Monday, December 29, 2008

A Lesson on Materialism from Migrant Road Workers in Bhutan

For the 2001 Thanksgiving break, my wife and I went to Bhutan. We flew in to New Delhi and made our way by land, traversing the northeastern part of India before crossing into Bhutan. That was the only time that I flew all the way to India from the US, and yet didn't visit my parents or meet a single relative of mine. It was two months after 9/11 and we were seeking to get away to some place really remote for a few days.

I recall one image from our trip back from Thimpu, after we'd spent a few days there. We'd hired a long-distance taxi to take us from the capital Thimpu to Phuntsholing at the Indian border. Those who live in the US are the elite class by default in Bhutan. The locals travel mostly by bus.

The road to the Indian border, though it was the single most important road in the entire country, was in very bad shape. The mountainous, winding road had huge potholes and was no more than a dirt road for long stretches.

We'd sometimes drive past clusters of workers repairing the road.
“Indians. Road work people,” our driver said.
Their methods were very manual, and the equipment used to melt tar was antiquated. The workers had whole families there working, men, women and children. From their attire and features, I could see that the workers were unmistakably Indian. It looked like Bhutan was importing its labor from nearby India.

And sometimes, our taxi would overtake groups of these road workers who were on the move. In the merciless high-altitude sun, they simply walked to their next assignment. Presumably, they walked for miles and miles because we were in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere
I remember them vividly. Men in shirts and dhotis that had turned brown in the dirt. Women in saris, some with a child perched on their waist. Small kids running ahead, carrying plastic bottles with water for their journey.

The men and women walked while balancing one round cloth bundle on their heads. It was a bundle the size of a pillow, made by tying the opposite ends of a dhoti or a sari. It contained everything they owned.

My wife and I pride ourselves on traveling light. We'd each taken only as many things as would fit in our backpacks for the entire two week trip.

But the reason I still remember the image of these workers is because of the thought that crossed my mind as our taxi overtook the workers: my backpack in the trunk of the taxicab for this short trip was bigger than those bundles, and had far more things than the entire life possessions of any of these migrant workers.


Here's an earlier post on possessions: The evolution of tourist kitsch

Monday, December 22, 2008

Customs Down Under

The Australian customs official in Sydney airport was angry at us.

“These could be viable seeds,” he said. He was holding our Ziploc bag of raisins and almonds that we had brought along as trail mix for short hikes in the Outback. I actually hadn’t known that raisins could actually be harmful from a horticulture point of view. Australia ranks among the strictest countries about the food they let cross its borders. Our mistake was that we had opened the packets of raisins and almonds in Chicago, mixed them and packed them in Ziploc bags. He wouldn't allow something that wasn't “commercially packaged” and so he took them away to be destroyed.

We were in Australia earlier this month, narrating this incident at my uncle’s place in Sydney. Two young women who were sisters, family friends of my relatives were visiting. When they heard about our raisins, they launched into their own we-can-top-this story.

The girls had an aunt who was visiting Sydney from India. In preparation for her trip she had prepared a huge batch of sweets for her relatives living in Sydney. But the Australian customs officials wouldn't allow her to carry those sweets past customs.

Any food not already consumed had to be discarded, they insisted. She pleaded but they had their rules, they couldn't allow her to walk past. And so the lady decided on a plan of action. She would herself eat as much of it as she could.

Now, if you know Indian sweets, you know that each cube is solidified heart attack. They have 3 main ingredients: Sugar, ghee (clarified butter) and some flour that gives the sweet its name. But since she had prepared it with love and simply couldn't bear the idea of throwing them away, she sat there, right in front of bemused customs officials and ate them one after another.

Apparently, the lady ate one whole kilogram of the sweets, while her relatives anxiously waited outside to receive her, wondering why she wasn’t coming out.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I almost bought the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

The Lufthansa flight out of Athens to Frankfurt was departing before 6am, which meant that we were there at an ungodly hour on the Monday after our vacation. We were taking the flight to Frankfurt so that we could connect to the early flight out to Chicago and be there that same Monday. (That way, I saved one vacation day.)

Being overly optimistic, I thought that I would read my book on that pre-dawn Lufthansa flight. As soon as I boarded and sat down, I removed the book ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ from my carry-on, shoved it into the seat pocket and promptly fell asleep.

I had picked up the book from my local library without knowing anything about it. It had a catchy title and the author’s last name was Indian which piqued my interest. (I recommend a lot of books here, but this is not one of them. I could never quite connect with the book, so I only read a few pages.)

After getting off the plane at Frankfurt and while walking towards my connecting flight to Chicago, I remembered that the book was still in the seat pocket. I rushed back to the gate but they wouldn’t let me get back onboard. Instead, I was directed to Lufthansa’s Lost and Found office. I gave the person there at the office the book’s details and my contact details and boarded my onward flight to Chicago, without the book.

Three days later, from Chicago I called up Lufthansa, but they said it would take time. So I waited to hear about how I could retrieve the book. Meanwhile I renewed the book to buy some more time. After around 3 weeks, a letter from Lufthansa showed up saying sorry, and that they hadn’t been able to locate the book.

So I went to my library to pay for the book. (The book was available for under $10 from several discount booksellers on the Web, but the lady at the circulation desk said that there was a “processing fee” as well, so I would have to pay somewhere around $25.) Before I could hand her the money, she noticed that the book could be renewed one more time.

I didn’t want to renew it, but she insisted. “You never know. You might find it somewhere in your home or in your car,” she said.

A few days later, when I was checking my online account, going through the books I had checked out from the library I noticed that The Monk book was not in the list. Perplexed, I drove to the library and checked the shelf. The book was sitting there. And from the markings, I knew that it was the exact same copy that I had left in the aircraft seat pocket, back in Frankfurt.

I never found out how it made its way across the Atlantic and back to my local library.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Evolution of Tourist Kitsch

Tourist souvenir shops know how to sell to the unwary. Selling is survival to them. In these stores, all manner of outlandish kitsch is carefully arranged so that they don’t seem the least bit incongruous.

A long while back, not realizing all that, we started to buy a lot of the junk. A face mask here, a laughing Buddha, a wooden sculpture, a miniature version of the leaning tower of Pisa -- we cluttered our walls and showcase with random assorted items. When we finally noticed how bad the collection looked in our living room, we swore off buying those forever.

As a next phase of tourist buying, we started picking up different kinds of sweat-shirts (hooded, with and without zips) and T-shirts. And these garments were priced to sell. (“Three for $10? Okay, I’ll take it.) I bought way more T-shirts than I’d ever need. Predictably soon, my wardrobe had lots of these cheap Tees that I couldn’t wear anywhere except inside the house. Eventually, I wizened up and stopping buying them.

Next, it was coffee mugs. We’d buy just one in each of our trips. They are all made in China, but there was a good variety and we could always find one we liked. These coffee mugs would remind me of some long-ago trip. But I am the only coffee drinker in the house, and any apartment needs only so many mugs, and we had long surpassed that number.

Looking for something smaller, we migrated to buying one refrigerator magnet per trip. These are inexpensive and very small, but pretty soon we had too many on our fridge. Also, they seemed a very crass way to initiate a conversation about our trips to our house guests. (“Oh, you’ve been to Greece?”)

So we then changed to buying picture postcards for ourselves. The theory being that they don’t take up volume, are very cheap and are professionally done. For several trips we’d just buy some postcards as reminders and buy nothing else.

