Jumat, 26 Agustus 2011

TRAVEL DIARIES: Solo - Kerala - Paris

Published in Now! Jakarta, September 2011


Raja Sumasuma of Maluku channels the spirit of a 10th century statue at the Harjonegaran palace.

Last month I had to review “Sugar Barons”, the blockbuster by Mathew Parker, for Women’s Wear Daily so I took myself to the French Antilles (Guadelope) for some fun and rum.

The trip started in Central Java — another great sugar producer — where a ceremony was being held to commemorate the death of my old guru, batik maestro Go Tik Swan, known since his death as Panembahan Hardjonagoro.

It was a ten day trip of wild contrasts — Java, Paris and Jamaica!! — utilizing the services of a handful of airlines (Silk Air, Emirates, Air France and Singapore Airlines).

Local ladies praying for the soul of Panembahan Hardjonagoro.

Plates of ‘Bistek Spesial’ piled up in the Hardjanagaran house kitchen.

2nd July, 2011: To Solo, for a beautiful ceremony for an exceptional aesthete

In many Muslim countries 1000 days after a death is considered an auspicious day for the deceased’s soul — when the gates to heaven are open at their widest.

Today the family and friends of Panembahan Hardjonegoro are holding a night of Muslim prayer at the exquisite multi-courtyard-home- com-private- museum he built near the Kraton, the Solo palace he so loved.

The highlight of the evening is the release of eight doves by the eight children of his adopted son, Kanjeng Warno.

After a dinner of steak and vegetables — in the Dutch-Solonese tradition — one of the VIP guests, the Raja of Samusamu, engages in some spirited, free-range ‘channeling’ of the spirits of the ancient Hindu-Java statues which dot the courts (photo top).

The remarkable main court of Hardjonagaran home on the night if the 1000 day prayers.

LEFT: A rebab player in the Hardjonagaran house gamelan orchestra.
RIGHT: The Batik exhibition in the main courtyard the next day.

3rd July 2011: A garden party to celebrate a life devoted to Javanese culture
This morning the house has been turned into a Batik museum; a display of Hardjonagoro’s extraordinary collection of Javanese court textiles is hung on antique easels in the pavilions.

For the first time, the two gamelan sets of the house are playing. One of the sets was ‘inherited’ from Stamford Raffles private collection (‘private’ since the British troops ransacked the Hamengkubuwono palace in nearby Jogyakarta in the early 19th century).

Le tout Solo are here and a big slice of Jakarta high society too. In life, Hardjonagoro was a consummate aesthete — in the Solonese tradition. Since his death, the various rituals and gatherings have been bathed in beauty.

• • •

In Solo, where I stayed at the heavenly Roemahkoe in the Laweyan district. From Solo I took Silk Air to Kochi, via Singapore.

19th century Indian artist Raja Ravi Varma’s depiction of Vasco da Gama at the court of the King of Travioncore.

6th July 2011: To Kochi, Kerala, India — an ancient port once linked, intimately, to Indonesia, through the spice trade
St. Thomas, St. Francis Xavier, Vasco da Gama, and the 13th century Moroccan Ibn Battuta all once visited this important spice trade entrepot.

In a hotel near the old fort I discover a fabulous print of a painting of Vasco da Gama presenting himself at the court of the King of Travancore, in 1492. The artist is Kerala’s most famous son, Raja Ravi Varma, a member of the Travancore Royal family.

The palace still exists on a small island that juts off the coast in front of the Portuguese-built fort. In fact, the Portuguese controlled much of Kochi and nearby Goa during the years of nutmeg trade with Banda Neira in the Spice Islands, in Indonesia.

• • •

In Kochi (where I stayed at the delightfully local Abad Airport Hotel). From Kochi I caught Emirates to Paris, via Dubai. At Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2F I rolled back into bed inside the luxurious Andrée Putman-designed airport Sheraton.

19th century photography of a Creole spice vendor in the Guadeloupe Museum.

The next day I caught Air France to Pointe-à-Pitre, the capital of Guadeloupe, where I am also starting work on a garden design for an 18th century plantation home in the foothills of volatile Mt. Souffier.

Guadeloupe is a bit like Mauritius which is a bit like Singapore. It is beautiful, but the only time I felt that I was in the Caribbean, and not in France, was when I was advised not to take photographs of coloured folk.

“Post colonial rage is all the rage,” one local wag impressed upon me.

The locals are often a tad ‘gruff’ in Guadeloupe.

The exception being the local Indian “Malabar coolies” (as the Island French quaintly call them) descended from the workers (not slaves) brought to Grenada by the British some 250 years ago, to create nutmeg plantations in an attempt to defeat the Dutch-East Indies Company’s monopoly of the lucrative nutmeg trade.

The colonial park at Habitation Bois Debout, Guadeloupe, where I am working.

The educated ‘Island French’ I met didn’t know about this, which was pretty amazing; we ‘Island English’ (Australians) celebrate France’s Colonial Era Explorers, such as La Perouse and Bougainville.

In the foothills of Mt. Souffier I was delighted to find a number of 18th century plantation homes and gardens, still in the hands of the original families, and still authentically colonial. This is rare in the tropical world where most of the old colonial-era families were driven out during ‘shifts’ following independence; or where most old homes have succumbed to the humidity, and gardens to the ravages of time.

In the non-tropical colonial world one can think of quite a few still delightfully-preserved 18th century outposts — Litchfieldin Connecticut, Hills End in Australia, Arrowsville in New Zealand — but in the tropical world it is rare.

It is really only in the old Spanish colonies — Antigua in Guatemala, in the Philippines and in Cuba, in particular — and not in the French or the Dutch ex-colonies, where some 18th century architecture of the occupiers survives.

LEFT: One of many magnificent municipal monuments that dot the highways of Guadeloupe.

Guadeloupe today is ultra-modern — great roads, airports, schools and hospitals — and ultra French (meals, manners and mademoiselles, in that order, still of supreme importance), but also delightfully laid back.

The 1,628 sq kilometer island has over 100 small, cozy “table d’hote” restaurants perched, variously, on beach promontories and inside old plantation estates. It also boasts a number of world-class horticultural gardens, dive sites and rum-drinks.

I visited a number of rhumeries and sugar plantations before heading home.

14th July 2011: Bastille Day in Paris
Until today I never knew that the old English expression “as camp as a Fireman’s Ball”, dates back to the French Revolution, when Paris was burning, and pretty heads were rolling, and the fireman of the day were all out copying with the mayhem.

All that bloodied brocade: no wonder they started to bat for the other side!

LEFT: Chantal Lognos, the charming Chatelaine of Habitation Bois Debout
RIGHT: French actress Hortense Franc at ‘Marly’, the Louvre, on Bastille Day.

My hosts, the coquettishly colonial-Cambodian Montenay family and a few arty friends are tonight dining at Café Marly, which runs along one side of the Cour Napoléon at the Louvre. French film-star Hortense Franc has joined us and is causing quite a stir amongst the whippet-thin and perfectly groomed waiters, Paris’ pride and joy.

• • •

Agnes Montenay’s Balinese-modern-French-romantic garden in the shadow of Chateau Courance.

The next day I visit Château de Courances outside Paris and the newly restored 17th century gardens.

One is easily seduced by the beauty of all things French, after the vulgarity of New Asia — I mean the relentless trendoidism of New Aisa and the lack of respect for traditional culture — so it is with a heavy heart that I crawl back into bed on a Singapore Airlines Airbus 380 — it’s a hard life for us New Asians — and head back East, to all the glitter and the gauche.