imperial invaders followed these watercourses through the mountains, travelling on paths that clung like spiderwebs to the valley walls.

Our minibus weaves along the new route that hangs somewhere below the remnants of the earlier filament trails and above the snow-fed torrents. The modern road that will carry us 1300 km from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, to Kashgar, China, is the Karakoram Highway — the “KKH” — lauded by one promotional poster I see as “The most brilliant achievement of mankind of the 20th century”.

The nine of us in the minibus are out to test the proposition. More than guiding us is Asghar Khan, an avuncular Hunzakut, whose capacity to arrange for small mountains to be moved (if necessary by bulldozer), palms to be greased and dinner to arrive on time makes the Karakoram, for us at least, a pushover.

We leave behind the bazaar shenanigans of Peshawar – wandering ear-cleaners and Internet shops (surely this close to the Khyber Pass there’s one called the Cyber Pass?), naked weapons and veiled females – and head into the North West Frontier Province. The mountains rise before us like dragon’s teeth. Trundling down them are trucks, gaudy land galleons bedecked with fringes, wild paintwork and rampant over-cab prows – big show-off rigs that announce themselves with a belching of diesel and hashish fumes and the blast of tremolo air-horns.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

We roll past apricot orchards and Pepsi signs, heading into the North West Frontier Province through the Swat Valley, a former feudal kingdom that acknowledged it was part of Pakistan only 40 years ago.

Revenge and hospitality are among the sustaining tribal traditions here, along with the sequestration of women. It’s odd to see a street where the ratio of males to females is around 300-to-1. Still, serial religions (and their persuading armies) have flowed through here for five thousand years: Aryans, Darius of Persia, Alexander, the Emperor Ashoka, Buddhists, Bactrian Greeks, St Thomas the Apostle, Mongols and Islam have been among the passing parade.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

And now us – a group of mostly “over-50s” travellers. There’s Gloria, an incessant tripper who broke an arm in Nepal and set fire to her hotel room in Cuzco, and now cheerily awaits new disasters. Monty, a retired IT man has been to “Koola Lumper” and “Kuz-koo”, too, although the only significant events to have occurred anywhere he’s visited seem to have been his own shopping forays. Astrid, a farmer and self-confessed “carpetoholic” asks us to restrain her should she be seen lingering near any carpet stall.

The landscape goes vertical. Sawtooth wedges of air and mountain interlock. Below us, romping rivers squeeze between the folds of the earth. There are deodar forests and donkey carts, smoke-cured villages, ancient petroglyphs and unctuous souvenir vendors. A ripple of excitement runs through the bus at Besham with our first sight of the washtub torrent of the mighty Indus River. The colour of wet cement, it churns its way south, slowly returning those gate-crashing mountains to the Indian Ocean. We would celebrate with a beer, but this is teetotalling Pakistan, so we settle for tea, rice and chicken, and more tea.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

“By your age, your brains have already shrunk so much that fluid pressure – cerebral oedema – isn’t a significant risk,” declares our group leader, Ian Williams, as he briefs us on possible altitude sickness. With what remains of my shrunken brain, I deduce that the risks are minimal, as the highest altitude we will sleep at is 3,200 metres, in the Chinese town of Tashkurgan.

The mountains now rear before us like terrestrial tsunamis – snow-peaked surf in five-thousand metre sets. The treeless, eroded faces slide from sky to river, their scree fans cut at the base by roaring torrents. We pile out of the bus to view an earth-sky-water vortex of literally Himalayan proportions: the point where the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan ranges converge, where two continents – Asia and the Indian plate – collide and where the Gilgit and Indus rivers are thrown together in wild confluence. Not a place to linger should the mountain ogre decide to crack his tectonic knuckles.

The giant peaks of Nanga Parbat (8,125 metres) and Rakaposhi (7,790 metres) glow in crystal serration against the sky as the KKH climbs towards China. Other than local traffic, there are few tourist or international trade vehicles on this tortuous road, which was built by China and Pakistan between 1958 and 1978 (the unofficial death toll is reckoned at around one worker per kilometre). The Pakistan section runs through the most difficult terrain, constantly affected by glaciers, washouts and landslips – after all, Karakoram is a Turkic term for “crumbling rock.” Crews of Pakistan Army engineers and fearless bulldozer drivers are permanently deployed to keep the route open.

05_2 Karimabad,Hunza copy

We follow the river north to Asghar’s homeland, the legendary principality of Hunza, whose people were once said to live for over a century, sustained by fresh, 2,400-metre air, blissful bowels and, presumably, Hunza Pie. In fact, they’ve never heard of Hunza Pie in Hunza. Nowhere among the bazaars and tea shops of high Karimabad can I find the succulent wedge of cheese, spinach and wholemeal pastry that epitomised 1970s “hippie vego” cuisine and which came, one hopes, with a of side-serve of Himalayan wisdom.

The 10,000 people of Karimabad, the main town of Hunza, inhabit one of the most picturesque vales of the Himalaya–Karakoram chain. The fields of maize are shaded by orchards weighted with stone fruits. Tourism provides a modest cash flow and, as followers of the liberal Ismaili sect of Islam, Hunza girls (unlike many others in Pakistan) receive equal education with boys, and women are not obliged to veil their faces.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007Copyright John Borthwick

Life looks so benign here that, along with the immortality-through-Hunza-Pie sect, “Shangri-la-ists”, too, fixated upon Hunza, proclaiming it to be the prototype happy valley of James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Far Horizons. That sunny vales from Bhutan to Mustang to Zhongdian, China all claim the same mythic mantle makes little difference to any of their boosters.

Ian, our guide is far more pragmatic, marvelling, “Where else could you simply drive in — rather than walk for a fortnight — and find yourself surrounded by six-thousand metre snow peaks?”

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

“Noisy with kingdoms” was Marco Polo’s take on this region in 1273. Even then, Baltit Fort towered over the town of Baltistan (now known as Karimabad). Seven centuries later, the 62-room palace-cum-fortress, once occupied by the Mir (king) of Hunza, still stands, framed by gothic pinnacles of stone and snow.

I am invited to dinner in the same palace room – now beautifully restored – in which Captain Francis Younghusband confronted the Mir in 1889, demanding that he cease raiding the caravans that passed on their way from Central Asia to British India. The Mir protested to the effect of, “Raiding is our only income – but, if your Queen Victoria is unhappy, I can cut her in on the action.” Preposterous. As Great Game warriors were wont to, Younghusband politely withdrew, then sent in the British Army to better explain the imperial point of view.

The KKH’s highest point, the 4,733-metre Khunjerab Pass in China, is closed by winter snows from November to May. We approach the Pakistan border town of Sust one week after the scheduled reopening of the pass, only to find that due to late snows there’s still a queue of trucks, Haj pilgrims’ buses and a score of French tourists. Asghar warns us that the latter may have priority over us and, since all foreigners must transfer to Pakistani government vehicles for the journey between Sust and Tashkorgan in China, we may have to wait several days.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

We wake next morning to learn that the pass is open and, thanks to methods best not queried closely, Asghar and Ian have secured several Land Cruisers for our immediate departure. Having leap-frogged, as it were, the French, we set sail for the Khunjerab Pass. The journey is a mixture of transcendent beauty – the sky above the high plains of snow burns like sapphire – and low farce. A Pakistani driver eager to be first over the icy pass slides his bus sideways into one of our vehicles, almost toppling us off the mountain.

Entering Xinjiang and China, we immediately spot unfamiliar creatures – shaggy Bactrian camels, even shaggier yaks and marmots, and women. There’s a nippy, overnight stop in Tashkorgan, followed by the 300 kilometre, seven-hour run to Kashgar. China’s KKH now widens into a military-capacity highway, an endless ribbon unrolling across a high desert plateau of pastel dunes and witch’s-cap peaks. In other places, the road seems merely borrowed from the banks of the roiling Ghez River, the cliffs that teeter above it being constrained only by the begrudging acknowledgment of gravity.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

The main event for visitors to the so-called Uigur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang is the fabled Sunday market at Kashgar. As promised, Asghar gets us to Kashgar right on time. “Like Genghis Khan come to Chinatown,” is how a friend once described this former Silk Route caravanserai on market day. We step straight back into old East Turkestan, into Marco Polo and Tamerlane time. The faces and dress are Uigur, Kazahk, Tajik and Tartar. In terms of “race,” Han China plays a very second fiddle here. The market erupts around us, with 15,000 people buying and selling everything from kitchen sinks and samovars to air-conditioners, camels and carpets.

Carpets! Mindful of my vow to rescue Astrid from her “carpetoholic” compulsions, I plunge into the bazaar just in time to interrupt her all-but-completed purchase of a large Bukhara rug. A string of robustly autonomous Uigur epithets follows our empty-handed retreat from the carpet-wallah’s stall. We rejoin the group, finding that Monty, instead, has become the proud owner of a carpet, a silk prayer mat the size of a large tea-towel. “I bargained the fellow way down – got it for only one thousand Aussie bucks!” he hoots. Not too much more, I’d guess, than he might have paid in Melbourne.

©John Borthwick


Lisbon - Portugal - Lisbon tramways by Glenn A. Baker

All great cities have a legend or two. Some weave their marketing motif around them. Mythical figures and tall tales are claimed and even fought over when it comes to setting one centre of civilisation apart from another.

Though Lisbon is a pivotal port of such vast, impressive documented history that it hardly needs the added sheen, it is quite prepared to toss into its tourist-teasing mix the story of how the Greek hero Ulysses founded the city on his way home from Troy.