One day, Rupal decided to make a collage of her postcards and bought a large black cardboard from an art store. When she started to arrange the postcards, less than 10% of our collection would fit. Soon after, we stopped buying even postcards.

And at long last, we migrated to taking digital photos and buying absolutely nothing. It finally put an end to buying anything touristy.

I have this idea for a poster titled “The Evolution of Tourist Kitsch” and you can easily visualize it, with pictures progressively decreasing in size: Wall hanging and paintings, T-Shirts, Coffee Mugs, Refrigerator magnets, postcards.

It took me a surprisingly long time to appreciate and adopt into practice the true traveler’s credo, because I was dismissing it as a clichĂ©:
Shoot only pictures
Take only memories

Leave only footprints
First post in a series on possessions.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

This One's On The House

At a hillside viewpoint in St. Thomas, I noticed a small exchange of kindness.

I was standing next to a Rastafarian musician with dreadlocks, who was playing on what he called his 'steel pan.' If you have seen this instrument, you know that it is a very shiny piece of steel bowl, with numerous flat surfaces each of which produces a different tone. A skilled musician can play whole songs with it.

He had a table full of calypso and reggae CDs that he was selling. I asked him if he had played the music himself.
“Yeah mon. I recorded them meself.” He could play while he talked. He was selling the CD’s for $8 each.

He had lots of Bob Marley hits (No Woman, No Cry; One Love). Bob Marley and Harry Belafonte seemed to be extraordinarily popular in the islands, at least as far as the regular tourists go. These two giants might well be keeping the entire music economy alive.

The sun was glinting off the faces of his steel pan. Visible behind him, a few kilometers downhill at the dock was our cruise ship – the Norwegian Dawn, looking tiny against the vast Caribbean Sea.

An African-American tourist heard the musician playing Belafonte’s Banana Boat song (“Day-O Day-O”) and walked up to us. They both started singing together. Then the musician gave him what sounded like his standard spiel – about the steel-pan being made out of a 55-gallon drum. The tourist picked up a CD and handed over a 10-dollar bill, smiled, and said, “Keep the change.” The musician bowed gratefully.

And then, not to be outdone, while continuing to make music with one hand, the musician reached into his collection and picked out another CD. “Here. Caribbean Love Songs. This one is for your lady over there. On the house, free. Keep it.”

Both men smiled, happy with the transaction and resumed jamming.
Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
Daylight come and me wan' go home...

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Other Handbag

A Postcard from St. Thomas

I heard about the lady who switched her handbag from Sally, her daughter. I like this story for many reasons. I like it because it is a true story and not some concocted Caribbean tale. Also, it is blissfully free of any sanctimonious morals. And most of all, I like it because it could happen to any one of us.

Our cruise ship was pulling into Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the ridiculously beautiful St. Thomas, USVI with its unreal turquoise bay all around us. I was on the open 13th floor deck of the cruise to watch the docking when I heard Sally talking about what happened to her mother. I will call the mother 'Ma' since I didn't learn her name.

Back at home in Alabama, 78-year-old Ma was all packed and ready well in time for her flight to Miami. Ma would be taking a week long Caribbean cruise with her daughter Sally’s family. At the very last minute, she decided to change purses before getting on the taxi to the airport.

The cruise started on Saturday afternoon, so on Friday night they stayed at a nice hotel in Miami. And on Saturday, around noon, they all came over well in time to check-in for the 4pm sailing.

But there was one small problem.

Ma had forgotten that she had kept her brand-new passport in one of the side pockets of the purse before she switched to the other one. So she'd ended up leaving the passport back home in Alabama. Since our cruise destinations included stops in a few other countries the cruise company simply would not let her board without her passport. (I found this a bit puzzling because even though we had all brought our passports, we never once had to show it to anyone or even take it ashore, except in Miami.) After agonizing about it, Sally and her family boarded the ship and sailed away, leaving the 78-year-old Ma by herself in Miami.

Poor Ma went back to the same hotel. Her son, who lived in Alabama, was going to go into her house and get the passport to her. (I didn't get the details but perhaps he was FedExing it to her.)

The cruise had a full day at sea on Sunday. Then, our first port of call was the town of Samana in the Dominican Republic, but there were no flights there from Miama. So Ma had to wait three nights before possibly joining us in our next stop, St. Thomas.

I heard the story in the morning, just as our ship was pulling into port at St. Thomas. Her flight was supposed to land at 3.30pm that afternoon and we were departing at 5.30pm sharp. If everything went smooth, she would get to the ship just in time. The cruise line knew her story and had promised to help. I never did find out if Ma had made it to the ship okay.

Sally said that Ma ended up spending close to $1000 extra, what with three more days of forced confinement in a Miami hotel and her last-minute purchase of a one-way flight to St. Thomas. All this because she decided while waiting for the taxi that the she’d rather take the other purse with her to the cruise.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Paralyzed by choices

I have great difficulty in choosing one destination, just one place to visit over others. Therefore, reading the following by Rolf Potts, in his book Vagabonding, was like looking into a mirror.

[Rolf Potts On being paralyzed by choices]
"In knowing that so many destinations were cheaply accessible at that very moment, I suddenly feared I would never again get the chance to see them. Travel, I was coming to realize, was a metaphor not only for the countless options life offers but also for the fact that choosing one option reduces you to the parameters of that choice. Thus, in knowing my possibilities, I also knew my limitations. Ultimately, I learned to stop looking at my journey as one final, apocalyptic chance to see the world, and started enjoying it on its own, esoteric terms."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Discovering Kyoto

Even after three days in Kyoto, I wasn’t experiencing any epiphanies or even enlightenment and I was getting impatient. On the fourth day that changed.

A friend (Rajesh) asked if I had ever thought of writing about places that had “stirred my soul.” I hadn’t, but when I thought about it my experience in Kyoto came to mind.

Since Tokyo has more international flights, more people end up going there. But there are many who swear by all that the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe) has to offer. We went to Kyoto this past September, carrying a must-see checklist.

Right at the airport, we bought the Kansai Thru pass which allows for 3 days of unlimited travel via most buses and trains in the area. Armed with that, we hit the sights with gusto.

For three days, from morning to night, using guidebooks and maps, we covered as many sights as we could manage -- exquisite temples, world famous Zen rock gardens and parks.

In addition to sights in Kyoto, we went to Nara to visit the gigantic wooden Todaji temple, and to see the ubiquitous deer that were fearless and demanded to be fed. We went to Kobe to see if there was any visible aftermath of the devastating 1995 earthquake. The only hint of it was the memorial flame in a park. And at night, we walked in Kyoto's geisha district hoping to catch glimpses.

Kyoto was great and very enjoyable, but somehow the magic I was expecting never materialized. As with all travel, there were some negatives. Our hotel room was very expensive for what we were getting. And when I went down to the receptionist to pay for the second night, he raised the tariff further saying it was the weekend. Vegetarian food was not just pricey, but also very hard to come by. We had been to Japan before and so we expected this, but these little things make it that much harder to fall in love with a place.

After three days, on the night before our flight to Korea, Rupal suggested that we stay in Kyoto for one more day. We knew that it was very unlikely that we’d ever come this way again. So I agreed and we decided to stay back for the 4th day in Kyoto.

We didn’t have big plans for the day. After a leisurely breakfast we headed out. There was a very light drizzle, almost spray, and so we took 2 umbrellas that the hotel provided and went off looking for a stroll that had been dubbed the Philosopher’s Walk. The 2 kilometer-path was right next to a stream and the very few people who had come in spite of the drizzle were amply rewarded.

