Sunday, January 31, 1999

New York finds new pride in the lives of its huddled masses

New York finds new pride in the lives of its huddled masses

The real history of a city is in how its people live, as Kate Simon discovers in a resurgent Harlem. And Jeremy Atiyah explores restored immigrants' apartments at a tenement-turned-museum


FUNNY TO think that in Shakespeare's time, Manhattan was no more than a wet patch of hardwood forest. It was only in the middle of the last century, in fact, that urban life seriously began to get going here - amazing what a few million tons of brick and cement can do to a landscape.

So amazing, in fact, that you sometimes suspect that the construction of New York has been a post-historical event. Don't worry. Swathes of Manhattan already resemble a museum-piece - a 1930s art-deco vision of the future, struggling manfully with Dickensian shades. It is a city which, in 11 months' time, will be an icon of the last century. The much more phenomenal growth of places like Shanghai's Pudong district in the 1990s makes Manhattan look as eternal as Rome or Damascus. A City That Time Forgot, so to speak.

The search for ancient history in Manhattan took me into the Lower East Side, to number 97 Orchard Street to be precise. In these ugly old streets lurks a strange paradox: of the many millions of immigrants who poured on to the North American continent in the latter half of the 19th century - bold, enterprising pioneers every one of them - an extraordinary proportion never got any further than a mile from their point of landing.

The effort of crossing the Atlantic? A residual magnetic pull from the Old World? Whatever it was that stifled their pioneering urges, the much- vaunted lure of the New World (spreading for thousands of miles to the north, south and west) was not enough to prevent millions of brand new immigrants from plonking themselves down and refusing to budge the minute they had landed. It is no surprise to learn that the Lower East Side of Manhattan quickly became the most densely populated urban area on earth.

The grotty brick-built tenement block at 97 Orchard Street was just the kind of place where most of these people ended up living. Between 1863 and 1935 this six-storey building - with four flats on each floor - housed up to 10,000 different people. Left derelict from 1935 (when changes in the housing law rendered it illegally dangerous) this particular house - one of many possibles - was bought up by the local authority in 1988 and it has since been converted into one of New York's most fascinating small museums.

The identities of the original occupants of the house have been researched in detail (with help from living descendants), and three of the flats have been restored in immaculate detail - to three particular moments in history. Three snap-shots from the century of immigration. There is the flat in 1874 of Nathalie Gumpertz, a German-Jewish dressmaker; there are the Rogarshevskys, an Orthodox Jewish family from Lithuania, in 1918; and there are the Catholic Baldizzis from Sicily in the 1930s.

Our tour guide, Amy Caroll, a graduate historian, was probably the most intelligent, interesting and well-informed guide I have ever encountered in any museum in the world - though maybe that's New York for you. The group comprised middle-class Americans from Chicago, Philadelphia and upstate New York - all come to gawp in astonishment at the squalor in which their compatriots have sometimes had to live.
Back in the 1860s the privy was in the back yard, there was one water pump, there was no trash collection and 20 families lived and cooked in a building not much bigger than a large townhouse. We poked about the dark hallway, noticing improbable bucolic scenes painted on to the wallpaper (which was in fact lacquered sacking, stuck to the plaster).

Over the years landlords were forced by law to make improvements. Minimal fire escapes became mandatory in 1867 - though the massive metallic stairway attached for the benefit of tourists in the 1990s puts those flimsy balconies into perspective. Running water and internal toilets arrived around the turn of the century. Shortly before the end, there was even gas and electricity.

But the delight of each apartment lies in the details. Take the relatively bourgeois Victorian rooms of Nathalie Gumpertz on the first floor, for example. We know that she, her husband, Julius, and two daughters arrived in the 1860s. We have her photograph. We know that her husband suddenly disappeared for ever in 1874 during a period of economic hardship. We know that she worked as a seamstress, that she had roses on her wall (found under 22 layers of wallpaper), stencils on the ceiling and lace in the windows. We know that she eventually became rather prosperous and was able to move up-town.

