A travel note from East Africa

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Rwanda – Uganda Border, July 2018

9/7/2018

Kampala

Arrived in Kampala after a twelve-hour bus ride from Kigali. Through the bus window, one gets a slow and close introduction to the landscapes, life and people outside of the capital cities.

Kampala’s playlist goes on until early hours, uninterrupted and loud. Sleep if one must, enveloped by sound. Travelers join in, linger, drop out, sleep, get back… Hordes continue this way, as though some sort of natural order among backpackers. The residents speak of the city’s nightlife. One notices it – the music, people milling about, cars, walkers and the general loud cheer, often of young, youthful voices. They behave as if time is running out on them. And perhaps it is. On all of us. Some feel it, some dread it and some take these backpacker routes. These are the modern pilgrims. On travel routes. Discussing fact-of-the-day. “Do you know the word  for a herd of zebras? It is called a dazzle.”. “You know what daisies are?”.  “Anyway… lets connect on insta and facebook”. New connections made, travel continues.

On the breakfast table, the talk is about how everyone is ‘discovering’ Africa. I realize I am too, by having my textbook idea of the continent busted. The discovery of Africa is by all means and for all matters a discovery of one’s own miserably narrow worldview and understanding. Beyond the fascination of wildlife on this gorgeous piece of planet, everything else is traveler’s own ignorance about people, cultures, living and thriving in societies outside of their own.

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Possibilities in forgiveness and healing: Rwanda

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Kigali, July 2018

Kigali smiles generously. There is intrigue, amusement or a smile on most faces that a visitor crosses on the streets here.  and kind to each other in numerous small ways. Elsewhere, we spent time discussing conflict, peace and post-conflict societies. This elsewhere was a classroom several years back, in Bangalore. We were high on ideas of justice. Violence wasn’t quite unknown, but neither known in the severity that Rwanda experienced. To most visitors for the brief time they spend in Kigali and one imagines even to Rwandans the traumatic experience of violence and genocide sits in the daily consciousness. Although, in different ways.

Visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali has been an intense experience. The time here completes an arc of the quest to understand what forgiveness means. And if indeed one can truly forgive. I have been gripped by it since the time I read about the details of violent acts and the community justice approach through Gacaca system that Rwanda practiced in its efforts towards justice and achieve a kind of closure on the trauma that the country lived. The need to know forgiveness emerged in a personal experience. After time here, it appears as though individual and collective are deeply enmeshed. I observe an extreme level of forgiveness that the Rwandan people have demonstrated, lived and continue to practice. It is extraordinary in its quality because this exhibits a possibility of human capacity that is hard to even touch within oneself, leave alone the ability to tap it as a vital source.

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Genocide Memorial, Kigali, July 2018

The hours spent at Genocide Memorial can be intense and unsettling. The memorial and the museum are a great asset to the world. Walking through one gets as gentle introduction to a political, social, personal and a human horror story as can be possible. It isn’t easy. And the museum curators have done a great job of it. As I walked through the space, I noted a few quotes which hit a personal note. Felicien Ntagengwa survived the genocide. Her words, “if you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me” appear at the beginning of the gallery spaces. It is stirring to dwell upon the import of it. Will man ever get to know oneself well enough to act reasonably at all times? How do these ruptures in human behaviour happen? There is another gripping instance, in Father Seromba, who, to quote the exhibition, “murdered his own congregants in his own church”. He led the Nyange parish.

The exhibition depicts development of differences among social groups in Rwanda since colonial years, post-colonial intensification of the differences, the horrid inclusion of social group on citizens’ identification cards and the post-colonial political trajectory that precipitated into the genocide.

Looking at the pictures of today’s Kigali, a friend writes back saying, ‘sounds like heaven’. This heaven, or ‘Singapore of Africa’ that Rwanda’s government aspires the country to be, has been a walk through untold pain and nurturing hope even when every reason to hope has been brutally taken away. A sliver of this hope is seen when students who are taught about Rwanda’s past, share their opinion. One of them, which to my school-teacher eye seems revealing is from a participant of Peace Dialogue Club. Callixte from Ecole Secondaire Magi, Gisagara district says “I used to hear that Tutsi were the cause of the genocide. but after learning and discussing, I decided that what I heard was not true . Now I look for my own truth.”  For a student to suggest that she looks for her own truth, is a sure sign of efforts beginning right.

