Reading Pirsig on road trips

DSCN2272

Ooty. August, 2013

It was a ride to Ooty in the monsoon of 2013. Being no good with dates, the ride registers a clear memory because Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Pirsig was in the bag. At the breakfast table, hundred kilometers down on the road to Mysore, ZAMM was making partial sense. Details and descriptions of the road, landscapes and the bike were identifiable. The thoughtful bits didn’t quite register with the same intensity as in later years when its pages were sought in moments when one wanted to feel enthusiastic about road trips all over again. For someone reading this classic in India it wasn’t a kulturbarer as Pirsig described in the book’s afterword. It was partly about biking and the rest appeared to be about the lives we live and the character of these lived lives. The words “strange and beautiful” were stuck in mind from a NYT review about ZAMM when the buying decision was made. Years later and at a time when I hear the news of author passing away, it feels glad to have come across this book. Beyond the culturally specific notes on life in America, the human condition and people coping with it is perhaps a worldwide phenomenon now, at least in the cities.

This morning when Prisig’s obituary came up, the only mental picture that flashed was a highway, breakfast table with a plate of idlis and coffee, ZAMM in hand, hurriedly getting past two pages to get back on the road. There was a pillion rider and it must be left at saying that those rides were good together.

Bandipur’s forest was bursting with green with the rain as it has every year that I have rode on its narrow roads. On the hills beyond, Ooty appeared cloaked in clouds. That must be the best appearance of this hill town of ruthlessly gashed hill sides to fit in yet another hotel. Coonoor’s YMCA had no guests staying in. That large bedroom on the first floor was almost a time travel. On a small table by the wall, by the evening’s descending cold a diary entry remembering the day’s ride was made.

Pirsig was along on that ride. Understanding what he wanted to convey in ZAMM was a progressive discovery. Some more insights flowed in even as the obituary came in today. It is remarkable that the man took that ride with his son, to square off the events that had occupied his life at that time. I haven’t known of many who reconciled things in life by taking the highway (before it was made fashionable by Bollywood) and returning home with such words and reflection.

There is a section in the book where he writes of teaching. It was easy to relate to. That year, I was about to begin teaching at Poorna. He speaks of experiments that the teacher does with his class, where through assignments on writing the students and he (as a teacher) both figure some important lessons – in seeing and what schools teach.

He writes:

As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.

That sounded right, and the more he thought about it the more right it sounded. Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything – from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

These lines are striking in their relevance to teaching and grading that we do in our school. At the same time, it also makes a teacher cautious about these biases creeping in.

However, it was the metaphor of motorcycle took a long time to hit home –

“The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this.”

Pirsig’s writing appealed to the traveler within and still does. May be it is that zeal with which he writes that is sort of enviable. Or may be about riding and living with this brief sense of being free to ride, take whimsical detours, enjoy the sense of arriving in new places and call it a day when it feels like.

 

Policy lessons from Nepal

durbar_nepal

Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. 2017

This week completes over six months of formal engagement with Nepal’s development sector. On the sidelines of the second Nepal Investment Summit which is being held for the second time, after the first one in the 1990s, there seems to be a recognition of need for investment in economic growth of the country. There is also a pressure on the government to take faster decisions on proposed projects.

I first visited this country in 2008. Early observations were with an eye of a traveler from the neighbouring country. Last year, work led to understanding Nepal’s development context (and challenges) better. Here are a couple of policy lessons that emerge from this experience:

  1. Influence of geopolitics on public policy: This link is under appreciated  in policy literature, in my opinion. Domestic policies in Nepal’s case are significantly influenced by factors emerging outside the country. The choices for low income countries (LICs) in the current global context are by far limited. It is well acknowledged that infrastructure like roads, electricity, healthcare etc are vital for improvement in basic quality of life which then is likely to translate into economic growth. In low income countries like Neopal, most of this vital infrastructure is poor. To get this built should (and is) a national priority. This is where LICs have tough choices to make because their own investment and expertise potential is low. These must be supported by someone else. If these are aid agencies then they are driven by the aid providing country’s strategic agenda. If the support comes from multilateral agencies then these come with conditionalities (as Latin American and Asian countries very well know by now). If the support comes from regional powers (in Nepal’s case India and China) then the geopolitical considerations take the center-stage. Nepalese attempts at improving its economic growth are limited by the rate at which it builds highways, electricity generation and supply among other things. Japanese agencies have helped fund some of the highways over the last decade. One Belt One Road (OBOR) project proposed by China is another strategic project which awaits Nepalese government’s approval. On the southern side, India continues its support to build postal highways and other roads leading into Nepal from Indian border. The progress on all of these highways which are important for Nepal’s domestic trade are influenced by changing nature of relationship with its neighbours. A basic core of policies driven by domestic context and demands appears to be weak in Nepal. Our discussions with civil society groups reveals that the national policies on water and sanitation too are influenced by aid agencies and their financial support. This is what I mean by influence of geopolitics on public policy. 
  2. Governance capacity gaps are more debilitating than financial capacity in the long run : The common refrain for state of affairs – poor infrastructure, weak state capacity, governance issues etc, is that LICs lack financial resources to fix them. This need not be true. Answers to efficiency and service delivery do not emerge from national exchequer.
  3. Often times, strengthening democracy is a necessary condition in societies with diverse ethnic and social groups: At ATREE@20 conference last month in Bengaluru, Kamal Bawa sat listening to the presentations on conservation and development. The tension between development aspirations and conservation was a key theme. Towards the end, Bawa remarks that only an authoritarian regime can decisively and conclusvely act towards the environmental, conservation and development challenges. Democracies aren’t as capable. I could see that Bawa was acknowledging the strength of a democratic system and at the same time speaking of its strong limitation in being able to address the challenges in a short span of time. In its long drawn process of addressing societal and environmental challenges. However, what democracies come up with are equitable solutions, if not entirely sustainable.

Though on a tangential topic, this insight is useful as one sees Nepal struggling with laying a foundation for a strong democracy since the democratic Constitution of 1990. Until democratic form of governance finds its root, there might not be an end to the frequent clashes and shutdowns of various regions that are fighting for rights and representation.

Journalist Prashant Jha writes that “instability has remained the norm, with a government canging every nine months.Nepal democratic trajectory is framed succintly in his book “Battles of the New Republic” –

From war to peace, from monarchy to republicanism, from being a Hindu kingfom to secularism, from being unitary to a potentially federal state, and from a narrow hill-centric notion of nationalism to an inclusive sense of citizenship – Nepal’s transformation was, and is, among the most ambitious political experiments in recent years in South Asia.

4. Public policy in fragile states must engage with and respond to political reality:

While some debate whether there can be any semblance of policy in a fragile state (politically), I argue that if it engages with political reality and respond to it within the extremely short time that an incumbent government has, that can lead to a minimal core of polcies. Every incoming party tends to pick up reins from the past and improvise on it. If the template is engineered such that it formalises priorities, there might be hope for continuity. This is arguably difficult. For instance, labour policy in Nepal can benefit from this. Almost every government in the last decade has seen its youth migrate to Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia and to Europe for work, any kind of work. The country now earns substantially from remittances. A policy to regulate and channelize remittances and at the same time care for its migrating workers’ rights in distant lands, could have earned the government a major support group. As it now stands, the migration is largely driven by distress at home.