While that can be taken with as many grains of salt as you wish, it does seem certain that the Phoenicians established a trading post on the site, there on the left bank of the Tagus River just inside the rugged Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, around 1200 BC and it is certain that the Romans came by in 205 BC and installed Julius Caesar as governor sixty years before Christ.

Lisbon - Sintra, Lisbon

It must have been a pleasing posting; it still would be. The city is bright and white, sparkling in a sun that never seems to be absent. It boasts springtime temperatures during the winter and cool summers invigorated by Atlantic breezes. The food is rich and plentiful, the architecture stirring and enveloping, the panoramas broad and breathtaking. With the intertwining of old and new realms has come another realm again, appealing as it is unique, as inexpensive as it is intriguing.

Claiming over twenty centuries of history, Lisbon has been Portugal’s formal capital since its conquest from the Moors in 1147. Some see it as the first true world city, the centre point of an empire spreading across the continents and sub-continents. All the western European nations amassed colonies but the Portuguese Empire was the first, longest-lasting and perhaps most diverse. After its flag was flown at Ceuta on the North African coast in 1415, this small nation took its language, culture and cuisine to Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, the Azores, Goa, Brazil, Macau and East Timor – where it remains to this day.

That it was recognised by even its adversaries as the City of Explorers was due to Prince Henrique the Navigator who established a navigation school at Sagres which made possible Vasco da Gama’s epic journey to India that fulfilled the Medieval dream of finding a direct trade route to the riches of the Orient, and initiated other epic adventures of discovery by Bartholomew Dias and Ferdinand Magellan (sailing for the Spanish crown). Like the bar scene in Star Wars, Lisbon was a crossroads of the universe, a magnet for wayfarers. In 1477, Christopher Columbus was in residence and, with his brother, worked as a cartographer and studied geography before taking up sea-borne commissions to the North Atlantic and Africa. It seemed the right place to do it.

Lisbon - Lisbon 14 by GAB

“To someone born and raised in a Mediterranean sea port, his new home must have seemed magical, alive with anticipation,” contends historian Thomas Tirado. “Sitting at the mouth of the Tagus, Lisbon’s rhythm was that of the crashing ocean at its doorstep. Thrusting into the Atlantic, facing water on two sides, Portugal had become a center for maritime activity and Lisbon was a haven for explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, merchants and any others who saw their fortunes tied to the trade winds and ocean currents.”

Since 1960, on the riverbank in the Avenida de Brasilia in the district of Belem where the Tagus meets the sea and the mighty ships of sail first set off to lay claim to the New World 500 years before, the Portuguese Age of Discovery has been marked by the imposing Monument to the Discoveries. It’s a good place to start your own expedition, given its proximity to the Tower of Belem, a UNESCO World Heritage site that could well be the city’s most photographed edifice. Built in the 16th century to serve as a fortress in the middle of the River Tagus, its outer walls are adorned with a stone-carved rope and openwork balconies, as well as Moorish watchtowers and shield-shaped battlements.

Draped, like Rome, around seven hills, Lisbon is a walking city. It not only gives you ready access to the restaurants, taverns and markets, to the churches and cobblestone alleyways, but ensures that you fully appreciate the mosaic pavements, tiled facades, wrought-iron balconies, tall houses and churches for which it is famed and that you take full advantage of the strategically-positioned miradouros (viewpoints) that seem to present panoramas at every turn. Of course, it helps to know where to walk and where to start – which of those seven hills.

Lisbon - Lisbon 20 by GAB

It could be the highest of them, the one crowned by the moated St. George’s Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge), guarding the Tagus, a fortress since the 5th century that came into its own during the Moorish occupation of the 10th when it was the ancient seat of the Saracens. There you can walk esplanades, climb ramparts and filter your gaze and eventually yourself down over the spread of the medieval Alfama district, the city’s most ancient quarter where many buildings display fading coats of arms bearing testimony to the fact that what would become (and, in some cases, still is) the home of stevedores, traders and sailors was once a most aristocratic quarter. Having largely survived the massive earthquake of 1755, it is true to its original layout and adjacent to it, on the western and northern slopes, are the nearly-as-old districts of Castelo and Mouraria.

But it perhaps should be Lapa das Mouras (the Moorish Rock) in Barrio da Lapa, the exclusive western quarter of the city (a twenty minute walk from downtown) that has long been the residential district of choice for nobility, foreign diplomats and the significantly wealthy. It is said to exemplify, with its shading trees, thick gardens and grand buildings (many now embassies) the 19th century Portuguese concept of “calming luxury”.

Like Columbus, Sandro Fabris is an Italian who settled in Lisbon, a city he also found alive with anticipation and not a little magical. One of those larger-than-life characters who can analyse Umberto Eco, accurately hum the sweep of symphonies, pluck a passage from an historical biography or cite lines from a slew of cinema classics, argue the importance of Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra and tell you about his embryonic book of photographs and anecdotes of the markets of the world – all within ten minutes of meeting you – he was considered such an asset by both countries that Giorgio Napolitano, the President of Italy, conferred the Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity upon him when he last dropped by Portugal.

Lisbon - Cascais 1 by GAB

As, until recently, General Manager of the opulent Lapa Palace Hotel, Fabris was the king of his own castle on Lapa das Mouras, such a sturdy guide on what must be seen and done that it is hard to believe that he was also a visitor. Fresh from preserving treasures in Venice, he enthusiastically took upon the task of maintaining the remarkable standards of a remarkable building; a lavish private house built in 1870 and transformed into a palace thirteen years later by the Counts of Valenças.

And what a palace it was. Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, one of the greatest Portuguese ceramists of the 19th century, created pieces of furniture and tiles. Columbano, the celebrated “painter of broken souls”, applied his art to the walls and ceilings. There was a ballroom, a Louis XV room (used as a ladies’ boudoir), a Noble Floor, river view towers and all manner of splendour. A family home until 1992 when the family of the Count sold it, it was turned into a hotel six years later by the family Simões de Almeida and then acquired by the Orient Express group.

The Lapa Palace has become accustomed to lavish praise, celebrated by a raft of reviewers as “Lisbon’s smartest hotel with luxuriant gardens”, “a voluptuous retreat” and “a hidden gem in Lisboa”. It hosts concerts by the Metropolitan Orchestra of Lisbon and the Ballet School of Lisbon uses its health club as a workout home, sharing the facilities with a steady stream of guests of renown, ranging from more crown heads of Europe than can be counted to Sting, Cher, U2, Catherine Deneuve, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Robin Williams, George W. Bush and a brace of Nobel Prize winners. When they were in residence, Sandro was in attendance though the most you’ll get from this discreet hotelier about the demands placed upon he and his team was, “…generally speaking the important people are not a problem, it’s their entourage which is difficult to manage.”

Lisbon - Lapa Palace, Lisbon

From Barrio da Lapa, it is a quick cab ride down to the main squares, the imposing statues, the seafront, the theatres, the tramcars tackling impossibly steep rises and the Bairro da Alto – the Upper City. An historic enclave like the Alfama, dating back to 1513, it is, as one guide book gushes, “a colourful district that resounds to the calls of vendors and fishmongers, its windows and balconies festooned with laundry and bird cages”. Reached from the lower city by the Santa Justa Elevator (sort of a mini Eiffel Tower), it really comes into its own at night when visitors come to streets lit by Victorian lamps to frequent the Fado cafes, fado being a music and dance form of lament and despair not unlike the blues that was introduced to Portugal by 19th century African slaves.

There is so much packed in to Lisbon, so much reward for investigation, that is seems almost greedy to want more. Yet foolish be the visitor who chooses not to take the brief bus or train ride to Sintra, billed as a riot of 14th century palaces and 19th century pastel-coloured whimsy architecture. The poet Lord Byron described it as a “glorious Eden … perhaps the most delightful spot in Europe” and his view was shared by UNESCO which has bestowed further World Heritage status.

The Serra de Sintra is a ten kilometre long granite outcrop thrusting upward between a vast plain to the north and the Tagus estuary to the south. This twisting mini-mountain range projects into the Atlantic Ocean as the Cabo da Roca headland – continental Europe’s westernmost point. Anciently associated with astral cults – evidence of which is seen in archeology and myriad monuments – it came to be known as Mons Lanae (Hills of the Moon) and, thanks to a micro-climate all its own, has always been draped in dense, verdant vegetation.

Lisbon - Lisbon 39 by GAB

Portugal’s tourism bodies seem to move into the highest of their gears when selling Sintra. Earnestly assuring that “The visitor can choose between descending into the Neolithic era at Tholos do Monge; enjoying the view of distant horizons from the walls of the Castelo dos Mouros, an 8th century Moorish defensive construction; experiencing the harsh austerity of the Franciscan monks of Convento dos Capuchos; strolling through the delightful mysteries of the Palacio da Pena, a mythically magical palace that seems more like a continuation of the actual mountain; or savouring the nooks and crannies of the Parque da Pena, a place of love and exoticism that exudes great peace and serenity”.

None of which is overstated, for a day spent negotiating the labyrinthine streets and steps and poking about the palaces and examining the art is a day exceedingly well spent.

The same can be said about a swift sweep down the coast to Cascais which, with nearby Estoril and Guincho, is a stylish summer resort zone of sea-swept seafood restaurants, flash resort hotels, nightclubs and discotheques intertwined with 15th to 18th century churches, hermitages, fortresses and a sea museum. Here are the hotels and bars, some still intact, where Nazi and Allied spies swapped secrets and did deals during World War II. The places where those desperate souls prepared to do anything to obtain travel documents in Casablanca dreamed of finding themselves. The places that contemporary author Robert Wilson weaves so wonderfully into gripping historical thriller-fiction in A Small Death In Lisbon and The Company of Strangers.