In a small temple that only one of our guidebooks even mentioned, we were blown away by the stone-and-grass landscaping. I met and chatted with a Kyoto-and-San-Francisco based artist who had an exhibition going inside the temple. In that subdued rain, all the green seemed so much brighter. The temple had an adjoining cemetery and the floral and bamboo arrangements around each tombstone looked like they had been created for still life paintings.

Since we had time, we visited the Heian jingu temple. We followed a tour group into a side garden, which we might have overlooked if in a hurry. There were exquisite curved stone bridges and gazebos and lily ponds. The whole place was so beautiful that we must have taken dozens of photos. I overheard the tour guide telling her group, “In the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, this is bridge from which the geisha she sees the Chairman for the first time.”

In that unhurried pace, stopping wherever we felt like, we finally understood why some were raving about Kyoto. So yes, Kyoto did stir my soul. But I guess I had to be there for three days, ‘to prepare my soul’ before it opened up enough to get stirred.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sand And Sorrow

There is a fairly well-known quote by Louis L’Amour, in which he goes against accepted wisdom. He actually claims that reading about some places is better than going there:
“Having done both, it is better to sit in comfort with a cold drink at hand and read the tale than to actually walk out of the Mojave Desert as I did.”

In that vein, I am increasingly getting enamored by the concept of “Travel @ Home.” There will always be places we simply can’t get to, but we can always watch or read about them.

Right now, Sudan might be one such place. One good way to go there vicariously is to get hold of the documentary, Sand and Sorrow. The film is a great way to gain understanding of the origins and the aftermath of the Darfur crisis. The footage and especially the still photos pull no punches. The narration by George Clooney weaves a logical narrative thread and manages to do the one thing every documentary should do: It makes sure we become aware and can no longer plead ignorance as our excuse anymore.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Babushka with the Weighing machine

Though I have wanted to write about the old lady in Ulan Bator I have put it off because I couldn’t find any neat insights or conclusions to present. In fact, I haven’t even been able to make sense of it, which perhaps is the whole point. Writing about the Chiclets vendor of Cancun reminded me of her again and this time I decided to write anyway.

I've forgotten many details of my Mongolia visit this past May, but I remember the old lady with the weighing machine. I still remember her because of what I saw her earn.

In Ulan Bator, we stayed at the Khongor Guesthouse on Peace Avenue, which is the main street. For 4 days, we stayed at the hotel and walked to the various sights in the city. Each day, we'd walk in and out of the hotel at least two or three times and we'd have to pass the State Department Store every time. On the pavement right outside that store there was an old lady, a stocky babushka who stood with her back to the wall. She stood in her shoes, wearing a black coat and a long black skirt, a red scarf wrapped around her head. Mostly she was looking down. Right next to her, on the sidewalk was a weighing machine with a hand-scrawled sign. For 50 Togrogs anyone could get their weight taken.

Once, I saw a woman getting her weight taken. The old lady carefully removed the cardboard she had placed on the weighing machine. The babushka made the lady take off her shoes and step on the machine in her stockinged feet. The machine was made mostly of glass and looked very new and sleek. It was the kind you can get a Wal-Mart store for around $10 or $15. That was the entire business capital.

Though it was May, it was surprisingly windy and cold in UB. Day after day in that cold the old lady stood stoically, waiting for customers. I saw her everyday in the same place holding essentially the same pose. I remember having an unchristian thought, wondering if she had some illegal side-business going on, perhaps peddling drugs.

The reason for that thought was that in May, the exchange rate was over 1000 Mongolian Togrogs for each US dollar. So the old lady was earning less that 5 cents per weighing. We were right outside the State Department Store where the prices for fruit and vegetables were materially higher than what we pay here in Chicago. You couldn't have bought anything at all for 50 Togrogs.

In my 4 days of coming and going, the only time I saw the babushka earn anything was from that one lady.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Working Capital of $1.00

An old man shuffles up to me holding a red motorcycle helmet upside-down as though it were a begging bowl. Curious, I peer into the man’s helmet.
“Chiclets, senor?” he asks. I shake my head no, and he slowly shuffles off to the next table.

It is only a little past 6pm, but the sunlight is mostly gone in Parque Los Palpas, in Cancun city. I am sitting in a food court and people-watching while waiting for Rupal who has gone to check out the quesadilla, taco and churros food stalls nearby.

The old Mexican is selling really tiny white packets of Chiclets. Each packet contains five Chiclets and is barely bigger than a sugar cube. He has fewer than a dozen of them in his helmet. Even if he is selling them for one peso each, his entire revenue potential as well as his working capital is under one US dollar before he has to replenish his stock. I wonder how he is able to make ends meet.

I have seen this quite a bit in other places in Mexico and also in some places in India and Southeast Asia. Many people are trying a make living with just about zero capital. Here, in Mexico there are people trying to sell small packets of facial tissue, Chiclets or candy. Women sit patiently on the street for hours trying to sell an appallingly small number of oranges. Granted, I don’t know their constraints, but the whole enterprise strikes me as shockingly unambitious.

Having recently given up my only source of income, my thoughts do stray occasionally to how long my savings can last. And then I see hundreds of people eking out a living with so little and I feel embarrassed about even having thought about my personal finances.

A few tables away, I see one boy giving the old man a coin and buying a pack of Chiclets.

Monday, November 10, 2008

You can have any fruit you wish as long as it is banana, apple or orange

It was true everywhere, but I began to notice it only after Rupal pointed it out. We had just come out of a fruiteria (a roadside fruit vendor) with some bananas in Piste in Mexico.
“The variety of fruits we can buy seems to be going down,” my wife said. She should know because she really looks forward to eating tropical fruits. In my case, I eat fruits because they are healthy, but Rupal actually prefers fruits over packaged snacks.

Soon after she mentioned this I saw evidence of this everywhere. While vendors did carry a few token samples of exotic fruit, mostly they all carried just the big three: bananas, apples and oranges. In the last four months of fairly hectic travel (Europe, Asia and N. America) this has been the case everywhere.

Slowly, the whole fruit-buying population is getting squeezed down to just these three fruits. I haven’t researched this, but my hunch is that this is the rich-get-richer power-law phenomenon applied to fruit selling. (The more famous applications of this power law curve include Netflicks DVD rental choices, Digg posts and the number of edits by Wikipedians.)

The fruit vendors stock more of whatever sells, and the buyers buy more of whatever fresh is out on display. Just be sure to buy some papayas, jackfruit and custard apples before they disappear altogether.

Here are a couple of related links:

-- Per Capita Consumption of Principal Foods (in pounds)
-- Did you know that there is a Fruit and Nut yearbook? (In 2006, Americans consumed 25 lbs of bananas per capita, followed by apples 17 lbs and oranges came third among fresh fruit.)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Why Chichen Itza and not someplace else?

Back in 1996, the framed poster of the huge terraced pyramid with staircases running down the center of each side was one that had caught my eye. I had just joined as an employee of a major US airline and for the first few weeks I was walking around in intimidation and awe. That framed poster used to hang right in front of our credit union. All airlines have clever posters that make people want to visit destinations. I soon realized that the posters worked just as effectively on employees like me.

