Comma for a Thought, Semicolon for a Memory, and a Pause for a Pocket Book of Life
By Anindita Chatterjee
HELLO DARKNESS MY OLD FRIEND: An unpretentious restaurant tucked away in a quotidian street of Ho Chi Minh City, Noir was an experience of dining in the dark. Being a foodie, dining in the heart of darkness plagued every cell of my anxious control mechanism. It was as though my sustained definition of self in a cocooned softness of comfort was tousled by that presence of the unknown. I stepped through the door of a beautifully lit world, my mind resigned to carte blanche. The transition into the “other world” thereafter was gentle, assuring, stripping me gradually of all my trappings – the gadgets, material trinkets, instruments of technology. There was no rushed endeavour, or frenetic usher as my gentle hostess Linh and I tiptoed into an incomprehensible world. An anxious, fearful darkness spread like a thick, impenetrable sheath around me, until a soothing voice broke the last frontier of defense; it was Linh. She sat me down on the chair, took my hand to make me aware of my surrounding, in this case the table set in front of me, position of the plates on it, glasses, knives, fork, and spoon. Needless to say, even though I was not expecting myself in the company of the esteemed monsieur Macron, I had ordered the food with an elaborate wine pairing, which meant I had to identify the glasses as well, while battling a nightmare of glasses shattering around me, out of the control of my deft exactness. What was I scared of at that instant? It was that prickly loss of control over the calculated and preconceived notions of accuracy and prior knowledge. For the first time in my life, I did not even see or know what I was eating;my guides were my heightened senses, savouring every bite, twirling them around my tongue to absorb each flavor, texture, and smell. Every bite was a revelation, a pandora’s box of possible cause this was not the domain of certainty or absolutes. The eye did not choose, hence rules were not set at the onset about the likes and dislikes, the dos and don’ts. The mind was unfettered, senses free to savour and cherish. Slowly the body language eased, the tense muscles relaxed, darkness became an accomplice, the wine circled around my tongue and the food became a riot of sensation. Linh came after each course, gently touching my hand, replacing my plate, filling my glass and asking about my thoughts on the food. By that time I had entered into a world of sublime pause, a delicate silky world of senses, the soul replacing my myopic vision and moments of quiet reckoning to bond with the other side of perception. Minutes passed, hours spread like a blanket around me, until I felt a tangible tingling sadness that the moment might just be over. Linh held my grateful hand and ushered me into the familiar harshness of the neon lights, the lights that have no significance in her dark world, the soulful eyes that felt and did not see, the lips that smiled from the heart even though they had not seen me, and the hands that touched and warmed my soul. For a brief while we shared the same universe, Linh as the soulful visionary and guide, and I as a spectacled short-sighted lost traveler. Yet in those moments there was a strange sense of liberation, an unbearable lightness of being. Who is blind – the question lingered, those of us who live in the light or those who can do without and still see all that is necessary. My eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light that split the night and touched the sound of silence
OF A MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON: This magical sea of hills was formed many moons ago, almost five million years before we knew how to train our dragons, sitting at our cinema privés nursing a giant glass of coke. The giant benevolent dragon warriors had once descended from the sky to defend the hapless beings and spit jade emerald and other jewels to form a protective barrier against invasions. The world then did not have the hungry snouted diamond hunters called De Beers; hence away from prying eyes, there formed deep emerald lakes and jade scattered karsts. Trees, birds, wind, rain, and fish soon found refuge in this bountiful mythical Halong Bay. Time has stood still since, the thousand islands, countless karsts plunging into the sea and deep caves bear witness to the chronicles of human beings and their gory secrets. My presence in the bay felt so insignificant, a mute witness perhaps, awed by the stillness of the deep and the solemn magnificence of this ancient land. Who would have thought few kilometers away from scurried hive of Hanoi lies this poised, self-possessed ocean of tranquil infinity. The consumerist hunger and incessant daily invasion by thousands of tourist boats have not been able to tame this “descending dragon” of resilience. Halong Bay unveils its many faces during the passage of a day – either the grey clouds of obscure secrecy cast their shadows on the ominous monstrosity lurking deep, or the piercing blue of the sky reflect the mesmerizing emeralds and the aqua marines, while the setting sun spreads its crimson passion web lush like a bride, only to be hushed by the moon as it casts its shadows over the bedtime stories. The fishermen community live fearlessly amidst these grottos and the deep, the question of sustainability writ large on their faces. The waves rock their rickety life boats of untold dreams and ripe destinies and yet merely a kilometer away poised are the luxury cruise liners. A host of queer tourists in their million dollar plumes view them everyday as an essential must-see, an indigenous fixture of this land. I stared into this impenetrable silence for hours and days, a silent tear drop fell into the well of silence, and I whispered a wish: give me a bowl of morning glory salad with some fish stew and I shall be thy mute witness, thy worshipper, and I shall grow old to tell thy stories.
OF AWKWARD SHAPES AND SIZES; CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE EXTRAORDINARY KIND: A short flight from Istanbul into Kayseri and driving though kilometers of bland flatness does not quite prepare anyone for the bizarre and unexpected moonscape of Cappadocia. Göreme is a peculiar land where ET would have felt comfortably at home meeting Indiana Jones, and Ghost Riders stomp through the wilderness with fits of vengeful fire coming out of their eye sockets. They call it the land of fairy chimneys. I call it a wonder-land, where long stemmed shimeji mushrooms, Roman pillars, ice cream cones (not Nestlé), honeycombs, caves, and countless phallic outcrops have formed rather unlikely pairs and somewhat weird associations.
