It somehow felt inevitable that we would have a blistering argument the moment we left the vanilla plantation. It had been utterly magical; fascinating, unforgettable –  movingly so – and yet we had also surrendered autonomy in many ways – our mealtimes planned and eaten together with the family and our translator; the lessons and plantation visiting schedule fixed,  basically, for each day.

Part of me loved all of this. No internet, no responsibilities, the receptiveness of being taught something I deeply wanted to learn, the absolute beauty of the place itself. I was even quite enjoying the early to bed, early to rise aspect of it as well, which lay in stark contrast to my usual hectic workweek here in Japan: in our (separate) beds by 9.30pm each night; up with the lark before seven each day for our back-to-basics morning ablutions (buckets of cold water sloshed over the head and body – there was no hot water or shower…), the excited, whistle- while-you-work washing of clothes and the hanging them out to dry in our own private garden, set high up in the hills by vanilla fields and durian trees, as the plantation rose to life and the sights, sounds and smells of the place fused slowly and beautifully with your senses.

Yet at the same time, there was a certain sense of being incognito, of suppressing something. We were working on the basis of being two ‘friends’ with mutual interest in vanilla cultivation staying together at the guesthouse, not as a couple, though a realization of this must have seeped through to the Agus clan the more time we all spent together. Not that it would probably have mattered, anyway. Java struck me as a very open, accepting place, with a draw towards ambiguity or ambivalence, Islamically moderate, calm, and pluricultural. And yet, being constantly in the presence of a traditional, gender-roled, extended family; the being always, always, surrounded by the calls to prayer from the mosques in the village below, five times a day from four o’clock in the morning to evening, and the general sense of propriety and hardworking ‘goodness’ that seemed to prevail all round us, led to a strange chastening of the spirit; a certain almost overbearing ‘holiness’ where even in the privacy of our own guest lodge we could barely even muster a child-like kiss on the cheek goodnight.

That music from the mosques. I must talk about it. Since I was a child I have been inexplicably attracted to Arab music. Where others might possibly hear something merely foreign, exotic, even sinister, in the sound of the mullahs singing the Islamic call to prayer, I hear nothing other than a deep, soul-stirringly beautiful sound that lulls me into an otherworldly state of hypnotized awe. It goes right through me, pierces to my centre, in a way that Christian choral music, beautiful though it can be, does not. Is it something from another life: the entreating, speaker-amplified voices of the singers in mosques haunting to me in their earnestness as they rise up to you on the wind; and, when there are several mosques in the vicinity of each other, first one mullah, then another, begins to sing, in different keys, different songs, until you end up, finally, with an exquisite cacophany that disturbs and excites the soul with its profound, religious sensuality. I was practically ready to convert.

At the same time, the edicts against homosexuality in strict Islam (we are supposed have a wall toppled onto us as the punishment for our sins, the body crushed justfully under the stones) are rather less appealing to one’s sensibilities you might say, and created, when you are being plied with this music five times a day and at such volume – the position of the plantation meant that the noise rose up, was carried on the air, and reached you wherever you were, even inside your rooms with all doors closed – all of it meant that we were in some ways peculiarly overwhelmed yet hollowed out by the time we left; full to the brim with feelings, visual images, and experiences that we hadn’t expressed at all to each other while there, every night just retiring to our separate chambers (just a creaky old mattress and a blanket), brains so replete with images and unexpressed sensations that it was only a matter of time before something burst.





Back again in the traffic clogged congestion of fiery Bandung city we had a massive row, almost immediately, at a hideous hotel we ended up staying at (we decided to leave a day early), practically coming to blows on the streets that night, about god knows what, one thing though being the discomfort we both had of course felt about being the ‘colonials’, being ferried about by the driver with our translator and vanilla horticultural experts,  having our bags and suitcases carried by ‘servants’ and so on and so forth, and how we had reacted to the unpleasant sensation of having relative power and money (had I been acting like a character from a Merchant Ivory production? Did I take to being waited on day and night just that little bit too easily? Possibly).

Sleep that night, anyway, was sour, infuriated and drunken, and I was panicking secretly that the rest of the holiday was going to be a disaster. The good thing with me and D, though, is that neither of us is the grudge type, and once grievances are expelled from the system they usually just disappear immediately into the ether: the next day’s seven hour train trip to Yogyakarta – Java’s Kyoto to Jakarta’s Tokyo – was like a dream, as was our stay in that city, with its magnificent World Heritage temples of Borobudur (Buddhist) and Prambanan (Hindu), the more laid back, relaxing feeling in the atmosphere; the lack of traffic cloying and polluting the streets – the major disadvantage of life in the other cities we visited.

Here you could just take things in and not feel that your spoiled western lungs were the repository for layers of Honda or Suzuki motorbike exhaust fumes during the journeys from one place to another that started to take on a sensation of mild trauma.