Along the walls, I pick up another quote. This time from the Rwandan writer, Yolande Mukagasana. With Greek-Belgian photographer Alain Kazinierakis she produced the travelling exhibition Les Blessures du silence, witness accounts of the genocide. She writes, “There will be no humanity without forgiveness. There will be no forgiveness without justice. But justice will be impossible without humanity.”

What is remarkable about this memorial is that this is arguably the only place in the world that gathers together, in a small way, all the genocides of the world until recent years. From Herero people of Namib desert, to Holocaust, Bosnia, Cambodia and their own country’s. This is tremendously effective in understanding humanity, peace, conflict and violence. For it to ‘hit’ home, this exhibition proves useful.

On law and indigenous people, I take home this extraordinary and simple message that Nama chief Hendrik Witbooi sends to Major Leutwein to inform him that the local people would no longer tolerate the behaviour of invading German forces and settlers:

“he (the colonist) introduced laws… which are entirely impossible, untenable, unbelievable , unbearable, unmerciful and unfeeling. he punishes our people… and has already beaten people to death for debt. he thinks we are stupid and unintelligent people, but we have never yet punished people in the cruel and improper way that he does”

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The afterword. Genocide Memorial, Kigali, 2018

As a prelude to the exhibition, visitors are advised to watch a 10 minute clip with genocide survivors speaking of their experience. After one walks through the gallery spaces, they are led to another room to watch a video, which the visitor learns is a sequel or an afterword, on the exhibition. “We are here and we are at peace” says one of the survivors in the afterword video. It ends with these two short sentences from another survivor. These were stirring and show the possibility of hope, in real, perceivable form – “You felt the cost at all times.” It closes with “I am still here standing strong.”

For other times in the city, I play Kigali’s favourite, Kiss FM and in the cheerful songs, I think of human beings making that necessary effort to forgive, hope and move on, when necessary.

Hate Cleaning? I love it! – Scraping through in Oslo

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Oslo, June 2018

The city is cold. This is not a statement on weather here. Even on weather’s count, cold season of cities in lower latitudes is Oslo’s summer. It manages to keep an attractive and highly refined façade of affluence and lifestyle that unfurls into layers of nuances only on repeat visits. Parts of the city that face the world arriving at its fjord doorstep, and parts of the city that visitors’ see are those that lead to a compelling desire in them to imagine a comfortable and secure life far from the brokenness of the known cities of the world. Irrespective of a visitor’s own city of residence – New York, Mumbai, Cape Town, Shanghai or any other; Oslo’s sense of orderliness and ideal setting that grips most people. The trams work like a bug free program. The shiny red buses arrive on time. The train system, NSB and its state of the art airport train, Flytoget; can be planned up to the last minute and connect seamlessly to flight departures. This near overlap of intent, plan and actual events cast a spell on the visitor. Then the warmth of harbour side cafes and restaurants, town hall’s ringing bell and Oslo residents walking brisk in their sharp clothing are a sight which is hard to find fault with. All this set under a clean, crisp air on most days and as clean outdoors as the world can offer today, in highly urbanised settings. In one evening of arrival, all of these stir up a longing to live in such a city. On and on, I have seen visitors go weak on their love for hometowns, having experienced half a day’s clockwork in this half a metropolitan high up in north of the world.

Most leave within days and without staying long enough to see their impressions get dented, on the ferries and planes they arrived on, bound by their itinerary’s timeliness. The prices of the city on the first night, second and the third are a matter of choosing cheaper over expensive, or vice-versa. It is only when the stays expand to a week or longer, do explanations roll in, for scenes lodged in the visitor’s tourist eye. Food prices follows close. More than a couple of meals in restaurants can make even the most loaded traveller beat a hasty retreat. But, enough of the prices. The whole city deals with it. Some fix meals out of the cheapest food from its convenience stores. Some struggle. One doesn’t know how many perish in this attempt.

There is struggle in Oslo just as other cities of the world. The only difference is that it is cloaked. When this struggle – of poor residents, immigrants and homeless people – reveals itself through the very few cracks that the city allows for, the details of it can be a crushing read. The contrast is also striking. The residents of Oslo love to keep to themselves. Sharing is an idea that perhaps means sharing public spaces and transport. Beyond that, one stays quiet and avert eyes from all visual discomfort that the resident might get waylaid with.