The poster was untitled, and so it took me a few weeks to figure out what it was. The Web was very much around in ’96, but it wasn’t as easy to search for things in it. Eventually, I learned that it was of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

My desire to go visit this place was born directly as a result of looking at that poster whenever I went to deposit a check at our employee credit union. Of late, and for reasons I haven’t yet fully understood, I am enamored by one particular aspect of wanderlust: when do we first decide to go visit a place and why? (I posted about this re. Kazakhstan as well.)

Chichen Itza is now one of the New Seven wonders of the world. That would be reason enough to go see it, but I didn’t know that until I was in Yucatan. My wife and I made several plans to go visit Chichen Itza, but they never panned out. So it took me twelve years to go visit the grand pyramid (El Castillo).

It was educational, it was great, and yes, it was crowded. It would be easy for me to say that I ended up disappointed. But these days, we are all post-modern travelers. We expect to be disappointed in marquee sights like the Eiffel, the Taj or Machu Pichu. The reality of viewing them can never match our unrealistic expectations nurtured over decades.

But this letdown is not always a bad thing. On its flip side is something quite positive. In places and towns where we don’t know enough to look forward to anything, we are almost always pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Not Intended to be Funny

Here are a couple of things I noticed in Little India in Penang, Malaysia three weeks ago.

The very first line in the menu of the Madras Woodlands vegetarian restaurant on Penang Street, by someone consciously trying out sophisticated English.
Vegetarianism is neither a nor a passing fancy

A sign in an Indian restaurant hoping to lure people in:
Taste your home cook here


(I need to find the notebook page full of similar ones that I jotted down while in Thailand a few years ago.)

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Matter of Trust

Chris, the guy from whom we rented a condo put me to shame. He put me to shame with his implicit trust in us.

On Monday, after landing in Kauai, he was one of the 10 or so people we called looking for accommodation. We went to his property in the town of Kalaheo to see if he had vacancies. He was full, but offered us a place in Poipu instead. Poipu was a seaside town eight miles away and a much more upscale area in the island. He asked us to follow his truck and so we drove following him.

He showed us one large unit that he hadn't planned on renting out, which he said we could have. He said there were two problems – the dishwasher was not working, so we’d have to hand-wash the dishes if we used the kitchen. And one faucet in the bathtub leaked a little, so we had to put a towel below while we showered. For these “inconveniences”, on his own, he knocked 50% off the price that we had seen in his website. We loved the place (much bigger and better equipped than our Chicago apartment back home) and so we took it up on the spot.

“Oh, we can do that later,” he said, when I asked about registration and paperwork. He showed us where everything was, shared a couple of housekeeping rules, handed me the keys and rushed off to play tennis with his buddies.

He didn’t have our credit card number or even our names. All he had was the cell phone number from which we called him.

And based just on our word that we’d stay for four nights, he had handed over to us the entire upstairs portion fully furnished (1100 sq feet) with a kitchen, a dining room, a living room including a wrap-around balcony.

What surprised me was how many things there were. It was a place that had been furnished with care and attention to detail. There were 2 TV’s, at least 2 DVD/VCR’s, a full dining table set, 2 phone handsets, lots of good furniture, several wall hangings and at least 10 fans and numerous lamps. The kitchen appliances were of excellent quality. I found bookcases full of books and CD’s and video cassettes. Dozens and dozens of them. Many were still shrink-wrapped, unopened. (One example: I saw a coffee-table book titled Bathrooms, which had photos of over 100 beautiful bathrooms in it.)

His unquestioning trust that we'd take care of all of this shamed me a little because I know I probably couldn’t trust a stranger if all of that was my stuff. In Zen Buddhism there is a teaching about making sure that one doesn’t get too attached to one’s own possessions. Your possessions shouldn’t possess you, they say. Our absent-landlord Chris embodied that completely. I am pretty sure that he doesn’t even know all that he possesses.

After two days of staying there without hearing from him, I began to get agitated. We hadn’t still paid him a penny. It was as if we were living in someone else’s fully furnished home. So I called him up to ask about where and how to pay him.

“Oh, when you are ready to check out, just leave the money or the check on the kitchen counter. And leave the keys there too when you leave,” was all he said.

And that’s exactly what we did.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Scottish-American success story

On yesterday's flight back from Kauai, the lady sitting next to me was petrified of flying. She was 74, had been born in Scotland and had then immigrated to the US 51 years ago and was living south of San Francisco.

I learned all this before the flight had even taken off from Lihue, and it dawned on me that she was chatting away as one way to alleviate her fear of flying. I later saw that her other way was to order a $6-gin-and-tonic to calm her nerves.
“I have been through so much in life, and flying still gets me,” she said, shaking her head. She said that she had been through childbirth (thrice) and had been held at gun point at her own home (once, for 45 minutes) but flying was what really terrified her.
“But in a way, I see this fear as a good thing,” she said, putting a positive spin by psychoanalyzing herself. “I am 74 and I am still afraid. That means that I have more to live for, so much more I still have to do.”

After we were airborne, she said she was very proud of what her youngest daughter had accomplished. This daughter had started to slowly turn deaf in her early teen years. And then, for a couple of decades the deafness was practically total. Undaunted, the daughter had gotten degrees and even started her own company with a couple of other people. And then, thanks to the miracle of modern technological advances, at the age of 39, her deafness was cured.
“It doesn’t work for everybody, but my daughter is a poster-child for cochlear implants!”
This daughter had sold her company to a bigger firm for “many, many millions.” The timing had been perfect. Two weeks later, we were all hit with this recent economic crisis. She felt that there was no way anyone would buy the company in the current economic situation.

She talked of growing up in Scotland with very little. She was dismissive of what everyone calls smog in the big cities nowadays. “You haven’t seen smog until you have seen what it was like in Lanarakshire in those days. It was because of all the coal burning.”
Because her parents had struggled financially, for the first 23 years of her life there hadn’t been an indoor toilet where she lived.
Clearly, in the US she and her husband had done very well. Her husband was sitting somewhere else in the airplane. I learned that she and her husband owned not one but two timeshare condos with a guaranteed view of the ocean in Poipu, a very upscale part of Kauai island.
“I actually think it helps to have had so little when growing up,” she said, because she felt that it helped her value and savor what she now had more.

“And now I have a home with five bathrooms. And you know what?” She paused for effect before continuing, “I absolutely love having all of them!”

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fragments of Epic Memory


Here in Kauai, I am reading about another set of islands. The Antilles is a very small book – Derek Walcott’s Nobel Lecture. Now that I don’t go for work, I am doing what I promised myself I would do – catch up on world literature. The book is tiny, but it is a way to gain insight into the mind and preoccupations of a Nobel winner – his prose is at times angry as well as self-defensive about the place his beloved Caribbean occupies in the minds of the rest of the world. I was reminded of another book, Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place – powerful anger against what the tourists have done to the islands.

In Walcott’s lecture, I found the following sentence:
The traveler cannot love, since love is stasis and travel is motion.

Having been on constant move for the past 4 months, I need to think more about that sentence.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Snow Leopard

There is a very telling anecdote in page 158 of Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard. The author and a group of Sherpas and porters are wading through a stream on their trek to Crystal Mountain in the Tibetan Plateau. They are tossing packs over the stream to get them across and one Sherpa, Dawa, drops a pack into the stream. That pack contains the head Sherpa Jang-bu’s bedding. Jang-bu sees this and spontaneously bursts out laughing even though it means great inconvenience for him. The others join in the laughter. Peter mentions this as but one example of the trust and acceptance of life of these Sherpas.

