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It was only in Bagan that I experienced, fully, the serenity of the Buddha. Wandering through the undergrowth around one of the hundreds of pagoda clusters that stud the landscape, I came upon him, his face aglow in the setting sun, the pagoda crumbling, its arches and brickwork jagged, pigeons fluttering in its dim corridors. He wore a smile of such beatitude, and there emanated from him such a radiant calm that I, an unbeliever, felt in the presence of divinity.
I was so glad that I had finally seen an unpainted, ungilded, unadorned Buddha in an abandoned temple, surprising because it abutted a complex of restored and landscaped monuments just off the edge of the road. It’s true, the whole compound had an air of quietude about it, with no one around, the leaves of its ficus and neem and tamarind trees whispering in the gentle breeze, the many Buddhas in the niches gleaming white, gleaming gold. But it was that solitary figure, pale ochre against the dull red eroding bricks of the pagoda in the sunset who is imprinted in my mind.
Borobodur & Bali
The Ministry of Coffee is an unusual name for a hotel, but then this was a somewhat unusual place for the street we were on in Yogyakarta. Prawirotaman is in old Yogya, but it’s sort of shabby and rundown, the equivalent of Paharganj, according to Pogey, full of mid-range tourist accommodation, mostly unremarkable. But the Ministry of Coffee is light, airy, very gracious in its hospitality—and, as the book says, has the best cakes, pastries and coffee in Yogya. Not surprisingly, it’s been set up to promote Javanese coffee, and it seems to be succeeding. Now I know why the coffee hangout in Bangalore is called Java City.
But our room was tiny! Barely enough room to move, one of those showers that you need a shoehorn to get into, and a cupboard with barely enough space for a few hangers! However, the staff couldn’t have been more charming, and anyway, all we did in the room was sleep. (Ubud couldn’t have been more of a contrast, but more of that later.) Not being able to unpack our things, we simply set our bags down and went out to explore the town.
Walking was difficult, because we were in imminent danger of being mowed down by motor-cyclists—everyone in Yogya seems to roar past on motorbikes—there were no sidewalks to speak of, and the streets were fairly dirty and potholed. Still. Wandered into a couple of antique shops, bought a few essentials at a local department store, and made our way back to the Ministry.
Prawirotaman, and it seemed much of Yogya, is made up of small shops, petty businesses, dozens of automobile spare parts and motorbike showrooms—and scores of shopfronts with small goods. Assorted household items, groceries and provisions, clothes, bric-a-brac, money-changers, tour operators, Internet kiosks, batik shops, the ubiquitous travel agents selling Borobudur, Prambanam, Surabaya, Denpasar, and all the other popular tourist destinations. Everyone is unfailingly courteous, even the touts are polite and helpful (unlike in India where they are aggressive and overbearing), so you don’t mind being accosted by becakdrivers every few yards, who when you decline, ask hopefully, “Maybe later?” Maybe later became like a kind of signature, a way of saying there’s hope yet for a possible deal.
Sicily: Lampedusa Land
Dolce, dolce, dolce. Sicily must be the sweets capital of the world because you cannot imagine the varieties of scrumptious confections in its pasticcerias. With or without ricotta. With or without almonds. Marzipan. Chocolate. Candied fruit. Buttermilk curd. Light-as-air pastries. Mouth-watering biscuits twisted around fig, cinnamon and clove confit. It was all those nuns servicing all those priests and churches who exalted pastry-making to a fine art. They baked and baked, they trained new initiates, as well as children sent to their orphanages and convents, and they left a legacy of confectionery that flourishes to this day.
In Erice, at Maria Grammatico’s café, this art is found at its best and can be savoured to complete delight. Deposited by her poverty-stricken mother in the 1950s at the age of eleven to the care of the nuns of S. Carlo, Maria toiled tirelessly in the kitchens, learning the art of pastry-making in its smallest detail—beating sugar mixtures for six hours at a stretch, priming the ovens before daybreak—mastering it, and opening her own shop in the 1960s.
It was the same in Modica, where Casa Don Puglisi (a laboritario dolcario) was established by the nuns to honour the memory of the priest, Don Puglisi, murdered by the Mafia because of his work with drug addicts. All proceeds from the laboritario go towards rehabilitating former addicts and continuing Don Puglisi’s work.
But it was in the Siracusa market—itself a gastronomic wonder—that we had the best sandwiches ever. You enter the market through the bric-a-brac stalls, manned mostly by immigrants, past the small household goods, cosmetics and toiletries, cheap tourist trinkets and jewellery stands, the usual fare, and then, a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables! Giant cauliflowers and pumpkins, deep purple aubergines offset by ivory-coloured onions (some weighing a kilo each) and bright red and yellow tomatoes and peppers; bottlegreen zucchini, slender and long; olives, olives and more olives. All the frutta del mare, fish and crustaceans, meats, sausages, hams, walnuts the size of small apples, and cheeses—stand after stand of the most delectable, fresh buttery-yellow or pale varieties. The aroma alone is so heady you can faint!
After savouring the smoked ricotta with olive oil and herbs at his stall, the voluble owner insisted we sample his daughter’s sandwich. We demurred, having had our usual heavy breakfast. But no, you must, said Antonella. In we went to where his daughter was standing behind the counter, waiting to show off her art-of-the-sandwich. She took out a long baguette, cut it in half length-wise and then gouged out the bready part so that it formed little mounds. ‘I say you in Eenglish,’ she said, as she proceeded to sprinkle the baguette with olive oil. ‘Now, oregano,’ she went on, and picked up a sprig, crushed the herb and let it fall on the baguette in a flurry of tiny flakes. ‘Then formaggio, plenty of it, and prosciutto,’ and turning, she cut the thinnest slices that you could almost see through, laid them on the cheese, placed the other half of the baguette on top, pressed it down, and cut eight equal pieces. The combination of flavours and the freshness of the ingredients made for a taste I can still conjure up—and she wouldn’t accept a penny for it.