The Baldizzis, on the other hand, living here in the 1930s, looked resolutely 20th century. Photographs of Adolpho and Rosaria show them grimacing into the camera. They had luxuries such as (cold) taps in the sink, linoleum on the kitchen floor and an electric stove, beside which Mr Baldizzi used to sit chain smoking and listening to Franklin D Roosevelt's speeches on the radio.

Meanwhile, the middle-class tourist from Chicago could not believe that anyone had ever had to fill their own gas-meter with coins. I ruminated about the conditions in which the people of Shanghai - city of the 21st century - live today. Rather less well than the Baldizzis, presumably. But perhaps that is the cost of living in cities which are icons of their century. JA

Saturday, January 23, 1999

Saudi - Wine, women and song? No chance

Saudi - Wine, women and song? No chance

Jeremy Atiyah, who has travelled widely in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, assesses the prospects for the first British package holiday- makers
Jeremy Atiyah 
Saturday, 23 January 1999
SO SENSITIVE and sacred are the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (which will remain firmly off-limits to non-Muslims) that the very idea of Western tourists wandering around any part of Saudi Arabia with their cameras has been hitherto unthinkable. Apart from a few Japanese groups, who are perceived locally as "well behaved", the British tourists who yesterday began a visit as part of a trip organised by the specialist tour operator, Bales, are the very first Westerners to have been issued with Saudi tourist visas.
What kind of tourist wants to visit Saudi Arabia? Mr Wingrove of Yorkshire, who is joining the first tour, told me that it was all about the novelty of visiting an unusual, unspoilt destination without any tourists.
He is quite right. Before now, the only legitimate reasons for entering this ultra-conservative country have been religion and business. You were either a bona fide Muslim performing the annual haj (pilgrimage) to the holy cities or you were part of the mainly Asian 6,000,000-strong expatriate workforce.
Last year, however, in the face of Islamic sensitivities, Saudi authorities finally made the decision to open the door tentatively to tourism. "This is tourism on a very small scale," explains Chris Grime of Bales. "It is for well off, educated people with a genuine interest in history. The Saudi authorities want to promote tourism as a form of cultural exchange. This is not a money-making exercise: the number of visitors will be tiny beside Saudi's oil revenues. It is a PR exercise. Westerners can now go in and see for themselves that Saudi Arabia is not just about women not being allowed to drive. It is also about secure families and incredible hospitality."
"This is about showing the West what the Saudis have achieved," agrees Abdulaziz Al Toyan, a lecturer in economics from Riyadh. "A century ago we were just tribes with no civilisation. Now the government wants to show the world that we have become a real country."
But unfettered tourism in Saudi Arabia is definitely not on the agenda. Hippie backpackers will not be playing didgeridoos outside the gates of Mecca. "It goes without saying that we are a very conservative country," Al Toyan says. "We have our traditions. Just like the English."
After all, this is a country where practically the entire male population wears the national dress of white robes and red-checked head-wraps - although in the south west of the country the tribes people tend to sport their own weird and wonderful attire. Women are so heavily protected in Saudi Arabia that, in many families, brothers do not even meet their sisters- in-law.
Among the many cultural curiosities that will entertain tourists in Saudi Arabia will be the spectacle of Saudi girls in the "family section" of, say, a Pizza Hut restaurant surreptitiously holding aside their veils to insert food into their mouths. Waiters are sometimes asked by more conservative Saudis to stand with their backs to the table as they take the order. It should be added here that female tourists will not be required to cover their faces (though they will certainly need to cover their hair, arms and legs).
Given the constant bad publicity in the West surrounding the Middle East, over Iraq and most recently over the shooting dead of four tourists on an adventure holiday in the Yemen, it may seem surprising that anyone would want to visit Saudi Arabia at all. There is now at least one other operator, British Museum Tours, who are commencing tours to Saudi this year.
"Demand for our Saudi Arabian tours started off strongly when our brochure appeared last year," says Grime. "It has tailed off in the wake of events in Iraq and the Yemen. But we still see this as a growing destination. We are planning further tours for later in the year."