A suitable place to watch people and their situations unfold is Oslo Sentral. This the point of arrival in Oslo for all, except those arriving by the ferry. This is also the place where the racial, social and economic diversity of this city-town decants. I watch the pleas unfold here, on some evenings. This is where a visitor is likely to find homeless people begging for alms and hustlers trying to get by their days in this expensive city. The space around Oslo S is perhaps the most fascinating spot. Along the walls of tram stops and bus stops one gets a glimpse of a struggling bunch of people. Those resigned hold up placards asking for money in the name of their god, which is interesting when one knows that church attendance in this country has hit rock bottom. The young print out their intents and pleas for work – “Hate Cleaning? I love it!”, announces one. The self-advertising ad ends with a pitch, that the person can make “your home more beautiful. :).” In my time here, these are the little instances which speak of a hard life for those who have come in search of work and life. It seems as though the city ignores them and with this indifference, frustrate them into checking out. Only the Roma faces seem familiar year on year, and the juggler – a talkative and sassy young man of African descent, who puts up shows on juggling six basketballs, on Karl Johan’s street. Watching his show on the street is a practice in confidence building. He talks, calls out and heckles those standing by, as though he has resolved to go back home that evening making that exact amount of money that he set out thinking of. I stay away from him, lest he calls out in my direction and asks me for a 10 kroner tip.  This would make a substantial sum to be given away in Indian Rupees for a street performance, which Indians have taken for granted and deem as close to natural phenomenon in everyday life.

Meanwhile, the cyclists of a food delivery company make rounds around town. Young men and women, in good shape riding cycle through the streets of Oslo with a big box of a bag strapped on their shoulders. I am keen on knowing them. Who are they and did anyone of them get here after pasting self-advertising printouts of their cleaning skills on the tram stop walls for years? What intrigues is that Oslo residents do not talk about any of these kinds of work and workers. When the academicians at Norwegian universities do think of workers and their conditions, they make way to the southern hemisphere mostly, and speak of informal labour. In the meantime, informal work trickles into Norway’s daily life, wetting their boots, as they keep themselves busy studying the world.

 

 

They know it better

There is a subcontinental society that we form – of material status, skills, nationality and race, in countries where South Asians gather. Among those living in economically prosperous parts of the world, whether temporary or for long term, this pattern can be recognized. It doesn’t matter how skilled an immigrant from this region is. It takes him a long time to be confident about it and behave confident.  A Pakistani engineer working for a European telecom takes a longer time to get comfortable in his skin. It takes a much higher level of education for the South Asian to feel even partially confident to sit by a technician making a point, who might at best would have attended a vocational school and perhaps has not seen the inside of a university. I notice the striking difference in years of education and training that immigrants have compared to the residents, in Europe and the US.  What the resident has is perhaps not the right university degree but certainly the right nationality and a right passport to go with it. And, he can teach English!

On brief work visits to Europe, this contrast is striking. Possibly, the resident European (plug any Western or Scandinavian nationality) has a different view on it, as he goes about serving coffee at a local cafes or work the checkout counters in departmental store or be a cyclist for a food delivery company. But this is about a visitor’s experience and what meets his eye. We are all only degrees apart in latitude – the countries, but in confidence we are a world apart, especially on the world stage. A Bangladeshi, a Pakistani, a Nepali and an Indian (and perhaps Sri Lankan) might take several years and repeated assurances of his excellence before believing in it. It doesn’t come easy to them that they can be good at their work or in what they know. This could be partly conditioned by the Asian families that they come from and the legendary ethic of proving oneself. In the process the Asian strives too hard.

Why does this matter – this lack of confidence? This leads to stifled state of innovation, risk taking and leadership roles in multinational teams as well as in their home countries when some of them return. Asians, and Indians in particular, become proficient at working on assigned tasks than leading teams. This may not be true of Indians in Silicon Valley, but I have only secondary information and no first hand experience. It appears as though this lack of confidence makes Indians come into themselves quite late in their careers, when they could have been in driving roles much earlier. The lost years, is my concern. Moreover, this under-confident behaviour in multinational settings, seeps into successive generation of professionals who take after them. The next in line, go about experiencing the world already defined and conditioned by their less confident elders.

