Rhône glacier installation by Noémie Goudal – in pictures

The Rhône glacier in the Swiss Alps is shrinking due to climate change. Artist Noémie Goudal produced and photographed an installation of the changing landscape for Project Pressure

Bhutan

Standing by the doorway I watch, in the paved courtyard in front of me, the individual deities performing their final pirouettes for the crowd, who warmly applaud each balletic finale. As the dancers pass by me, they are displaying the more human traits of tiredness and exhaustion, a result of performing in a heavily masked costume under a warm sun for nearly an hour. This is the end of the Dance of the Terrifying Deities at the Paro Festival, one of the most important cultural celebrations in Bhutan, the Land of the Dragon, in the Eastern Himalaya.

Bhutan is bordered to the North and East by China and to the South and West by India. I flew to Paro from Kathmandu with the National Airline Druk Air, over some of the world’s highest peaks including Mount Everest. This flight gives you a teasing introduction to the hiking opportunities in this country on their wonderfully named treks: the Druk Path trek; the Bumthang Culture Trek and the strenuous Snowman Trek, a 221 mile, 3 week journey along some of the remotest and highest valleys of the northern areas of Bhutan, parts of which can be cut off from the rest of the world for six months of the year.

However, like me most travellers from abroad choose to attend instead, one of the fascinating Tsechu festivals as part of their visit. These Tsechus are Buddhist religious festivals where masked dances performed by trained monks depict events from the life of an eighth century Buddhist teacher and provide Bhutanese from far and wide with a wonderful reason to dress up, gather together and enjoy a cultural experience in a light-hearted atmosphere. It is also an occasion to renew their faith and to receive the blessing of a lama or Buddhist monk.

This mixture of humour and faith is also reflected in the presence of atsaras in the dances. These clowns, who mingle on the periphery of the performance, sport fiendish masks, make lewd gestures, crack salacious jokes, and are entitled to mock both spiritual and temporal subjects, so bringing a lighter side to otherwise serious matters. Musicians accompany every performance and play a variety of instruments from drums to high-pitched flutes. The most atmospheric is the deeply resonating yak-horn that lends an immense sense of importance and solemnity to the dances, which have evocative names, such as the Dance of the Lord of death and his consort; the Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds and The Dance of the Four Stags.

My personal favourite was the Dance of the Terrifying Deities. In this dance, each dancer’s mask is primarily of one colour, with the eyebrows high-lighted in another. The teeth are bared in an evil grimace. Every mask has five small horns, each with a skull at the base of it and each with a piece of differently coloured ribbon attached to it, which lends a sweep of drama to head movements. As a costume, the dancers wear a light coloured cape over a highly coloured brocade dress, which has flowing sleeves that mimic the pattern of the dress, as do the pants that are worn underneath. A pair of beige coloured boots completes the outfit and each participant carries a ceremonial dagger.

Tourists to the festival are provided with a program describing in English the schedule for the 5 days of dances and also a description of their religious significance and meaning. The local people are incredibly accommodating, waiting patiently while I take pictures of them in their national dress and very politely ushering me forward to get close-ups of some of the action. An outdoor market takes place at the same time as the Tsechu in the monastery grounds, where you can buy local souvenirs or foodstuffs and indulge in some rather dated gambling games which are officially frowned upon but nevertheless tolerated on such occasions as these.

At Paro Tsechu, a large and beautifully appliquéd ‘Thanka’ scroll, known in Bhutanese as a “Tongdrol”, is gradually unfurled from the roof of a four storey building before dawn on the final day. This Thankha measuring 90 feet by 70 feet, embroidered in silk, is more then 300 years old. The devout line up to touch it and receive merit before it is rolled up again before the first rays of the sun hit it. Bhutan only allows a few thousand visitors per year into the country and this ensures that like the Tongdrol, its essential character isn’t faded by outside influences.

Extract from : Julian’s Journeys

France – Provence

Gordes looks spectacular as it tumbles down the hillside towards the Luberon Valley. The houses and hotels appear well-kept and largely unspoilt with clumps of trees and the occasional swimming pool breaking up the sporadic pattern of buildings. Gordes doesn’t immediately strike the visitor as a place where wealthy people live, but that is probably the appeal. Gordes is classified as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, one of just 156 French villages with that classification.