Sunday, January 17, 1999

Antony and Cleopatra slept here

Antony and Cleopatra slept here

Jeremy Atiyah discovers bits of ancient lighthouse, palace, and library, then slots them into his Alexandrian jigsaw
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 17 January 1999
PICKING ABOUT Alexandria's breakwaters, I thought how badly ships needed a lighthouse in such weather. The sun was warm, but the wind was charging all the way up from Crete. Huge waves were throwing up explosions of spray. I had always been told that the seventh wonder of the world, the eternal Pharos light-house of Alexandria, had disappeared without trace - buried forever by a cataclysmic tidal wave. So they said.
A moot point. From the wreckage of the 100-metre high lighthouse, which illuminated the eastern Mediterranean for seven centuries, a local sultan had cobbled together the Qaytbey Fort at the end of the breakwater. I climbed a weather-beaten old tower of bright yellow stone, sucking draughts of fresh air through narrow windows as I went. And there they were: sections of old marble columns, buried in the stone walls, and five massive pillars of red Aswan granite in the entrance: bits of the old lighthouse.
Just off-shore more hidden marvels of the ancient city have been coming to light. For the past seven years, French divers have been piecing together the lost Royal Quarter of an-cient Alexandria, which lies in just 30 feet of water. The palace where Antony and Cleopatra danced their doomed romance slid into the sea perhaps 1,800 years ago, along with paved roads, jetties, statues and columns. In the next millennium this could eclipse the pyramids as the greatest tourist attraction on earth.
I took a mule-and-buggy ride back into town and began inching round the bay of central Alexandria. The sun was shining on the gleaming white domes of the mosque of Sidi Abu al-Abbas al-Moursi, which decorated the corniche behind me.
The man who revived Egypt after its long sleep, Mohammed Ali, ensured the revival of Alexandria too, by building the Mahmoudiya Canal in 1820, giving direct access to and from the Nile at Cairo. The population has been exploding for nearly two centuries. In 1821, the great capital of Alexander and the Ptolemies had been reduced to little more than a village, containing a mere 13,000 people. But this figure began to rise rapidly after the arrival of Mohammed Ali. By 1897, it had reached 320,000. In 1997, the figure was around four million.
Mohammed Ali's great civic space, the Midan El Tahrir, is now little more than a giant car-park, dotted with unkempt trees and lined by grimy facades. The equestrian statue of Ali himself is stranded, and ignored by the people selling nylon socks and fake Rolexes at the entrance to Salah Salem Street.
Inside the Montazah Gardens, I found hints of the last fin de siecle boom. This was where rich Europeans built their homes after the city had become too crowded. I found sandy soil, pine-needles underfoot, palm trees, gardeners tending ornamental roundabouts. Montazah Palace, the exotic summer home of the last king of Egypt, comprises arabes- ques, Graeco-Roman columns, and a Moorish-style tower as well as landscaped gardens of cacti and oleander. That cosmopolitan period of Alexandria lasted from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. It filled the no-man's- land after the Ottomans had evaporated but before Egyptian nationalism had fully arrived. Smyrna, Thessalonika, Nicosia, Beirut, Alexandria: in the 20th century, one by one, all the great cities of the eastern Mediterranean have lost their cosmopolitan sheen.
These days, the main surviving bastion of European influence is the cemeteries, little forests of white crosses, urns, busts and cupolas. I visited the unkempt British Protestant cemetery, trying to read inscriptions. "William Hodgson Bey who fell asleep December 5th 1906" read one. Simple words for people who lived complicated lives far from home.
What else remains? Even the famous old cafes of Alexandria, where, according to Lawrence Durrell, Coptic princes planned love affairs with Jewish heiresses, are something of a disappointment. I sat in the long halls of Delices, below ceiling fans and long windows. But the chairs were plastic.
"I knew it would soon be forgotten and revisited only by those whose memories had been appropriated by the fever city, clinging to the minds of old men like traces of perfume upon a sleeve: Alexandria, the capital of memory." In Pastroudis, another cafe immortalised in The Alexandria Quartet, I sat in discreet darkness amid restrained, whispering couples. When I asked for an arak, I was told: "Sorry. Only lemon juice."
Where the stalls of book vendors line the street, I found more melancholy evidence of cultural displacement. Apart from body-building manuals and posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, what was there to read in this city? Un Precis de Droite Francaise (circa 1901)? But this was the very street, coincidentally, where the fabulous library of ancient Alexandria was thought to have stood.
Then, beside the mosque and beneath a palm tree and carpets being hung out to clean, I saw a single Greek column standing inexplicably in a deep trough, well below street level. It was the last trace, I guessed, of the greatest library, of the greatest city, on earth.
Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah's travels in Egypt were arranged through El-Sawy Travel, 80 Park Rd, London NW1 4SH (tel: 0171-258 1901), which can provide tailor-made tours, including international flights, to any part of Egypt or the Middle-East.
From the UK, British Mediterranean Airways flies direct to Alexandria on Tuesday and Saturday. Return flights cost pounds 328 until the end of March. Otherwise, fly Lufthansa to Cairo for only pounds 194 return until the end of February. For both fares call Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3366).