The above are visceral responses to the state of public policy in Nepal. On a deeper engagement, it could be true that some or all of these are unfounded. However, it helps my learning that I put them here as they emerge in the head.

A way forward for aid agencies that work in Nepal could be to look at interventions that enhance governance and policy-making capacities of the government as a priority. This involves the danger of transplanting ideas from elsewhere into a different context and see things getting messed up, however, this is arguable. There still exists a core set of ideas that are useful and effective in helping an economy make best use of its resources and enhance living conditions of its people.

Kathmandu: Thamel, Jamel and the local

Rising Mall, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Rising Mall, Durbar Marg, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Among the capitals of the world Kathmandu perhaps has nothing noteworthy than its location on the road to Himalayas.The famous ones make it to the lists – “best cities to…” (travel, live, work etc). Whereas, Kathmandu makes it to none. This capital is on the itinerary than being on the bests list. It already does well by being on a traveler’s itinerary, not as a pit stop but as a reprieve and that too for several days, for weary travelers who have known the press, push, shove and breathlessness of global capitals with people fitting in as much as they can in their list of to-dos. In Thamel one only tries to fit in as much food and as much leisure as one can before the plane flies out of the valley.

Of course, this is one version of Kathmandu. The one shaped by a traveler taking timed immersions in it. One where he lives in Thamel, wakes up to a continental or English breakfast or to a bowl of hummus. He encounters the city through what is seen and presented to him in the clutch of lanes around this tourist ghetto.

This morning, I took table which faced the door at the Chikusa Coffee Shop. For most part wanted to have some coffee and look out to the street which set itself up habitually every morning in this tourist hub of Thamel. I noticed a couple of Nepalese men reading newspapers in the cafe. The Republica is a new one, which is printed here in collaboration with NYT and also circulates a copy of international edition of NYT along, every day. Quite a long distance this little capital has come in just over a decade that I have seen it for. In one of them there is a drug addiction report, new PM’s unhappiness with an investigation agency of the government, a festival which is marked with a dip in a river in the city and bits about high mountain regions with their problems this season. Usual in several sense. Just that these reports being read widely is somewhat new. Nepal has seen an increase in newspapers published here particularly in English.

Overheard a traveler describing how people he saw over the past days “did everything” – washing, bathing, cremating the dead and much more on the line along the river. The man wasn’t born when England and riverside cities of West did the same. And sure he hasn’t read about it either in all these years of his existence. Not being mean here, after eavesdropping on the conversation… but it strikes remarkable how visitors process the visual encounters they have in countries they travel to.

After the breakfast,  I joined sunbathers by the red wall of the Moroccan Consulate on Tridev marg. The map seller dusted the shelves and went about tucking the trail maps on the shelves by the pavement. In another hotel’s foyer a couple loaded several hundred kilos of kit bags on a pickup, leaving for a distant trail.

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Another Kathmandu wakes up in Sanepa and Jamsikhel where the typical cafes seen in upscale areas of cities like Mumbai, Bangalore etc serve the typical breakfast menu of English, Continental, American and an odd insert of Nepali chia and poori-tarkari. Sanepa is, in a local newspaper’s words, ‘an NGO town’. One can find the major INGOs operating in Nepal and UN agencies offices along its clutch of lanes. The road from Sanepa leads up to Jamsikhel where housing market serves the expats. A walk around these two areas can be a good start for a newcomer into the aid world of Nepal. A local says, “we now call Jamsikhel as Jamel” implying the transformation of a once Nepali area into a tourist or expat dominated locality like Thamel (which has been legendary for the presence of tourists at all times of the year). The traditional area of Patan has as though disowned Jamsikhel and rolled back itself a bit.

The hangouts for the locals, as I understand, aren’t any of these but Kathmandu’s new malls. Durbar square still packs a throng of locals of all ages at all hours of the day. The inner lanes around the expanding ring road is where one finds the local version. The ring road now seems to be forever covered in dust and traffic snarls, yet there is a buzz – that typical Asian energy and activity fills the streets. Scores of workers finishing their day and milling around the corner spaces that serve tea.

It is interesting to see how the aid agencies and the whole support industry around it has created urban spaces where it appears as though the locals have vacated those spaces, given them up and retreated. To this it might also be good to add effects of tourism on urban spaces, although this is being widely studied. People from Barcelona, Paris, Goa or perhaps Kochi can testify for the effects that growing tourism in their cities have had on their lives. However, this might not yet be the situation with what a thriving aid industry does to the local lifestyle in a city. The spaces are not contested yet. I’d be interested in exploring statistics on employment of Nepalese in aid sector and employment in other sectors. Being a low income country, it has been developing its infrastructure through various loans and grants (example, the B P Highway completed with aid from JICA), as have other countries around the world. But, the business of aid has also brought along urban dynamics which includes and excludes people in ways that should be concerning.

These are at best impressionistic observations from knowing this country for a couple of years. It might however fall into some kind of pattern if one begins a comparative study of countries that receive substantial amount of aid, its effect on urban spaces (at least in their capital cities) and what the implications of this urban impact might be on the cities’ governance, civic upkeep and local culture.

Travel and meaning-making

img_7333

 

The following lines were written in July, 2016 as I took the road from India into Nepal’s capital. They remained frozen in their state of incompleteness for months until this morning when I find myself taking the same direction, if not the road. Meaning making from travels has always taken this disorderly fashion – lines retrieved from the past and recast with a new experience in another time.

July 13, 2016

The rains have set in. On the road from Narayangad where I first cross Gandaki river, to northern hills beyond which lies Kathmandu, the traffic is too heavy for the double carriageway. Long queues of trucks lie ahead for over 200 kilometers. To those interested in knowing what cross border trade looks like, need only to get on this road from India to Nepal. Almost all necessary goods – cement, steel, fertilizer, heavy machinery, sugar, LPG, petroleum etc, are hauled up these hills into Kathmandu and beyond. 8 on 10 vehicles on this highway are trucks. I have crossed overland from India through the Sunauli border.

This morning I am headed to Kathmandu again. In transit, it felt appropriate to dig out that abandoned note from last monsoon. Appropriate, because there does seem to be a sense of continuity. The city in the mind’s eye will resume from where I left it last June. Thamel has always looked as though someone pressed the play button after a pause – always in motion, stopping only if you blink. It has felt this way in every visit since the first. The unique play of events, experiences and memories is why I travel. To live this! This process in its iterations makes for an enriching way of life.

In a travel anthology, the publisher’s preface said – ‘I hope some of them, and their stories come to haunt you, just as do some people whom you meet on the road, even briefly, and who then go on to become the shades of your “memory palace”‘. I find myself walking this memory palace every time I have left home for a place unknown or known. Here is an instance where a little incident from Nepal gets stuck in the head, to replay in a completely unexpected and unrelated place.

