Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Send Off in Bikaner

One night in Bikaner I noticed a procession. It was past 9 pm and we were traveling in an autorickshaw. At the head of the procession was one man in his sixties wearing a suit and a garland of marigold. Behind him were around 30-40 men and boys of all ages. A few feet behind the men walked the ladies. One lady in the lead was also wearing a garland of flowers. About two dozen other women and girls were walking along with her. It was a relatively quiet procession with no accompanying music.

“Where are these people going?” I asked our auto-driver.
“Haj, sir. That man and his wife are going to this year's Haj. The people of their community are going up to the railway station to send them off.”

The couple would go to Delhi by the night train, and then fly to Saudi from there. I was impressed that on a workday evening so many people had felt it important enough to walk along to the railway station because two of their community elders were off to Haj.

In a world where a lot of the romance has been squeezed out from travel, it was refreshing to see some people still celebrating a journey with such pride.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Favorite Shirt

If you are the kind of person that gets attached to some of the small things you own (certain clothes or a particular pen, for example) you will understand this.

My wife pointed out that a few stitches were coming undone in my green striped Polo shirt, noticeable if one looked closely. Among my shirts, it was the one I liked the most. It had become a favorite and I took it with me on each and every trip. I knew what I had to do.

On the last day of this year’s Pushkar camel fair, I put the shirt in my daypack. In front of the Bramha temple, there were a number of people seeking alms. I hesitatingly took the shirt out the bag, because what they really wanted was money. But the elderly lady who took the shirt from me surprised me with her eagerness

Hopefully, the shirt will have a long second life.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fauna in the Rajasthan desert

Being a city-raised guy, I only had stereotypical ideas of what animals there would be in the Rajasthan desert. Turned out that I was wrong about almost everything I had imagined.

First of all, there are no free ranging camels in the desert. They all seem to be spoken for and are now domesticated.

I also had no idea that there would be such an abundance of cattle (cows, buffalo, goats) everywhere we went. On a very tall sand dune, I once saw a cow seated perfectly still, looking down at us. It was surreal and looked like a PhotoShop image.

All over the desert, there are small deer that run fast. They looked like dik-dik. And I was surprised by the number of blue peacocks that were wandering about, mostly near where the humans live.

A town called Kheecan (near Falodi) has become a sanctuary for demoiselle cranes – birds that migrate down from Siberia and Central Asia to spend the winter months in Rajasthan.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Western Rajasthan Itinerary

Here’s our itinerary for the 3 weeks we spent in Western Rajasthan:

Mumbai – Mt Abu (the marble temples of Dilwara) – Ajmer – Pushkar Camel Fair (& Literary Fest) – Bikaner – Kolayat (Day trip from Bikaner) – Jaisalmer (+ 2 Day Desert safari) – Kheecan (Demoiselle cranes) – Jodhpur – Mumbai

If you have any travel questions about any of these places, just leave me a note.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Seller of Pirated-Books

The illegal but very open business of selling pirated books fascinates me. I think it is terrible that the entire publishing industry (authors, editors, publishers) is being subverted by the makers of pirated editions. But I seem to be in the minority here, because all these roadside sidewalk vendors are doing very good business. The authorities who should be cracking down on it are ignoring it, and people who should know better are buying the books.

I met one young vendor in Matunga in Mumbai who was surprisingly open about his business. Amidst all his shrink-wrapped pirated books, I spotted an original non-pirated hardbound version of the latest Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol.
“How much is that?” I asked more out of curiosity than a desire to purchase.
“Oh, that is an original copy. I can only sell it for 590 Rupees.” That was quite a bit more expensive that the pirated books which typically cost 50 Rupees or less.
“How about that one?” I was pointing at Chetan Bhagat’s latest book – 2 States. My wife and I had been to the author’s book launch in Mumbai just the previous week and I was surprised that it had already made its way to the roadside vendors.
“The cost is 95 Rupees. I can give it to you for 85.”
“Is that an original copy?”
“Yes, it is.” He then explained to me that the pricing was such that making pirated copies was not immediately necessary.

The publishers, Rupa & Co, have cleverly priced it at 95 Rupees, an amount the buyers didn’t mind paying. When it comes to books priced at 300 Rupees or more, many of the same buyers don’t seem to mind buying pirated copies instead.

The vendor then went on to say, “That is a very new book. It takes 2 months to make the copies and get them to us.”
“Where do the copies of the books get printed?” I asked because I have always wondered.
That was the only time he hesitated and didn’t give me a straight answer. I let it go.

“Are you from Bengal?” I asked him, because I thought I detected his accent.
“No sir,” he said. “I am from Bihar.”
“You have a very impressive collection of books,” I said, which was true. Though they were all pirated books he seemed to carry a good cross-section of the bestselling books from India and the US.
“I have been in the business for 9 years now,” he said. “So I know what sells and I stock only those.” On his own, he then said that he could name all the Chetan Bhagat books, in the order in which they had been published. He named all 4 as proof of his claim. He said he also knew all the books by Robin Sharma, and all the other bestselling authors as well.
“If someone wants children’s books, I can give them those. If someone wants a stock market book, I know which books to offer even if I don’t have what they are asking for.”

“How do you know about all these books? Can you read English?”
“No I can’t. But I know the covers.”
He was obviously a smart man. Thinking that a working knowledge of English would help him I asked, “Why don’t you learn English? Are you not interested?”
“Very interested, sir. But I have no time. I set up my shop at 10am and I am here till 10pm, sometimes 11pm. I work all seven days of the week.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trust and Distrust in Currency Notes

I witnessed a very small interaction at the Pune railway station while waiting in queue to buy a train ticket. It was a very ordinary incident, but it reminded me that there is a very thin line between trust and distrust, and one can become the other very easily.

By way of background, I should mention that people here in India are extremely wary of accepting 1000 and 500 Rupee notes. There is a widely-held belief that a good number of counterfeit notes are circulating in India. Therefore, vendors will spend a lot of time carefully looking at the note, feeling it, and scrutinizing the watermark against the light before they accept either of the 1000 or the 500 Rupee denominations.

In Pune, after a longish wait to buy train tickets, I was second in line. The man ahead of me handed a 500 Rupee note. The person at the ticket counter spent a good while checking it and refused to accept it. He wanted another note. The man ahead of me, who was wearing dusty clothes and looked to be a day laborer, said he didn’t have any other currency notes.
“Then go and get another note. I can’t accept this,” the ticket vendor said.
“Where will I go, saab? No will give me change. The train will leave.”
Meanwhile the other people in the queue were getting restless and started to murmur.
“Where did you get this note? Where do you work?” the ticket vendor asked.
The man said he worked in a construction site nearby.
“Do you have a mobile phone?”
“Yes, saab.”
“Give me the number.” The laborer rattled off a number, and the ticket vendor wrote it on the 500 Rupee note. Only in India have I seen people freely writing on currency notes. The ticket vendor didn’t do anything to verify the phone number or the identity of the person, but his distrust had somehow morphed into trust. Satisfied, he issued a train ticket and gave the man his change.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lessons in Hotel Management

R. Panwar looked to be very young, but he was the hotel owner. We had ended up at the SK Hotel’s restaurant in Gangotri because we desired a change in our breakfast fare. His restaurant had a huge menu compared to the typical options we found in most other restaurants throughout Uttarakhand.