Sunday, January 10, 1999

Station to station across Malaysia

Station to station across Malaysia

Jeremy Atiyah takes the train from Singapore to Bangkok via the old Penang town of Georgetown
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 10 January 1999
WHY IS there no great Eurasian rail terminus in Singapore, commanding a network of long-distance trains to Peking, Moscow and Paris? I bet there would be if the Singaporeans had anything to do with it. But until Laos discovers the train, Thailand is as far as rail travellers from Singapore can go.
Luckily a two-day journey to Bangkok was enough for me. Which was why I suddenly found myself last month in the station cafe in Singapore, listening to the rain. A single line of track ran away north through a dripping forest of potted palm trees. The coffee tasted odd.
Even odder, Singapore's train station is technically a part of Malaysia. I enjoyed the anomalous experience of passing through Malaysian immigration before checking out of Singapore (20 minutes later at the border). But the train was surprisingly dull inside. No ducks on the luggage rack, no peasants squatting on sacks of rice. It might have been the 9.20am from Euston to Birmingham, and I was sitting in a big quiet armchair. The other passengers included an American school teacher who was larger than an entire Chinese family.
It didn't take long to cross this minuscule country. Suddenly I was on the causeway to Malaysia. Grey waters, a narrow strait, a road lined with trucks. We hit land: this was mainland Asia, stretching all the way to Calais and Ostend. After Singapore, the first impression was of trash. The second was of corrugated roofs, flapping laundry, spindly coconut palms, shacks and muddy streams.
Some of the housing looked remarkably British. The Malaysian countryside featured bungalows and terraced houses with red roofs. But inside the train I was soon feeling rather bored. The air-conditioning was so cold that I might have been on an unheated train in Norway. Except that the earth outside looked red and tropically forested. Hours later we were rumbling through misty Kuala Lumpur, which looked little more than a thinly scattered web of flyovers and distant skyscrapers.
Night fell like a stone. The air-conditioning was now so fierce I had a headache. Only on arrival at the oddly named town of Butterworth at 9.30pm could I finally escape into the reality of hot, wet, salty breezes from the Indian Ocean.
Along with late-working commuters, local teenagers from Butterworth's pubs and a few scraggly backpackers, I strolled through to the terminal for Penang ferries. We made the 20-minute crossing overlooked by the bright lights of Georgetown.
Disembarking, I suddenly became a king, lounging back in a rickshaw with my hands behind my head. Nor did the Cathay Hotel dispel the illusion. It was only a tenner a night, but from the outside its columns and Corinthian capitals looked palatial. Inside, I heard footsteps on the ceiling; there was a woman eating noodles under a fan and an old man sweeping the floor. May the human race always be blessed with such arrivals.
Georgetown was the perfect stopover from Singapore. Half a century ago these two places had been twins. Originally founded as "Straits Settlements", both were small islands off the Malayan peninsula, packed with industrious Chinese immigrants. But while Singapore has now joined the aristocracy of world nations, Penang has mouldered on magnificently. Look at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, for example, set up by the Armenian Sarkies brothers, who were also responsible for Singapore's Raffles. While Raffles made the transition to a modern five-star hotel, the Eastern & Oriental closed down for an agonising refurbishment. Looking for it, I found a shell.
