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


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.