Lisbon - Lisbon 05 by GAB

With today’s tourism flow there is perhaps greater interest in seeking out the shop, on the way to Cascais, where the Portuguese Tart was first baked. The queues extending out onto the footpath have a strong English component, as does the southern Algarve region, the destination for more than a few charter flights out of London and land of the time share arrangement and holiday hotel. The connection between the Poms and the Portuguese is long and strong, with the Iberian inhabitants more often with them than against them during skirmishes with France and Spain over the centuries. Even while sticking to its policy of neutrality, Portugal granted Britain the right to establish a naval base on the strategically important Acores Island in 1943, to Germany’s considerable displeasure.

Before he departed for Madeira, Sandro Frabris liked to think that he’d fingered the source of solidarity. It is all about a gift of practice and culture that rather took on in a kingdom not always united. “When Catherine Braganza went to Britain to marry Charles II, she took tea with her,” he explained simply. Seems he shared that one with Sting while adding lemon.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker 2014.



If you didn’t know better, the shopkeepers of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar would present forlorn figures. Foreign tourists troop past, their gaze focused steadfastly on the far distance, eyes flicking neither left nor right, as if to engage in any way would get them kidnapped and robbed at gunpoint. Or worse, sold a carpet.

“Hello,” the shopkeepers cry out plaintively. “Hello. I am here.”

The bulk of the tourists are dressed to a stolid uniformity. Freshly-pressed khakis, checked shirts and gleaming white runners. Bum bags and badly-concealed money belts bulge from their already bulging silhouettes. In the midst of the Grand Bazaar, one of the city’s most fascinating attractions, which has drawn visitors to its expansive confines for more than 600 years, they seem intent of getting from one end to the other in the quickest possible time. Without buying a carpet.

A shopkeeper catches me watching him. He smiles and gives a non-committal shrug, his eyes twinkling with a guarded humour. It’s all a game, his body language suggests, one that has been going on for centuries and doubtless will continue for much longer.


On busy days, when there are as many locals as tourists, the crush can be close to overwhelming. The only living beings not disturbed are the cats who display an admirable calm. They’ve been the true locals of the bazaar for centuries, countless generations, and there’s nothing they haven’t seen or survived. They sit peacefully in the midst of the walkways, letting the tumult flow around them with Zen-like calm, feline pebbles in fast-flowing steams of humanity.

Anything you could possibly desire can be found in these wide dusty passages. Gold jewellery, leather coats, fake designer handbags. Beautiful decorative objects such as richly-inlaid backgammon boards and the distinctly colourful ceramics that hail from Kutahya in Turkey’s west. Clothing, fabrics, souvenirs, antiques from yesteryear as well as yesterday, silverware and copperware, it’s all available.

Aisle upon aisle, row upon row, in covered laneways and serpentine open streets. The market developed in Byzantine times; some parts were roofed over, grew, sprawled, got bigger and then expanded further.

A precise figure is unknown but guidebooks estimate there are around 4,000 shops. Comfortable walking shoes are a necessity but more so is enough curiosity to take the time to stop and chat occasionally to the shopkeepers. You may have no intention of buying anything but it’s a social custom that pays unexpected dividends.


And when you do find something you like, there are protocols in play that it helps to know about beforehand. If you’re in a shop and you’re offered a drink, whether it be Coke, Turkish coffee or mint tea, that means the transaction is set to move to the next level. If you agree, you’re committing to the negotiating process. It’s just a matter of finding the right price.

This isn’t an Asian street market. You can’t haggle in quite the same way. Don’t over-act, throw your hands up in the air, or raise your voice. That’s not how it’s done. If you don’t like the price and it’s not going down as far as you wish, be polite, thank the shopkeeper for his/her hospitality and make for the door. If you get at least three stores down the alley and you haven’t received a better counter-offer, the deal can’t be done.

Quality in the Grand Bazaar tends to be high. Expect to pay for it. You’re not in Walmart. If you make a deal you’re happy with, you’ll end up with something truly special. And, most likely, a story to dine out on for years to come. Which is sometimes even better.

When it all gets too overwhelming, there are numerous restaurants and cafes throughout the market in which to relax and watch the passing parade. As I was leaving one café, I was stopped and, as is invariably the case, asked where I was from. Sydney, Australia, I replied.


The young man was beautifully dressed despite the high summer heat and impeccably polite. “Please,” he said, “I’d like you to meet someone.” The first rule of the careful tourist is never go anywhere with a stranger but the Turkish coffee had kicked in and I was up for anything except a carpet.

I baulked when he steered me towards a carpet shop but he was insistent in a way that piqued my interest. Behind the counter was a young Turkish girl. She laughed as we were introduced. She’d grown up on Sydney’s northern beaches. Her father owned this section of the markets and she divided her time between her Australian hometown and running her own carpet business in the Grand Bazaar.

I’d discovered something I wasn’t expecting and that made my visit all the more worthwhile. Next time, I may well consider a carpet.

©2014 David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

BALI – A TALE OF TWO COASTS by John Borthwick

“Behave, stranger, this ain’t your home!” cautions a graffito on Jalan Legian, the clotted main artery of Bali’s Kuta-Legian-Seminyak beach strip.

The advice comes decades too late. Ever since the late-1930s when a bizarre Englishwoman, known variously as Manx, K’tut Tantri and Surabaya Sue, built the first bamboo and thatch hotel here, Kuta’s grand sweep of shoreline has been a magnet for all sorts of strangers and misbehavers.

Balinese dancers, Nusa Dua, Bali. 2006.

Coconut groves, wayang kulit shadow puppets, morning roosters, midnight dogs, trance dancers and gamelan music – all these were common in Kuta until the late 1980s but are now mostly gone. The change was inevitable as the leisured classes of the world blew in, turned-on and stayed, seduced by Bali’s mix of exotica and art, endless surf and – let’s be frank – third-world labour costs.

With around six million annual visitors – three million of them foreigners – parts of Bali are now choking on their own excessive success. Kuta, as Indonesians joke, is now an acronym for “Kampung Untuk Turis Australi” – Village For Australian Tourists. Kuta culture, in the form of resorts, hawkers, bars, surf schools, motorbike jams and transport touts, has spread for kilometres along Bali’s south-west coast. Construction cranes and new resorts jut above the treetops all the way to Canggu – aka “Cang-gone”.

The island formerly known as “of the gods” boasts (though that’s hardly the word) a welter of alarming statistics. Bali’s governor Made Mangku Pastika predicted five million annual foreign visitors by 2015. That’s on top of an ever-burgeoning resident population of around four million. To stay mobile they need motorbikes – adding to the tsunami of existing vehicles, some one hundred new bikes are registered every day.

Bali Beachbreak danger 2

The good news is that southern Bali can be a tale of two (or more) coasts, if you want. I take my leave of Kuta and head north-east to Gianyar regency. At Keramas, half an hour north of Sanur, we turn towards the sea, down a track that skirts brilliant green rice fields and the first holiday villas that, as elsewhere in Bali, will eventually engulf those fields. If the west coast seems like Paradise Googled, then this shore might be Paradise Recouped.

Keramas looks east across black volcanic sands and all-day reef surf. This is still a coast of Hindu temples and flower offerings along the shore. Villagers crouch for hours, picking tiny black pebbles from the beach to sell for garden decorations. Others sit with legs buried in the hot, dark sands to ward off arthritis. There are no beach hawkers. Instead, I see a farmer herding his fleet of 20 ducks along the sands. They rush on in a fluffy phalanx – stand in their way and it might be like being trampled by a herd of feather dusters.

Bali Duck herder Keramas

I’m staying at a new resort called Komune. Despite the name, this eco-savvy property isn’t a refuge for old ponytails and post-socialist hipsters. The clientele is mainly twenties-thirties surfing couples, here for the cranking right-hand reef wave that breaks immediately out front.

The morning of the earth here smells just like Bali mornings used to – clove cigarettes, salt spray, last night’s rain, a whiff of temple incense. A sacred volcano hangs above the landscape like a sentinel, its conical tonsure right there – and then, with a shift of clouds, suddenly gone.

Bali Keramas surfer 4

The day passes in a welter of great waves, although with increasing crowds in the break. Time for nasi goring or eggs benedict from the beachfront restaurant. Much later, sunset’s soundtrack is a toccata of 10,000 cicadas plus the sea’s thumping bass-line, even if it is trashed by the doof-rap-techno slam of the resort’s sound system.

“Keramas locals don’t want to see their place end-up like Kuta,” says Australian Phoebe Clarke, manager of nearby Moonlight Villa. Their wish to see their kids in local employment is reflected in the make-up of Komune’s bright young staff, drawn from surrounding villages. The resort owners, including former pro surfer Luke Egan, are focused on responsible eco-practice via their world-class wastewater and garbage systems, solar power and vegetable gardens.

Bali Balian cutback
After a week of good waves, beach hikes, scrumptious gado-gado and the leisure to read two thick novels, it’s time for me to head back to the ‘Yak – Seminyak. Here, from a rooftop bar, I have a dress circle view of the cocktail sunset and all who dream or pose beneath it.

Each time I come to this coast, I like it less – and yet still love it. This contrarily glorious strand is like Heaven’s Zoo, a Fellini-esque promenade of wanderers, poodle walkers, New Age remittance dudes, joggers, gigolos and tattoo tragics, all dressed or undressed in every fashion from hijab to dental floss.