Because I know how upset I would become if I had to spend a night in such a cold place in a soggy sleeping bag, this anecdote resonated with me. It was a reminder of how much growing up I still had to do.

In my recent trip to Malaysia and Singapore, I finished reading this travel classic, which I had been meaning to get to for years.

The Snow Leopard justifiably occupies its position in numerous all-time Top Travel books lists. Peter Matthiessen traveled in the Dolpo region in the Himalayas for 2 months back in 1973, and this book is his record of that journey. He writes authoritatively about many topics: his trip but also about his practice of Buddhism, about monasteries and lamas, about the Sherpas and the porters, about the people they meet who spend all their lives above 16,000 feet, about botany, so knowledgeably about the birds they get to observe and about the blue sheep, wolves and snow leopards.

His prose is sparse and in many instances it sparkles. It often reminded me of James Salter’s writing. For those who take the time, the reading of The Snow Leopard itself will be a great reward.

Below are three paragraphs that I copied down from the book so that I would remember Peter’s ideas when I reread these excerpts.

This is the paragraph that made a deep impression on me.
[On Trusting life]
Yet I feel calm, and ready to accept whatever comes, and therefore happy. The turn in my mood occurred this morning, when the brave Dawa, attempting to catch Jang-bu’s (the head sherpa’s) pack, hurled across a stream, dropped it ineptly into the water. Wonderfully, Jang-bu laughed aloud, as did Dawa and Phu-Tsering, although it meant wet clothes and a wet sleeping bag for the head Sherpa. That happy-go-lucky spirit, that acceptance which is not fatalism but a deep trust in life, made me ashamed.


[On the betrayal in fulfillment]
[…]Perhaps the life fear comes when all the mysteries are laid open, when what we thought we wanted is attained. It is just at the moment of seeming fulfillment that we sense irrevocable betrayal, like a great wave rising silently behind us, and know most poignantly what Milarepa meant: All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings, in destruction; meetings in separation; births, in death…” Confronted by the uncouth specter of old age, disease, and death, we are thrown back upon the present, on this moment, here, right now, for that is all there is.

[On Miracles]
One of the four cardinal sins in the monastic order of the Buddha -- after unchastity, theft, and killing – was laying claim to miraculous powers. It is related that Sakyamuni once dismissed as of small consequence a feat of levitation on the part of a disciple, and cried out in pity for a yogin by the river who had wasted twenty years of his human existence in learning how to walk on water, when the ferryman might have taken him across for a small coin.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

No Handouts Please

This happened last week in Pinang. I was traveling with my parents in Malaysia.

One evening, right after sunset I was walking back to our hotel from an internet cafe. My parents were there waiting for me to go to dinner.

That part of Little India in Georgetown has had Indian descendants whose ancestors go back 200 years. The music shops were blaring Tamil movie songs, and there was the smell of cooking from all the street vendors. It had just stopped raining and the temperature seemed perfect.

On Lebuh Penang, I noticed a grocery shop adjacent to Ananda Bhavan restaurant. I decided to go in to get some bottled water.

A barefoot young woman in her early twenties in a light blue salwar approached me outside the shop. It was getting to be dark, but I could see that she was of Indian descent. In her left hand she was carrying a few packets of something that she was trying to sell. She spoke to me in Tamil.
“En pullaikku kaadhu kethakudhu aiyya. Konjam vangunga aiyya.” (My son cannot hear. Please buy this, Sir.) I had no interest in buying whatever it was that she was selling, so I shook my head no and entered the shop. When I walked out with the bottled water, she was still there.
“Konjam vangunga aiyya.” I pulled out a small Ringgit note from my pocket to offer it to her.
“Aiyyo, kaasu vendam aiyya!” (I don’t want your money, Sir!)
I tried reasoning with her. It looked like she was selling packets of incense sticks.
“But I don’t want those, miss. What will I do with them?” I said, offering her the note.
She looked at the money and looked at me. Then she shook her head, turned and walked away. I walked back to the hotel.

It is because of her moral stance that I remember her. I regret that I didn’t try to find out what she was selling instead of trying to give her a handout. Whatever it was, it would have cost only a few Ringgits and would have made no difference to me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Apples Are From Kazakhstan

I can tell you exactly where and when I got the desire to go visit Kazakhstan. It was the book.

I am always curious about why people choose one destination over all the others available to them. Why Korea but not Taiwan? Why this National Park over that other one? The responses, if I get to hear them, are invariably illuminating.

In my case, I have been long fascinated by the Central Asian republics -- because of the Silk Road and because to me they are exotic. But I didn’t know much about any of them. The only popular mention of Kazakhstan is in Sacha Cohen’s movie Borat, which does the country grave injustice.

A few months ago, I learned that a very good new book about Kazakhstan had come out. Apples are from Kazakhstan, by Christopher Robbins. Soon, in my local library, I saw the book on display, ready to be checked out. The declarative title is a very memorable one. (A stranger who is the author’s airplane seatmate tells him, “Apples are from Kazakhstan”, and that statement sets off a two year love affair with the country for Robbins which results in this book.)

The book’s delectable cover is a great example of the creative use of digital photo manipulation (Photoshop, perhaps).

At the time, I was getting ready to travel in Ukraine and Moldova, both of which are sister ex-soviet republics just like Kazakhstan and so I brought the book home to read it during that trip.

AAFK is everything a travel book should be. It is about the author’s visits there, but also has history, politics and is full of anecdotes that give us a sense of the country. The author gets access to the President and so we get to read about aspects of Nazarbayev that we otherwise never would. Robbins’ is effusive in his praise of the president, who comes across as a very intelligent person.

Every country should be so lucky as to have a book like AAFK written about it. Do read the book if you get a chance. It is the next best thing to actually visiting Kazakhstan.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tagging your photos

Here's something that I have recently started doing. I have started to add Tags to my digital photo files, so that XP can easily search and find the ones I am looking for.

If you are like most people, after a few trips you end up with hundreds and hundreds of photos. It takes time (though often enjoyable) to sift through your 300 photos of Hawaii to find the one you had in mind. That's where a few simple tags can greatly help.

Here's what I do in XP. (I don't have Vista, but I believe Tagging is even easier in that.) Right click on any open photo and select Properties --> Summary. In the Keywords box write a few pertinent tags and separate them using semicolons (Location, people, any unique identifying feature). I haven't yet figured out an effective way to tag groups of photos. But for my purposes, one at a time works for now.

Once you have them tagged, go to Find, select Files and Folders, select Pictures, Music and Video and check the box to limit it to Pictures and Photos and type any tag you want to search for. I don't use the feature, but Picassa and Adobe also have tagging options, and there are also free tagging software (iTag etc.) available for download.

I have only recently started doing this, but it is already proving to be very helpful. If you have a different way off tagging, please do mention it in the comments section.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Coexist

Driving home from the airport after a 10-day trip to East Asia, I stopped at my local grocery store to buy a gallon of milk. On the car whose spot I ended up parking in, I saw the bumper sticker (see picture above).

I liked the sticker for a couple of reasons. It is a very creative example of the use of display fonts (also known as interpreted or visual fonts). I am always amazed by the ability of our minds to easily fill in letters of the alphabet where they don’t exist. What I like about this example is that all letters are in interpreted font (granted, the ‘e’ is a bit of a stretch).

Though I am not very religious, I very much like the underlying message. At the most basic level, isn’t coexistence the only option available to all of us?