October 19, 2016, Oslo : 

On a cold October morning even as the bag got identified, searched and the unopened El Dorado sauce bottle retrieved – to be taken away and dumped into a bin which probably the airport security guys return to during their snack time, I knew that the woman from the train to Gorakhpur will come back to us. She had lodged in the memory in ways I couldn’t tell its future appearance. She sold gooseberries – soaked in brine, in the train and as she approached us, asked if we had some pickle to share with her. Never had a stranger ever walk up and ask for pickle in a whisper. It was unusual. We laughed but shared much of what we had left from our two days of journey to Kathmandu. And all along this woman was remembered for her peculiar need for pickle for her lunch and for her manner of asking in a hushed voice. We joked that it is probably our turn to ask people for pickle now with our large bottle of sauce was confiscated. 

I figure that these are the experiences I travel for. To gather them and let the mind curate them in its sometimes conscious and other times unconscious ways. Pico Iyer in his piece Why We Travel opens with this elegant burst of a sentiment as though overcome and brimming with the urge to make meaning out of the extensive journeys he has made until that point in time –

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

This morning as I prepare to arrive in Kathmandu I am reminiscing about the journeys taken and I find myself compellingly in line with the idea of ‘learning more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate’. The abandoned notes on Nepal will be completed not in retrospective but with the experiences of the re-visit. And meaning-making continues this way.

Mumbai in 42 kilometers

cst_shreya

CST, Mumbai (Image: Eraserheaded)

Last week at SCMM, I figured that a 42 kilometer loop around a city is quite an unusual way of experiencing it. May be that explains increasing popularity of running tours in Europe. A run around the city is much like our old town halwai offering generous bits of the assortment of sweets on display before one buys any.

With Mumbai, it was also a re-look at the city. It has showed up annually in my life ever since I stepped out of school. I have taken bits of of it on every visit and looked forward to the next visit without making an effort to know when. This year’s Mumbai was different. I was going past the same places that I have gone past earlier. The difference this time was running through these spaces, floating along with a stream of runners. The rhythm of a run, places gliding by, changing soundscapes, changing landscapes… all of these together have a rather unique effect on the visitor. It isn’t quite an immersion into a single site. Rather, it is a swim through the landscape. The effect is that of a visitor experiencing a closeness that develops spontaneously with someone, in first meet.

I’ve stood by CST, starting point of the marathon, several other times as a just arrived traveler, as a purposeful visitor, as an idler… but never under a pre-dawn darkness which is about to turn deep blue of the morning with an intent to just run around. The monument in those hours, void of its daily throng of people, was much like an artist in a completely different role than what the audience has seen her in, all these years. I couldn’t have imagined the magnificent CST building without people milling all over and this not because the city has shut down due to a terror threat, but for a different reason – when the city lets a whole lot of people see it, up close, and let them experience it on foot.

A runner in this country is somewhat privileged to be able to travel to different cities only to run and pay registration fee. If one is able to afford it, it offers a completely different and unique peep into the city. This isn’t a call for any sort of consciousness or action but a plain observation that it was upsetting to see children with huge sacks going after every single plastic bottle thrown by runners on the roads. There were easily a hundred of them who, oblivious to the event and people around them, kept their eyes on these plastic bottles and were out to collect as many as they could manage. That would be the day’s haul and perhaps a decent amount of money than other days when sold. At the same time another group of children were experiencing it differently – The Scindia School Band played from a stand. That was a lovely sight! The children showing up and playing for the runners.  The realities are stark – of the runners and of these children and of the worlds that the several pickets of policemen there on duty inhabit. Each of these overlap with the other’s only by virtue of their need or call of duty. Nothing else. I am not sure how these city marathons go in developed countries of the world. But in a place like India with its very wide spectrum of social and economic status of people, it can be a bit unsettling. Perhaps, this comes out best to a visitor when she comes attends an event like this.

At the same time there are several appealing aspects about it. SCMM is a huge fund raising event for social causes of a wide variety. The energy and enthusiasm among the people makes one feel quite good about being in the city and about the collective spirit of oneness. Even the diversity of people and groups seen on and off the course is remarkable.

My favorite part was to run on the Worli Sea link. There was something surreal about being on it and watch the steel ropes glide, one by one,  a little above the eye level. Modern structures as these are seldom seen on foot and at such pace. It isn’t a commonplace experience in India to be able to run right in the middle lane of a vast mega structure as this and take plentiful looks at the city’s skyline on both sides. It is as though this was an opportunity to come up close and know the spaces taking all the time that one wants. This aspect is quite distinct in urban runs and even more in large metropolises as Mumbai.

Amidst all this, I realized I was also doing a faster pace than my last run. I wanted to shave off some time from the Iceland run. Until halfway point, I was sure doing better and confident about finishing it well. It was a little surprising how I registered everything happening around and be mindful of the pace too. I can usually do either of the two -run or look around. Look around as I run, was new!

A couple of known faces passed by. Some were sure on their way to achieve a personal best timing. Meanwhile, I was bonking out. I hit the wall by 33rd km. Pace slowed. Shoulders drooped. The ones I tailed took off and were speeding to the finish line. And I was experiencing Marine Drive at a much slower pace than what I started with. There were kids reaching out for the strewn plastic bottles. There were policemen trying to mind them. The runners were all pushing themselves to the finish line. Meanwhile, there was an anticipation in the crowds which waited for the elite runners to run past, much like my brother and I used to wait by the small railway station in our town to watch a superfast train run through our little town leaving us in a storm of catering litter. Anytime now, the air suggested! There was this stepping in and out of the door that connected the chambers of past and present, which happens with me in almost every run. This was similar.

Running the 42 at SCMM wasn’t difficult. Keeping a faster pace, was. At the sight of the clock hung at the finish line, I started racing the seconds. Even before stepping on it, I was checking how much better than the last. The idiot inside overpowers ofern! SCMM course took 3 hrs 43, 15 mins less than Iceland’s. But a wholly different trip looking at Mumbai all over again while I was about to hit a personal best timing.

A day before the run, at Kitabkhaana, I searched for authors from the city writing about the city. Feels good to have come across an endearing volume of writing by Adil Jussawalla, edited by Jerry Pinto – Maps for a Mortal Moon. I knew that Jussawalla was a good friend of A K Mehrotra.  So this was also about discovering friends of a writer I admired. This morning’s reading from the book was a trigger to recollect my connection with Mumbai during the SCMM trip. The city lives in the heart of those who spent a lifetime here or have come to form an undying bond with the city because they came of age here, or found a career, or love or self or whatever. It is hard not to admire the city and its several cultural creeks as much as the geographical ones. Jussawalla writes about two writers who are pining for their Bombay in their time, which I think I am not quite capable of feeling about a city but several cities. Until next time, I too remain homesick and eager.

jussawalla_excerpt

“Six Authors in Search of a Reader”, Adil Jussawalla

 

 

Iceland: Driving, Running & Northern Lights

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland in October, 2016

Downtown Reykjavik on an October morning

This place is completely twisted (in an endearing way though). Everything that a traveler sees is almost guaranteed to end with I-have-never-seen-this-before. Its people (Viking idiosyncrasies, music videos, sense of humour), food (Hakarl?), landscapes (any given sight on the island except the airport and the supermarkets) and above all unbelievably difficult to pronounce names, of places mostly. But these are mostly post-trip thoughts. Something completely different got me there – a movie watched on a mid-week afternoon in Bangalore. We were binge-watching, helped by cheap 100 rupee tickets on weekdays at PVR.