An improbably cool breeze blew in from the murky mountains of mainland Malaysia. I passed a British war memorial to "Our glorious dead. 1914- 1918". This was the Padang, a moth-eaten piece of muddy grass marking the centre of town. Cocks crowed, bells from a Hindu temple rang out like those from churches. I passed the grimy brick walls of a 200-year-old British fort, still the major architectural feature of this sad old town.
Who could have built that fort? In the local museum I found a bewigged statue of Captain Francis Light, who founded Georgetown in 1786. He was interested in cinnamon, cloves, cumin, pepper, chillies, star anise and tamarind. I cared more about the fact that this was a town where backpackers could catch ferries to Medan in jungly Sumatra.
The last stop before the jungles took over? That sounded just about right until I noticed that it was also a town where old Chinese clan associations had set up their kongsi, or temples, for the worship of their ancestors - benevolent self-help societies for people of the same surname. I visited the Khoo Kongsi, as large as a council estate, comprising entire blocks of homes built around alleyways and courtyards. Old Chinese music rattled from doorways. The main temple, full of hanging lanterns, was a vast chaos of ceramic shard decorations, gilt and swooping swallows. Later I dropped in on the Kuanyin temple. Amid pillars of entwined snakes, blackened burners and huge incense sticks three metres high, I found that people had scribbled notes with their prayers on them: "Biology I, 11- 12.15pm. Give me a good grade please."
In my years of visiting China I had never seen anywhere half as Chinese as this. I dropped in on the Hangchow Cafe and sat at a round marble-topped table under a sooty ceiling. "Life's greatest imperfection is melancholy wisdom" ran a Confucian saying on the wall. A Portuguese sailor in the corner was coughing his guts out. Ancestral portraits on the wall going back to about 1919 included a man whom I suspect to have been the first Chinese in history to wear a tie.
The following afternoon I crossed back to the mainland. Destination: Bangkok. Eat you heart out, Virgin Trains! Even my second-class compartment contained immaculate couchettes that folded down after dark, with curtains that drew across to protect sleepers' privacy.
The border, too, was stress-free. Leave the luggage on the train, sir! Step this way to have your passport stamped! But where, I asked myself, were the belligerent officials rummaging through my rucksack? Unavailable on this border, it seemed.
The next morning I woke up in Thailand, with white cranes flapping across muddy paddy fields. We passed ramshackle houses on stilts and temples like peaked meringues. Hua Hin station, when we got there, looked like a temple in itself, surrounded by sodden grass and cows.
We rolled into Bangkok two hours late. Not bad for a two-day journey, I thought, as we crawled, at snail's pace, into Asia's traffic-jam capital.
singapore to bangkok by train
Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah's flights to and from Singapore and Bangkok were courtesy of Singapore Airlines. Trains run daily between Singapore and Butterworth, departing Singapore early morning and arriving in the evening. First and second-class seats are both perfectly comfortable and, from Singapore, cost S$127 first, S$60 second (about pounds 45 to pounds 22). From Butterworth to Bangkok a train departs every afternoon, arriving in Bangkok the next morning. Very comfortable second-class sleepers cost S$95 if bought in Singapore. Reservations can be made through Malaysian company Ktm Berhad (tel: 00 603 2757269; fax: 00 603 2736527).