Seeing this sticker very close to home, right after a long trip served to remind me of well known truism: I didn’t have to travel many miles to places far away to see things. I just had to keep my eyes open.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Ambassador of Cojusna

Moldova, July 2008

The man on the bus in Chisinau, Moldova spoke no English. He spoke in Russian, but we understood him mostly because of his pantomime. My wife Rupal had asked him to let us know when the stop for Esilor Road showed up. He managed to convey that he too was getting down there, so he’d be sure to let us know.

The reason we were heading to Esilor was that we had read in our guidebook that from there we could take a maxitaxi (a van which served as shared taxi) to the small town of Cojusna.

We had gone to the tiny country of Moldova purely on a whim. On the map, it looked very close to the cities we were visiting in Ukraine, and the lesser known ex-soviet country sounded intriguing. But once we got there after having spent a few days in Lvov and Odessa in Ukraine, we found that Chisinau was in fact quite similar to places in Ukraine, the bigger neighbor. Looking around for something more authentically Moldovan, we decided to go visit a vineyard or two. Moldova has a small but niche wine business.

Our first choice was the vineyard tour of Cricova, which is already relatively well established in the tourist circuit. The tours to Cricova, however, required advanced booking (we didn’t have time) and are somewhat expensive unless one is a serious wine aficionado. The Cricova tour caters to the well-heeled crowd, people who are happy to be ferried around in air-conditioned comfort stopping in the boutique shops for ‘wine-tasting’. They then purchase a case or two (shipped direct to their home address) and while entertaining guests back home, they’ll try and impress them by casually letting drop that they ‘picked up this wine from a neat little vineyard they found in Moldova.’

Instead, we decided to check out a lesser known place that the guidebook mentioned. Cojusna was said to have smaller vineyards, which sounded perfect for what we wanted to do. If we took a bus from Chisinau and then changed over to a minivan (mashrutky), we could get there by ourselves.

When our bus reached the right stop, the man made sure we got down. He then pointed up a road and said, ‘Esilor.’
‘Cojusna. Minibus?’ I asked, speaking only in nouns so that he would understand.
‘Cojusna?!’ He broke into a bright smile. In sign language he let us know that he too was headed to Cojusna. He asked us to go with him, and so we walked along.
“Arabic?” he asked me. People often mistook me as someone hailing from the Middle East when I neglect my razor for more than two days.
“No, Indian,” I said.
“India! Cinema!” he said.

It has happened in quite a few places, but it always amazes me that of all things, people connect India with its movies. And this time I was hoping to avoid something that had happened to us in Turkey. Two years previously, on the very outskirts of Istanbul near the northern-most point of the Bosporus where it meets the Black Sea, an old man had spontaneously burst into an off-key rendition of “Mera Jhoota Hai Japani” (a popular Hindi song) when he learnt that we were from India.
“Come, let’s have some coffee,” he then said pointing to a cafĂ©. We had just met him a minute ago. Suspicious that he might have some ulterior motive, we politely declined and walked away. I still remember his crestfallen face which makes me believe that I had refused a genuine gesture of camaraderie. Perhaps we should have given the old man the benefit of doubt, but in my defense we had read a lot about touts in the Istanbul area.

To this man going to Cojusna I said, “Indian cinema. Amitabh Bachchan.” I was mentioning the Bollywood megastar sure that he would recognize the name. But the name didn’t even register a reaction. It wasn’t clear that he had even heard of Bachchan.

Then I remembered my exchanges with Moroccan shopkeepers. While we were traveling in Morocco, bored shopkeepers would shout out as I passed by. “Hello, Indian?” They were always young men in their late teens or early twenties. I would nod yes.
Baazigar! Shah Rukh Khan!” they would then shout. The movie Baazigar seemed to have been extremely popular there. I would stop and nod, though I had no interest in buying the things that they had on sale for tourists – carpets, T-shirts, colorful ceramics. They were happy to chat anyway. “India number one!” they would say.
“Morocco number one,” I’d reply, returning the compliment. That always pleased them immensely, and they’d place their right hand over their hearts and bow a little, their way of accepting my compliment. This exact same exchange was repeated over two dozen times in the few days, no matter which city’s souk we traveled through – Marrakech, Fez or Meknes.

Remembering all that, I tried the same thing with this person in Chisinau. "Cinema. Baazigar. Shah Rukh Khan," I said. But that too didn’t ring a bell. Neither Amitabh nor Shah Rukh Khan produced even a glimmer of recognition. He thought for a while, seemed to be straining to recollect, and then he said, “Mithun!”
“Mithun Chakravorthy?” I asked, somewhat surprise. Mithun too was a Bollywood hero, but arguably, he wasn't quite in the same league as the other two stars. I hadn’t even thought of Mithun Chakravorthy in perhaps over a decade. I very rarely watch Hindi movies, so I wasn’t sure if he was still appearing in movies. The man from Cojusna nodded vigorously and beamed. We both smiled, acknowledging this rather esoteric shared pop-cultural experience though our lives and backgrounds were very different.

We had reached the place where people were boarding minivans for Cojusna. He pointed to the right white van and asked us to get on. This was a mashrutky, a shared taxi services that runs on fixed routes. But there were only two seats left, and so I asked him to get on. He absolutely refused and insisted that we take the last remaining seats. “That’s okay. I will wait for the next one.” We could understand him though he was speaking in Russian. Ever the ambassador for his beloved Cojusna, he let us board and as we pulled away, he waved us goodbye.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

T-shirts in Alaska

When traveling, the text on T-Shirts being sold in tourist shops can often provide an understanding of the prevalent stereotypes about the locals. They also give a quick insight into what the locals think of themselves.

Here are a few T-shirts that we found in Alaska recently:

Alaska is 1/5th the size of the entire continental US, much bigger than many people reckon.
T-shirt has a map of Texas looking puny in comparison when overlaid on a map of Alaska and the text:
Isn’t Texas Cute?

It is said that the ratio of men to women in many parts of Alaska is 7:1 or even 10:1. Therefore, a woman’s odds are said to be great and she can have her pick of men. However, the men who end up in Alaska are believed to be eccentric.
T-shirt has a picture of one woman walking, and about 10 men ogling her, and below it:
Alaska: Where the Odds are Good, But the Goods are Odd

Alaska is notorious for its mosquitoes and they are reputed to be very big in size.
T-shirt has a photograph of one mosquito in silhouette in the foreground, with a sunset in the background that makes the mosquito appear large.
Mosquito: Alaska’s State Bird

And finally, one spotted by Rupal in Juneau
A Nice Little Drinking Town With A Fishing Problem

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Hungry Construction Dragon













W
e all know that China is in the midst of a great construction boom these days. While traveling in the Yunnan province (southwest China) last month, I witnessed one unwelcome side effect of all this construction. In their eagerness to build and in their need for raw materials, the Chinese are gouging out their own hills and mountains.

Picture a big round hill and then imagine someone slicing off a portion of it with a huge knife, as if it were a cake. The slicing is happening as the whole hill is getting gouged out, one truckload at a time. All across Yunnan, mountains that have stood for millions of years now have recently-created blemishes – big and dirty graceless eyesores right in the middle of the green hills. We saw dozens and dozens of such gashes as we traveled by train and bus.

If this continues, in the not-too-distant future, the whole mountain will disappear due to quarrying.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ghost Train To The Eastern Star

Today, I completed reading Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. Last month, when I blogged about his classic book The Great Railway Bazaar I hadn’t known that he had a new book just published, which retraced his earlier journey of 33 years ago.