Iceland is as close to the Arctic circle as I could get this year.  The island was not on the travel list until Secret Life of Walter Mitty released. Watching Mitty take that downhill on a skateboard, across a stunningly beautiful landscape on a big screen was magical. The landscape looked extraordinary to a mind familiar only with tropical imagery. In retrospect, it feels that I was also in awe of this adaptation of Thurber’s short story into a film and Ben Stiller playing Mitty. The conversion of landscapes from screen to real had to wait two years from that afternoon at the cinema. In October, 2016 my friend and I found ourselves heading to Scandinavia and were to spend several weeks in Oslo. This was Iceland’s call via Scandinavia for us. Thurber was right, beautiful things don’t ask for attention. They just remain lodged in the subconscious space, until one gets to live that beauty and finds oneself right there, witnessing it. We were fanboys traveling to Iceland. Reykjavik’s Oddsson hostel had a few more – a South Korean college kid who got on the plane after watching Mitty. And then a whole pack of instagram-led young travelers who wanted their own instagram album set in Icelandic locales. That the common kitchen overflowed with people and conversations was a sign of backpackers making use of the crashed Icelandic Kroner and easy connectivity from Europe. Those from  US however, were on travel offers from Icelandic air which has been pitching Iceland as the most suitable en-route destination for travelers from US to Europe. And this was working!

Reykjavik harbor area

Reykjavik harbor area

On the eastern highway to Vik

On the eastern highway to Vik

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri (Image: My friend Eraserheaded )

The flat hill top in the distance is Eyjafjallajökull volcano

The flat hill top in the distance is Eyjafjallajökull volcano

Driving

Over the four days in Iceland, we took the highway to Vik, a pretty little town past the beach with black sands, on the eastern highway. We didn’t have a plan for the place. The thrill and anticipation of Iceland week was so much that neither of us knew the lay of the place, places to see or cared about changing money, checking public services etc. The only thing we had booked more than a month in advance – a car to drive around and live our time there at our pace. A motorbike would have been better, but Iceland demands extensive preparation (riding gear, GPS, good bike, breakdown backup etc) before one can take on its weather and the roads. We set out to see the legendary Eyjafjallajökull volcano, not because it brought Europe to a standstill with its eruption in 2010, but that Mitty runs for his next clue on the island even as Eyjafjallajökull  is erupting and the people have vacated the town. Another weather twist – the volcano is covered with an ice cap! It was unlike a volcano. It appeared as a flat hill range with a pretty set of houses nestled by the base. I wondered if this is how Icelandics play dare, by settling down by the base of an active volcano and then drive away as fast as they can in their SUVs when the fireworks begin. The tranquil and country idyll was perfect with baled harvest waiting on the farm, horses grazing in the distance, near empty highway passing by the settlement and the scene rendered even more unbelievable with a waterfall from a hill not too far from the settlement left alone. The sight is hopelessly appealing only to the traveler who can’t believe that the people have all of this for themselves everyday of the year. And a handful of them at that!

A day later we took the highway heading north of Iceland, via western rim of the island, towards Akureyri. However, the weather and time allowed us time to reach up to the peninsula region of Borgarnes about a hundred kilometers from Reykjavik, a busy little town with a population of under 1200. The drive in this direction was as stunning. But this was the arterial highway to northern Iceland and so visibly more traffic than the eastern highway. There was heavy cargo movement on this route and the large trucks had a sense of urgency which felt unusual for Iceland. Were these the Poles driving trucks for Icelandic companies? Probably! One of them almost ate our little red Corolla, showing up on the rear view mirror and staying behind menacingly or may be in his view, patiently. The sun shone bright on the highway after a rainy morning. Spiked tyres that most vehicles here have made a roaring sound on the road. This stayed as the road’s music in my head long after that.

The sense of open space, complete absence of human activity except the presence of the road and the unique combination of weather and geography, struck me the most about Iceland. Snow covered hills, lava plateaus, glaciers, waterfalls, grasslands, sea, active volcanoes, hot springs, rain, strong winds and sunshine and the clear blue skies at times… it all comes together as though nature pitches to a weather symphony and it chose Iceland for its performance.

Running

I ran the Reykjavik Autumn Marathon on October 15th. I trained for the cold weather run by training in Oslo (which had a similar early morning temperature as Iceland) in the preceding two weeks. The week leading up to the marathon went without practice due to work in Budapest. I was unsure about the run and about my performance. And this was also to be my first international run. The participants were mainly from Europe, a few from US and quite a few from running clubs in Iceland. No one from India in the full or the half category, although I did hear about a small Indian community in Iceland.

Arriving in Reykjavik after midnight, on the day before the run was the first mistake in a series of mistakes that I was about to launch myself on! The second – picking up the self-drive car on the airport, soon upon arrival. It escaped me that I would have no clue about the roads and orientation of the place. And making to the guesthouse by driving on my own was as stupid as I got in the last season. Third – figuring out the ways and systems of a completely new country in the darkness of night, with rain and cold which wasn’t quite factored in.This found us trying to drive out from the airport with a left hand drive car, re-fueling it at a gas station by swiping cards and filling in from an assortment of variously rated octane fuel (unlike petrol/diesel and premium grade labels of India). With a good load of fuel on my jacket sleeve because I couldn’t work the nozzle control to flow smooth, we got out in the rain to look for our guesthouse. The next mistake – to save on rental, I had not rented navigation for the car. I had prints to work our way through, on an Icelandic night. Everything was a first! Truly, out of the comfort zone where nothing was familiar – neither the roads, nor the names or sounds or machines.

8 am on the trail, Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016

8 am on the trail, Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016

The run started at 8 in the morning. We checked in at the guesthouse at 2 am and needed some sleep after 6 hours of flying and even more tedious drive from airport. I had no clue that I’d be hopelessly lost in the morning, looking for the race venue! This was perhaps the most terrible case of being lost (for what was at stake – a run that I had dreamed of all the way from India) after losing my way on the under-constrution outer ring road in Hyderabad, years ago. Starting at 6 in the morning, we drove all over Reykjavik, out and in and out again only to get back in and pull over at a filling station, despondent, looking for directions. There is just no one walking about by the road side in this country! Stop but ask whom? The Indian in me kept looking 360 degrees in disbelief. The filling station guy heard the mention of a marathon and that’s when the lights came up in my miserable morning – he had seen a lot of cars and runners next to the stream a kilometer down from where we were. Drove the car as though I was flying the jet out of an air base and made it to the starting point, with a minute to go for the gun shot! The kind lady pinned up the bib, as I put on the timing chip and the nice folks by the starting line shouted back by saying they’ll wait for me.

