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!”