Hanging out with the Dali of Bali

Hanging out with the Dali of Bali

Jeremy Atiyah discovers the surreal, serene island where locals and foreigners alike turn living into an art

I USED to find Bali hard to believe in. Geographically, the island was practically an extension of Java, one of the most crowded places on earth. This was Indonesia, a jungly, chaotic and slightly menacing country - but at the same time it was home to the notorious Kuta Beach, crowded with surfers and Sheilas. If anything, it sounded like the worst of all possible worlds.

Nor was I much tempted by the history of European colonisation in Bali. At the start of our own century, the Dutch were still butchering the locals. And Gauguin-wannabes who should probably have been fighting Hitler were dropping out here, waxing lyrical about little brown men and canoodling with topless Balinese girls under the pretence of being artistically creative, all the while lamenting the "commercialisation" of the island. Well, come to think of it, I might have done the same. But it was incredibly irritating to think that others had got there so long ago. What could the much-vaunted joys of Bali amount to in 1999, if not a gigantically stale cliche?

To smooth things along, I put myself in an almost unimaginably upmarket hotel, the Bali Hyatt in the beach resort of Sanur. Vast gardens of mature coconut palms spread away in all directions. At breakfast-time I sat in the open air under a thatched roof surrounded by carved wood and weather- blackened statues of wild-eyed Hindu gods. Steaming clouds swirled about the trees, cool raindrops tinkled in the goldfish ponds. More moss seemed to grow on those statues even as I ate my shining slabs of mango and papaya. Gentle people in Balinese head-wraps greeted me at every turn.

But what about the real Bali? I took a day trip to the centre of the island, past volcanoes surrounded by black cloud and terraced paddy fields where the water curved round hills like mirrors. The first stop was to see a Barong play, part local pantomime, part mishmash of temple rites cobbled together for tourists.

In the audience we were perhaps a hundred people; the German sitting next to me had a camera lens half a metre long. Cymbals and strings rippled and billowed across the scene; off-stage was the usual perfect arrangement of trees and lava-stone gods. The action came and went, a tiger with a beard full of flowers, dancing girls with swivelling eyes and bare feet, a roaring, quivering monster, a sad boy who died in a bundle of feathers, a boar, a giant cock. There was explosive stomping, a little bestiality, traces of pathos, much spectacle and tons of technical aplomb. Despite my fears about feeding from the trough of tourism, I soon found myself sipping from the lightness and beauty of the Island of the Gods.

There are a thousand temples on this little island: territorial temples, market temples, public temples, family temples. Driving the narrow lanes of the island, in fact, you seem to see only one industry: temple-building. Bali does have mess - road-works, construction - but beauty invariably lurks around the next corner. Men in yellow silk sarongs, little walls, shrines, gateways and towers of red brick graced by stone carvings: sections of grey volcanic tuff, chiselled into demons and deities.

Like their temple carvings, the daily life of the Balinese is governed by protocols of staggering complexity. Taxi drivers told me of the need to make offerings in the family temple every day after dinner. A tour guide spoke of ritually slaughtering pigs in the front courtyard of his temple every 15 days. I was told of ceremonies for every day, week, fortnight, month, century etc. I saw little leaf-trays containing rice and fragrant flowers - offerings to the gods - in villages, in temples, even in the airport terminal. And the ancestors? Another complex affair in Bali, though not necessarily one of grief. "We bury our dead maybe for a year or two," a guide told me. "Then the priest will tell us the propitious day for a cremation. We dig up the body and cremate it and have a party. Everybody is happy."

