Bits and pieces

July 12, 2014 1 comment

Odds and ends

Only 6 days remain till I depart India to return to USA and home.  Now I am in a limbo, where I have to tear down the infrastructure that has sustained me these 23 months.  Just last night I moved from apartment to hotel, having sold off all our mattresses.  As the bellman was walking me to my room he asked a typical question, “Did you have a very long journey, sir?”  I was taken aback.  In a way it took me 2 years to get to that point in time.  In the end I just said, the journey was not bad.

99% of our stuff is now in boxes or bags awaiting the movers on Monday.  In the un-packed 1% are the items above, small keepsakes from our travels about, that we have lined up on our dining room shelf.  Leading the way is the wooden horse, one of Kim’s finds.  Then there’s our soapstone elephant within an elephant, a candlestick given us by Rupesh’ family, minerals from our trip to Karla Caves, brass and wood fabric stamps (another Kim acquisition), and statues of Lords Hanuman and Vishnu, and of Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.  Soon they too will be in limbo, packed and mostly waiting in warehouses, till 3 or 4 weeks from now they arrive in Arlington, MA., pieces of India far from home …

… back now, a pleasant duty done.  In the kitchen we have many things to give away – excess staples like rice and dal, plastic containers, odds and ends of glassware.  Seeing some of the sweeper ladies who clean our building, I brought them up and they happily took it all.  And, they gave me some of their chai, that they brew in a little utility room using a tiny electric boiler.  It was good, hot, sweet, and with a bit of masala.  Who knows what they will think of the Salazars after we are gone?

Now, time to tear down more infrastructure … till next time.

Categories: Expat life

The Long Tail of the Personal Brand

June 28, 2014 2 comments

Fernando's logoLately it seems we are surrounded – sometimes aggressively so – by advice that we must build our “personal brand”.  Like pretty much anyone in my business I have accounts (mostly unpaid) on sites like The Ladders and of course LinkedIn.  The regular emails I get from these sites constantly exhort me to promote the new-and-improved Salazar through my own brand.  The Ladders tells me:

 

Besides a marriage proposal, your value in the job market is probably the most important product you’ll ever sell.  … Your brand is what you’re known for and what you’re known for knowing. Use that to your advantage in making a career transition.

Great work-life-balance point they make there about marriage, which apparently in the eyes of The Ladders is also about selling.  Meanwhile the folks at LinkedIn offer this #1 tip on building a personal brand:

#1: Be authentic. The best personal brands are genuine and honest both in person and online. It can be tricky to showcase your personality on the web (you might love puns, but those don’t go over well on a professional profile), but it’s possible with a bit of effort.

Or, as Oliver Stone wrote in Nixon, “Nothing sells like sincerity.”

What occasions these observations is an article in the Times, The Self-Promotion Backlash.  The article is itself an observation on a new book, “Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion,” by David Zweig.  Just got this for my Kindle, and after only a few pages of the intro its thesis is crystal clear: Vastly more economic output is generated by “invisible” non-self-promoters than by all the glad-handing, like-me-on-Facebooking, personal-branding addicts that seem to be surging ahead everywhere we look.  One of the first examples Zweig talks about are fact-checkers, in his case at the CIA: pretty obviously essential, and pretty obviously invisible.

In the high-tech industry, because we make the tools that allow all this personal branding in the first place, we’re expected to use them and to do so loudly and often.  How bizarre that software engineers, one of the most introverted, invisible occupations you’re likely to find, get marked down because they are insufficiently “visible”.  This is sales culture run amuck.  Look, sales and sales-people – love ‘em, need ‘em, all that – but the cultural needs of engineering are vastly different from sales.  Back in the day, the men and women I most respected hardly ever spoke.  They were valued for their knowledge and their ability to show and tell novices, as I was, what to do to turn out good code.

I’m afraid nostalgia is an inevitable product of age, and for that I apologize.  But, if we did a 1 week ban on self-promotion, what would happen?  Quality go up? Output go up?  An impractical experiment of course … still, can’t help but wonder.

I’ll leave you all with this, the most influential drum-line is all the history of rock and roll, Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks.  It wasn’t created by drummer John Bonham, or Zeppelin lead guitarist and producer Jimmy Page, but by a recording engineer – and an invisible – named Andy Johns.  Enjoy.

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.