I am not sure what the remedy for under-confidence is. However, it is one of the reasons that there is a perceived disparity between perception of ‘expertise’ and the reality of it. Expertise seems to be almost always available in the West and is their forte. It must be imported as tech, consultants or other forms of knowledge products. How do we change this? There seems to be a relationship between an individual’s nationality and in the confidence he carries while working in multinational settings. This shapes the individual and his country’s perception, although in a subtle manner. May be, by being conscious of it can help a bit in avoiding this behaviour.

Update: 

Devesh Kapur has moved from CASI at UPenn to Johns Hopkins University. In a recent piece (H/T Amol Agarwal) he writes the following, which also serves a case in point –

While there are notable exceptions, in many large data projects, India-based personnel are the intellectual equivalent of coolie labor—they do the grunt work, leaving the thinking to Boston Brahmins, so to speak. An intellectual hierarchy has been created between the haves and have nots wherein the funding channels reinforce the model of fly-in-fly-out academia that professes that it is doing all this work to help India.

India has largely itself to blame for this state of affairs, having done so much to undermine its universities and intellectual culture over the past few decades. Indeed one personally knows of cases of government departments denying data access to Indian graduate students even while they give the same data to foreign researchers—a bizarre interpretation of a level playing field.

Further, a slightly different issue but no less pertinent –

When asked how many of these expensive RCTs had moved the policy needle in India, Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Advisor, GOI, was hard pressed to find a single one that had been helpful to him in addressing the dozens of pressing policy questions that came across his table. By contrast, the compiling of just some key facts on learning outcomes by Indian NGO, Pratham, has had a big impact on policy discussions in education, because it is backed by a degree of specific knowledge and engagement that is more credible and persuasive. One could question whether “relevance” or “timeliness” are a valid standard for good research—yes they are, when those are precisely the reasons given to funders for these projects. 

 

To become young fools again

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‘We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies…’ Pico Iyer writes in a reflective and philosophical piece on why we travel. His keen eye on how the experience changes the traveler and the place he travels to, is revealing in a way. In these years that I have re-read the piece, it appears as though I have been graduating from one reason to the other. ‘We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.’ Check and check! At different times in life, both these observations were true of my travels too.

Lately, when I venture out, travel seems driven by a compulsive need to be in a state of movement. The movement, as though, will counter the slowness of inner life. The transitory state, where every place on the itinerary serves as a transit camp, seems appealing. The temporariness of program and of intent brings along a lightness that stands in contrast to the planned and predictable everdayness of home. Plans and precise knowledge of what one will do a month later, and the meetings one will attend three months in the future, for some, stand against the vital nature of life.  Unnerving too. To travel, then, is to resist this. Resist, in a way that doesn’t destroy anything. At best it destroys one’s financial prospects. This resistance is constructive. It is a conduit to that high-pressure frustration (or just fatigue) that some of us are building up in our professional and personal lives. We travel to heal. In this healing, one learns to love all over again. Unlike other experiences, the place that we leave behind, doesn’t always conditions the character of the destination ahead. We learn to cast away, molt fast enough to arrive at the next destination and take it as new, formative experience.

Healing, by tuning-out of the regular, taking time to get back (if one must) and renew oneself, is how I’d describe the deliverance of travel. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all. It is also dubbed as ‘escaping’. I have avoided that word because one doesn’t escape by undertaking an uncertain travel. If anything, this strikes more fear than the familiar spaces of one’s own home, locality and city. If one must see this as an escape, then it sure must be an escape as Santayana describes, observing that ‘the world is too much with us, and we are too much with ourselves’ –

We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.

In these words, I see an unhinging that Santayana speaks of from the daily (‘into aimlessness’). It is unsettling, as I have experienced, yet empowering. I write this note on travel again (wrote earlier on meaning-making) to record this shift in perspective on travel. In these months, I have come to see its healing potential. Perhaps, the explorers, adventurers, expeditionists, Sufi saints and sadhus who have tramped the vast expanse of this country for aeons have known it all along. On me, it dawns this morning as I sit looking out of the window, awaiting the train to roll past the beautiful Chilika lake on the Eastern coast.

Is travel writing dead?

Granta Magazine pursued this question with a clutch of writers in Issue 138 on JourneysIn the bookstore last week, I took to a corner and began pouring down the responses. It wasn’t driven by curiosity. Instead, it was to figure out if there is a general perception among the authors (many of whom are noted travel writers) that travel writing is saturated with banality and overdone representations of places which no longer remain far flung in these times.