I do not know what was happening, any longer. It was a time warp – it continued from the time I sat by the plane window looking at Norwegian coastline that we were flying past the previous evening until now. There was a sense of disjunction – the body got into the act of running. Mind was trying to come to grips with the immediate environment, people and what was happening. I switched on the GPS and got running. It was dark at 8 am, drizzling and windy. I followed the footsteps ahead of me. A light chatter in the air. I kept going until the deep blue of early morning melted and light up the landscape. By that time I saw the runners ahead taking a turn towards what looked like a waterfront. The cold got the skin this time, with the wind pushing it in. I ran without music. By the time I was along the waterfront the day light broke in and as though I was out of the cave-like time warp which held me since last evening. It was now that I registered where I was running and what was happening around me. We were about 12 kilometers into the circuit. The wind grew stronger. I figured that we’d be doing two loops of this and that made me think about the next loop when I’d be running against this windy waterfront with a depleted energy stock. I had my first swig of gatorade at 12th kilometer aid station. Along the water front section I saw a tall guy running at almost the same clip as mine. As I neared, I ran along for a while, but he felt a bit slower than my pace at that time, which made me move ahead. Over the next 2-3 kilometers we kept at each others heel. Soon enough we ran shoulder to shoulder until the next aid station. We got out together again. This was an unsaid chemistry. We were running together, each saying “I need to run along to keep the pace”. We didn’t speak at all, until somewhere in 30th kilometer, the man went on to say “I can’t run fast, I’d like to keep the slow pace. Please go on my friend.” I realized he was a man in his 50s. He was a strong runner and it was me who was finding it a push to keep the pace. I wanted to tell him that. I hadn’t looked at the watch until then. The half guys were soon on the trail. We both realized that we were doing a decent pace.

The were more people on the trail by now. The solemn, cathedral like early morning mood was gone. It was a chatty, race scene now with runners, onlookers and people passing by. The people here didn’t cheer with words. They preferred ringing bells vigorously. The runners didn’t talk much to each other too. Neither they would return a gesture if someone made any. It was a bit unlike the festive mood at most Indian marathons. I was missing the groundnut-jaggery chikkis on the aid station. It was only gatorade and liquids. Many preferred a few swigs of coke instead. Strange I thought. The Hungarian partner I was running with preferred coke too. He said his wife was running the half. When they crossed, he gave a big bear hug and wished each other luck. I was observing the people around.

It felt like a very fast race. I saw no one walk any part of the trail. I was surprised that I had not taken a break even at the aid stations. The Hungarian guy and I were to run together till the finish line. We broke little, spoke little and fought the cold all through. The rain had picked up again. It barely registered on my numb skin that the tights I wore were soaked. I couldn’t feel the cold. The last four kilometers increasingly felt tough. After the daylight broke, the morning fell into a state of constancy. There was a gushing stream near by, autumn colours through the treeline and dampness of a rainy morning. Cold had slowed down the ache in the legs. It felt as though I have been running from the previous evening.

With the 42nd kilometer, we both gained pace and maintained it till the finish line. The man’s face turned into a relief as he neared. I was searching for the only face I knew on the other side of the finish line. Everything else was a sea. We stepped on the finish line and I looked up at the timer on the line. I couldn’t believe that I was finishing in less than 4 hours. I was least expecting this. And even if I were to target sub-4 hr finish, Iceland’s trail would sure not be the one where I would hope to. The morning temperature was between 3 or 4 degrees C. My friend reached out to me. Someone took off the timing chip and to escape the wind we went into the tents put up by the organizers. It was an amazing feeling. I couldn’t feel my lower body and felt that I had no control on my legs.

I sat for a while and wanted to eat. The last mistake was to show up here – there was nothing vegetarian to eat. The sandwiches had meat and eggs. Except for coke and bananas, I figured I could eat nothing else. In desperation, I pulled the salami slices and eggs out of the sandwich and ate it with lettuce and cucumber. I should have carried some food with me. But, that is how it was supposed to be! And now the cold kicked in as the body cooled down from the run. I was shivering from the cold. We made to the car and switched on the heating. It took a while before I could begin to drive and get back to the guesthouse.

This is how I finished the Iceland run – in a bluff, making mistakes all the way! And hit a personal best run time with it.

Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016, full marathon finisher medal

Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016, full marathon finisher medal

Northern Lights

The next three days we soaked up Iceland like tourists. Shopped for supplies, cooked in the hostel, packed lunches for long drives and long walks after returning. The hostel air was abuzz with talks of northern lights and there were midnight tours to spot action in the sky. The harbour front had companies offering attractive prices for midnight tours. We were on a budget. The Icelandic Meteorological Forecast indicated strong chances all through the week. Meanwhile, I read Scandinavian folktales on aurora borealis – one spoke of how fortunate the child conceived under such lights in the sky, is. Another of how, these lights are the dead virgin women dancing in the skies teasing men who couldn’t make love to them.

And then the roof of the hostel went riotous early evening on the day before we were to leave. Everyone around would want us to “check it out” – the lights in the sky. I looked up for the best places in town to watch northern lights. A little before midnight my friend and I made way to the lighthouse. The whole town appeared to have fallen down to this little strip of land, possessed by the pull of the flickering green lights in the sky, the dead virgins.

There, ahead in the horizon, we spotted the dancing lights. The phenomenon is absolutely spell bounding to say the least. There is nothing comparable to this marvelous show of lights in the sky on a cold, dark night high in the latitudes of earth. There was a feeling of being fortunate that we could stand there and witness this. Far from anything else, it was just too fascinating. The fact that there are so many of these extraordinary geographical, climatic and meteorological occurrences unfolding in the world that are far removed from the daily lives that we live. The world in that moment felt an extraordinary place with us being alive and being able to stand witness these. I shall never forget the swirls of green in the sky, which I watched transfixed from the windscreen of the car, as I sat inside trying to take the moment in. There is a sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where Mitty meets the Life Magazine photographer whom he has been chasing through the film. It is played by Sean O’Connell. The photographer is shown high up in Himalayas, perched at a post, trying to photograph the reclusive snow leopard. When the leopard does appear in the viewfinder they both look at it transfixed. After taking a good look, Mitty asks if he took the shot, to which the photographer replies –  “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”

You must go to Berlin

 

 

rosaluxembourg_edit

Living by the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz U-bahn, Berlin in November.

“You must go to Berlin” is a refrain we heard from Oslo to Budapest. Travelers and vagabonds swore by it. The itinerant European indicated a promise of a unique experience. The returning Israeli soldier insisted on how Berlin suited his travel (how its spirit suited him) in Europe hitting back after every leap out into the creases and frontiers of Europe. This time he was returning from Iceland, where we had met him a few weeks back. Another one insisted on joining her as she traveled to Berlin for a porn film festival. I didn’t know what to make of these until the evening I coursed through its multi-level underground metro and bahn system and surfaced above, on the massive Potsdamer Platz square. Larger still and standing in contrast is the Alexander Platz square which appears as though the city planners didn’t know what to do with the twenty acre plot. It is a gift of planning from the former East Germany. The strange looking  placement of Park Inn Hotel, the world clock and the shopping complex with confused looking trams and vehicles stopping across the the roads for signal.