Around a hundred years ago, Gordes would have looked very different. Dilapidated houses were being abandoned by the villagers and the whole village was falling into ruin. This began to change slowly once Cubist painter André Lhote discovered Gordes in 1938 followed by Marc Chagall, Victor Vasarely and other modern artists who visited and spent the summer in Gordes. Gradually, Gordes became the place where painters, musicians, and film directors wanted to be seen. The houses were restored and the prices soared as artists took a second home in Gordes.

Today, Gordes is one of the most visited places in The Luberon with some of the most costly housing on the planet. The art shops are expensive as are most of the places to eat. However, most visitors seem to amble around the castle and main square, so the back streets tend to be almost deserted allowing the lucky visitor to sample the quietness with just the bees buzzing in the bougainvillea and birds singing in the sunshine. There is a chance to admire the cobblestones, the lovingly restored walls, and the intricate chimneys and roofs.

There is a view over the valley towards the village of Roussillon, which is built on ochre. In between Gordes and Roussillon are some of the most photographed fields in the world. Here is grown lavender in lovely lines disappearing into the horizon. Surely there is no other place in the world with such vibrant and contrasting colours as ochre and lavender in this close proximity. However, all is not sweetness and light. When the lavender is blooming there is a stampede of photographers to certain places with views of the purple-streaked fields, so much so that the police have to restrict access. In 2015, one photographer tried to mow down with his car some people he felt had deliberately got in the way of his potential prize-winning photograph. Luckily, he missed the people and hit a telegraph pole instead. There are murky, hidden depths even in the loveliest countryside.

Beagle Chasing

On Easter Monday in Atherstone in Warwickshire an unusual sports event takes place that attracts hundreds of competitors. It’s the annual Beagle Chasing extravaganza, which dates from the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

The chasing takes place over a number of distances and comprises individual and team events. There are no separate races for men and woman and no age-group categories. The main reason for this is that all contestants wear a hare costume and must carry a vegetable in their hand during the race, in deference to the diet of the hare. The beagles chase after an artificial scent laid by a dragsman, who wears a fox’s costume. The scent is made from animal droppings or human urine, aniseed, and fixative. The dragsman pulls it along in a bag to create a cross-country trail.

The oldest event is the Replace the Collar contest where individual hares chase a beagle across country, replace its collar, and return to the start all without dropping their vegetable on the ground. Each hare chases a different beagle and the dog is always given five minutes start over the hare. The beagles are allocated to the hares by means of a lottery as are the vegetables that are carried. These must never touch the ground or be placed in the hare’s mouth, but they can be thrown into the air should the hare have difficulty in removing the collar and require both hands for the task. Indeed, the best collar removing hare of the 19th Century was Simon Reynolds, who was a professional juggler and so could accurately throw carrots and lettuces high into the air for a good ten seconds. The vegetable can also be balanced on the nose or on top of the head if the hare so chooses.

The second oldest event is the Rosette Removal. Once again individual hares chase after the beagle, this time carrying two vegetables, and have to pin a rosette onto the dog’s collar. The dog is given 10 minutes start in this race. Once again the hare has to return to the finish line without dropping either of the vegetables.

Extract from: Sports the Olympics Forgot

France – Nimes

Nimes is famous for its Roman sights including the Amphitheatre and the Maison Carree. There are others too in the Jardin de la Fontaine including The Temple of Diana and the symbol of Nimes, the Tour Magne.

The Amphitheatre, called Les Arenes, is the most visited sight in the city. Although there are larger Roman arenas in the world, the one in Nimes is the best preserved of them all and dates from roughly 70 AD. It is still heavily used for concerts and in Roman times could hold 24,000 spectators on 34 rows of seating, all with unrestricted views. Even when a large sound stage has been built, the structure is still dwarfed by the banks of stone seats surrounding the oval sandy area where gladiatorial contests took place 2,000 years ago. Strictly speaking this area is the Arena and the surrounding seating is the amphitheatre, but both terms are now in common use for the whole vast edifice.

When the Arena was built the Romans were very safety conscious and there is evidence that the whole audience could be evacuated within 5 minutes. There are certainly many stairs up and down to the various levels. If you are feeling fit, however, you can just climb up and down the various levels of seating. For some reason, a few travellers bring their dogs with them. These canines are mainly small breeds that have tremendous difficulty climbing the stones and so have to be carried around.