When darkness falls on the ‘Yak, diners on beanbags spill across the sands. Flood lamps and amps crank up, and the Bali Marley in front of one restaurant is soon out-shouting the Santana of Seminyak who are playing next door. The irony that K’tut Tantri named that first hotel just down the beach Suara Segara – the Sound of the Sea – might be lost on them. The ‘Yak booms on, regardless, a day-night mosh of beach hawkers and bling boutiques, nail spas, gay bars and proliferating resort and condo projects.
If my trip has been a tale of two coasts, my conclusions are similarly polarized. After all, Bali is the land of saput poleng, that symbolic, checkerboard-pattern cloth you see draped on statues everywhere, signifying that in local Hindu cosmology, the surface world can be simultaneously black and white, shadow and light.

Bali Poleng monkey

An early, long-term Bali resident, the late Australian painter Donald Friend, foresaw the juggernaut of international tourism coming to Bali and he didn’t much like the prospect. Back in 1970 he picked that a visiting team of international advisors and bankers were there on a mission to “convert villages, forests and mountains into vast, profitable jukebox alleys.” He was right on the money – and so were the bankers, literally.

Today, another long-term Australian expat, Bali cultural commentator and landscape designer, Made Wijaya, aka Michael White, views Bali’s “development” far less critically: “The Balinese have a wholesome, no-nonsense attitude towards Nature: worship it, emulate it, but don’t let it get in the way of progress.” And thus we have the Balis of both Kuta and Keramas, of black and white, shadow and light.
Bali Behave Stranger

©2014 John Borthwick. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.


Savoy Hotel, London
Savoy Hotel, London

“Only an eye,” said Cézanne of Impressionist icon Claude Monet, “but my God, what an eye!” It was the line of that impeccable eye that I was trying to track as I contorted myself at the window sill in my fifth floor suite of the Savoy in London; the very same suite, I was assured, in which the French master had been thrice resident between 1899 and 1901, and in which he had so relentlessly painted the Thames and its bridges.

It was not, I admit, the only vantage point in which I chose to position myself during a stay in the venerable London hotel of Edwardian grandeur and showbiz legend. In the laneway beside the hotel, leading from The Strand down to the river, I pantomimed the contemptuous discard of a series of hastily-scrawled placards, after the manner of the ragged vagabond of the 60s, Bob Dylan. That scene, to the backing of the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, hailed now as a pioneering rock video, was a part of the D.A. Pennebaker film documenting his 1965 British tour, Don’t Look Back.

Holed up in the Savoy, where he was not allowed to dine in the famed Savoy Grill or other restaurants because he refused to don a necktie, Dylan became the centrepiece of an astonishing circus, drawing not just hungry media and Pennebaker’s cinema verité cameras, but the very cream of British music royalty of the day. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Donovan, Marianne Faithfull, Alan Price of the Animals, and fellow Americans Joan Baez and the poet Alan Ginsberg were all there to pay their respects and bask in his extraordinary aura. When the Beatles came to call, the kitchen prepared the revoltingly termed “porridge and pea sandwiches” for them (a step up, perhaps, from their beloved Liverpool chip butties).

Dylan’s flippant, sometimes hilarious British press conference was staged, meeting what was very much by then a London expectation, at the Savoy. The mad scramble was recently echoed in the climactic scene of the hit film, Notting Hill, with Hugh Grant winning the fair lady’s (that is, Julia Robert’s) heart at a jammed media conference in the hotel. The Ritz may have been otherwise featured in the movie but it was the Savoy where, in time-honoured tradition, the ink stained fingers of journalists were thrust into the air to command a moment’s floor-time.

Marilyn Monroe, at the Savoy with her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, subjected herself to such a mêlée when promoting The Prince and The Showgirl in 1957. Peter Stafford, an Australian who spent fifteen years at the Savoy, from 1954, first as assistant manager and then as assistant general manager, remembers slipping a curious and excited Pattie Menzies, then in residence with her husband, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, into the back of the room to witness the engagement with Fleet Street’s finest.

Bob Dylan & Cathy McGowan
Bob Dylan & Cathy McGowan


Although film lore has it that co-star and director Laurence Olivier (who, by the way, had first laid eyes on his wife-to-be Vivian Leigh at the Savoy in 1939) found it rather hard going with the often obstinate Norma Jean throughout the shoot, on that day he was truly invaluable. “It was such a performance, he was wonderful” recalls Stafford. “Olivier sat beside her and told the reporters that, as she might have difficulty with their accents, he would repeat each of their questions to her, because she had become familiar with his way of speaking. I’m sure she had no trouble at all understanding them but it did give her a few moments to think up her replies!”

Unlike Dylan, I was prepared to clamber into a coat and tie to visit the venerable Savoy Grill, otherwise known as “the second House of Lords” or “the Bosses’ Canteen”. It was here, where Roast Saddle of Lamb is never off the menu, that Cary Grant, after many years living in Hollywood, rediscovered the delights of bangers and mash. (Novelist and recently diminished political figure, Jeffrey Archer, ordered the dish so often that he insisted that the sausage be named after him). “Always a place to be seen, it is now, at lunchtime” declares its own publicity, “where city influence sits next to industrial might, where newspaper editors cluster in their ‘corner’ and Cabinet ministers vie for the best tables. In the evenings, actors, actresses, theatre and film luminaries rub shoulders with earls, dukes and princes.”

Though I don’t doubt any of that for a moment, within my line of sight the night that I found myself subject to the shine of its silverware, was merely a billionaire or two. I wasn’t allocated table four, where Winston Churchill dined so regularly that it was left empty, out of respect, for a full year after his passing but I wasn’t bothered because I had come hoping for an appearance of Kaspar the cat. A metre high and carved from a single piece of plane tree, he was commissioned by the hotel in 1926 to be the 14th guest at any dinner party of 13, thus relieving the first diner to depart of the curse which befell businessman Joel Wolff in 1898. Scoffing at the superstition that the first to leave would be the first to die, he left for South Africa in a rush and was shot dead in his Johannesburg office a few weeks later. Alas, the parties at my neighbouring tables barely topped a half dozen and Kaspar, with a napkin tied around his neck, was left on a high shelf in the Pinafore Room.

There are seven private rooms named after Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. The works of the oddly matched pair have enjoyed a revival of sorts since the film Topsy Turvy though the pilgrimage trail has always been well trod. Perhaps the pinnacle of devotion is that of Sir Michael Bishop, jovial multi-millionaire chairman of British Midland airlines and a devout affecionado of W.S. and Sir Arthur, who often bases himself in the hotel when working in London.

Celebrated impressario Richard D’Oyly Carte established the Savoy Theatre in 1879 – on land between the River Thames and The Strand that Count Peter of Savoy had been granted by King Henry III in 1246 for an annual rent of three barbed arrows – in order to present productions of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. Five years later, he commenced construction of the adjoining Savoy Hotel, at vast personal expense.

Dame Nellie Melba
Dame Nellie Melba


Set on a curve of the River Thames, it was the first steel-framed building in London and the first to use concrete in its construction, provoking wonderment with its full electric lighting and a then-staggering 67 baths. Opened to great fanfare on 6 August 1889, with room rates of 7 shillings and sixpence for a single room and 12 shillings for a double, the first Sovereign its till received was tendered by one Harry Rosenfeld of Chicago to purchase a bottle of Moet de Chandon champagne. The coin was consigned to the hotel’s safe, where it still sits.

A glittering tone was set early – a clarion call to royalty, aristocracy, potentates and top flight businessmen. In 1905, Venice – complete with a silk-lined gondola filled with fresh carnations and 400 glass hanging lamps – was evoked in the forecourt for Wall Street hotshot and champagne millionaire George Kessler. Tenor Enrico Caruso sang arias at the dinner, competing for attention with a baby elephant.

As legend has it, it was Lillie Langtry, mistress of Edward VII and the first woman to break the bank at Monte Carlo, who had taken D’Oyly Carte aside and told him that, if he wanted to bring the beautiful people of the day into his new hotel, he would need to first win over society women and the way to do that was to hire Swiss hotelier César Ritz as manager. Ritz duly came on board and brought with him the diminutive Auguste Escoffier, from the Ritz Hotel in Paris, as his Maître Chef des Cuisines. Escoffier delighted in individual culinary creations for famous femmes, such as Sarah Bernhardt. What we now know as Peach Melba was just a little something whipped up by the celebrated chef to conclude a celebratory dinner for Dame Nellie Melba’s debut performance of Elsa in Lohengrin. The antipodean diva was plainly enchanted by the gesture. “Much as Eve tasted the first apple” she would later write, “I tasted the first pêche Melba in the world.”

Firsts came to be the Savoy’s stock in trade, even if they were not always engineered. The first fiery verbal altercation between the Lord Queensbury, of boxing rules fame, and acerbic playwright Oscar Wilde took place in Savoy space; as did George Gershwin’s first performance of “Rhapsody In Blue” outside America, the first regular radio broadcasts of dance bands, and the first combination of dinner and dancing. Elizabeth Taylor spent her honeymoon with her first husband Nicky Hilton in a Savoy suite (she returned with Hilton’s successors, notably Richard Burton; the pair celebrating the launch of the film Cleopatra in the ballroom in 1963). The Queen Mother broke royal protocol when she rose and applauded the great Maria Callas after her opening in Tosca .

From the outset, the royals treated the place like a palace extension. Before the first world war there had been a bell to herald the impending arrival of personages royal and blue blooded. Such was the frequency of their visits that it had to be dispensed with as a nuisance. When Eleanor Roosevelt was guest of honour of the Pilgrim Society in 1952, Princess Elizabeth attended with her new husband, Prince Phillip. Upon becoming Queen the following year, she had her Coronation Ball there.