Travel writing has meant making sense of events for me (as I wrote here earlier). It is to draw and distill an understanding out of the experiences that I have when I leave home. This understanding tends to be about the place as well as the self in the place, as I felt in a post on Paris.  At other points I tried dealing with coloniality and places in post-colonial times, as in Luang Prabang and Tranquebar. It is for these reasons that Granta’s question stood out for me.

Travel pieces have become dry and try hard to sound interesting, often exotic, in my experience. Whereas, unknown and exotic is no longer the position one can afford to write from in these times of cheap air travel and with a flood of medium through which pictures, videos and news from around the world reach us, all the time.

Two views on travel writing are widely held – that its emergence lies in colonial times with the proverbial white man going out into the vast unknown to bring the exotic and ‘other’ back to the readers in the West. The other, that much of the world today has been discovered, seen and hyper-connected for such writing to now find a place among readers interest. What then is the state of travel writing and its future? Pico Iyer maintains his extraordinary equilibrium of views and gets to the future of writing than waste time on critical analysis of the present. The ‘inward’ journey ‘into the realm of silence’ is where a writer should be venturing, he suggests. He makes a case for nuance and personal enquiry. Ending on a philosophical plane which he invariably climbs up from the real, in the course of his writing, he settles the question with this delightful sentence –

‘But that doesn’t mean that travel writing is dead; only that we sometimes are.’

One can see that the old, seasoned hands of travel writing are tempered in their views. Macfarlane reflects that travel writing ceased being a matter of originality. It is about form instead.

The best writers rose to the challenge by seeking not originality of destination, but originality of form.

On the other hand, there are two angry and critical responses to this question from Hoa Nguyen and Rana Dasgupta. And I am with them! They make a compelling case for a shift in the concerns of travel writing as a genre. Nguyen’s piece reminds me of my impressions of modern day Luang Prabang, which align with her sentiment about travelers from the West visiting places in the East –

Do we need more Westerners consuming their way across Vietnam, commenting on local dress, smiles, food and sharing tips on where to get the best deal on bespoke silk skirts?

There is a sense of frustration and anger in Nguyen’s response, and it is compelling. I am again with her when she lands a few punches to that irrelevant and disrespectful narrative of Western gaze, in these questions –

Instead of more consumerism – the buying of experiences, the accumulation og things, of eating the ‘other’ – perhaps writers should name their own environment. What is the shape of your watershed? How is your electricity produced? Where is your water treated?… Homing as a way to place oneself in a constellation of process and being.

It is a compelling argument, which gets to the heart of politics in travel writing which many choose to pretend ignorance too.

Travel writing of the known variety is certainly dead, in my opinion. A writer can no longer be ignorant of his own immediate environment and get to places thousands of miles away to report critically on life, people and societies as they exist in distant places. It only makes for vacuous writing.

Ian Jack’s writing as a foreign correspondent in India has held good example for me to learn from. I have often gone back to his anthology Mofussil Junction for his style and empathetic tone. In response to Granta’s question, I think his thought is laden with wit and insight –

It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironised, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way.

And I completely agree!

It has been an insightful read – these responses to a question as commonplace as state of a genre of writing.

Outside familiar & routine: A cycle ride

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This is about a week spent cycling to Leh from Manali, alone. This distance of 480 kilometers has sent me home with a few lessons. Some obvious – about physical capability, perseverance and comfort with uncertain weather, and some less obvious that I hope to probe with this act of writing. Besides, every journey works on the traveler at many levels. Two for me are at the inner (about the self) and for the want of a better word, outer (the worldview). The cycle ride was a chisel, working slowly on both these parts of me as the journey progressed. The process has been pleasure and pain in parts, just as the terrain itself.

The closest one comes to ‘living in the moment’ is perhaps when the immediate environment poses itself as a challenge to one’s physical ability to negotiate it. The more diminished the physical state is, more sharply focused is the person in trying to get past that moment, without thinking  about anything else. The days spent cycling have been my experience trying to live in the moment – completely occupied with the present and nothing else. In urban life, I see no other way, wherein, I can pull the plug on all the thoughts (and concerns?) about people, events, plans and pursuits that occupy daily life. And do this, without sitting in a dark room or a leafy retreat, eyes shut in meditation. Cycling in the Himalayas was an experience in being in the moment. It was about days lived discrete. No carry over and no drawing from either. Each day squared off as it ended on the highway from Manali to Leh. The ride was about a couple of days lived in solitude, trying to get closer to the sense of being alone that has often been an uncomfortable though in our regular lives. It was a conscious thought to ride alone, self-supported for the requirements of the seven day journey that I was about to make over high mountains and into the Leh.