The class system of Roman society was preserved at the Arena. The lowest terraces, the “imma cavea”, were the best seats and were reserved for the town’s dignitaries and other important people. The town’s citizens were seated in the intermediary terraces, the “media cavea” and the ordinary people and slaves watched the combats from the upper terraces, the “summa cavea” – Latin for peanut gallery. This segregation ensured there was no risk of slaves and patricians bumping into each other. Inscriptions at the archaeological museum show the boatmen of the Rhone and the Saone had seats reserved for their corporation.

As the years passed, the gladiatorial combats became bloodier and bloodier, mirroring the break-up of the Roman Empire itself. Christians were promoting values that no longer included pagan pleasures and in 391 AD the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity a state religion. Former pagan temples were transformed into churches and the “entertainment” of the gladiatorial games was called into question. Gladiators were finally outlawed in 404 AD.

The Nimes Arena fell into disuse for 700 years, but in the 12th century it took on a new lease of life as a place to live. A château was built inside and a village, which still numbered more than 700 inhabitants in the 18th century, developed along with the churches of Saint-Pierre and Saint-Martin. This small district lasted until the beginning of the 19th century when the final houses were demolished and the architect Henri Revoil completed the restoration of the monument.

Extract from – Travels through History: France

Mama Rooney

Greenmarket Square is at the heart of Cape Town. This small space holds a busy open-air market where traders from as far north as Congo come to sell their carvings, paintings, jewellery, and instruments.

Walking around there’s plenty of good-natured banter from all the traders, both male and female; “How are you boss?”, “Would you like to take a closer look?”, and “How much money do you have to spend?” The smell of cooked meat and fish wafts over now and then from the restaurants on one side of the square.

Most stalls are packed to the roof with items, stacked together and looking imposing and impressive. Some displays of necklaces are like a shimmering rainbow. One stall though doesn’t have many articles for sale. Doilies, place mats, and small table cloths are spread out on a very low table and behind it sits the owner. She is wearing a dark-red scarf tight over her head, a beige top, and a dress of pink and yellow floral patterns. She is of medium height and has very meaty forearms. The skin on her face is quite smooth making it difficult to discern her age.

“Where are you from, my brother?”

“England, though I live in Canada.”

“I am from Zimbabwe – I am going back there next Monday, so my prices are low.” She smiles and the teeth that are left are quite white with some growing at angles as though to cover the gaps.

“Why do you want to go back – the economy is really bad there.”

“You have heard of Zimbabwe – it is my home, but I have problems with my passport, with my visa – so I can only stay here for one month.”

“How will you get back then?”

“I take a train, then a bus, then another bus – but tell me my brother, how much money do you have?”

“I don’t have much left, it costs a lot to fly here from Canada.”

“Well these three pieces here,” she says placing her hand on three napkins, “are 80 rand for you, my brother – and this,” she unfurls a larger place mat, “is 100 rand for you. I am leaving next Monday.”

“There’s a coincidence because I am leaving too.”

“Where are you going, back to England?”

“No to Qatar in the Middle East.”

“The Middle East”

At this point a young woman picks up a large place mat.

“How much is this?” she asks in a southern American accent.

“It’s 80 rand, my daughter.”

“Oh that’s good – the work is very fine – hey Todd do you like this here?”

Todd mutters something to the effect “If you like it you should get it”, and then wanders off to look at some masks at the next stall. The American girl opens her wallet and removes a 100 Rand bill, “here you are.”

“Thank you, my daughter, you are very kind,” says the stallholder returning a 20 Rand note with a smile to accompany it.

“So you like both these?” she gestures to the 3 napkins and the larger place mat.

“I might do, what price would you give me for both of them?”

“I think 160 would be a fair price.”

“160? – what are they made from?”

“This,” she says gesturing to a spindle full of white thread.

“And what’s this?”

“Cotton of course.” She looks askance as though it couldn’t possibly be anything else.

“Cotton from Zimbabwe?”

“Yes, it is difficult to find now. I show you how I work the cotton.”

She coils seven strands around her finger. The white cotton is in stark contrast to her thick, ebony finger and her nails are cut really short to avoid causing threads in the fibre. She then proceeds to use a small thin pin to wrap further strands around those already on her finger until the pattern in the napkins appears magically. It is intricate and time-consuming work.