That is also where we ran into the owner, a very young-looking man named R. Panwar. He was very customer-oriented. He invited us in and said that he could make anything on the menu. True to his word, he was able to make for us eggless western pancakes (not dosas, he assured us) which he served with ginger tea.

The only other group that morning was a group of three young French-speaking backpackers who were finishing up their breakfast. Panwar’s restaurant doubled as a shop that also sold food for those trekking to the Gomukh glacier.

His inventory included every imaginable brand of soda cans, trail mixes, Barilla pasta, pasta sauces, Iced tea, Red Bull, noodles, Pringles and numerous other East European cookies and biscuits I didn’t recognize. Anyone from the US or from Europe would have been able to find the things they missed from back home. His shop was extremely well-stocked. Gangotri is literally the end of the road, but from everything that was on sale, we could well have been in a big city.

When I asked him how he came to become the owner of this hotel, he narrated his life story.

He said that he had no background in the hotel industry. He had joined the army after school, as a temp. He was hoping to become permanent in the army. He hadn’t liked it there, though the pay and the food was good. An old man in the army, who had seen what happened to those who served in it for too long had advised him to get out before it was too late. Heeding that advice Panwar left his army job.

Since he had learned how to cook in the army, he had started working as a cook in a hotel in Gangotri. He observed, studied the business and talked to the tourists. In a few years, he became the manager. He made friends with tour guides, who steered visitors to his hotel. In time, he borrowed money and slowly worked his way up to owning one hotel.

You have to listen to what the tourists say and look for what they want, he said, imparting his lesson in hotel management. He had paid special attention to what the foreign tourists wanted and had provided that. Business picked up steadily.

“Even though the tourist season is only 6 months, I am able to save 5 to 7 lakh (rupees) each year,” he volunteered proudly. (That is about USD 10,000 to 14,000.)

With the money saved, he had recently opened one more hotel. He got out a map and showed us where it was.
“Why did you build the hotel in Chinyalisaur?” I asked him. It was a town I hadn’t heard of, and it was over 150 kms from Gangotri.
“I considered opening in Uttarkashi. But it already has too many hotels. The Chinyalisaur area is only now being developed. The Government has just opened a GNBV guest house there. I have built one right next to that, hoping that the tourists will come. It’s a really beautiful area.”
“Who runs your new hotel?” I asked him.
He said had appointed a trusted employee as his manager there.

It was getting to be time for us to leave. So I asked him one last question, something that I am always curious about. “How do you ensure that your employee, your new hotel’s manager, doesn’t cheat you and keep some of the money for himself?” I asked because in India we rarely received receipts for many of our hotel stays and I could never be sure who ended up pocketing our money.

That’s when Panwar gave me the Indian Hotel Owner’s version of speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick.
He said that he had full trust in his employee and that these people (he called them paharis – mountain people) were by nature very loyal and honest. They didn’t cheat like the “city people.” But he was also holding on to six months of back pay for his employee. And he had his father or his brother, who stayed near the new hotel do surprise spot checks late at night. They would compare the number of rooms occupied to what the register showed. And if they found even one instance of cheating, then he lost an entire six months of pay. Thus Panwar made sure that cheating a little wasn’t worth the big loss of pay.

We paid up and I wished him the best for his new hotel and left.

Monday, September 21, 2009

No Alcohol Permitted

On our way to Gangotri, I witnessed something that I haven’t still fully come to terms with.

After having found that traveling by buses in these mountainous roads was too perilous, we were traveling from Uttarkashi to Gangotri in a shared Jeep. Locals would wave the vehicle to a stop and squeeze in no matter how jam-packed we were. They’d go for a few kilometers, pay the driver and get down.

A priest who worked at the Ganga temple up at Gangotri traveled with us right from Uttarkashi. He had a small two-inch curly ponytail in his hair. He was really nice to us, suggesting places to sit in the Jeep where we might be comfortable and the fare we should pay. He said that his family lived in Uttarkashi, the district headquarters, where his children went to school. He lived and worked up at the temple in Gangotri, and came down to visit his family when he could.

It was slow going and at the pace we were traveling it would take us close to 4 hours to travel the 80 kilometers. When we reached Harsil, a town that was 18 kms away from our destination the priest spoke up.

Roko, gaadi roko. Jinhone bhi pee rakha hai, wo uthar jao. Kal aana." ("Stop the Jeep. All those of who have consumed alcohol, get down right here. Come tomorrow.")

I hadn’t realized that some of my fellow passengers had consumed alcohol. But somehow, the priest had known. To my surprise, two men obediently got down. They were being ejected from the vehicle early but were asked to pay the full fare.

I had heard that many of the dhams (towns that are sacred to the Hindus) were alcohol-and-meat free. In Haridwar, for example, no shop will serve alcohol and no restaurant would serve meat.

Gujarat was a so-called “dry state” but it was often said in wink-wink tone. So I was surprised that in India with its very adaptable philosophy of sab kuch chalta hai (anything goes ) the people in our Jeep were taking the prohibition extremely literally. It wasn’t as if these two people were carrying liquor into the town. It was just that they had consumed some before getting on the vehicle.

But that was affront enough. The priest wasn’t done yet.
Kyon Aisa karte ho? Sharam Aani chahiye.” (Why do you do this? You should be ashamed.)

I was unprepared for this high handedness, and even more surprised at the docility with which the two men accepted what was meted out. They even smiled sheepishly, a tacit acceptance of their guilt.

Eighteen kilometers before their destination, we simply discarded them by the side of the road so that could spend the night somewhere sobering up. Thus free of inebriated heathens who would have polluted the holy dham, and with a little more sitting room for the rest of us, our now-virtuous Jeep lumbered upwards, towards Gangotri.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Let me carry that for you"

I used to think that Sherpas were only there to help mountaineering expeditions. I used to think that in Garhwal, a district that prided itself on literacy, all young boys would be going to school. And I used to hope that things don’t change too much in the tourist-friendly Himalayas.

We were walking to our hotel in Gangotri, getting ready to check out. Just as we reached the hotel, I felt a tap at my knee. A small boy asked, “Kuch samaan utanekho hai Kya?”. (“Do you have anything that needs carrying?”)

All across this part of the Himalayas, Sherpa porters can be seen. They are men who carry a cord of rope with a leather strap in the middle with them wherever they go. The strap goes over their forehead as they bear heavy loads and shuffle along slowly. They can be seen lounging in clusters while they wait for jobs. Short, thin muscular men, wearing Nepali caps and smoking beedis, their easy smiles revealing rotting teeth.

Sometimes, it seems that the reason to travel is not to gaze at pretty snow-clad mountains but to observe the things that aren’t mentioned much.

I saw these human porters carrying everything on their backs. Sets of bricks, bags of cement, boxes of merchandise and worst of all, red cooking gas cylinders. (Those cylinders are so heavy that even moving them a few inches is difficult.) Apparently the going rate for one load was Rs 30 (US $0.60).

And in Yamunotri, these Sherpa porters carry visitors in a basket strapped to their backs for a distance of 6 kilometers uphill – a task that takes 2 to 3 hours for which they earn Rs 200 (US$4.00). These porters weren't doing too well.

And now here was a little boy, definitely not yet ten years old, who was offering to carry my bags. He knew when the check out time at the hotel was, and had showed up right outside the reception area. Instinctively, I said no. We had just a small day pack with one change of clothes and 2 bottles of water. More important, how could I possibly let a boy who was half my height carry my bag for me?