After a wild, unexpected and spontaneous evening spent hanging out with some rubbish collectors we met on the way back to the hotel the first night (drinking beer sat on the pavement with them outside a popular convenience store), the next morning we took a leisurely trip down to the Sultan’s Palace, an elegant and serene place where classical gamelan concerts are given (Duncan was utterly mesmerized by this, as was I, though I didn’t go into an actual trance-like state the way he did), a lovely walled complex with white and gold buildings that you can just stroll about in, take in the sultan’s art collection,  relax in its peaceful, gardened environs.

s. Image









We decided, after a few hours spent here, to then go the royal Water Palace at Taman Sari, as it was quite close (we took one of those bicycle taxis as the sun was getting a bit too intense), a place where sultans of the past were said to laze in the pleasure gardens watching women bathe in its refreshing, acquaamarine pools. It was nice there, though I was feeling a bit fatigued in the midnoon, baking sun(probably all the Bintang beers of the night before taking their toll….)

But as we were leaving, on the way out, I happened to dip quickly, just out of interest, into a couple of small shrines that I quickly realized were cool dark, and deliciously scented.

I came out.

Then had to go straight back in.


Wait a minute. Was that what I think it was?  Is that…..


I went into another, temple guardians sitting outside, and before I knew it I had not only taken a couple of quick snaps for you all here, but also stolen, instinctively, pleasurably, and with the swiftness of a seasoned pickpocket, all the ylang ylang flowers I had found and smelled, freshly cut, permeating, nestled together with roses and some other white flowers there in a wicker bowl.

Ylang Ylang!!!!!

YLANG YLANG  ? ! ! ! ! ! !

I was beside myself.          *        *           *            *        

And I am greedy.

Though I had been satiated and exhilarated by all the delicious vanilla at Villa Domba, amazed by the cardamom and coffee, I was still, inside, mildly disappointed that I would not get the chance to see real ylang ylang, something that we would have been guaranteed to see in Madagascar had we gone there instead as originally planned, particularly on the island of Nosy Bé.

I really love ylang ylang, more than any other white, tropical floral – gardenia, tuberose, jasmine and frangipani included – and for two decades have been harbouring a strong desire to see these flowers in the flesh, no longer satisfied with botanical drawings in black and white, or  photographs; their ragged-petalled, perfumed hats….




It was as if I had been transformed into another person, no longer tired (and a touch bored); suddenly exhilarated beyond measure like the maniac I am to be holding actual, (deeply illicit) ylang ylang flowers in my hands ( the smell of gorgeous flowers will always be more thrilling to me than some old architectural ruins….I am not much of a sightseer in this regard, really…)

The morality of this theft, the desecration of a holy offering, didn’t occur to me until much later (besides, as my close friends know, I have been stealing flowers all my life….); all I knew was that I had to have them, and I had them in my hands.

The theft itself had been so swift as to be almost unconscious.

I was smelling the fresh flowers, experiencing ylang ylang as something familiar, yet utterly new.

Like rose or jasmine absolutes, which don’t actually smell very much like their living and breathing counterparts, ylang ylang in the flesh is far, far fresher and more lightly nuanced than the creamy, exotically banana harshness you get from some inferior ylang ylang oils. It certainly contained the ylang ylang note we know so well from the top notes of such perfumes as Chanel No 5 and vintage Madame Rochas, but there was also a far greener, almost lily-like freshness, more delicacy, more intelligence and gracefulness in these flowers than I was expecting. Less day-glo emulsion, more pure, expertly chosen, vivid watercolour. Fortunately, I later got another chance to smell (and, unfortunately, steal) more ylang ylang flowers from a tree in someone’s front garden in Malang, a few days later  just avoiding getting caught one afternoon we spent wandering around the town, and these freshly plucked flowers were exactly the same: exquisite, actually.

There is some of the more peppery nuance in the fresh flowers that can be found in the top notes of Diptyque’s Eau Mohéli and Caron’s My Ylang (which makes more sense to me now, as a perfume, having smelled the genuine article), plus reminiscences of the beautiful and unusual ylang ylang absolute that is used in the head notes of Annick Goutal’s classic tropical, Songes.


As I was later to find, to my utter delight and surprise again with tuberose, coming into contact with plants I could only have fantasized about before this trip to Java, was, for a true fragrance lover like me, literally a dream come true.

It had been a long morning, though, and we were ready to lie down for a while back at the hotel before we got ready to go out to the evening ballet at the Prambanan ruins.

Our taxi driver had been waiting for us, half-asleep in the sun. Image

and we drove back to the hotel through the hot city streets, D in a reverie, me totally, and utterly, absorbed in my handful of ylang ylang flowers, that I held fixedly, and obsessedly, to my nose throughout.


Filed under Flowers


  1. I absolutely look forward to receiving these posts. I love your writing and your descriptions are terrific. Duncan’s post was also wonderful. Keep them coming please!