Noel Coward by Al Hirschfeld (1968)
Noel Coward by Al Hirschfeld (1968)


The very word Savoy swiftly became a byword for gilt-edged quality; the reason why a “hotel on The Strand” would become one of the essential acquisitions in a winning game of Monopoly. To even work in the hotel’s kitchen was deemed desirable. At the turn of the last century, a young Italian dishwasher became so enamoured of the conspicuous wealth of the hotel’s guests that he was able to glimpse between soakings that he returned to Florence and went into the business of luxury leather goods. His name was Guccio Gucci.

My dress tastes don’t necessarily run to his creations but, having fitted myself into a barely functioning necktie and jacket for the Savoy Grill, I ventured further forth the following morning, electing to take some refreshment in the Thames Foyer, where Strauss had conducted, Pavlova had danced in cabaret, Diaghilev had sashayed past in obligatory furs, Bill Haley had rocked around the clock, and Picasso and Berlin had, well at the very least, taken tea. The Marble lobby is now as brisk and businesslike as it was once overpoweringly ornate but the elegance is intact, with original domes, hanging glass lamps, mahogany paneling and Neoclassical plaster friezes deftly restored and integrated.

The scars have been well mended. During the Blitz in WWII, the Savoy suffered two hits in one night from high explosive bombs believed to have been intended for Waterloo Station (though the American war correspondents who gathered in Titch’s Bar probably preferred to believe that they were the Hun’s real target). One landmine which was dropped by parachute lodged in a tree and blew out the entire riverside facade of the hotel, damaging fifty rooms. When an explosion in The Strand skittled the leader of the hotel’s dance band, Noel Coward stepped up to the piano and kept spirits high and fears dampened by playing and singing a selection of his own songs (as he would).

The Savoy survived the six years of World War II without once closing its doors and when the blackouts ended in 1945, it was the first public building in London to reilluminate. It didn’t discover until after VE Day that it had been one of the Luftwaffe’s top ten targets. Stoic and sturdy as well as grand and glamorous, the hotel was perfectly in keeping with the mood and values of the forties and fifties. But the Profumo Scandal heralded a new Britain, with a new set of movers and shakers, a new emphasis on youth, revolutionary arts and extreme fashion.

The Savoy did not comfortably keep pace with the Swinging Sixties. When dolly bird Cathy McGowan, host of television’s Ready Steady Go, turned up at the hotel in a trouser suit, she was politely asked to leave. Shortly after, in 1967, actress Geraldine Chaplin, who had often stayed in the hotel with her famous father, found that not even a tailored suit by Pierre Cardin permitted her to dine in pants. Waif-like model Twiggy took the line of least resistance when challenged and retired to the Ladies Room to divest herself of the bottom half of a pants suit, leaving the top half to form a daring micro-mini skirt. A tipped-off photographer captured the moment and sent it around the world. By this stage, the hotel had ceased to be embarrassed by the evictions and quietly basked in the considerable global publicity. Though more readily identified with tradition than progression – in its first 100 years the hotel had only four managing directors – by 1969, the strict rules were relaxed.

The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan
The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan


The travails of the trendy notwithstanding, for the Savoy’s loyal suite dwellers there was rarely a question of staying elsewhere, even within the hotel itself. Imposing American actor Victor Mature once flew into the city two days ahead of schedule and, finding his familiar suite already under occupation, hopped a flight back to New York to await a Savoy summons to take up his familiar domain. Fellow actor Gary Cooper had simple but specific instructions for a London sojourn: “Just hire me a Rolls and make sure of my old room with a river view.”

Maurice Chevalier, according to writer Elizabeth Lambert, had liked to be similarly accommodated – to the particular pleasure of some hotel employees. Always trying to give up smoking and wracked with guilt by the second or third draw of a cigarette, he would flip the lit stick out his window, vowing again to give up the filthy habit. Below, hotel porters scrambled for what was then a scarce commodity, even in partially-consumed form. (Though it can’t quite be said that every screen star just couldn’t wait to return. Silent era film heartthrob George Galli checked out one day and was not seen again for 35 years. His mysterious disappearance was finally solved when he was located in a Belgian monastery).

The secret of this appeal to the shimmering stars of the day had much to do with the individual attention extended them. Eccentricities were well accommodated, with the hotel proclaiming that “every whim of the most exacting guests can be gratified at four in the morning as satisfactorily as at four in the afternoon.” Not only could early cowboy film star Tom Mix ride into the ballroom on his horse Tony, and Billy Butlin, of holiday camp fame, bring his pet leopard to a cocktail party, but accommodation was arranged without a blink for opera star Luisa Tetrazzini’s crocodile. For imposing actor Lionel Barrymore, given to smoking in bed, the hotel commissioned the first fireproof eiderdown. Unfortunately, no such prophylactic was suited to Elton John who, many years later, gave the Savoy its first celebrity flood by overfilling his bath. And, on the subject of baths, Russian bass singer Feodor Shaliapin, who checked in with his pet monkey Boris, warbled so loudly in his tub that he had to be ever so gently persuaded to move to a top floor suite.

A move was always an adventure in itself, as no two of the hotel’s 152 guest rooms and 48 suites are the same. Indeed the matching of celebrity and room has always been as much an art form as a skill; although not without its occasional stumbles. American playwright Moss Hart arrived late one night for a two month stay related to the opening of My Fair Lady in the West End and, with the suite Peter Stafford had intended for his pleasure still occupied by other guests, was shown to another riverside room. The next morning Stafford received a crisp call: “Peter, I don’t want to be a bother but I’m afraid the style of this apartment is ‘early telephone booth’. Really.” It took but a few moments to despatch the porters and make Hart happy, because keeping them happy is what it was, and is, all about. “Them” being entirely different to you and I (except in our dreams).

Marconi, ever the audio experimenter, kept hotel staff busy providing baffles – layers of felt under the room carpet and thick screens mounted in the hallway – to soundproof his suite when he used the Savoy to make history with his first wireless broadcast to the United States. Page boys obliged boxer Jack Dempsey as sparring partners on the roof but quite possibly politely declined to “go fetch” when golfer Walter Hagen wedged a tee near the ledge to drive balls toward a coal barge on the river.

The Personality Suite, where Monet painted the Thames
The Personality Suite, where Monet painted the Thames


Stafford also relates the occasion when actress-turned-Pepsi executive wife Joan Crawford “had arranged drinks for a Saturday afternoon, in one of our function rooms, and had invited 60 or so guests. On the Friday evening before, I had just been in a chemist shop in the hotel courtyard when I was called to the telephone. A very distressed voice cried: ‘Peter, I have been bitten by a bug and my eye is all puffed up. I can’t possibly greet my guests like this, I shall have to cancel!’ I remembered seeing, in the chemist, some quite beautiful, classical theatrical eye patches so I told her I had just the answer. I said, rather firmly, ‘Miss Crawford, I will bring it up myself and you are to wear it’. Of course she had her party and she was the most wonderful lady pirate you’ve ever seen!”

And…some of them just come for the beds, which enjoy their own fame. Just as the surprisingly self-contained Savoy has a private artesian well for the supply of soft water; its own electricity source, The Strand Power Company; and even its own road regulations (Savoy Court, along which one approaches the Art Déco steel and glass marquee, is the only street in Britain along which one legally drives on the right); The Savoy Bedworks makes mattresses, all with a minimum of 836 springs wrapped in cotton, padded with white curled horsehair, cushioned with lambswool, encased in cotton felting and enveloped in ticking of linen and cotton. Tossing and turning is most definitely frowned upon.

I didn’t really get around to counting or testing my springs, busy as I was for much of my stay over by the window, gazing at passing water traffic, taking in that which so inspired Monet and which Charlie Chaplin thought to be “the most stirring view of a city in the world.” Indeed, the comic genius near fell over himself: “I have admired the romantic elegance of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, have felt the mystic message from a thousand glittering windows at sunset in New York, but to me the view of the London Thames from our hotel window transcends them all for utilitarian grandeur.”

While a boy from Sydney with memories of a Manly Ferry crossing at dawn might be tempted toward debate, let it be known that he can also be swayed by a Savoy sunset.

Text copyright Glenn A. Baker 2014.



The French are delightfully perplexing. They turned the cinematic world on its head with the New Wave and then worshiped Jerry Lewis. They are the last word in style yet made sex symbols of Gerard Depardieu, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Gainsbourg. Their tourist attractions are no less fathomable. For every Louvre or Musée d’Orsay, there’s something so completely bizarre that it strains credibility.

Two of my Parisian favourites are hidden away but well worth seeking out. The entrance to the Catacombes de Paris is just opposite the Denfert-Rochereau metro station on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.

Above the entrance is a sign that forbiddingly declares “Stop! This Is The Empire of Death”. Visitors must make their way down a narrow spiral staircase to tunnels that snake 20 metres below the city streets.

Getting there early will avoid the crowds that tend to congregate later in the day but being alone in tunnels that extend for some kilometres can be unsettling. The ossuary holds the bones of around five million people, most removed from old Parisian graveyards during the modernization of the city under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century. A large proportion of the relics originated from the Le Cimetière des Innocents in the Les Halles district.

Whether Paris is sweltering in late summer or freezing with the approach of winter, the catacombs maintain a constant temperature of 11° Celcius. The tunnel floor can be wet and uneven so it’s ill-advised to attempt the walk in your favourite Louboutins. The first 15 minutes or so are fascinating, with skulls and bones arranged in extremely creative groupings. After a while, however, it all becomes a little tedious and not even my extreme fear of rats could elicit more than a tinge of unease.