I am always looking for simple explanations, but I could find none for why these Sherpa porters existed at all. Why have humans lugging loads when big lorries (trucks) and smaller tempos and bicycles are available for transporting goods? And in looking for pat answers, I guessed the only role models that the boy had must be porters themselves.

That boy lingered in my thoughts for a long time. He looked to be eight years old. He should have been in school. I felt bad about denying him some quick money. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said no so hastily. But then, I realized that I would be encouraging him. If I gave him money today, he would be back tomorrow to ask another visitor. What was easy money when you were little would soon become a way of life.

Much as I would love for things to remain the same, I hope the Sherpa porters find some other line of work. And I hope that truant boys start going back to school and don’t ever aspire to grow up to become Sherpa porters.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Keeping Warm By Faith Alone

It was really cold by the river in Gangotri. The glacier, from which the river issues is only a few kilometers away. Gangotri is the conventionally agreed upon source of the mighty Ganges river. Most of the visitors referred to the river only as Ganga Mata (Mother Ganga).

The water from Gangotri is revered by many. We wanted to carry some of it back with us and bought a small translucent jerry-can. At the riverbank I walked down the steps (called Ghats) to the river. The water was the color of milky tea and was flowing with great force. We had to always stay inside the chains that were installed all along the river so that the bathers didn’t get washed away.

As a mark of respect everyone removed their footwear before approaching the river. I carefully placed one leg in the frigid water, bent down and quickly filled a 1-liter water bottle and the small jerry-can. It only took a few seconds. But when I tried to walk back up the ghats, I realized that my foot and my hand were frozen stiff from the cold water. I had to repeatedly kick with my ankle and flex my fingers for several minutes to get them warmed with the circulation.

I had a new-found respect for the bathers all around me. They would so casually pour jugs of the freezing water on themselves. The elderly men would strip down to their shorts. Many were frail with their ribs visible. The women bathed fully clothed for the sake of modesty. These men and women, with no hesitation, repeatedly dipped their steel vessels into the frigid water and poured it on themselves.

It occurred to me that only way they were able to endure the bitter cold had to be their unshakable faith in their Ganga Mata -- that the river goddess would take care of everything.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Looking for books that capture a place

I am looking to read books in which the writer is able to capture the essence of a country or a city. These are travel books, but with a difference. Instead of moving to a set itinerary, the writer generally focuses on one region (or city or country) and brings it to life. The place (its people, their customs and their stories) creates the book.

Here are a few of the kind I am talking about:

Apples Are From Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins (Kazakhstan)
36 Views of Mt Fuji by Cathy Davidson (Japan)
Maximum City by Suketu Mehta (Bombay/Mumbai)
Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh (Western Mongolia)
Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux (Hong Kong, fiction)
Alaska, Hawaii and several others by James Michener.

I am sure that there are dozens more. If you can think of any that you read and would like to recommend, please add them as comments below. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Lord Ganesha Has Left The Building

The noise of the drums makes it impossible for me to concentrate on “Maximum City” – Suketu Mehta’s book about Mumbai, which I was trying to read in our short-term lease apartment in Mumbai. It is past 9.30pm on a Thursday night, and I am getting angrier about these noise-makers who didn’t give a hoot about noise pollution. What if someone wanted to study for exams, or had a headache? The din is getting louder by the minute.

It then occurs to me that while I am trying to read about the city in the book, the real Mumbai is unfolding right below me. I know that the sounds are a part of the Ganesh festival which our apartment community is celebrating. I decide to go down to take a quick look. I would see what the commotion was about and be right back.

When I walk out and cross two buildings to where all the action is, I see that it is sheer bedlam. Scores of people are dancing in spasms. Behind these merrymakers, men are beating numerous drums the size of half barrels. It is a procession, and there is a truck in the back, bringing up the rear for the whole frenzied mass in front. Every few minutes some shouts “Ganpathi Bappa” and the crowd shouts back “Moriyaa” in chorus.

I had often heard about how passionately the Mumbaikars celebrated Ganesh Puja. But this is my first time in the city when the festival was going on.

The truck at the rear is a brown Eicher truck with a tarp cover. It is swaddled with banners that have pictures of Ganesha and says “Vasant Oscar Ganeshotsav.” The back is open and in it is our colony’s peach- and pink-colored Ganesha idol, over five foot tall and with four hands. There is a priest sitting next to the idol, doling out tiny white spheres of sugar as prasad to all. Tonight’s procession will end with the truck driving to some nearby body of water and a few men dropping off the idol for visarjan.

As I continue watching, I see that is an underlying logic behind this bedlam. There are a few men looking at their watches, whispering to the driver, motion the drummers to keep moving. There are 12 buildings in our complex, and there seems to be an allotted time in front of each building. The route has been pre-planned to cover all buildings and there is a time-table to be adhered to.

I go close to the drummers, who are all young men sweating profusely as they work their fat drum sticks. They are enjoying themselves, trying to show off to each other. When I get real close to them, I feel the air physically reverberate to their frenzied beat.

I get close to the dancers, and see that it isn’t the chaos I had taken it to be. Boys and girls and men and women are all dancing in separate groups. Even in the frenzy, they take care not to touch each other. I every group, there are natural dance leaders. Each time a new song comes on, they dance out move or two. Their steps and the way they move their hands looks ridiculous when they do it alone. But when a dozen others join in, it is quite pleasant to watch. Many of the dancers are dancing to the audience that is walking along, laughing at their own boldness.

Women of a certain age are the only ones who are dancing with utter abandon. They aren’t out to impress anyone. Older men aren’t dancing at all, they are walking along holding the hands of very young children.

In between two buildings, a man brings out what looks like a cake box from the truck. The drumming and the music stops. From the box, he rolls out a red chain of firecrackers. I pick up the discarded box and it says that it is 1000-wala, made in Sivakasi and the MRP is 450 Rupees. He makes sure that he has everyone’s attention and he lights it with a match. Each cracker in the chain goes off making a loud racket and lightning flashes. It is several feet long, but it lasts for all of fifteen seconds. 10 US Dollars in a quarter of a minute, or 30 Rupees for each second.

The music resumes. The next song is a tune commonly associated with snake charmers. Indians can easily recognize the tune. I see one young woman mime a flute with her two hands, thumbs and pinky fingers stretched. She sways like a snake charmer. Four other young women immediately fall to their knees, and bring their hands to their heads and make a fan. They become the hooded cobras, writhing to the snake charmers’ music. This is a dance move I haven’t seen before.

I get curious about where the other music is coming from. The percussion instruments are impossible to miss, but I just cannot figure out where the tune is coming from. I peer into the truck driver’s cabin and see just the driver and another guy sitting next to him with a bored expression.

And only when I practically put my head into the passenger side window do I see that he is the one playing the music. This man is belting out all the tunes on his electronic synthesizer. He is using a Casio keyboard (the label said SA-21) that is connected to the loudspeakers strung on front of the truck.

He plays one song after another, and when the crowd recognizes each one there is a roar of approval. Most of the songs sound familiar, but I can’t identify them because they are beyond my limited Hindi songs repertoire. The man plays the keyboards with one hand, the other hand resting on the window. He isn’t glancing at the keyboards at all. I can’t ever remember seeing anyone play with such nonchalance.