In Ghost Train, Paul travels by rail (mostly) from London all the way to Japan and back, over 28,000 miles in all, and writes about his trip.

If you listen to Theroux’s critics, they are quick to use words like caustic or acerbic or grouchy to describe his prose. But I find that such one-word descriptions are too reductive for someone with his abilities. Yes, at times he is all of those, but he is also extremely funny and compassionate and a great observer and summarizer of things and places.

I have always maintained that reading a book by James Michener (Alaska, Hawaii) is the equivalent of getting to spend 3 months there. Paul Theroux’s travel books have that same quality – you can ‘travel’ right in your living room with his books.

If you haven’t read anything by Paul Theroux, you have at least three good choices. The Great Railway Bazaar, Dark Star Safari (Africa) and his newly released Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (retracing his earlier GRB journey).

Start with the Ghost Train if you can. If the whole book seems too daunting given your other time constraints, get hold of the book anyway and read the chapters for just the countries that interest you. I can especially recommend Turkey (the intelligentsia he meets and Orhan Pamuk), India (his take on the recent IT boom and the widening economic gap), Burma (how things haven’t changed much in 30 years) and Japan (he writes about the manga craze and his discussions with two well-known authors – Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer).

Just don’t let the critics rob you of the unique pleasure of reading his lucid prose.

Theroux on Luxury travel

Having just recently returned from a cruise liner trip down Alaska’s Inside Passage, it was very sobering to read Paul Theroux's admonition about luxury (In his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star):
“Luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Personal Top 10 List of backpacker hangout destinations

These are not in any ranked order. I've grouped them roughly by geographic location.
  1. Kao San Road, Bangkok
  2. Chiang Mai, Thailand
  3. Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
  4. Dali/Lijiang, Yunnan province, China
  5. Varkala, Kerala, India
  6. Alice Springs, Aus
  7. Moab, Utah, USA
  8. Kauai, HI, USA
  9. Banff/Jasper, BC, Canada
  10. Panajachel, Guatemala

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Contrabrand in Dali

The first couple of times it took me by surprise.
“Hello!”
I turned back. It was a matronly Bai woman in her traditional blue dress and a frilly white headband, walking up to me. She came very close and whispered, “Smoke ganja?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Maybe hashish?”
“No.” I smiled to take off the edge. She walked away.

We were in Dali, in southwest China. In the 2-3 days that we were there, essentially this same exchange played itself out about a dozen times. I took me a while to get over the incongruity of it – kindly-looking older women, so far removed from my stereotypes, peddling drugs. It was always women and they were all old, though I had difficulty in guessing the ages of Chinese women of certain age. Some were old enough that they reminded me of my grandmother.

Often they would sidle up to me so quietly that I wasn’t aware of them until they were at my arm. The way they said it was ‘Smoku ganja?’ There is a fairly large sight-seeing area around Dali, but all foreigners stayed in the two or three touristy streets in the Old town. So, in Fuxing street or Renming or the aptly-named Foreigner street, you’d meet everyone sooner or later. Some of these women would ask me multiple times a day. Once or twice I was tempted to ask the price purely out of curiosity. But I didn’t want to encourage the ladies and have them harangue me further. Also, I didn’t know what the penalty in China was for possessing narcotics.

After a few times, I became better at spotting the peddling grandmas, waving them away, always with a smile. Some of the ladies would see me and nod without approaching, knowing I wasn’t a customer. Others were quite persistent and came up to me and asked every time I passed by even though I always said no.

“Hey Rupal, are any ladies trying to sell you marijuana?” I asked my wife on our last day in Dali. Even when my wife and I were walking together it seemed that the Bai ladies managed to isolate me and ask.
“No. Not even once,” Rupal said.
I never learned what it was about me that made those ladies think that I’d be interested in their products.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Likable Things About Travel in Israel

  1. The nugget-sized country means that most intra-city travel is not much more than 2 hours. (Surprisingly, most buses took less time than what the schedule showed.)
  2. Good public transportation meant that we could do the day trips ourselves, instead of depending on Travel Agencies.
  3. The fact that they print out a whole week’s bus schedule when you ask for the next bus. (Very useful to plan day trips)
  4. Tel Aviv’s all-day bus pass (Hofshi Yomi) which is just about the price of one round-trip ticket. (Why don’t Jerusalem and Haifa have this?)
  5. Ubiquitous falafel stands for pita sandwiches on the go
  6. Kosher restaurants that won’t mix milk and meat in the same dish – great for us lacto-vegetarians

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Israeli Strudel

Sometimes, while traveling around, you get to pick up some neat trivia. While in Israel, I learned about the ‘Strudel.’

Back around 1890, Hebrew wasn’t a common spoken language. Like Latin or Sanskrit, there were many who knew it, but it wasn’t spoken daily. Ben Yehuda, born in the Russian empire who moved to (then) Palestine decided that the diaspora needed a common language and that it would be Hebrew.

For a language to flourish, it has to quickly adapt and assimilate many new words. And since there was no word for the symbol ‘@’ the Israelis decided to call it the Strudel, because it looked like their pastry.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Self-Parody Israel style

As soon as you land in Israel, you can pick up the palpable undercurrent of tension in the air. In all the young army people toting heavy rifles, in the ubiquitous metal detectors and in the unceasing questioning wherever we went. It took me a couple of days to learn to move that into the background and focus on the many other aspects that Israel had to offer.

So, in light of all this no-jokes-allowed backdrop, it was particularly enjoyable to see the T-Shirts on sale at Jerusalem. The Israelis seemed to poking fun at themselves a bit.

“MY JOB IS SO SECRET, I DON”T EVEN KNOW WHAT I AM DOING”

And

ISRAEL – UZI DOES IT.” The army recruits are required to carry their rifles at all times, so you see these Uzi rifles all over.

And finally, knowing that the US supports Israel every year to the tune of $3 Billion in economic aid:
“AMERICA DON’T WORRY. ISRAEL IS BEHIND YOU.”

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lijiang - through Simon Winchester's eyes


We were in the delightful town of Lijiang recently, and only when I was there did I recall that a writer I admire, Simon Winchester, had passed through the town a decade or so ago and had written about it in his book, The River At The Center Of the World. Once I returned to Chicago, I went back to the library to see what he'd written. Here's what I found:

The town of Lijiang is one of western China's true gems — one of the very few way stations in the Middle Kingdom on what, archaically perhaps, still known as the Hippie Trail. Youngsters from around the world come to Lijiang, en route between the equally delightful towns of Dali and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan and Yang- shuo in Guangxi province. They are on a circuit — the same people who visit the back streets of Chiang Mai, Kathmandu and Lhasa, or Panajachel, Goa and Trivandrum, end up with equal enthusiasm and curiosity and camaraderie in towns like Lijiang. No matter what regime is in power, nor what rules are in force, there is a universality in the appeal of such places — laid-back, easygoing, with colorful people and cheap and wholesome food. In the normal and depressing order of business, the youngsters come to such a place first as rucksack-carrying pioneers and discoverers; the tour buses come next; and then the airports and the big hotels.