Anybody hoping to snare an authentic souvenir of the catacombs will be disappointed. A security guard at the exit will search visitors’ bags and confiscate anything that would be of interest to Fido. Photography, however, is permitted.

My all-time favourite Paris tourist attraction is the Musée des Égouts de Paris, the acclaimed Sewer Museum. The entrance is easy to overlook, next to a small blue kiosk on the left bank of the Seine adjacent to the Pont de l‘Alma.

The sewers of Paris were celebrated in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel and the truly miserable musical of the same name (certain parallels can be drawn between it and human waste), and countless movies about the French Resistance during World War II. Although dating back for centuries, Paris’ modern sewer network is yet another legacy of Baron Haussmann, this time working with visionary engineer Eugéne Belgrand.

The museum is far below ground, built on platforms over a working section of the sewers. It is eye-wateringly realistic and it would unwise to visit immediately after breakfast. The exhibits have explanations in both French and English so visitors are in no doubt of exactly what they are seeing and smelling.

It can be said that the sewer museum is a movement away from the traditional sanitised tourist attraction, allowing visitors to peer directly into the underbelly of everyday Parisians. It would be easy to dump on such a concept, to attempt to flush away its philosophical bona fides but the reality is that it’s a breath of (not so) fresh air.


In the 1980s, when negotiations were underway to build Euro Disney outside Paris, there were suggestions that Disney should also take on some of Paris’ most notable tourist attractions. It was only through the protracted protests of French trade unions and leading existentialists that this was avoided.

How the sewer museum would look today in that unlikely event can only be imagined. Perhaps a children’s ride with dancing animatronic figures set in a gleaming porcelain tunnel and a catchy theme song along the lines of “It’s A Small Turd”.

There is, however, a gift shop that has some wonderful souvenirs although, sadly, no snow globes. And, near the exit, there are toilets so that incurable romantics can leave their mark on their favourite city.

For those who always suspected that the French are wonderfully eccentric, there can be no greater examples.

©2014 David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.


Yao Wedding

Blue smoke curls languidly above the huts as though from an opium pipe – until not long ago the preferred nightcap around these parts. Pigs squeal, spooked, catching a whiff on the wind not of poppy but fried pork. An odd little band – on oboe, drum, gong and cymbal – dins and whines its way between the huts of Khun Haeng village. And I am trying to read an invitation card written in curlicue Thai script.

A quick translation by my anthropologist friend, Chob, confirms that we are welcomed to a wedding. “This is a tom chin ca, the major wedding of the year for the village.” says Chob. “It’ll last three days.”


A marigold-robed monk drifts amid the teak houses of this northern Thailand hill town, but it’s still a pig slaughter morning. Here in Khun Haeng – population 336 – almost everyone is down at the communal pump, lathering and chattering, or sluicing pig intestines to form sausage skins. Gold-capped grins to remind the visitor of how important portable wealth is to this Yao, or Mien, hill tribe. Gossip has it that the groom’s family has paid 15 silver ingots in bride price – over 5.6 kilos.

Yao Wedding

Someone calls, “She’s here!” The bride, from a Yao clan 200 kilometres away, has arrived at the village. This serious, pretty 19-year old will now be installed in one of the most extraordinary head-dresses on earth. Attendants first coat her long hair with beeswax then pass it through a hole in a semicircular wooden board that sits atop her head. This “mortar board”, Chob assures me, is just the beginning.

A triangular wooden frame with sides almost a metre long is taped to her mortar board then draped with embroidered cloths. Next, her glossy black skirt and jacket are all but obscured by sashes, tassels and various wraps. Heirloom jewelry follows. Four necklaces, giant croissants of pure silver, are hung around her neck. This, we are told, is her bride price from the groom’s family.

The completed head-dress is now a prowed canopy obscuring the bride’s face. In all, it weighs three kilograms and she may not remove it for the next two days. Miss Saejow is helped to her feet and steps out demurely on her penultimate walk as a single woman.
The oboe and cymbals go into overdrive as the bridal procession enters the village centre. The drummer and the gong man struggle to keep up as the quartet weaves in and out of the crush of satin and boa-bedecked bridesmaids. Village men sit on benches below a shade tree while the mother-in-law-to-be serves them whisky, tea and cigarettes. The women stand in the sun and watch and wilt.

Yao Wedding

The bride progresses to a small bamboo hut where she will spend the whole night sitting up, for her head-dress must remain on. Meanwhile, all night a party roisters in the house of the groom’s family, although the man himself is nowhere to be seen. The oboist seems to have achieved astonishing feats of hyperventilation, playing non-stop for eight hours – until I spot substitute musicians rotating into the band.

Pork trotters, entrails and corn whisky. Sticky rice, cheroots and chatter. In the kitchen, huge pots on wood fires render a succession of pigs, chickens and sacks of rice into party fuel. We toast endlessly in Mekhong whisky shots. Yao guests have poured in from surrounding villages, the regal elegance of the women in their fine geometric embroidery contrasting with the nondescript Western clothing of the males.

“The Yao men gave up their traditional garments when they moved into the cash economy,” explains Chob. “When they go down to market, they feel uncomfortable among the lowland Thai people in such conspicuous clothing.”


I awake to dawn’s dysrhythmia of pigs, gongs and pipes. It strikes me that I should give the couple a gift. A battery clock within a framed portrait of the Thai Royal Family would be both practical and patriotic – and surely original. No plaster ducks from this guest. The regal clock-portrait is procured from the store in a not-too-distant village, is signed with my best wishes and delivered to the family.

After what certainly must have been a sleepless night, the bride – fully adorned in her tent-like carapace – emerges in procession to the groom’s house. Since dawn, the village medium has been explaining to the family ancestors that a new person is coming to live in the house. He blesses offerings of rice and wine, chants from Taoist texts, then decapitates a chicken. It weaves blind circles in the dust, the meanderings of which are interpreted as favorable. The bride mounts the stairs to cross the threshold of her new home. And still no groom in sight.

The party strikes up again. Food is served from sizzling, metre-wide woks full of all parts porcine. The band strays on. I retire to catch up on some sleep. There’s just so much whisky, tea and trotter that one can take before the sun hits the yard-arm.

Come nightfall, the celebration enters a new phase, focusing on the main room of the groom’s house. Children peer in at the windows, then crush in through the door, until there are over 100 people in the room. The floor struts crack, but props are rushed in. Cushions appear before the main table and the house altar.

“There he is!” announces Chob, pointing to a dazed looking youth in a blue business suit. “The bridegroom.”

“He doesn’t look too happy,” I comment.

“Nor would you. He’s got a very tiring night coming up,” Chob adds, without innuendo. “You’ll see.”

Attendants dress the groom in a beautiful blue silk Chinese gown, silver brocaded apron and red turban, plus various sashes and silver ornaments. At last, a man of Yao in his traditional livery. Guests of honour and wedding officials take their places at a long table adorned with plastic roses and fresh pork.

Yao Wedding

The bride emerges and the brand new couple stand together for the first time, resplendent in their tribal finery. They begin to kowtow towards the official table. For the groom, a single kowtow involves three bows from the waist and then, dropping to the cushions, three more from a kneeling position. The bride simply kneels once each time the groom drops to his knees. They rise and repeat the procedure several times.

“This is just the start,” says Chob. “Those first kowtows were to the ancestors. Next, there’s six to each of the four wedding officials, then six to each of the parents, and three to each of the dozen guests of honor. Then some more to the wedding officials.”

My rough estimate brings the groom’s total to almost 100 kowtows of six bows each. Six hundred bows! Instead of a night of connubial bliss, he’s in for one of non-stop, slo-mo step aerobics.


By dawn, even the eight musicians of the Khun Haeng ‘quartet’ have expired. The exhausted young couple concludes their final bows to the guests and officials, perhaps regretting that that so many had honored them. But the knot is tied, the boon conferred. The ceremony indeed has been a tom chin ca, a major wedding, and great honor has been accorded.

It’s then that I notice the wall behind the altar. Overnight, the wedding gifts have been displayed. Mounted upon the wall are no fewer than seven framed portraits of the Thai Royals, along with four battery-operated clocks. However, my offering is one of only three which combines both clock and portrait. Next time, I’ll give the plaster ducks.

Yao Wedding

©2014 John Borthwick. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.


Luang Prabang_Laos 14

Of course, the dire warnings were issued. When an airport was finally opened, when hotel rooms were increased, when new roads reached it through the rugged, forested, low-lying mountains, when Mekong River passenger craft increased in frequency, when visas were no longer rationed or withheld, then South-East Asia’s Shangri-La, the dreamy outdoor-museum-cum-tropical-garden, would lose its intimacy, its shimmering, ethereal tone, its ancient almost fabled allure as a largely inaccessible and perhaps even forbidden destination.

Like reports of Mark Twain’s death, the warnings were greatly exaggerated. The old royal capital, Luang Prabang (great holy image) – the Angkor Wat, Bagan or Xian of Laos, a landlocked nation just a tad bigger than Great Britain in the heart of the toned and textured Indochina Peninsula – is far too set in its ways to be disrupted unduly by a greater flow of curious onlookers.

Ways that were set as far back as 1353, when the settlement in the shape of a large bird’s head and beak on a spit peninsula at the convergence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers that can be traced in recorded history to 698 (when, as Muang Sua, it was conquered by Thai prince Khun Lo) assumed importance as both a spiritual, artistic and political hub of the first Lao Kingdom, the “Land of a Million Elephants”, and a trading conduit between China and the smaller empires below it. None of which went to its head for a moment. Tranquil, harmonious, languid, sedate and even indolent are words that have been enlisted to describe the pace of the place.