Berlin is a restless city. Restless, not in an Asian-city sense and certainly not in its pace. It is restless in its production, its opinion, its taste and in its character. I say this from having spent time mostly in the East Berlin. For a visitor it is hard to characterize Berlin. It is a relief that such a place exists which has slipped out from the many attempts to stereotype it. Berlin’s hard to stereotype character is sensed when travelers – frequent or first timers like me, take a pause after the first “It is an interesting city” remark. Nothing follows by the way of explanation after that. The difficulty is then covered by the traveler recollecting her experiences or personal life stories that unfolded in the city but nothing that could explain why one found it ‘interesting’. Berlin renders clichés like ‘enigmatic’ and ‘rich’ hollow in their meaning. To a traveler who has been a reader of its history and spectator of its present the city is a stream of cultural, intellectual and political rapids with currents of every grade that occurred along the course of its history still whirling by. The traveler can begin rafting at any level and get washed away in the ensuing course.

As I arrived and got on to its dense network of U-bahn and tried in vain to make sense of the profusion of graffiti that covered every visible surface from foot level to the top of multistory buildings. The little buttons on the traffic signals too were in service of the graffiti messages. They displayed messages from chiding the reader of his bourgeois life to assertions of an independent taste and opinion on matters from artistic taste to sexuality. And unlike Oslo, the graffiti here dared with their placement and by their reach from the wagons of metro trains, sides of buildings and of course on the still remaining stretches of the Berlin wall. The city bursts with opinion on every issue – fringe or mainstream, big or small. I think every Berliner in his life must have had some paint on her and made a graffiti at least once in her life. That should perhaps be a more suitable definition of a Berliner than the beaten one that a Berliner crosses the road only when it is flashes green for the pedestrian.

berlinwall

Sections of the Berlin Wall as seen at Potsdamer Platz. These were the L-shaped concrete blocks which were used to replace the conventional wall after a German soldier from East Berlin used an armoured vehicle to ram into the wall, break it and escape. 

On the political front, the city continues to nurture Marxist intellectualism and attracts scholars from the frontiers of communist thought and political action into spending some time exploring the tomes in its many archives and libraries. A mere walk around its main thoroughfares itself is an education in communist history – from Karl Marx allee to Rosa Lumxembourg Platz. Elsewhere, Lepizig renamed its Ho Chi Minh Strasse and back home Kolkata stayed with its Ho chi Minh Sarani. Berlin tried renaming in dozens, yet a fair deal remains. When it came to renaming Clara-Setkin Strasse which runs along the Reichstag, a leading Berlin feminist Marianne Kriszio is reported to have asked “Have we nothing better to do than to slander the memory of such women?” Evidently, renaming is a touchy subject. This is pretty much similar back home in India, from Delhi to Bengaluru. Renaming of streets can evoke public sentiments as fast as a monsoon roll over of dark clouds.

I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s quote as I recollect losing our way finding the Berlin Philharmonic and later, the way to Rosa Luxembourg Platz on a late evening – “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”  It was November rain quite literally as I walked down from the skyscraper lined Bahnof Potsdamer Platz towards Brandenburg Gate and looked at remains of the wall all along. This arc of history on a single avenue is quite rare in metropolitans of our times, a sure sight to revel in. I imagined that a walk down this avenue on an afternoon can do the work of two weeks of world history classes for the students I teach here in school.

bund_edit

The approach to Brandenburg Gate from the Victory Pillar

reichstag_edit

The approach to Reichstag from Brandenburg Gate

Berlin’s socialism, its workers’ unions and their almost militant activism to safeguard wages and its intellectualism in art, music, lifestyle, philosophy and political thought is unmatched. No other city perhaps exhibits such a wide spectrum. If there is the classic socialism, then there is also the new left and both challenged menacingly by the right wing conservatives like AfD.

While a fraction of young Berliners choose to propagate and be a part of the Identitarian Movement, spreading fast across Germany and France, there is the horde of bohemians and hipsters who confuse the identitarians with their disregard for nationalism and to rigid ideologies. The ideological inclinations of the Berlin hipsters appear to be as diverse as their facial hair styles and marked by as many different thoughts as their body piercings. That is the beauty of Berlin. It all comes together as a very busy, forever changing collage, where each piece is a history as well as a commentary on the contemporary at the same time. Berlin seems to vow to not let any new wall ever get erected!

To a traveler, I’d respond in the same eager tone – You must go to Berlin! This European capital is a river with rapids to be rafted by the visitor. Jack Lang’s words stringing the two cities in a single sentence sure seem apt, “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!”

Paris, in full faith

hoteldeville

Paris, November 2016

Paris was up next when Berlin’s time was up on this tour of the European capitals. Then,  the bus turned to Leipzig and onward to Amsterdam through the night until the morning broke over the Dutch landscapes and the autobahn cooling it off as it  entered the Netherlands. The night was frantic on the  German side with its super large trailers bellowing  through on the road network in many directions. Paris would rise on the horizon after a day long bus ride over the Flanders and across Belgium, the country known as the Battleground of Europe.

Paris of November, 2016 – the very real would keep  punching the Paris of literary imagination in its face over the next week. Literary Paris, which those outside France have read about and imagined. The ‘lost generation’ and its many writers were cradled by the streets and spaces and pubs of this beautiful city. Shakespeare and Co, the  legendary bookstore wasn’t any better than the good old Bangalore bookshop which has supplied its readers with serendipitous finds buried in the several book racks over three floors. The only difference was that Shakespeare and Co had a legend behind it and travelers like me walking through its doors everyday trying to catch hold of at least an iota of that legendary space that the writers of yore from Paris have written about. One imagines if there would be any significant difference between the cemetery close by at Montparnasse and this bookstore besides the books and a live person sitting by the counter.

By the way of confession, I must write that I was digging this bookstore’s pics and the many bits of references about Paris in writings for long before I walked this city’s streets. The full faith lived as long as the first twenty four hours. After that it was a pack of butter carried across on a tropical journey.

shakespeareandco

Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris

This isn’t about my disappointment with the city. Neither am I undergoing the proverbial Syndrome de Paris or Pari shōkōgun as the Japanese call it. It is by any measure a very fine city and capital. No complaints with its people either. The acts of restraint and a weak sense of willingness to help visitors is not just Parisian. It is a malice of the metropolis and likely to be seen in any large city of the world. Try stopping anyone in Mumbai hurrying past during the rush hour.

It is about the misplaced emphasis. It is also about trying to find life and requisite words to describe them in dead places and empty structures. The Paris of today is coming to life in its many levels of metro trains and RERS underground. It is unfolding in the trams snaking through the familiar boulevards into the suburbs which are coloured red, green and yellows signboards of Doner Kebabs, Vietnamese food and the Bombay restaurants.

The Afro sporting heads are far too many in the sea of heads that emerge from the Gare Du Nord and dissolve away on the several streets that branch out. The small framed Asians hustle through in the Parisian rain having made peace with the European weather. Then there are those milling in the crowd practicing the right pronunciation of Champs Elysees.