  2. RVB

    Absolutely intoxicating…I also adore Ylang Ylang.It’s my favorite tropical flower as well.And to think it’s called the “Poor man’s Jasmine”…

  3. Tora

    I could feel the tension building between you two, in your separate bedrooms, minding your manners, following cultural rules. The broken windshield image was perfect. Not a devastating fracture, but disturbing. Thank goodness neither you nor Duncan hold grudges. Not all couples are so lucky. I literally exhaled with a sigh of relief when you screamed out his name in the temple clutching the flowers. I could feel your happiness. I cannot keep my hands off of flowers either. (I just have too much white man’s puritanical guilt to actually steal them). I loved this piece of writing and the full emotional journey you allowed us to travel on. Neil you are wonderful.

    • And now I sound like Gaga, but only because there are receptive souls like yourself to read it.

      I am loving this experience of expressing what is still held within (with trepidation): and then releasing it : quite scary in a way.


  4. This is some of your best writing yet. It seems clear that there is much more to come. Your engrossed audience awaits!

    • Thank you. Just to say that I read your ambergris post today and was deeply intrigued but couldn’t reply for some reason.

      I have never smelled the real thing so am an equally willing audience.


      • I never had either, and I have been experimenting with a tiny bit of pure ambergris tincture and find the same incredible sillage. It’s a sort of ventriloquist sillage, and you never know where or when you will next smell it. If you can imagine white flowers blooming in ocean water, it smells like that. No distinct note stands out, but there are definitely flowers in there. I still don’t know what to make of it. I’m also now disturbed about my taste for it, because someone online lectured me (have no idea if this is true) that the use of true ambergris promotes Japanese whaling, since they can remove the lumps from inside the whale and cure it artificially. I don’t think this is correct, since I think sperm whales are universally protected, but I can’t find any definitive information about it. So all this leaves me in a moral as well as a financial quagmire. But I have to say that I respond to the scent on a visceral level that can’t be explained by notes.

  5. Lilybelle

    I loved reading that, and I love all the photos, particularly the one of the monkey with the begging bowl (?). I can understand how you felt about the ylang ylang blossoms.

  6. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    Craving all this.

  7. ninakane1

    Good luck with the talk tomorrow! xx

  8. Holly

    … from the depths of the lurkers’ grotto …

    Wow. I was utterly transported reading this and seeing the images you chose to illustrate your experience. Absolutely stunning, moving, luminous writing. I’m so thrilled that you are experiencing the joy alongside the trepidation as you express what is within. “Releasing” is the perfect way of putting it, and something I’ll remember. You have a rare talent and I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the next post. Thank-you.

  9. Such an enchanting piece of writing. I could almost feel the tropical heat and smell the ylang ylang from your description. Would truly love to go to some of these fabulously lush and tropical-fragrant places. Although the thought of going to any of the Islamic countries terrifies me beyond belief; being a woman and not having any “rights” [in these places] and such puts a damper on where I will travel. So in reality I will probably not be travelling to Java in the near future. It was lovely though, travelling there vicariously through your piece. The photos were glorious also, especially the marble floors and gilded mirror in the palace.

    • That palace was really beautiful actually and we had a lovely morning there listening to gamelan music and just drifting around.

      If I were a woman I would feel exactly the same ( I do already feel outraged in any case) though it did seem to me that Java was not like many other places: it was not India, for example, which has had a terrible reputation recently.

  10. Loved reading this again.

  11. Nancysg

    Reading the description of the call to prayer resonates with me. I enjoy hearing it when I am in the Middle East. I find it calming to hear the chant. And the slightly different timings and versions become harmonized echoes.

  12. rosestrang

    Thank you for this lovely, descriptive and emotionally honest article!
    I suspect I might have behaved similarly with the ylang flowers.
    I also know only too well that weird thing of travelling as a couple in a place where you can’t be yourselves – I can remember one or two hilariously ferocious arguments in such circumstances, all forgiven though, as yours were!

    This article is timely too, as I’m stressed out, planning for an exhibition at the moment. Last night I was fretting somewhat, and decided to dab a little Chanel No 5 elixir I have in sample on one hand, and Viloressi’s Ylang on the other. I adore ylang, and its abundant euphoric summery sunnyness seemed to seep through the shadows of my befuddled brain! It would be fantastic to smell the real thing in such a setting as you describe.

    I’m rambling now, but I have to mention illicit flower-related activity I indulged in, in my early 20s. My boyfriend and I were totally skint at the time, so for a thrill we used to take a drive around Edinburgh’s posher street environs after dark, looking for roses. We’d snip off numerous blooms from many over-hanging bushes until we had an armful to take home, to be placed in little vases and tea-cups. Then, instead of looking at them in artificial light, we’d keep the lights off so that in the morning we’d wake up to the scent of roses and a shock of myriad colours and blooms around the room.
    Thanks for reminding me – it’s these small thrills and the simple things that bring us happiness!

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