The French instinctively understood that when they arrived as colonisers at the end of the 19th century, stumbling upon an isolated, untouched jewel in the jungle, a preserved-in-aspic cultural cascade of temples, monasteries, palaces and golden-spired stupas that had been exposed to little of the non-Asian world. Though they were given to grand boulevards, public buildings and ceremonial quasi-Parisian arches in Vietnam and in the eventual Lao capital, Vientiane, they were prepared to largely leave it be, as “the land of the lotus eaters”.

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In fact, the country itself – once the French grasped that the mountainous terrain and unreliable Mekong ruled out much in the way of plantations, mining, commercial trade and exports beyond opium – was thought to be not worth a great deal of bother and only a few hundred French folk were left on the ground to oversee the Vietnamese civil servants who effectively ran the show.

But while the French hand laid light upon Laos, as the new century dawned they did put in place a modest infrastructure that gives the town a fair portion of its present distinct charm. The colonial buildings, particularly the cool wooden houses, reflected what they’d learned in Vietnam and Cambodia about adapted practicality. A hybrid French-Lao architecture took form and found its most striking manifestation in a Royal Palace for King Sisavang Vong, which is now the National Museum and an essential starting point for a leisurely stroll about what has been listed in its entirety, alongside the likes of the Taj Mahal, Petra, Cappadocia, Stonehenge and Ha Long Bay, as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

Erected to house a long line of Lao monarchs, that king’s son, Savang Vatthana, would be the last head of a 600-year dynasty to enjoy its splendours – French mirrors and murals, Czech chandeliers, Lao lacquered Burmese teak furnishings and those quaint little keepsakes that pass between visiting leaders or their emissaries in the exalted realms of royal privilege and power. In his time, the tragic king and his striking Queen Khamphoui, who gazes down at you with a wistful regality from a wall portrait, were favoured with gifts from Mao, LBJ, Brezhnev and a brace of regional leaders, all on display. But it’s mostly a motley lot of kitsch and bric-a-brac – medals, teacups, firearms, a boomerang, a chunk of moon rock from the Apollo 11 mission and a cheap scale model of the lunar vehicle. There is a white Edsel car still parked in the royal garage.

Though it was officially acknowledged to the outside world in 1989, the death of
Savang has never been formally declared to the Laotian people who are apparently still told, with a certain Orwellian flourish, that he is in the North “for seminars”. Like the Romanovs, the king and his kin met their fate at the hands of aggrieved Bolsheviks; for when the Pathet Lao forces came out of the jungle around the Plain of Jars to claim their country in August 1975 much on their mind was the fact that he had given royal sanction to an American covert counter-insurgency program and a bombing campaign (aimed at the Ho Chi Minh Trail and their own strongholds) that saw more tonnage dropped on Laos than on Germany over the entire span of WWII.

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Like an Asian Poland, the “peaceful kingdom” of Laos has a history of tragedy on a near continual basis. Described as a “pawn in the hands of intrusive neighbors and colonising powers”, it has been a mountainous battlefield upon which Thai and Vietnamese armies played out territorial disputes, the Burmese ruled for half a century, the Mongol hordes took as a province for about a century, and an American Goliath went to war with a Vietcong David. Even when the Japanese, facing defeat in 1945, proclaimed it independent on the way out the door, the French overlords paid no attention.

Had it not been for its strategic positioning, the laconic Luang Prabang might have been able to remain aloof from the ravages of rivalry; its political prominence lasting just 12 years until 1545 when the capital was switched to Vientiane. But while it has known some destruction, it did, like Japan’s Kyoto, sidestep consuming catastrophe by virtue of its treasures. And its importance as a centre of Buddhist study and practice, which manifests itself most plainly in the morning promenade of hundreds of saffron-robed monks who file barefoot through the streets in the pale light with their alms bowls, accepting food from residents and visitors alike. It is a ritualised Theravadan procedure with women, who are not permitted to stand higher than the monks (some of whom are but boys), kneeling respectfully on bamboo mats, clad in shawls.

After the monks and novices – there are some 700 of them – return to their monasteries, the well-awakened visitors, themselves clad in the aura of this rarified realm, set out to do the rounds – walking, cycling or chauffeured – of architectural highlights. When UNESCO welcomed the town into its elite fold at the end of 1995, it identified 33 temples and more than a hundred Lao-French buildings for restoration and preservation. Most are arrayed before you as you ascend Mount Phou Si, the 150-metre-high wooded rock outcrop, festooned with shrines, in the heart of town. From the Wat Chom Si temple atop it, the colour changes of dusk, across the river and the town, sear into the consciousness. On a nearby ridge, an old revolving Russian machinegun speaks again of the trials the town has known.

Though there were once – before marauding Chinese and Thai tribes razed them – twice as many as there are now, temples survived in Luang Prabang because, before the French came along, they were the only constructions permitted to be of brick. The magnificent structures of Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai and Wat Visoun, originally built in 1513, are replete with sculptures, bas-reliefs, paintings, ornately-carved doors, pillars, low sweeping roofs and Buddhas of myriad shape and size, with monks moving silently about them. Held close to the Lao heart is Wat Khili, the only surviving temple in the country built in the Xieng Khuang style – all else in that area having been obliterated by Nixon’s secret bombing sorties.

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Just as with a cathedral tour of Europe, there is an undeniable fatigue factor that can set in as one wat-wanders the compact town, with riches tumbling upon riches. Most visitors then take to the Mekong, journeying west 30 kilometres or so on long passenger boats to the two Pak Ou Caves etched into a towering limestone cliff above the current and whirlpool-prone river. Within, are seemingly haphazard terraces of Buddhas – thousands of wooden and gilded images. With a torch you’ll be able to locate the small graveyard of broken Buddhas. During the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese and their neighbours prefer to call it) Pak Ou was targeted by professional art thieves, in the same manner as Sulawesi’s Torajaland and Cambodia’s Angkor, with many prized pieces ending up in private collections in the U.S. and Europe.

On the outward journey, there is an obligatory stop at the river village of Xang Hai where tasty moonshine whisky distilled from fermented rice is coaxed through miles of tubing out of oil drums brewing over charcoal fires. The potent lao lao, said to be aged in a matter of minutes, is very much an acquired taste. Purchasers can watch it brewed and bottled, often with snakes and scorpions for the enhancement of one’s virility.

To escape antiquities altogether, you can arrange an hour-long drive through the mountains, rice fields and “ethnic minority villages” to the Kwang Si Falls where clean cold water plunges at considerable velocity over limestone formations into surging pools and the swimming experience ranges from tame to tempestuous. Midway from the entrance to the falls is a large enclosure housing Phet the tiger and three Asiatic black bears rescued from poachers’ clutches. Also within reach are blacksmith and textile villages and, by the Nam Khan River, the grave of explorer Henri Mahout, the first foreigner to come upon Angkor Wat in its jungle setting, he having died of malaria at just 35 while living in Luang Prabang.

Further afield is the lightly-visited Plain of Jars, about 130 kilometres to the south-east, where a hundred or so of what was once thousands of large stone jars pointing to the sky and weighing up to six tons are found in two groupings, on a small hill and across a shallow valley. Perhaps wine fermentation jars, perhaps tombs, perhaps water vessels in a region of winter aridity, they pose the same puzzles as Easter Island’s heads. Given that around a quarter of the two million American bombs dropped on Laos fell here, it is some sort of a miracle that eyes are able to alight upon as much as they do.

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The ease, casuality, enveloping ambience and plentiful eateries, guesthouses and, now, quality hotels has given Luang Prabang a growing reputation as a destination that is no friend to the tightly-planned itinerary. There are those who come for days and stay for weeks, oft uttering that word Shangri-La.

Thanks to UNESCO, which has imbued a pride in culture and tradition, exploitation and rampant development is curbed. There are no garish advertising billboards, dangling cables and power lines, franchised shops, eyesore office buildings or the Soviet-style concrete blocks that blight Cuba. The planning is sympathetic to what the United Nations body hailed as the enticing “blending of two distinct cultural traditions”. Integral to maintaining character has been a push to resist the building of new hotels in the fully-protected zone in favour of converting existing colonial mansions and great houses.

Into the picture in 1992 came the Santi family – Lao’s Princess Kampha and husband Sani Inthaong – who transformed an old French mansion into Villa Santi, initially with just 11 rooms. With a new Lao Wing, antiques and artefacts, lush gardens (accommodating classical dance performances), restaurants, a large pool and a well-integrated spa, it is a sumptuous retreat.

Popularity and recognition may be growing but Laos will always be sufficiently remote and removed from the tourism mainstream for it to be whispered about by the world’s wayfarers. The country’s entire population is about a million and a half less than that of Ho Chi Minh City alone. A few motorbikes and cars make their way along Luang Prabang’s few streets, tourists’ gasps are sometimes caught on the wind, children squeal at play and the night markets are lively with good-natured bargaining but nothing much disturbs a nonchalance as deeply rooted as the thick stands of trees that encase it all.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker 2014.



Back before design hotels perverted the concept of hospitality into look-at-me-ain’t-I-cool egotism, there were novelty hotels. You could place the tiki craze, with its flamboyant, rose-coloured hankering for the South Pacific, that caught on in the United States in the interwar years, firmly in this category. But there were other, often crazier examples that enlivened the novelty hotel market.