An evening of Open Mic at Spoken Word revealed somewhat different face of the city. An intereting picture of the city was seen in that basement at Au Chat Noir where the poems were being read. The ones who signed up to read their works or of others, were as much immigrant in their origins as the ones that the city is seeking to resist at its borders.

spokenword

Open Mic at Spoken Word, Au Chat Noir, Paris

Proust’s, Baudelaire’s or Gertrude Stein’s Paris appears changed way beyond its character of those decades. The borders are more visible and the paranoia of terror more felt than ever. Amidst this, what writing can do is to try recognizing the appearance of the city as it stands today. Only the gaze of the Gargoyle that sits on Notre Dame Cathedral remains the same. In its form and content the writing of today needs to see Paris as it is today, if it ever intends to help Paris syndrome from affecting travelers. The syndrome afflicting Parisians might also get worked upon when contemporary writing holds up the mirror to them.

Even as the immigrant camp in Paris was being erased and the migrants forced to move on, it failed to realize that it were the very same immigrants that made Paris in its cultural and knowledge production. If it were not for them perhaps twentieth century in France would have been a blank page.

James Thurber saw Paris as a post-graduate course in everything. He wrote, “The whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music… it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in everything.”. And this to me stands as the most appropriate quote about Paris from the pile of mush that writers have said of it.

Without a doubt Paris is a beautiful city with original tastes and adorable, idiosyncratic ways. However, to soak in this alone would be delusional. Much violence happens underneath it which the blinds of literature, culture and fashion doesn’t make visible.

Who is a hippie?

beatlescafe_pokhara

A lakeside cafe in Pokhara

Enthusiasm for the unseen, unfamiliar and unheard ties the hippies of the 1960s and hippies of the new millennium. Not hashish. The urge to travel, and travel irrespective of the how much is in the pocket is the spirit that bridges the two eras of this group of insufferable travelers. This bunch, moreover, travels overland compulsively.

I began reading accounts of this variety of globetrotters from the period 1960-1990 on idle days in Pokhara. I spent over three weeks last month in Nepal beginning with Kathmandu, then in the Himalayan trekking mecca of Annapurna region (a trek to Annapurna Base Camp) and the rest lounging in the legendary lakeside town of Pokhara. This was a trip done overland and slow. A ‘dirt-bag trip’as I call it – enough money for food, accommodation, transport and tea. The rest ceasing to matter.

As I read accounts from the 1960-1990 period and thought about the ‘hippies’ I felt that the pre-1990 travelers who would be labelled hippies weren’t very different from the post-2000 travelers – the millennials. I was wondering if the hippie spirit is dead and if, all we have now is what is derisively known as pseudo-hippies. I wouldn’t want to use that label though. This makes it sound like there exists a definite hippie way and that only a select few know it. This is absurd. There neither was one nor will be one stock definition and pageantry to go along with it. Being a hippie is not just a peculiar way of dressing or conduct. It is a state of mind sometimes and preference to do things in one’s own peculiar way which might be ill-fitting with the known and the established norms. Long hair, pyjamas and a bandana with a loosely hanging ukulele doesn’t make one hippie nor they are essential. It is more than just the attire. It is perhaps a manner of conduct and thought than just the appearance. There are people dropping out of the established systems of education, careers, lifestyles etc and trying to exist outside of it. Those are hippies for me. This combined with an urge to get out of the familiar and the known society into distant lands where every single day is filled with discovering language, words, ways and whats on the table to eat… life gets a jump start. For instance, the horde of Israelis in India, many making way here after finishing their service in the army.  The chatter on the streets from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Pokhara still maintains itself decade after decade. The urge to drop out and live differently keeps surfacing in every generation. It stays the same! As Richard Gregory puts it, ‘hedonism was the primary aim’ for many.

The change though has been in the direction of travel and what was sought. While it was from Europe to Asia earlier, it is in the reverse direction as well. Asians are thronging the capitals of Europe to attain their own salvation on the streets of Paris, Milan and San Francisco. In terms of what was sought, the proverbial ‘mystic East’ has been replaced by a mysticism borne out of a capitalist order – one fueled by significantly high incomes at young age, the promise of faster travel and possibility of ‘fitting in’ overseas trips over a long weekend.

Back to Pokhara and its hippies, this is where the broke traveler came to rest, luxuriating in its cheap lodges and satiating pent up hunger in the many ‘maancha ghars’ and ‘khaja ghars’ which offer heaps of food for little money, if you can take it, that is. A statistic I read on tourism in Nepal is that the country saw a little over 6,000 tourists in 1960.

The travel accounts from 1960s and 70s describe the overland crossings and relatively free (though perilous) border crossings which could let one travel from London to India and beyond, if one had the energy to rough it out. Iran those days had secular Shahs ruling it and Afghanistan welcomed travelers like no other country. In these times, the geopolitics of the new world has literally made it impossible to cross borders without great risk to life. Many borders are literal dead-ends. Try India – Pakistan border crossing for instance or Pakistan-Afghanistan across the Durand line or Khyber pass.

Among the lot which took the overland journey (in part or whole) were the political scientists – Rudolph couple, many anthropologists, writes (Paul Theorux, Vikram Seth ) and students who’d later get back to academia as researchers and professors. These weren’t ‘freaks’ or ‘hippies’ in the conventional sense (used for those in search of cheap destinations to live and smoke marijuana) but people who nevertheless shared the same enthusiasm for east and for travel. They made better of these experiences in their later lives as I figure.

Living amidst the average travelers in the cheap backpacker hostels and traveling with them on those typical shared taxis in the many Asian cities I find that in many respects the hippies, the vagrants, the vagabonds and the freaks of the world haven’t been any different from what I read about a similar traveling lot from earlier centuries. For instance, John Lang in India. Or Freya Stark in Middle East. Or even this writer in Hindi literature I read often – Agyey. These are the same men and women from different generations. Each facilitated by the communications and transportation progress of their times. One rode a bus from Delhi for days together to reach Pokhara, while another in these times takes the cheap Yeti Air flight to Pokhara and walks through the mountains as though in a garden back home, with a porter managing the bags.

I thought of deliberating on the idea of a hippie when in Nepal because I didn’t quite appreciate the snobbery of some who labeled the place as full of ‘pseudo-hippies’. This would have meant that there probably exists this elite bunch who believes that their definition of a hippie holds and they decide if others are or not. It would be so much cool if these travelers with peculiar ways and style are left alone as long as they don’t trespass and harm the local people and their values by their choices. These cities of the world where some can live cheap and do whatever on earth they want to do with their lives, is a useful safety valve for societies across the world. This is not romanticizing the traveler, but suggesting that if not useful, this sort of traveler isn’t harmful either – pseudo or real or whatever else you want to call her!

 

 

 

Luang Prabang: 25 years since Benedict Anderson’s visit

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Tucked deep along the popular and wildly promising backpacker routes of South East Asia lies Luang Prabang. This tiny capital of a former princely state which merged with two other little kingdoms to form Laos opens itself unconditionally to the backpacker, the tourist and the fantasy seeker, all alike. No questions asked, beyond the necessary ones at the immigration. The thrill for the backpacker and the rich tourist perhaps lies in being able to walk over and taking for granted this little nation’s sovereignty, its own voice. The traveler with his stash of dollars can get away with anything – ride motorbikes without driving license, move about brazenly in utter disregard for people’s customs, practices or legal regulations and any go forth with any imaginable activity that might promise an inexperienced thrill which the tourist wouldn’t have dared to think of in his own country or traveling in the more prosperous and developed countries of the world. But in Luang Prabang, just go ahead and do it. Here, the weight of a dollar is more than people’s words. The tourist’s fantasies of every variety can be realized here for a pittance, until the pleasure seeker drops out satiated or bored.