Many of the men bring out currency notes, which they then circle over the heads of a drummer and then hand it to them. At one point, a man lays a 100 Rupee note on the road and makes a come-and-get-it motion to the lead drummer. The drummer is up to the challenge. Without missing his beat, he walks up and down and measures steps. Then he comes running, places his huge drum on the ground, lies over it and lets the drum roll towards the note. At the right moment, he swoops down. When he rolls back, the 100 Rupee note is sticking to his sweaty cheek. He’s picked it up without using his hands, and the audience roars its approval.

The procession moves steadily from one building to the next. Those who have been dancing are sweating and thirsty and in front of each building they ask for water. The people in the buildings rush to bring them chilled bottles of water, eager to accumulate karma points by doing good.

Out of each building I see people come and line up towards the back of the truck. All of them remove their footwear and pray to the smiling Ganesha with folded hands, heads bowed down. A few reach out to the idol, clasping and beseeching with real fervor, as if wanting to wrest all the blessings they can get before Ganesha goes away. I recall that there was a time when I used to think that prayers get answered in proportion to the fervor with which one prayed. Though I am unable to share in their faith, this display of total faith moves me as it always does.

As the truck moves past each building, I observe children, who look to be anywhere from 7 to 10 years old, pushing the Eicher truck from the back with all their might as it leaves from the front of their building. They are doing their part in helping their beloved Ganesha get to his destination, to his visarjan. It will be a year before he is back. Surely, these boys and girls know that it is a geared vehicle and that the driver is the one who moves it forward. But they push anyway.

Seeing the people praying and the kids pushing the truck, it occurs to me that I have grown far too cynical over the years. I decide to accompany the procession for a couple more buildings before I bid my good-bye to the five-foot Ganesha.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Murals in Chennai

In Chennai, I recently came across a series of wonderfully rendered panoramic murals being painted while passing Anna Salai in the Nandanam area. Later, I read that these are part of an effort to replace unseemly posters (Chennai walls are full of about politicians, movies and computer classes) with artistic murals, with scenes from all around Tamil Nadu by different artists. One mural portraying the stone temple in Mamallapuram even has a meta component to it – the wall painting even shows a couple of foreign tourists shown admiring the temple.

Apparently, there will be more such murals added, especially with a ban on posters coming up soon. Personally, I feel that a visit to these murals is much better than some of the other stops on Chennai’s hop-on-hop-off sightseeing service.

Kudos to the Chennai Corporation for this effort to beautify the city.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Gated Communities: Us versus Them, Literally

For two weeks, we experienced living in a very upscale gated community in Bangalore. I won’t bore you with the details of all the facilities available, but it was comparable to the best communities in Europe or the US. Ours in Koramanala (a suburb of Bangalore) was called The Acropolis, and I am confident it was far more luxurious than its original namesake in Athens ever was.

The security procedure to enter the premises is very tight, and the label is very apt – a truly gated community. Even though I was a guest there, the daunting wrought-iron gates caused me some trepidation the first few times that I walked in.

An entire army of workers (security, maids, cooks, drivers, plumbers, electricians and the like) keep the owners and their families humming. Clearly, the over 200 families who live inside lead lives of great comfort.

And yet, there is another side to all this. I guess if you dig deep enough, there is always a flip side to everything apparently good.

Right from my balcony I could view the entrance to PVR Cinemas in Koramangala, which was right next door. There I could see a very young woman begging. I had seen her hanging around, outside our community gate almost every day. She didn’t quite look to be an adult, but she had not one but two kids – a toddler she carried on her hip, and a little girl who approached everyone with her hands outstretched perennially. Their livelihood depended on the handouts of those who live inside Acropolis.

While this gated community was created exclusively to keep the likes of this woman out, I worry that instead, it will create more of the likes of her. Lots and lots of opportunities for a select few, none for the rest.

The gated community’s Owners’ association (which I could see from the notice boards was extremely active) only focused on things inside the community to the exclusion of everything else. That is why the roads inside were so good, while it was nearly impossible to walk in the footpath right outside. (Textbook NIMBY.)

It is easy for me to say this (being an outsider) but I strongly feel that the owners’ associations need to include those living outside the gated communities as well. Not out of altruism, but because of enlightened self-interest, a term I learned from Paul Collier.

We don’t need a degree in Urban Development to envision the proliferation of gated colonies. Imagine a city that has become an archipelago of gated communities, which are all oases of luxury, connected to each other by guarded roads that serve as lifelines. But outside this system there would be just a miasma of debris and chaos. The inequality between those inside and outside will become unbridgeable and eventually untenable. That unstable equilibrium would collapse.

And surely, that can’t be a good thing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where to find good books

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

ne thing I really miss about not living in the US is access to new books. Thanks to the public library system there, I had access to lots and lots of books. And I used to bring home dozens and skim through many, since reading all of them was not physically possible.

Actually, right on the pavement outside our temporary apartment in Bangalore, tons of good books are being sold. And they are dirt cheap too. But there is one small catch. They are all pirated books.

In some ways, I admire whoever it is that prints these. They seem to be gauging the pulse of the reading audience very well. Tom Friedman, and Arvind Adiga and Paul Coelho are staples and most bestsellers make it here.

The quality of these books however, is pitiful – extremely light print on thin pulpy paper. I am even willing to overlook the lack of quality. But I am realizing that somewhere along the way copyrights and intellectual property have become meaningful to me. Or maybe all those movie DVD’s that started with the “Piracy is Stealing” ads have had an impact.

So I seek out second-hand bookshops or the Indian editions in real bookstores. But I have stayed away from the roadside vendors and their pirated books. For now.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

No Cup of Coffee Between Rs. 20 and 35

You can’t easily find a cup of coffee priced between Rs. 20 and 35 in Bangalore, and this surprised me.

I was able to find lots of places where a cup of coffee was Rs 15 or cheaper, and several others where it was Rs, 40 or higher.

At the lowest end of the price spectrum (that I was able to find) is the three-Rupee mini-cup. This is really only 2 ounces or so, and I will take this in a real pinch when I really need the hit. . Slightly higher up, for 5 or 6 Rupees, there is filter-coffee in the ubiquitous “darshinis” or fast-food places. Because I am not confident of how well they wash the stainless steel cups, I always ask for a plastic one. The coffee is invariably good, and is actually my choice among all price ranges. In Nescafe kiosks, coffee is anywhere from 7 to 10 Rupees. In slightly better sit-in restaurants, a cup is priced usually from 12 to 15 Rupees. I have found no correlation between price and taste in these restaurants. It is whatever the market can bear.

Between Rs. 15 and 35 is this mysterious price gap.

Once you go over to the other side of 35 Rupees, you can get lots of fancy coffee. Clearly, these places sell the ambience, since I personally find the lower priced filter coffee to be a lot tastier. But these cafés are good places to meet business acquaintances, new friends and old college-mates, to catch up in leisure. There are also the higher priced (more than Rs 100) cappuccinos, espressos, and Café Americanos, but there you are paying for the idea of coffee in a very fancy place.

In Bangalore, I haven’t seen any Starbucks at all, though I haven’t made up my mind about whether this is good or bad. Café Coffee Day has more than stepped in to fill that role.

So why is there this big gap in the pricing? Here’s my unscientific theory. I suspect that the middle class, who would have been the natural target customers for the 25- and 30-Rupee cups of coffee have upgraded. Having come into lots of disposable income thanks to the IT and the real-estate pricing boom, they have upgraded and shifted right in the coffee price continuum, leaving this gap.

Friday, June 19, 2009

From Beirut to Jerusalem - Book

“Why can’t the Israelis and the Palestinians stop fighting and just get along?” I used to wonder from the comfort of my couch in America, when violent images and news from the BBC World Service about that part of the Middle East disturbed my suburban peace.