Very few remain, the victim of changing fashions and the newer-is-better mindset of modern times. It’s turned full circle with the retro craze, of course, but too little and too late to save some of the genuinely unique examples of long ago.

When I was plotting the course of a road trip through the US south-west some time back, the Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook, Arizona, was first on the list. It was part of the revered Route 66 of popular culture, the early 20th century highway that cut across the United States from Chicago to Los Angeles and provided an escape for the Dust Bowl refugees (sketched out by of Steinbeck and his ilk) towards a brighter future.


When Route 66 was dismantled and replaced by the soulless Interstates, the Mother Road faded into obscurity. These days, Holbrook is just off the I-40, a roundabout way east from Los Angles and just beyond Winslow, which has as about its only claim to fame being featured in an Eagles song, Take It Easy.

My first mistake was travelling in November. With winter approaching, the days were clear and sunny but with little warmth in the sun. At night, the temperature plummeted. I arrived in Holbrook after dark and checked in just before the motel’s office closed up tight like the town itself.

The Wigwam Hotel looks exactly like the old postcards. A circle of tall teepees made of concrete with a smattering of old long-abandoned cars that lends it a certain Twilight Zone je nes sa qua. Inside, the teepees were disarmingly spacious but the small heater had a hard time minimising the deepening chill.


The long drive had exhausted me and I soon fell into a deep sleep. Early in the morning, however, the bone-numbing cold etched its way into my dreams and eventually brought me awake. I put another blanket on the bed, then covered that with the contents of my suitcase. As snug as I could possibly be without crawling into the suitcase and zipping it up over me, I drifted back into a fitful sleep.

Not too long afterwards, the long agonized low notes of a freight train’s horn felt like it was sounding just outside the teepee. When I investigated, I found it was. The rear boundary of the Wigwam Motel is right next to the train tracks. If I was a trainspotter, I’d be in heaven. I wasn’t.

It was to be a valuable lesson in nostalgia. The Wigwam Hotel, just one of three surviving teepee motels left in the US and still operated by relatives of the original owner, is a must-stay. But, in winter, when it’s cocooning you need to endure long road trips, aim for an Embassy Suites or better and drop by the Wigwam for souvenirs and photos.

©2014 words and photos David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.


Gauguin's Grave

Paul Gauguin’s great granddaughter, Rosalie Tipaehaehae isn’t sitting half-naked, framed by a violet sea or sky, as though in one of her infamous ancestor’s paintings. Down by Atuona Harbour on Hiva Oa Island, she is sitting, in jeans and t-shirt, chatting with her friends on a hot Sunday afternoon.

Rosalie, in her mid-twenties, laughs when I ask if she paints? No way, she says – Grandpa Gauguin’s an impossible act to follow. And around here, the Marquesas Islands, not one that you’d really want to. In 1901, Rosalie’s great-grandmother, Marie-Rose Vaeoho, was just 14 when, to the horror of the colonial missionaries, she took up with the recently-arrived 53-year old French painter and later gave birth to his daughter.

Eleven decades after his death, in 1903, we still picture Polynesia through Gauguin’s eyes. He had travelled here to feed Europe’s hunger for “primitive” subject matter in art and to find paradise on earth. Volcanic, cloud-crowned Hiva Oa was as close as he would get.

Gauguin museum

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848. His life was to become the template – or trope – of the Romantic artist: chasing love and inspiration in all the wrong places, and instead finding exile and dissipation. Throw in what used to be known as social diseases, plus more than social drinking, and you might have a portrait of the artist as a loser.

After a childhood spent partly in Peru, Gauguin became a Paris stockbroker in 1872, but success in the city and complacency in the suburbs were not to be his fate. A self-taught painter, he quit the stock market in 1882 and, obsessed with art, left his wife and five children in 1885.

In Brittany, he worked briefly with Vincent van Gogh. The end of their volatile friendship was the precursor to Van Gogh’s infamous “ear incident.” By 1890, Gauguin’s work was out of favour with Paris. “Gauguin was like a cornered dog,” notes Nancy Mowll Mathews, author of a critical biography, Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life. “He was harrying friends for cash and desperately proposing one new money-making scheme after another.”

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Inspiration came from an unexpected quarter. “Her eyes were of a tawny black, full of exotic languor and coaxing softness,” novelist Pierre Loti had written of Rarahu, a Tahitian beauty who had entranced him in 1872. His hugely popular tale about their love affair, Le Mariage de Loti, was lush with exotic romance and fanned Europe’s passion for “the primitive”. Among its readers was Gauguin. He decided to travel to Tahiti, proclaiming, “It is necessary for me to steep myself in virgin nature, to see no one but savages.” Thus began his self-mythologising as an aesthetic castaway, a Robinson Crusoe of the libido.

On the inauspicious date of April Fools Day, 1891, Gauguin – of dark, bohemian appearance, sporting long hair and a cape – embarked from Marseille. Arriving in Papeete just after his 43rd birthday, he prepared to meet King Pomare V, hoping for royal patronage. Instead, the king, a terminal alcoholic, dropped dead. With his funds soon running out, Gauguin agreed to accept portrait commissions. His first subject was a sturdy, middle-aged matron whom he rendered with striking fidelity, including her scarlet nose, ensuring that his first commission was also his last.

Anyhow, Papeete, he declared, was already too bourgeois. He decamped to the coastal village of Mataiea, eventually setting up house with Teha’amana, a 14-year old vahine (by Polynesian standards of the time, a mature woman). Her face, he said, “shone like gold, tinging everything with its lustre”. They lived in relative contentment from 1891 to 1893, during which Gauguin produced 66 major works. In them, he celebrated Tahiti as an untrammelled realm of handsome, brooding figures, most notably women, amid vivid landscapes.

The subtext, however, of his “painter in paradise” existence was poor health and exhausted finances. After two years, he returned to Paris. What was to be a triumphant exhibition of his paintings ended as a debacle. His use of broad areas of bold colour, his Tahitian subjects – almost hypnotically strong figures – and his idiosyncratic, flat compositions outran critics and buyers alike. The proceeds of the exhibition barely covered expenses. In 1895 he embarked again for Tahiti in what one writer called “a spirit of doomed renunciation”.

Gauguin Tahiti dance 1

“It’s not such a bad life at present. Every night frenzied young girls invade my bed.” Gauguin persisted in mythologising himself and Polynesia. In fact, as Tahitian writer Loana Sanford notes, “it is unlikely that, with one leg infected and purulent, he would have had that much success with [women], particularly as Tahitians attach great importance to personal hygiene.”

His life on Tahiti resumed its cycle of financial insecurity, intense painting, a new teenage wife, illness and diatribes against French colonial ways. “Gauguin seems to have fallen for the myth of Tahiti he created,” says author Mathews. “He returned expecting the erotic idyll that was only ever a figment of his imagination. Of course, he didn’t find it and the disappointment was profound”.

In 1898, he painted a huge, fresco-like masterpiece (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) intended to be his terminal philosophical summation, D’où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous? (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?). Suicide by arsenic was to follow but, even this, he botched by ingesting so much poison that he vomited it all back up.

In 1901, art dealer Ambroise Vollard made Gauguin the unexpected offer of a guaranteed monthly income. “Life is merely a fraction of a second. An infinitely small amount of time to fulfil our desires, our dreams, our passions,” Gauguin had written. Perhaps sensing that not much time remained to him if he wished to fulfil his dream of finding a Polynesian Elysium, he abandoned yet another wife and child on Tahiti, and sailed for the distant, verdant Marquesas Islands.

To ingratiate himself with the all-important missionary authorities on Hiva Oa, Gauguin attended mass for 11 days in a row. Having thus convinced the local bishop of his piety, he was permitted to purchase land in the little village of Atuona. He then constructed a large studio-home, gave it the scandalous title “Masion du Jouir” (House of Pleasure), took a new teenage mistress, invited the locals in to roister – and never darkened the church doorway again. As he further refined and simplified his Post-Impressionist imagery over his last 19 months of life, the rest of his affairs, in contrast, descended into chaos.

Gauguin Tahiti male dancer

Some versions of him in the Marquesas have him too ill to paint; others have him too ill to do anything but paint. Either way, Gauguin could barely walk due to his ulcerated legs and so he travelled by horse-drawn buggy. Having provoked the ire of Atuona’s gendarmes whom he had libellously accused of bribery, he was summoned for driving at night without lights — supposedly endangering other traffic. His buggy, as the gendarmes failed to point out, was the only wheeled vehicle in the Marquesas.

Morphine, laudanum, absinth, syphilis, ulcers. The contributors to Gauguin’s final decline are numerous. He retreated to his House of Pleasure and, on 8 May 1903, expired miserably. Officially, he died of a heart attack but quite possibly he ended his life with morphine. The bureaucrat who finalised his estate wrote that, “The few pictures left by the late painter who belonged to the decadent school have little prospect of finding purchasers”.

The Marquesas archipelago today is still a place of primal beauty, where the mountains plunge almost vertically to the sea, with their buttressed flanks like the folds of an emerald curtain. At the foot of their cathedral peaks are tiny villages tucked into a narrow coastal plain. Other than a few French bureaucrats and gendarmes, the faces here seem to have stepped from a Gauguin canvas.

Not far from where I meet his great granddaughter, the artist who almost single-handedly invented our idea of Tahiti, lies buried in a boulder tomb. Marked simply, “Paul Gauguin 1903”, the grave is the main visitor attraction in little Atuona, if not the entire Marquesas. With frangipani and rosewood trees shading him, it is as tranquil a place as any on earth to spend a century or an eternity.

Gauguin's girls 2

©2014 John Borthwick. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.