“That must take a lot of practice.”

“My brother, my grandmother taught me this way of working.”

“I could give you 120 rand for them both.”

“120? I don’t make any money that way – I would have to beg in the street, go into the traffic and ask for money,” She cups her hands together in begging mode. “I couldn’t afford to go back home at that price. How about 140?”

“Flying here has been very expensive for me.”

The trader gathers the items together and places them in a thin plastic bag, “120 is not enough.”

“Fine, how about 130 then?”

“That sounds better,” she says, “I think that is a good price. Are you down in South Africa for the soccer?”

“Yes I am – there’s a game on Tuesday, Spain v Portugal.”

She then opens the top of her overall to show a Manchester United shirt.

Jokingly I say “I can’t buy these pieces from you – you are a Manchester United fan, I don’t like Manchester United.” I turn around and see that a couple of the other stallholders are watching us and smiling.

“It’s not mine,” she claims, “someone gave it to me.”

One of the female stallholders then speaks up.

“She is a Manchester United fan, she likes Wayne Rooney, she never stops talking about him, it’s Rooney this and Rooney that.”

“I don’t speak about him all the time.”

“No-one can tell her anything, we all call her Mama Rooney.”

“Is this true?” I ask.

Mama Rooney looks quite sheepish and nods her head slightly.

“Yes, but he didn’t play very well in the World Cup” she says glumly.

The female stallholder comes over and wags her finger at Mama Rooney mockingly.

“She is a big Manchester fan, she likes Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona too.” All this is said with a beaming smile.

“Yes, I am Mama Rooney, Mama Giggs, and Mama Cantona.” She really cackles with laughter and her hilarity caught on with everyone around.

I am laughing as I open my wallet, count out 130 Rand, and give it to her. She composes herself and wipes her hands on her dress before gratefully taking the money.

“Can I take your picture Mama Rooney?” I ask.

“Of course you can take a picture of Mama Rooney from Zimbabwe,” she says, “but wait.”

She smooths her hair and takes a place mat from her stall and holds it up by her charming smile.

I take three pictures.

“Can I see,” she says, “what do I look like?”

I press the button and show her the images.

“Oh Mama Rooney looks good,” she says and laughs out loud, “Mama Rooney looks good.”

I have to agree with her as I head off smiling broadly – Mama Rooney is certainly good.

The cat plays a game

Freddie and Gemma both used to play a game on me. The game would start when I was sitting right in front of the cat. The cat would suddenly look over my shoulder with great intensity and stare at the wall behind me. I would look at the cat and say “What’s the matter, Freddie?” or “What have you seen, Gemma?”

Their gaze would be unwavering as though they were watching aliens landing outside the window or seeing a vast spider walking across the wall. Occasionally, Gemma would even get up on her front haunches to intensify the effect. I would put my hand in front of their eyes and they would move their head, I would block their gaze again and they would move their head again.

Eventually, curiosity would get the better of me and I would like round to see what they were staring at. Of course, there was never anything there and when I turned back to look at the cats they would be curled up fast asleep, apart from one eye peeking out from above their tail. An eye that said most eloquently “I won, I made you look.” I would just smile and admit they had got me again.

My next door neighbours used to tell me that my cats liked sitting in the window and being close to their two dogs. I couldn’t believe this as the cats regarded all dogs with considerable contempt; the smaller a dog was, the more the cats looked down their noses at it. I decided to watch what happened one day when I was at home.

The cats were in the window sill lying down and enjoying occasional sunny spells of weather. A few minutes later next door’s dogs came over to the window and started barking at my cats. They started to paw at the window and the sound of the claws on the glass awoke Freddie and Gemma. They looked at the dogs who began to wag their tails as they were pleased they’d got the attention of the cats.

Both of the cat’s tails were wagging slightly as they looked contemptuously at the dogs. The dogs began to bark again and paw at the glass. Once this happened, both Freddie and Gemma started to hiss at the dogs and extend their paws towards them although the cats seemed to be aware that the glass would prevent them from scratching the dogs. After ten minutes of hissing and jabbing the cats were fed up and decided they were hungry, so they jumped down from the window and left the dogs staring into the window. The cats didn’t seem to have enjoyed their interaction with the dogs.