I am quite sure that I am not the only one guilty of such simplistic thinking. Tom Friedman’s book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem” tells us why.

It is a book of his 10 years living in and reporting from Lebanon and Israel. It was written exactly 20 years ago, but is still just as relevant today.

Once in a long while, a book about a place comes out which is better than even going to that place. FBTJ is definitely one such book. Less than a year ago, I was in Israel and we visited Jerusalem and the West Bank. But there is no way that wandering about as a tourist for 10 days can compare with the writings of an insightful journalist who’s spent years there.

Friedman is a three time(!) Pulitzer-winner, and he won the National Book Award for this book. With a newspaperman’s eye for telling anecdotes and a novelist’s ability with visual metaphors he makes this book very readable, though it is not light reading by any means. In the book, we meet the frustrated Palestinian young woman who says “Arafat is the stone we throw at the world,” and the top Israeli officer who is so worried about the possible consequences of the intifada that he privately admits, “The sooner the Palestinians return to terrorism, the better it will be for us.”

The book helped me understand how the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have different goals from the Palestinians in Lebanon and Jordan and Syria and from the Israeli Arabs. (I will go so far as to say that this book should be made mandatory reading for college students who study the Middle East.)

I realize that not everyone has the time to read a 570 page book. I read a few pages a day in several places in India, and in trains and it took me a long time to finish the book. If you are really pressed for time, you should still consider borrowing the book from your library and read just the chapter titled ‘Faultline.’

In this very skillfully written chapter, Friedman has us angry at the Palestinians for the ways in which they make Israelis' lives uncomfortable, and a couple of pages later, we are fuming about the way the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Throughout the chapter, Friedman does this over and over, and we are disabused of our ideas that any simple solution would work and we realize how complex and layered the problem is.

For those who want to learn about the region, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A mass love affair with tobacco in all its forms

Here in India, I see people consuming tobacco in more forms than I knew existed. I must not have paid attention before.

Right from the morning, on my way to breakfast I see old ladies who sell vegetables popping some brown stuff from shiny sachets into their mouths. I have seen these being sold in newsstands and pan shops. These packets hang in long strips and people buy 1 or 2 at a time. They are ubiquitous and dirt cheap.

India is apparently the second biggest consumer of tobacco in the world, right after China. But unlike China and the rest of the world, in India cigarettes make up only 30% of the tobacco consumption. The rest of it is sold as beedies, gutka, Zarda and chewing tobacco.

Since I haven’t personally experienced the alluring call of tobacco (coffee is my addiction) it is perhaps easy for me to question this attraction. But at another level I fully understand. I see hordes of people here, in what looks to me like very monotonous jobs with no prospects. They have to get through not just the day, but the week, and even the years.

Undoubtedly the tobacco helps. Because it can suppress appetite, angst and even ambition.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Taken for a ride in Bangalore

I’ve always felt that people exaggerate when talking about how unscrupulous auto-rickshaw drivers are. But perhaps I am looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.

We had taken a rickshaw to RT Nagar Police Station. Our relatives in RT Nagar said that it should cost no more than 25 Rupees. And that the distance would be around 4 kms.

This particular rickshaw had a digital meter, which showed not just the fare but also the distance traveled.

After we set off, we had already traveled 7 kms and RT Nagar was nowhere in sight. So we pulled out our map. Instead of traveling essentially due west, the driver (after figuring out that we didn’t have a clue but the streets of Bangalore) had turned southwest, and presumably was planning to turn northwest to reach our destination.

I knew he was taking us for a ride when we crossed the railway tracks once, and then crossed it again real soon.

“Where are you taking us? We should have reached a long time ago.” I said.
“Sir, there are a lot of one-way roads,” he said. We were going through small roads and if there were one-way streets, we didn't see them.
“It should only have been 4 or 5 kilometers. I am not going to pay you what the meter says.” It was not so much the amount but the fact that he was trying to outright cheat us.

After a very long ride, we reached RT Nagar police station. When he stopped to let us off, his digital meter showed 11.1 kms.
“Let’s go to the police station and settle this. I am not going to pay you what the meter says,” I said.
“Pay me whatever you wish to, sir,” he said.

I offered him half of what the meter showed, and to my surprise he accepted without a murmur of protest.

When we take autos now, we try and fix the fare beforehand, rather than relying on the meter.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Two ends of the spectrum

We were driving amidst green and serene coffee plantations in Coorg, Karnataka. Due to some commotion ahead, our car had to slow down to a crawl. The entire Coorg area is at an elevation, and while not really hilly, the roads were narrow and winding with lots of ups and downs.

These plantations employed the absolute state-of-the-art technology for coffee cultivation. They were able to simulate the timing and amount of rain needed to maximize their crop output. All this technology, combined with migrant labor (needed to harvest the coffee) made for a winning formula for the plantation owners.

The commotion ahead of us was because a huge red tractor had overturned by the side of the road. I don’t mean that it was tipped over to its side. It had turned over 180 degrees, with its 4 gigantic wheels facing up. I fully expected to see the mangled remains of the driver, but fortunately it seemed that he had jumped out in time.

There were around 12-15 men (workers and passers by) who had gathered, and were pushing the tractor with all their might, trying to turn it back on its wheels.

Now, if this was in the US, a traffic cop would stop by, summon a tow truck which would get the vehicle upright, take it to a shop to get it checked and be done with it.

But in India, even with so much technology around, it was just a few people trying to do it with their bare hands. There was no use of levers, and not even one rope was being employed.

To me, this seemed a very apt metaphor for what I’m constantly seeing in India. A select few are able to leverage automation and technology to attain stratospheric opulence, while the masses are still relying on brute manual labor to achieve their modest goals. For the few minutes that it took us to get pass it, the tractor hadn’t budged an inch.

Monday, May 18, 2009

There is no such thing as Free Lassi

We had just boarded the train in Mumbai, enroute to Bhilwara and my wife couldn't contain her curiosity any longer. She asked the group sitting opposite us, "Where did you buy the packets of Lassi?"

It was a scorchingly hot afternoon, and while waiting to board the train at Bandra Terminus we had seen this group sipping their lassis. Tempted, we had gone to at least five different food stalls in the railway platform but not one was selling lassis (sweetened buttermilk).

"Oh, we didn't buy them here. We have brought them with us," one of the ladies told my wife.

She went off somewhere and a came back a few minutes later and proferred two lassi packets to us. We tried protesting but she insisted that they had lots of extras and so we accepted. The train started to move. Amul's Rose-flavored lassi felt cool and creamy, just right after wandering in the sun.

Almost as soon as the lassi was done, that same lady said, "We are a big group but we didn't get seats together. Would you mind exchanging your seats with some of the other members of our group so that we can all sit together?"Since you can't really enjoy someone's lassi and refuse to cooperate, we agreed. In a few minutes we had been relegated to one end of the compartment with our bags.

There was no way the lady could have pre-planned this, but I was struck by how smoothly she had operated with great presence of mind. And for me, there were a couple of small lessons of life in India. Always be careful of accepting 'free' gifts. And if you want to get something, be prepared to give something first.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

BBC's Around The World in Eighty Days - Michael Palin

The next best thing to actually being on the road is to read about travel, or to watch a well-made travel video. Which is what we have been doing of late. It took us a number of days to watch all the episodes in the 3-DVD set of BBC’s ‘Around the world in 80 Days.’ Former Monty Python actor Michael Palin does both the traveling as well as the narrating. He’s got a great mix of earnestness and British humor and it makes for very engaging viewing.