Lijiang is currently poised delicately between the first two phases of this evolution — the youngsters are still making it here, but on buses as well as by hitchhiking (1 picked up two young Israelis, taking six months off from their kibbutz, and they were typical of the breed); and the hotel lobbies have notices offering the day’s program to the tour groups of Dutch and Belgians who have found out about the local delights. No groups of Americans or Japanese, nor of Chinese "compatriots" from Taiwan and Hong Kong, not yet; no airport yet, either, though one was due to open, imminently); and no Holiday Inns or other chains, although I met an unpleasant Frenchwoman who had plans for a Sofitel, once the airfield opened. The developers are eyeing Lijiang, greedily and warily at the same time.


Of course, that was 12 years ago. Yes, the airport is there now. There is KFC, right outside the old town, and judging by the crowds, it is very popular with the Chinese teenagers. Lijiang's Old Town had the feel of completeness to it (which we didn't find in Dali.) So it looks like the developers that Simon bemoans have come, done their work and left.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Traveler IQ Challenge

I first came across this quiz sometime in late 2007. Due to its popularity, it was featured in WSJ. I like many aspects of it -- the breathlessness with which it throws the next question at us, the fact that it uses both accuracy and time to score, and also the visual count-down timer.

There are many groupings to choose from, but I usually attempt the World geography quiz. If you haven't seen it yet, you should check it out.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

5 Centimeters short

As we traversed the southern part of China, going east to west from Hong Kong by plane, trains and buses, I was struck by how many young people approached us (on their own) and tried out their English.

We met Winnie, who is in her third year in college on the train from Guilin to Kunming. It was an overnight train, and it was the morning after when she came over, sat across from us, smiled at Rupal and myself and started talking. We were not very far from Kunming.
She wanted to know where we were headed. We told her our itinerary. She was going with her boyfriend (who didn’t speak English) and a small group of other travelers to the same places. Her mother had to work, and couldn’t join them. To me it seemed that more and more of the Chinese middleclass, with their new-found money thanks to the booming economy, were taking vacations.

Winnie, who said she was majoring in “English translation” hadn’t traveled too far beyond Guilin. I was trying to downplay our travels, afraid that it would seem boastful in comparison, but she was very curious and asked us a lot of questions about the places we had visited.
We also told her how much we liked China and how friendly we found its people. And then she surprised us with a tough question.
“Which country has the most un-helpful people?” Both Rupal and I looked at each other, struggling to answer that one.
Cop out responses like ‘They are all friendly people,’ or ‘It depends on who we end up running into,’ didn’t satisfy her at all.
“But who is least friendly?” she persisted.
We still wouldn’t name any country. None came to mind, really.
“What about the Japanese people?” Winnie asked us. She was leading us. We were less than a day’s journey away from Nanjing, and I knew that the two nations had had a turbulent past.
“The Japanese people we met while traveling there were very reserved,” I conceded. She smiled and nodded, satisfied.

“Once you have a job, which places will you visit?” Rupal asked Winnie.
Hong Kong! I will go to Hong Kong for shopping!” I thought it a little ironic that a girl who lived in the hinterlands of China (“the manufacturer for the whole world”) wanted to go elsewhere to buy things.
“And I will go to America, maybe.”

In the morning light, the most striking feature of the landscape we were rolling past was the greenness of the countryside. Mile after unremitting mile of paddy and corn fields. The fields had been cut and leveled right up the small hills, all to feed the huge population. Our talk then turned to the Summer Olympics, which were less than a week away.
“You are not going to Beijing?” Rupal asked her.
“No. I have never been to Beijing. Very expensive.” She paused and then added, “Many girls from my college were selected for the Beijing Olympics.”
“You didn’t want to go with them?”
“Yes, I wanted.” Winnie passed her hand in front of her face, making a circle around it. “But you must be very beautiful.” To me, she looked attractive, but I guess the officials who were selecting girls from all across China had exacting standards.
“Also, you have to be 1.65 meters tall. I am only 1.6meters.” She smiled ruefully.

Before we got off the train, Winnie wanted to have her picture taken with us. She called her boyfriend over to take the photo. The shy guy didn’t speak English, but he too wanted his picture taken with us. In a short while we all arrived in Kunming. At the station, we asked her to write ‘Dali, tomorrow, lower berth’ in Chinese on a piece of paper. We used that to buy our onward ticket.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The fortune teller of Xi Shan

One evening last week, we were wandering in the Xi Shan (western mountains) near Kunming. We had time to kill since were taking the 11pm overnight train to Dali. After checking out of the hotel and leaving our bags with them, we had made a day trip to the mountains nearby, a popular tourist destination.

“Hello. You are teacher!” A man seated in a low stool, with some astrological charts spread out in front of him was trying to get my attention.

“You are teacher,” he repeated. “I am fortune teller!”

I was stunned. Not because he had called it correctly (he had not) but at the risk he was taking. I knew he was guessing, but it was crazy that he would play such poor odds in the hope of landing a customer. If I was the fortune teller and saw an Indian guy wearing glasses in a foreign land, my first guess would be that he was in the IT field, that he worked in some office with computers.

“She also teacher,” he said, pointing to Rupal. This guy was 0 for 2. Even if I had any desire to have my fortune told, I wouldn’t go to someone with such an abysmal record.

I shook my head No, to indicate that we weren’t teachers. In fact, at the moment, both of us had no profession, being gainfully unemployed, trying to live out our possibly juvenile notion of trying to get by without working at all.

The man smiled, acknowledging that he had been wrong. He quickly turned his attention to the Chinese tourists, who were, presumably, more tolerant of charlatans.

Where does Wanderlust originate from?

While this book can't be said to be where my wanderlust originated, it surely fed to it. I was rambling around for years before I read Paul Theroux's 'The Great Railway Bazaar.' But the book definitely changed the way the I look at maps. When I see two places, I first wonder if it is possible to go from one to the other by road, traveling closer to the land.

It made me enjoy traveling by land (trains and buses) a lot more than simply flying in and flying out of a city. A lot of our trips are open-jaws (start in one city, end the trip at another and fly back) and this too was partly the result of reading TGRB.

In this book about his enviably long railway odyssey, Theroux starts out in London, and keeps going all across Europe and Asia, ending up in Japan. And then, he turns around and does the whole trip back to London, via a different route (Trans-Siberian). His astute observations and unpretentious style of writing make this, perhaps, my favorite travel book of all time. (Though I know that Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard is firmly perched as the number one travel book among scores of people.)

I own this book, but I actually listened to it as an audio-book the first time. Frank Muller (the narrator) doesn't merely read the lines, he performs them. I remember that for 2 weeks or so, I used to eagerly look forward to my commute to and from work which is when I listened to it.

If you love travel and haven't read this book, I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bluelist

I first learned of the term Bluelist and its use from Lonely Planet, though we've been doing something similar for quite some time. At the beginning of each new year, Rupal and I would each independently write down the names of 3 countries we wished to visit that year. We'd stick the list on a cork-board, and try to make it to some of the places on our list. If a country repeatedly showed up on the list, we'd try and get to it sooner than later.

So here then is my personal Bluelist as of August 2008:

Near Term (before Dec 31 2008)
Columbia and Equador
S. Korea
Taiwan
Kyoto area in Japan
Peru (Machu Pichu)

Mid Term (six months to 2 years)
Maldives
Sri Lanka
Burma
Laos
Sikkim (India)
TamilNadu in 3 months (India)
East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)
Central America (Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama)

Long Term (in the next few years)
The length of Trans-Siberian esp. Lake Baikal
Kazhakstan (Central Asia)
Traverse the Silk Road
Afghanistan
West Africa (sub-saharan: Mali and Niger)
Tibet (via the highway from Katmandu)
South Island (New Zealand)