In the bohemian Santa Theresa neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, Flavio and I sauntered up the steps of society lady Laurinda Santos Lobos’s house. The lady was long dead and her house a mere shell. Architects responsible for the heritage property have lovingly left it that way, calling it The Park of the Ruins. As we turned into an open terrace, Falvio exclaimed, "Caramba!" He was overwhelmed by the views. Beyond Rio’s undulating rooftops and pullulating favelas lay magnificent mountain peaks and beaches, ringed by the ocean. The views became paintings framed by broken bricks and chipped plaster.
There are places that wink seductively at the traveller, but when a local who is showing you around gasps, it’s time to wake up and take notice. The fact that Flavio’s admiration of his own city had spilt out in his native Portuguese made it even more interesting. He was talking to himself, not me. I pulled out both camera and sketchbook. Rio’s famous views weren’t going to get any better. Once, we were in central Java, visiting the exquisite Buddhist mandala at Borobudur. We were saying goodnight to Priana, our guide, when he mentioned excitedly that he was heading off to see an impromptu local dance event called the Jatilan, that was becoming increasingly rare.
Plans of going to bed were scuttled in a heartbeat, and Priana had to make room for two more in his tiny car. That evening, I photographed intoxicated Javanese rice farmers dance in the muddy courtyard of a house to the loud, mesmerising rhythm of gamelan music with reckless abandon, till their bells and props fell off and they began to stiffen and drop in a trance. Chicken blood was rubbed on their lips to revive them. While the Borobodur’s stupa’s photos are aplenty on the net, the midnight trance dance was an other-worldly relic.
A few years ago, we arrived at Mombo, a safari camp in Botswana’s Moremi Game reserve. Everyone was talking about a pair of cheetahs, two strapping brothers known as the ‘Steroid Boys’, who were seen hunting regularly. As we set out on a game drive heading towards them, an excited voice on the jeep’s radio said something in the local Setswana language that got Loyd, our guide’s, full attention. “Wild dogs,” he relayed in a charged voice. “They’re exceptionally rare, and on the move, so I cannot guarantee we’ll find them.” In a very tough call based entirely on Loyd’s reaction, we zipped around and flew towards the wild dogs, which had fanned out on a hunt. Crashing through thorn trees that clawed off our hats and even a jumper, we kept up with their energetic pursuit, to be rewarded by watching them bring down a female kudu antelope and demolish it, piranha style, within minutes. We followed them back to a den and watched them greet the puppies affectionately and feed them the regurgitated meat. That sighting in Moremi was as rare as a unicorn’s bachelor party, and I’m so glad a voice inflection led us to it.
One April, we walked under blossoming cherry trees in Tokyo. The exquisite pale pink flowers captivated us, but for the Japanese, they were a matter of spiritual import. I watched a woman sit under a tree for hours, commune with its beauty, and then, after walking away, she turn around and looked at it again. I’ve never hurried past a tree in bloom since.
In the Caribbean, when eyes glint over the seasonal fruit, sour-sop, and when perishable acai berries come in from the Brazilian rainforests, when fresh mangosteen is plucked in Thailand and the phalsa is in season in India, it is a sacrilege to touch anything else. Join in each time with the locals and partake of whatever excites them, though I must admit I’ve known the perils of sharing tankards of corn beer with merry Andean folks in the highlands of Peru.