Dinesen meant to say this about writing – (write a little everyday) ‘without hope and without despair’ and I took that to cycling. On this ride I wanted to ride a little everyday, without hope and without despair.  Although, it turned out to be quite different in the following days of the ride. The weather left a lot to despair. My own thoughts about life and its ongoing affairs, day after day, on those mountain passes, blew like cold headwinds of the passes. Thoughts troubled me. The act of thinking as well. The attempt was to get past the day’s climbs and the distance, to the next shelter on this highway.

First three days were constant rain and wind. As one got higher up from Manali towards Rohtang Pass, the rain increased. First night I slept with a resolve to roll back down to Manali and abandon the ride if it continues to rain. Following morning, I hung out with boys who worked in the clutch of dhabas at Marhi, from Bihar and Jharkhand, waiting for rain to stop and sun to show up. Neither happened. Instead, their repeated questions about whether I head up or down, made me try the first few kilometers towards the pass. Thirty minutes into the ride, the rain picked-up further, and so did the spirit to face it. With that began the uncertain second day of the ride, riding in rain up to Rohtang and beyond it, riding for six hours. Where did that will to continue on that morning come from? I do not know!

Second day ended in Sissu, a small village in Lahaul valley. I am given a room in a homestay as I stood knocking on a door, soaked in rain with a cycle. I change into the only other spare set of clothes and stand by the window looking at the mountain range I pedaled out from all day and to the sound of a high waterfall. Both intimidated me. Slept that night again with a decision to head back, if the rain doesn’t stop. By late night, that decision seemed to be weakening as I sat writing in my notebook in comfort of the house, warm with people of the house and kids completing their homework by the hearth. It continued to rain the next morning, affirming what I heard at Sissu’s tea shop and grocery store, with people discussing the unusual weather this year.  I have believed that no two days are same on the road. Sure enough I thought, as I got out in the rain again and road descended to valley’s floor and followed along the river until Tandi, a village by the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga river. Chandra and Bhaga – lovers, who as the story goes, take a walk around the holy mountains of Lahaul valley, fall in love and embrace where the river meets. The river further down the course gets a new name, Chenab.

Over a small bridge, I continued in the warm morning’s sunlight towards Keylong. An easy ride along the gently rising and sloping valley floor. Third day of the ride and the plan to abandon it was still lurking in the head. Keylong could offer an easier exit with the cycle, on the following day’s bus to Manali, I thought. By late afternoon, I rode into Keylong, having eaten two small snickers bars and nothing else. It wasn’t the ride’s physical demand. I felt it then as I see it now. It was the state of mind. The confusion, the pointlessness of it and the dissatisfaction of the familiar and routine life back in Bangalore. Before I can even think of changing something, I wanted to know whats going on. Keylong passed by in these thoughts. Jispa was up ahead on the road and it didn’t look like much effort to break the journey there. A lone man in one of the restaurants plainly explains that he can’t serve food as it isn’t convenient for him to cook for one person. He suggested that I ride down four kilometers further to Darcha.

The slow chisel of journey worked – I was pushed to Darcha, when instead I wanted to end the day much before that. Darcha was six kilometers ahead. A busy stretch of restaurant-dhabas, and a preferred stop on the highway for lunch by every passing vehicle on this highway, except the bikers who are cared for and served by Jispa’s luxury tents by the riverside. After patiently watching me finish lunch, the dhaba owner insists that I take the climb above and ride twenty kilometers more to Patseo or beyond, which might be closer to the next mountain pass of Baralach La. I didn’t want to. He was happy offering a bed in the dhaba for the night, but insisted that I do, after describing the road and conditions until next stop. Darcha’s settlement sat by the river which flowed through the valley floor. The way to north of Darcha is by negotiating the shadowing mountain with a climb of over 600 meters. What I lacked by the way of team, people along the way filled it. They insisted and I got out. Who are these peple? And why do they do this? Every time! Soon enough it began raining as I got on the ascent to Patseo. However, I needed to keep the kind man’s expectations and live up to his words ‘you are riding strong’. These were the first four days of the ride, which took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure of riding in such a weather. All the nights I nursed the intent to abandon. All of the following mornings, I got back on the saddle, pedaling further away from point of start.