Back in 1988, Michael Palin started from London and without ever boarding a plane, he traveled all the way around the world, racing against time to complete the journey in 80 days. In a very literal sense, his journey is the destination. And we get to go along.

One reason to watch this particular series is that in many ways, it is a time capsule. We get to see a slightly more innocent world, and it is great opportunity to observe what has changed and what hasn’t in the past 20 years.

For me, there was a particularly relevant segment of the journey. Michael takes a train from Bombay down to Madras. Back in 1988, my parents lived in Bombay and I was studying in Madras and so I’ve made that exact train trip quite a number of times. He traveled in November ’88 and just a month later, I know I made the same trip. Watching the footage of the train, the platform food- and magazine-vendors and the stations rolling by unleashed a flood of nostalgia.

This was a very popular show when it was first aired, and over 12M people ended up watching it in the UK. Most public libraries in the US should have a copy. Check it out.

Monday, March 23, 2009

36 Views of Mount Fuji

What I love about Hokusai’s series of woodcuts titled '36 Views of Mount Fuji’ is that there are actually 46 of them. The master loved the series so much that even after the 36, he kept making more of them.

Professor Cathy Davidson has titled her book after those woodcuts. The book is a series of vignettes about her 4 different trips to Japan, the first one in 1980, staying and teaching English to young women in a Japan university.

If you travel to enough places, you will surely end up in places that don’t live up to their reputations. For some people, Paris won’t quite be Paris. When it comes to countries like Japan that are a bit more inscrutable for passing outsiders, a book like 36 Views of Mount Fuji almost beats going to Japan. In many ways, reading this book is better than even a week spent visiting Japan, though neither should be missed.

In my current thinking, I am beginning to believe that an author’s vulnerability adds considerably to the quality of a book. Our stereotypes of successful university professors are of people who have everything under control at all times. However, personal tragedies occur while she and her husband are spending a year teaching in Japan, and she writes about those experiences candidly.

After being floored by the affection and sympathy she and her husband were shown after a family death, she begins to wonder what happened to the ‘rules’ that govern everything in Japan. She writes, “Rules are very important to us,” Professor Sano says, smiling. “But sometimes foreigners don’t understand that we have rules for how to break the rules too.”

Cathy Davidson’s keen observations and vast background knowledge means that we vicariously participate in rituals, college classroom discussions, communal baths and temple visits. As readers we share her enjoyment when she gets included and feel her disappointment when she gets shut out because to an extent, she will always be a stranger.

This graceful and rich book, full of emotional empathy and apparent contradictions gives us an access to the people of Japan that we simply wouldn’t have even if we spent days staying at a hotel in Tokyo or Kyoto and wandering about the sights.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Border Crossing at Prezemysl

My heart sank when I saw the crowd of nearly 200 people, mostly old women, waiting patiently to cross the land border into Ukraine. It was already nearing sunset, and it would take us hours to get across.

We had arrived at the Polish town of Prezemysl by train from Krakow, and had been hoping to reach the tourist-friendly town of Lvov, by nightfall, after clearing immigration into Ukraine.

Just as we reached the end of the long line, we noticed a border patrol official at the very front waving us over, asking to step forward. To our surprise, the whole sea of babushkas parted for us obediently, and like Moses we walked ahead.

We had been promoted right to the head of the queue, and none of the others seemed to mind. Once we were inside the small building for exiting Poland, we were handed paperwork to fill out.

Looking out the window, I started to understand what was happening. On our way here from the railway station, we had seen several of these babushkas selling one or two bottles of vodka to young men in jumpsuits who were buying them up in large numbers. I even saw one babushka reach inside her dress and pull out two bottles from somewhere near her waist. She collected some money and turned back.

Every lady we saw was holding one carton of cigarettes. I had read that things were a lot more expensive in Poland compared to Ukraine. Vodka and cigarettes especially had big price differences.

And so, all day long, these ladies were crossing and re-crossing the border, to bring and sell vodka and cigarettes to eager buyers on the Poland-side. The transaction only took a few seconds, and then they went back to standing in line for the slow trip back. Since we were genuine tourists, we had been allowed to preempt these regulars, without having to endure the wait.

This constant flow of people moving goods because of the price difference reminded me of how the yachts crossed the locks at Lockport or Sault Ste. Marie. Due to the water level difference, all the water wanted to rush in one direction, and the locks served as gates to let the crossings happen in an orderly manner.

In the land between the two countries, there were two parallel corridors, separated by barbed wire fences. One corridor (ours) was for people heading to Ukraine, and the other one was for people heading the other way, to Poland. I saw one lady on the Ukrainian side of the fence, trying to toss a big box over the fence to another lady who was on our side.

I stood and watched. It was a shrink-wrapped box of cigarettes, smaller than a carry-on sized suitcase. I counted 20 cartons of cigarettes. 20 per pack x 20 packs per cartons x 20 cartons in one box = 8000 cigarettes. Boxes like these were entering Poland one at a time. (Lung cancer in a box, anyone?)

Rather than crossing two buildings in each direction for one round trip (leave Ukraine, enter Poland, sell, leave Poland, enter Ukraine), these resourceful ladies had figured out a way to meet here, exchange goods and head back the way each had come.

The level of commerce here was unlike any we had seen in other borders in Europe or Asia. I was tempted to linger, watch and learn more, but it was getting late. My wife had walked ahead.

After a few more minutes of paperwork at the Ukrainian side, we had entered Ukraine. Our destination for the night, Lvov, was still 2-3 hours away, and so we hurried on to catch the yellow bus that was waiting.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Look in your Kimnata, Sir

The bathrooms were all located in the corridor, outside the rooms in Hotel George, a reasonably posh hotel in Lvov, Ukraine. For some reason, they only had sinks inside the rooms. I walked into our bathroom and very fortunately happened to check for toilet paper. There wasn't any to be found. I was very surprised that for all the money that we were paying (rates quoted in Euros and comparable to mid-range US hotels) they hadn't even provided toilet paper.

So I decided to go looking for the hotel janitor's closet where they might be storing extra rolls. I tentatively opened a few unmarked doors in our floor. It was past 11pm but somehow a floor attendant spotted me trying the handle of an unmarked door and rushed over angrily. I didn't understand a word of what he was saying (in Ukrainian) but it was clear from his tone that he didn't want me snooping around. There was no way I could explain to him, so I took him back to the bathroom and pointed to the empty toilet roll holder.

"Kimnata, kimnata" he said, pointing back. I figured he wanted me to go downstairs to the reception desk and ask for toilet paper. I walked back to our room, dejected at the prospect of having to face the receptionist again.

And just as I entered our room, I saw the two neatly wrapped rolls of toilet paper they’d kept for us. Later, in our guidebook I read that Kimnata meant Room in Ukrainian.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Getting a room in Lvov, Ukraine

One day last July, we crossed the land border from Poland into Ukraine. We then boarded a bus to the town of Lvov, knowing that we’d be spending the night there.

We don’t usually book accommodations ahead. The guidebook had good things to say about Hotel George and so that’s where we went. It was a huge hotel that must have been the place to stay during the Soviet years. It was ornate and gilded, with high ceilings, but everything looked worn. The hotel was very quiet and we didn’t see other tourists.