Historian Benedict Anderson passed away last week. One of his books Imagined communities was a part of reading in grad school. Curiosity made me look up his other writings and I realized that he wrote of his trip to Luang Prabang during the Songkhran Festival in 1998. ( The excerpts in this post are from the essay published in LRB here.) Reading that I realized that it was twenty five years since his trip that I crossed the Mekong river and into its border town of Huay Xai. Three hundred kilometers up, through the lush mountains of this former Lan Xang kingdom, on the bend of the Mekong lay the endearing Luang Prabang town, home to Prabang Buddha and to some of the most affable people of the subcontinent.

Back to Anderson’s account, it appears that he was a keen eyed traveler more than a historian. His travel accounts tend to be mischievous, sarcastic and incisive in parts. In 1994 Luang Prabang was given UNESCO World Heritage status. In the four years since then, Anderson notes the changes.

In its heart is the hundred-metre-high hill of Phou Si, crowned with a restored Buddhist stupa (nicely floodlit at night) and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun. Below is a town that one can stroll across in 25 minutes but which has about forty elegant, modest Buddhist temple complexes, almost all warm browns, blues and whites, backed by huge bo trees, and opal-fired with the saffron robes of monks and novices. Here and there, one picks out former residences and office buildings of French colonials, which have by now acquired the charm of gentle provincial decay. Not a Hilton or Hyatt in sight: no Burger King, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. One BMW.

This absence of a Hilton, Hyatt, Burger King, McDonald’s etc is remarkable. The town’s remote location is evident in the fact that even twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, there still are none of these monuments of globalized existence and faux-modernity. The absence of west-styled fast food restaurants and five-start hotels is the exact reason why my friend and I felt a helpless attraction to this town and its homely feel. As Asian travelers with our own countries run over by the global food and hospitality chains, which are constantly road-rolling the peculiar and characteristic identity of the places, we felt Luang Prabang was indeed one of the last remaining places yet to be conquered by this homogenizing force.

street_rick_luang

Luang Prabang comes off as an easy paced town with not much to see but to lounge and soak up the pace of this town by the Mekong river

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Back to Anderson’s piece, he examines the ‘preservation’ effort of Luang Prabang’s culture and lifestyle with the World Heritage status. The following lines make for a remarkable critique which in retrospect do seem apt –

‘Best-preserved’ indeed. But by whom or by what? First of all by French imperialism at the end of the 19th century, which, anxious about the brutal British conquest of neighbouring Burma, seized the left bank of the Mekong from the Thai monarchs in Bangkok, who had the bad habit of razing Lao townships that did not behave themselves as loyal vassals. This démarche created a new border far away from Luang Prabang, leaving most Lao-speakers, on the right bank, to become the industrious and despised ‘Irish’ of a Siam that was on the way to becoming Thailand. It made possible the absurd singular English noun ‘Laos’, stupidly taken from the French plural ‘les royaumes Laos’ (the three Lao petty principalities of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak). It led to the construction of a colonial headquarters in the Thai-razed, but ‘central’ locale of Vientiane rather than the remote and northern Luang Prabang. Ultimately the creation of ‘Indochine’ as a vast administrative unit run from Hanoi left Laos as the place where, in the Thirties, six hundred Frenchmen could peaceably indulge themselves, off location, in opium, girls, boys and drink. So to speak, the lotus-eating end of the colonial world.

Through the course of history, Laos seems to be a country pushed and shoved by its neighbours as well as powerful nations. Now, the baton seems to have passed on to the backpackers and tourists to do the same. However, the place still manages to stand apart as a very different experience – culturally and geographically. The mighty Mekong is an overbearing presence. The Buddhist monks still on their early morning walk to receive alms from the townsfolk. The barges ferrying people and vehicles across the river. High school kids volunteering at the National Museum to inform visitors about the artifacts, folktales and the Ramayana stories in English. They are absolutely adorable.

Luang Prabang’s riverfront is one of the prettiest to spend a leisure evening tucked in a small corner of the world. With its setting, it does seem to drive this literal feeling of being far out in the world. Especially, with the time it takes to reach this place. With the absence of factories, heavy machinery, high-rise buildings, large automobiles, mass transport systems and especially high human density, the place manages to immediately make an impression of being in a place which is out of the usual, fast paced cities that the global traveler has routed himself through, to reach here.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

The fate of the royalty of Luang Prabang seems like typical of the colonial era. Either the King becomes a vassal or banished from his land if he tends to be assertive. Rest of the royal family especially the Princes are groomed in the colonizer’s capital abroad, in this case, the royalty being groomed in France. King Sisavangvong gets the nickname of being the ‘playboy King’ perhaps because of his fifty children and fifteen wives. His palace, which was once a French chateau is now the national museum. The night market on the boulevard in front of the palace is a truer picture of the modern day Luang Prabang and not the uninspiring and somewhat oddly cobbled artifacts at the museum.

Laos and Luang Prabang is best seen in its night market in my opinion. It is where the common Laotian surfaces, who lives a life in the countryside perhaps and turns up at the market to make a buck out of the souvenir hunting tourist. Reading Anderson’s account from 1998, his description of the night market reads as a very fine prose and stays remarkably unchanged to my eyes twenty five years since –

The open-air market reminds one of what shopping-malls and supermarkets have cost modern life: the savour and endless variations of homemade cooking and the exuberant inventiveness of a ‘cottage’ artisanate. At the stall of a genial, toothless old Hmong woman, for example, I found an elaborately embroidered baby’s cap from which a circle of 12 silver alloy coins dangled, while the scarlet tassled top was held in place by a larger, heavier coin with a hole bored through its middle. The larger coin was inscribed: ‘1938’, ‘Indochine française’ and ‘5 centimes’. The smaller ones, dated 1980, have passed out of circulation because they are still etched with the hammer-and-sickle, and because inflation has anyway made them valueless. High colonialism and high Communism, once mortal enemies, now cheek by jowl on the endless junkheap of progress, can still light up a baby’s face.

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

High colonialism looms large on several of the former colonies. I see it unfolding every time a tourist treats the country as his ancestral property and brazenly goes about town with a sense of entitlement as though the people are obliged to serve him. It only feels sad that there is little being done to  by the way of the tourist’s own sensitivity as well as from the international multi-lateral organizations which can assist Laos in developing a sharp and sensitive tourism policy similar to the one which helps European countries to keep the visitor subjected to their conditions and not the other way around.

Twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, Luang Prabang does manage to retain the charm that he spoke of. It also appears to have come further down along the road which threatens its unique culture and lifestyle that Anderson pointed to. The value of such travel pieces I realize is immense in creating reference points in the history to at least be cognizant of what we will lose or have lost along the decades.

Meanwhile, I hope Benedict Anderson rests in peace.