Reading about wayfarers and their beliefs, Tibetans say that obstacles in a hard journey, such as hailstones, wind, and unrelenting rains, are the work of demons, anxious to test the sincerity of the pilgrims and eliminate the faint hearted among them. Matthissen wrote about it in The Snow Leopard. In retrospect, days of rain, wind and cold didn’t seem much of a test. Being with oneself was. The silence of long distance, isolation of landscapes and being in one’s own mind were greater tests. Slowest thing in the landscape was the bicycle, making one take only small bits of the distance each day. The patience that it brings along feels transformational after getting to the other side of this journey.

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At Pang, the morning felt as though I was home. The landscape was changing fast. Changthang plateau lay ahead. A five kilometer climb and one would get a straight, ramp of a road on this high altitude space – Moreh Plains. On this morning, there was no one to be seen for several kilometers, except the oil tankers and the herders – yaks and goats. The landscape was dotted with hundreds of yaks and goats making their way in the spaces between the mountains, foraging in the silence of this space. Grim mood of the past days dissolved, much like the snow cover on mountain tops that turned water after the sun came up in Sarchu, on an earlier morning.

A slow ride, at the pace of a bicycle makes for a strikingly different experience on this highway. For one, the rider comes close enough to hundreds of those faces that toil away in this cold, inhospitable region, constructing roads. Under the hoods of the jackets are faces of teenage boys and men in early twenties, with skin cracked in cold wind. Some of them appeared strikingly young to undertake this hard labour. In the many accounts of rides and travel on this road, I do not recall reading about these workers, almost clawing away the hill sides, as far as the requirement of the road takes them. From working on very high passes to dark and cold gorges, these workers from Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and other poverty stricken states, contribute an unimaginable amount of hard labour. On broken stretches of the road, we look at each other, as though a video tape set on slow-motion, as they take a moment to look up. The hammers continue to pound the hill sides, day after day, as long as the weather allows them to and India’s strategic interests requires them to.

The highest pass on the route – Tanglang La, lay ahead the sixth day. I can now affirm that in a good spirit and mental state no pass is high enough to scale. The defeatist spirit of first few days no longer prevailed. I was beyond the point of no return. Although, the delirium experienced in cycling up to this pass felt like I was a full two steps beyond my physical ability. Not sure of my control on the cycle, I rode closer to the right side to avoid rolling off the road into the valley unconsciously. Three hours of inching closer to the pass, the pass appeared plainly in sight and soon enough under the feet. I stood there in the cold wind, snow flakes falling on the jacket, trying to soak it in – the arrival at this place. However, it felt plain. Only a small realization about time and effort. Make the effort, however small and given enough time, one is over the highest of the passes.

From there on to Leh was a massive incline that I was thrilled to experience. One barrels down the road as though a darting falcon. I remembered with a wide grin, what a tour guide at Sissu said on the rainy evening when I stood dejected looking at the map. He mentioned that Tanglang La is as far as I need to make an effort and that after that it is no longer a man. It is a bullet shot from the pass to Leh. Almost 50 kilometers of blissful downhill ride awaits a cyclist from Tanglang La pass. It reminded me of the thrill coming down from Nandi Hill long years back, in Bangalore.

As I try to figure how to close this piece, I flip through my notebook for entries from every day of the ride. I notice that the pages only speak about terrain, weather, landscapes, people, hosts at several places and the sense of loneliness, solitude, intimidation experienced as well as the occasions when I sat eyes brimming over, trying to figure the road ahead through those teary eyes. None of these have been familiar and routine for me.

Arriving in Leh, the following day I shopped for books. I was hungry for words. Matthissen’s The Snow Leopard is perhaps what life wanted to throw at me. It is an account of his journey into Nepal’s Dolpo region with biologist George Shaller. What are the odds that he speaks of his inner journey to me, as soon as I finish mine. In a story written by a traveler in medieval era that he mentions, the concluding line is the following and which fits my little journey too –

‘One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.’

 

 

Reading Pirsig on road trips

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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

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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.