We liked it but the rate quoted to us was quite high – it was higher than what we would pay for a hotel room in Chicago. Since this was Ukraine and things weren't supposed to be that expensive, we told the receptionist that we'd think about it and would come back if we decided to take it.

The receptionist didn't like this at all, and managed to convey it in the brusque manner in which she took back the room key.

It was past 10pm but we were not very tired. We had spent most of the afternoon sitting in a train and then in a bus, so we decided to go check a couple of other hotel options nearby.

But none of the other hotels were comparable to Hotel George, so we were back in 30 minutes to face the receptionist.

"Go there and wait. I have to check if any room is still available. " she said, pointing to a sofa by the side.

There was no way that all the rooms were taken. We could even see that there were dozens of keys still hanging in the rack behind her.

For over ten minutes the receptionist ignored us and went about her work. I am always a little amused by what I think of as the 'pettiness of those in small pockets of power.’ When they do get a chance to flex their muscles, they will do so, to feel important.

She wasn't checking if the room was available, she just wanted to teach us a lesson, to punish us for not taking the room right away.

"Give your passports," she said suddenly. In a few minutes we got the room, the exact same room she'd shown us earlier.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ten Travel Books - Part 3

This is part 3 of my posts on my recent favorite Travel books.
Part 1 was about books 1 through 5. Part 2 covered books 6 through 10.

In summary,

Top 10 Travel Books Read in 2007/2008
1. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux
2. Hearing Birds Fly Mongolia – Louisa Waugh
3. Best Travel Stories 2008 – Traveler’s Tales
4. River at the Center of the World – Simon Winchester
5. Apples are from Kazakhstan – Christopher Robbins
6. Marco Polo Didn’t Go There – Rolf Potts
7. The Age of Kali – William Dalrymple
8. A Sense of Place – Michael Shapiro
9. Wanderlust – Don George
10. Unlikely Destinations – Tony Wheeler

In this list there are four books that cover one country or region in depth (Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and the Indian subcontinent) while Theroux’s book covers his 28,000 mile land journey across Europe and Asia.

The other 5 books are compilations and anthologies. Best Travel Stories and Wanderlust are straightforward collections of great pieces. Rolf Pott’s book is a compilation of his writing, with his commentary added in. Tony Wheeler’s book covers pretty much his entire travel biography as he builds the Lonely Planet empire. And Shapiro’s A Sense of Place pays homage to the giants of this genre.

But ten is actually is a small number and I had to leave some really good books out.
Honorable mentions: Cambodia Calling; Eat, Pray, Love; Snow Leopard

Early in 2007, I stumbled upon and read a book called Cambodia Calling. It is written by Richard Heinzl, a young Canadian doctor who served with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) in Cambodia. Heinzl shares his personal and professional challenges in bringing humanitarian aid to Cambodia, but I had to leave it out simply because I ran out of room in the top 10.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is still in the best seller list as I write this. It is a very smart and funny book and Gilbert writes from the heart. Women everywhere are not able to get enough of this book. The only reason I left it out is because the book (due to its structure and subject) is forced to be reductive about all 3 countries – Italy, India and Indonesia. I felt that it didn’t quite fit my ‘Travel book’ category.

I have the most misgivings about leaving out Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard, which I was read enthralled. For sparkling and measured prose, it cannot be beaten. I left it out only because it is also a fairly big journey into Zen and the sacred and the spiritual. People who are drawn to spiritual topics should absolutely read this book.

I would also have definitely included Cathy Davidson’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji except for a technicality – I read it in 2009. It is a fantastic series of vignettes into Japan and I will post about this book separately.

Finally, here are the Travel Books on my To Be Read list: A Year in Provence; River Town; The Size of the World; Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes and Somebody’s Heart is Burning.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Top 10 Travel Books Read in 2007 and 2008 continued

This is Part 2 of my list of the 10 Travel books that I read in 2007 or 2008 that I can recommend to any travel enthusiast.
Books 1 through 5 can be found in Part 1. I will post Part 3 (honorable mentions) soon.

Title: Marco Polo Didn’t Go There
Author: Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts, the guy who brought the term vagabonding into mainstream travel vernacular, is back with his second book – a collection of his travel stories. Rolf used to write for Salon.com and so I had read a few of the pieces in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There before.

The re-reading was even more enjoyable. His description of the tantric sex ashram and how he tries to gate crash the shooting of the movie 'Beach' were just as funny the second time around. But the real value of the book (and the reason I am including it in this list) is the unique behind-the-scenes look that this book offers.

At the conclusion of each story, Rolf shares with us some of the decisions he had to make while creating and presenting the story. Why he included certain aspects, which ones he had to leave out, how the story developed are very illuminating to read. Sometimes, a travel writer has to take a few liberties (for the sake of the narrative) and he tells us where he had to do so.

Please note that these are great stories in their own right, but reading about Rolf’s thinking makes us appreciate them even more. (This is similar to viewing the director’s narration in the Special Features part of a movie DVD.)

All travel writing aspirants (and travel bloggers) should definitely check out this book. Be sure to check out his The Art of Writing a Story About Walking Across Andorra which is very post-modern and very funny.

Title: The Age of Kali
Author: William Dalrymple

For a travel book to really succeed its author should not be completely enamored or infatuated with the place. This is definitely true of Dalrymple, the English journalist and historian who has lived in India for long periods and writes about it.

Surely, the fact that I hail from India is one reason I picked this book over many others. By the way, Indians will recognize that the title refers to Kali Yug (the final epoch) and not to goddess Kaali.

In 2008, for 10 days I got to travel around Rajasthan in India as a tourist. The resonance of reading this book while traveling in Jaipur and Udaipur was wonderful.

Dalrymple really mixes it up in this book and providing vignettes because India is simply too vast of a subject otherwise. This is a fairly small paperback and the pieces can be read individually and in any order. He writes about Bollywood socialites, the vestiges of the ancient practice of Sati that still linger and about the unfortunate women of Vrindavan. He visits Imran Khan in Pakistan and a few LTTE camps in Sri Lanka.

Whatever his chosen topic, I always learned something from each piece and enjoyed the whole book. I am hoping to read his City of Djinns or In Xanadu soon.

Title: A Sense of Place: Great Travel writers talk about their craft, lives and inspiration.
Author: Michael Shapiro

This is more a book about travel writers than a travel book. There is a decent-sized profile about each travel writer followed by an interview/discussion with that same writer. Michael Shapiro is a true travel devotee, and it is his discursive Q&A in which he gets the authors to open up is why I liked this book. It often does feel like we are sitting down next to our favorite authors and listening to them.

Interestingly, almost every other author in my top ten list has been interviewed in A Sense of Place. I also learned about a few authors that I had not read and ended up adding to my travel books to read list.

The stellar list of writers interviewed includes Paul Theroux, Jeff Greenwald, Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson and Jan Morris and a number of others. I particularly enjoyed the discussions with Rick Steves and Arthur Frommer, both of whose guidebooks I have long benefited from.

When leading travel writers talk about their craft, lives and inspiration, all we have to do is listen.

Title: Wanderlust: Real-Life Tales of Adventure and Romance
Author: Don George

Any book created by Don George is a safe bet. Don George used to have a column in Salon.com titled Wanderlust. He would tap some of the very best travel writers and they contributed in first person narrative about their adventure and romance. The best of those have been collected to create this book. The common theme among all these stories is romance, love with even a hint of lust.