I drove through the village of Batubulan, the centre of stone-carving in Bali. Anyone with a large garden in need of ornamentation would be mad not to come here: the village is jammed with enough statuary to keep Buckingham Palace and Versailles stocked with Hindu gods and goddesses for the next 2,000 years. If that wasn't enough, I then came to the wood- carving village of Mas. It was a similar story: house after house stocked with fantastically beautiful objects. Weeping Buddhas, lithe Ramayana figures, animals, masks, pieces of furniture.

Balinese art, never forget, is real art. It is not simply a matter of churning out the same old artefacts for the consumption of tourists. There are dynamic artistic traditions here. In the middle of Bali, above the rice terraces, lies the miraculous town of Ubud where nobody lifts a finger except for the sake of art or religion.

The day I walked into Ubud I began to sense that it might take more than a world war 
to drag me away. This is a town where even the bank is built in the form of a temple. The first thing I saw was the Ubud Palace, where dozens of men in head-wraps were hard at work preparing for the cremation of the wife of the local chieftain. Cutting, carving, planing, flattening gold paper on to frames, erecting a temporary four-storey roofed tower of bamboo. A sign in the local tourist office announced that tourists would be most welcome to attend the cremation spectacle themselves. Other signs invited tourists to attend the Fire and Trance Dance, scenes from the Mahabharata and the Shadow Puppet play. In short, to join in the local joy.

Quiet lanes lined by frangipani trees and courtyard homes ran off in all directions. Down these lanes I found what may be the best-value hotels on earth. Stylish little rooms under trees in grassy miniature palace- style gardens were available for about pounds 3. If you could stretch to pounds 15 you would have a swimming-pool in the garden. Over thoughts of dropping out, I took a lunch of fish in coconut leaf with green chilli and coriander, washed down by a mint and mango cocktail - for next to nothing - then strolled away to become an art-buyer. I snapped up two large, heavily framed pieces - a Barong monster and a Balinese dancer - before skipping down to the house of Antonio Blanco.

Of all the pretentious good-for-nothing European layabouts who have ever dropped out in Bali, this immodest Catalan has done it with by far the greatest panache. High above the Wos Timor river, and three grown-up children later, he still lives with the Balinese woman he met nearly 50 years ago, having first spotted her working on a temple construction site. I would have dismissed this as a tawdry Spanish fantasy had I not just met a group of straight-backed young women carrying massive baskets of bricks on their heads myself.

Antonio Blanco leaves his fabulous house open for visitors to wander round. A sign announces the determination of this artist to "serve the mythical goddess of beauty diligently". Through avant-garde little poems made of cut-out pieces of text, erotic paintings of pre-pubescent girls and photographs of himself with the King of Spain, this particular Dali of Bali makes it perfectly clear that at 86 years old he is still defiantly proud of the madness that once tempted him leave his home for a place on the Island of the Gods.


Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of Singapore Airlines and the Bali Hyatt Hotel. Contact Hyatt's worldwide reservations (tel:             0845 758 1666      ). Until 28 February, double rooms in the Bali Hyatt cost from US$80 (around pounds 49) plus 21 per cent tax.

The most direct route to Denpasar, Bali, is via Singapore with Singapore Airlines (tel: 0181-747 0007). It flies daily, with returns from pounds 555 plus pounds 20 tax. An interesting alternative is to fly to Singapore for pounds 490 return, plus pounds 26 tax, with Singapore Airlines and make your way to Bali by land or sea, or by cheap domestic flight from Singapore to Jakarta and then overland to Bali. Garuda (tel: 0171-486 3011) offers some of the cheapest fares to Bali. It flies three times a week, via Frankfurt and Bangkok, with return flights from pounds 425 return plus pounds 20.

Further information
The Indonesian Tourist Promotion Office 3-4 Hanover St, London W1R 9HH (tel: 0171-493 0030). It offers a variety of useful free publications, such as the Travel Planner, Tourist Map of Indonesia and Calendar of Events for Bali and the whole archipelago.