Once upon a time ahot headed goon awoke from slumber from deep within the bowels of the earth and not having anything better to do exhaled massive loads of vile ash. Something good came out of it though: the vile ash solidified over time and formed soft rocks called tuffs. The sun and the moon, wind and the rain, became their steady companions and when funny little humans called Hittites came to live around 1800 to 2000 BC, the caves sheltered them and became the hobbit homes. Empires formed and soon one became extinct to give way to another. Göreme was caught amidst the wraths of rival empires, Greeks, Persians, Byzantine Greeks, and a host of rivals. To escape from the egotistical fumes, people needed to hide and the soft rock became refuge to underground towns some as deep as eight stories.
Hitchhiker’s Guide and Glide across Göreme
Hiking through the Rose valley of Göreme, I felt like a tomb raider walking through a timeless space of magical shapes and treasures, of abandoned homes and muraled chapels, caves hooded like Ku Klux Klan, a tinted world of hushed secrets. Walking into Derinkuyu underground city, one of the deepest troglodyte cave-cities, the first thing that came to my mind was that, they ought to have had visible warnings everywhere: “people exceeding certain weights and heights must enter at their own risk.” While descending the narrow caverns of the cave township, I was reminded of my days of feasting and the gratifying inner voice (that same voice that titillates you when you see good food or chocolate that you only live once), was not altogether a good companion. Troglodyte is not connected to any dinosaur family, just a natural temperature regulated, no electricity bills generated habitat that provide heat in winter and remain cool in summer. The underground city is approximately 85m deep and contains all the rooms required (stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, churches, wineries, etc.). It is unlikely that the underground cities were ever intended for permanent dwelling, or even long stays, but they were clearly built to withstand attack and could support large numbers of people and their domestic animals, for extended periods of time. Call it meticulous planning, the chu chi tunnel makers of Vietnam could have drawn their inspiration from this town planning.
The pink blushful dawn spreads its wings upon Göreme, gently, yet lavishly bestowing its affection. Hundreds of hot air balloons prepare themselves for a flight, as you are sipping on the delicate smoothness of the Turkish coffee. Haltingly, albeit gingerly you take your first step onto the flying bird, and off you go soaring high with your dreams, the wind beneath your wings, into a scarlet sunrise. A whole new world unfolds before you, under you, around you like a panorama, enveloping you in its soft embrace, of that breeze that reminds you nothing else matters more than here and now. The balloon gently drifts past the fairy chimneys, pigeon houses, rose-tinted valleys, and rippled ravines of this lunar valley, across the ripe pumpkin fields for hours, and then just like life, with a clean sweep of a glide, your journey into the la la land is over. Chuffed like Flintstone, you retreat into your cave of dreams, and drift into a sonorous hibernation.
A river, some wine, and footsteps into history
LOST IN THE LAP OF DOURO: His name was ‘Lost’. I heard the pitter-patter of his footsteps following me through the narrow cobblestone streets and terraced vineyards of the sleepy little village called Provesende, till we reached Morgadio da Calçada. Lost took his lead with a nimble sprint and led me into the stately manor house whose origin echoes back to the seventeenth century, and Lost’s rightful home. Lost is the four legged guardian angel of Morgadio da Calçada, one of the few standing manor houses in the Douro valley of Portugal. Manuel opened the doors to the house and the modest guestrooms, opening his heart and door to the smell of warm hospitality. Here fresh bread is still made the way it was hundred years ago. Homemade Portuguese delicacies and the sprawling vineyards within the estate welcome you. Very rarely does the rational mind and the mercurial heart speak the same language, except in the Douro valley dotted with its picturesque villages, small baroque churches standing proud in their ornate details, and the ruddy faced friendly villagers who seem to be lost in their reverie of life as they see it. Wine has always been a part of this manor house, as the age-old cellars breathe the historical sighs, opulent indulgence reflects in the silvers, the flicker of flames from the Murano glass fill the banquet rooms with hushed game of thrones and shadows dance with the music of the flames in the wail of an era gone by.
THE DEEP AND THE DIVINE CALLED THE DOURO: Following the trail of this oldest demarcated wine region in the world, from 1750s or thereabouts as the native place for port wine, I realized so much about a place is how well it lends itself to the marketing world as a commodity. The Douro valley has almost a fierce reticence about its intention to do the ‘me myself’ route, quiet that it is, achingly unique in its essence and painstakingly desperate in its attempt to be left to itself. It resonated with my state of being and my constant tussle with the world. With the schist soil, steep inclines that makes mechanization impossible and still relies on human beings to create the magic, coupled with harsh summers, the 200 odd grand old Quintas (dedicated wine estates) stand tall amidst the spectacular rolling hills of verdant vineyards cut by the winding Douro River gleaming in the sun. The uncharitable terroir leads the persistent vines to an almost unyielding endurance that perhaps give that beautiful full body to the wine of the region. It is here that I realised that words are for the faint-hearted and silence is deep, resounding, and vast as it was, is, and will be for generations to come.
Anindita Chatterjee is a senior professional in the minerals commodity sector, living in Johannesburg, South Africa. Travelling is her hobby; art, architecture, music and history her interests; and sharing tales with laughter over wine and stimulating conversation, an enduring passion.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.