The usual travel ‘name’ crowd shows up here as well – Pico Iyer has written the foreword and also about his surreal experiences in Bali. And there are contributions from Tim Cahill, Tony Wheeler, Peter Mayle, Isabel Allende, Po Bronson and Jan Morris.

Don’t miss Simon Winchester’s piece on how he takes a hotel receptionist on a ride in his borrowed Rolls Royce. Rolf Pott’s ‘Storming the beach’ makes an appearance in this book as well as in his Marco Polo book, mentioned above. Laura Fraser writes with candor and vulnerability about finding a lover in Italy after her marriage dissolves. From London to Mozambique, this book covers a lot of ground.

These pieces were written for an Internet audience and that makes them very immediate and accessible. These stories might have all been lost in the depths of internet archives, but thanks to this book (a good sized paperback) we can now enjoy 40 wonderful pieces.

Title: Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet story
Author: Tony Wheeler

Purists may feel that Unlikely Destinations is not a travel book. They have a valid point: it is certainly about travel and it actually blurs the line between a travel book and a business book. I’ll ignore the purists because this is a very good book and a lot can be learned from reading it.

As I compile this list it occurs to me that I might be a little obsessed about the behind-the-scenes in travel. This book is the Kitchen Confidential for the great guidebook empire that Tony & Sara Wheeler built.

By far the biggest debt I owe in my travels is to Lonely Planet guides. I don’t think I would have survived or had anywhere near as much fun, if we didn’t have an LP guide with us at all times. It is inconceivable to leave the US without one (often several) LP’s about each trip's destinations.

So how did one guidebook corner the entire world market? What is the story behind its creation? Tony and Sara Wheeler’s story is the story laid out in Unlikely Destinations. Tony is UK born, was raised partly in Pakistan, resided in the US and settled down in Melbourne.

It is perhaps easy for many to envy Tony today because he heads up Lonely Planet and gets to jet-set around the world all year long. But this book tells us of all the years and the difficulties and sacrifices that it took for him and Sara (with two young children) to get to where they’ve reached.

Reading this book we appreciate how complex it is to bring out a travel book about a place. And that can only add to our awareness and enjoyment the next time we set out with a LP in hand.

And this book is also a good place to end my list. I had to leave some really good books out because I restricted this list to 10 books. I will mention those in my next post.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

My Top 10 Travel Books Read in 2007 and 2008

After learning that I had read a number of travel books, a friend and ex-colleague, DH, asked if I could send her a list of my top 10 favorite travel books. I created a list of my recent favorites and decided to post it here as well.

This is Part 1 of 3 linked posts.
Part 1: Books 1 through 5; Part 2: Books 6 through 10; Part 3: Recap, honorable mentions and future reading.

I have included only the books that I read in 2007 or 2008 though many were published much earlier.

1. Title: Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
Author: Paul Theroux

To me, Theroux is the quintessential travel writer and so I start with one of his books. I could have picked one of many, but I chose this one, his latest. Most people either love or hate Theroux. I happen to love his writing. His writing is so honest that I am ready to cut him a lot of slack. Also, where others find him curmudgeonly, I am amused by how he says things to elicit a reaction.

In any case, his The Great Railway Bazaar purportedly kick-started the whole genre of travel literature and if that is true, then I am truly grateful. In this book, he revisits that journey alone 32 years later (he is now past 60) and covers over 28,000 miles mostly by train. You have to admire a man just for doing that. I liked this book because it is so much more mellow that Railway Bazaar. His sections on India I read avidly, because one can learn so much about one’s own culture when seen through the eyes of others.

This is a big book (over 400 pages) but one that I think is well worth the time investment. Even those who are absolutely pressed for time should borrow the book from a library and try out the chapters on countries and places that catch their fancy.

Addendum: I found this very recent interview of Paul Theroux in The Independent.

2. Title: Hearing Birds Fly: A nomadic year in Mongolia
Author: Louisa Waugh

A gem of a book by a British writer who writes about spending a whole year in a remote village in Mongolia. The only reason I found this book was that I was going to visit Ulan Bataar in 2008. Mine was just a short touristy trip, the kind that only permits a small glimpse into a fascinating country. I could visit Mongolia for months and still not get an experience even remotely like what Louisa experiences in her year there. The details, the incidents about the people in her remote village Tsengel in western Mongolia (by the Kazakh border) are wonderfully told in this book. This book won the Ondaatje Literary prize in 2004 for ‘the book which best evokes the spirit of a particular place.’ I was very fortunate that I read it, and am surprised that this book is not better known.

If you want to vicariously experience Mongolia without ever getting bored, read Hearing Birds Fly.

Aside: Louisa Waugh is now residing in the Gaza strip and writing what will be her third book and she posts regularly in her The Gaza Blog

3. Title: The Best Travel Writing 2008: True Stories from Around the World (Paperback)
Authors: James O'Reilly (Editor), Larry Habegger (Editor), Sean O'Reilly (Editor)

It is a very safe bet that you won’t go wrong reading any book in the Traveler’s Tales series. Starting from 2006, they have been bringing out a collection of travel stories every year. The true stories are about places that span the entire globe. There is a great variety in the places being written about, and also in the styles of the writers.

Please note that this series is different from the “Best American Travel Writing” series that Houghton Mifflin brings out every year. That too is a great collection, but it is much weightier and a lot more literary. The essays there are much longer.

In contrast, the Best Travel Writing is considerably lighter, and therefore fun and easy to read even when on the move. What I particularly like about this collection is that it is a paperback, and so I can take it with me everywhere and read individual stories whenever I get a few minutes. It is also a great for reading one or two stories in bed, just before falling asleep. I love the variety that is present in each collection. From their stories in this collection, I’ve discovered several writers whose books I hope to read.

I have promised myself to not ever miss a single year of Best Travel Writing that gets published in the future. That’s how much I like this collection.

4. Title: River At the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time
Author: Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester has written a number of great books about many places and his work is always very well researched. And his writing is so good that in his case, the research actually helps rather than slowing down the narrative.

I loved the structure he chose for this book. He starts in Shanghai, and travels upriver, his journey paralleling the unfurling of a famous scroll about the Yangtze. Over the course of several months, traveling with his Chinese companion Lily, he covers the entire length of the river, crossing Nanjing, the Three Gorges dam area, Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and eventually ending up in the Tibetan plateau.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the book could have been written as an adventure trip. However, Simon Winchester makes this a series of lessons in history, geography and Chinese politics and so much more.

If there is a right way to read and learn about a country, this book is it.

5. Title: Apples are from Kazakhstan
Author: Christopher Robbins

The definitive book about a country that most people don’t know much about. Yes, it was a former Soviet republic, but it is now a huge country in its own right and this book is one interesting way to learn about it. (Sasha Cohen’s movie Borat, didn’t do Kazakhstan any favors whatsoever with its portrayal.)

The author meets an airplane companion who’s off to Almaty, and realizing that he doesn’t know anything about the place, Robbins starts to research it. This research turns practically into an obsession about the country, leading to multiple visits over two years and this book is the result.

This book greatly benefits from the fact that the author gets practically unlimited access to interview and chat with the president of the country – Nursultan Nazarbayev. I also enjoyed the many sketches that the author has included. Kazakhstan is a very newly independent country that is trying to get it right, and the book is a fascinating read.

I haven’t been to Central Asia (to any of the ‘Stans) but thanks to this book, Kazakhstan is high on my list of places to be visited.

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Apples are from Kazakhstan
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