June 22, 2014 1 comment

Bullock cart

When Kent speaks this line at the end of King Lear, he has a truly final journey in mind, but the journey ahead of me now is just as all-encompassing as his.  For 22 months I’ve been half a world away from my home.  Now in less than 4 weeks I return there, and I‘m filled with a sense of unreality.  You know, I can’t say for certain if my USA home even exists.  Logically of course I know it does – daughter Alex lives there and Kim was there only a month ago.  Yet, the feeling remains.  Given enough physical and cultural distance, we become disconnected, floating.  Having seen up close how big the world is, how strange to suppose I shall float back exactly to where I started.

Writing this post and thinking about journeys, the picture above occurred to me.  This bullock cart is a common kind here; it is used for carrying long things, like bamboo poles, which would jut out 2 or 3 meters off the back end.  What struck me was the driver’s concentration: keeping his balance, watching the bullocks, heading back to a precise and (for him) important destination.  A humble journey to be sure, but how many of us can say we go from one place to the next with such certainty?

One thing I should tell anyone considering a long expat experience is this: Make sure you are comfortable being alone with yourself.  In my time here I’ve made new friendships, and deepened existing ones, but the fact is here, me and my family are different.  Wherever we go we are noted, many times stared at.  This isolates you; you will never be a regular guy, one of the crowd.  In the precincts of high-tech companies here in India, the effect is less – my colleagues at IBM work with Westerners constantly – but still there is a barrier.  Even in the lifts at work (see, I now say ‘lift’ and not elevator) it’s there.  Who is this guy? I can almost hear people thinking.  Does he know where he’s going?  Maybe he’s lost …

This quote I found captures the feeling quite nicely:

The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.

— Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon)

 

The family and I, just 2 weeks ago, did have a great experience of not feeling isolated when our driver Rupesh invited us to his family’s village home.  About 100 kms south of Pune, we left on a bright Sunday morning and reached in a little over 2 hours.  Here’s Morgan and Kim (wearing kameez, no less) with Rupesh, Rupesh’ Dad, and Rupesh little boy in front.

Morgan, Kim and our hosts

This was just beside a backyard garden where I had just invoked much astonishment among the children by eating some chilies right off the plant.

Soon after we had one of the greatest meals I have yet had in India.  I’ve written before on Indian hospitality.  Here, if you come into someone’s home you will be given the best of everything and the food, I guarantee, will be there in such quantity even the heartiest eater will be challenged.  We had mutton curry, potato curry, dry-braised ribs and bones of mutton, two kinds of rotis, salad, rice and chutneys … but the star of the lunch was freshwater crab curry.  The gravy was amazing.  Rupesh told us his Mum would take the claw meat from the crabs – which were not big, the bodies were about 4 inches across – and lightly pound it till it was a flaky paste.  The claw meat then goes into the gravy and thickens it and flavors it.  The gravy was more of a soup – the richest, most intense crab flavor I have ever had.  Now, I have had Lobster Bisque at some good restaurants, “five star” as they say here in India.  This crab gravy put any such soup I have ever had to cringing shame.

After the meal we relaxed a bit, and then I prevailed upon Rupesh to walk us around the village:

Village school

ChiliesAn old cart

Here’s the village school, with hills in the distance; some chilies drying in the sun; and, an old bullock cart, the ancient uncle of the one we saw on the road.  The village is a modest place and the pace there now is slow; farmers await the coming of the monsoon before starting the next planting.  It is a time for maintaining tools, cleaning the sheds and, mostly, sitting in the shade and talking.

A wonderful afternoon.  Children played outside with their friends, and many relatives were visiting.  They were there to see the famous Salazars (other than aid workers the first Westerners to ever come to this place) but we were not on display, everything was welcoming and easy-going.  The ladies worked furiously in the kitchen and invited Kim in for some impromptu roti-making lessons.  One young cousin of Rupesh asked us many questions about USA.  He told us science and history were his favorite subjects, and that he hoped to go to an American university.  May it be so.

Then, it was time to leave and as guests we cannot go without gifts.  For me was a nice shawl, such as Indian men might wear to keep out the chill of winter evenings.  But Kim got a unique gift:

Board and rolling pin

This rolling pin and board – a belan and chakla – were made by hand, by Rupesh’ Dad.  The wood is smooth and heavy; a hundred years from now I expect our descendants will still be using them.

I know that, in time, the village will become as unreal to me as my own home now seems to be.  But for the moment the image of it is very clear: A good place, where there are many challenges and obstacles, but also achievements and celebrations.  We should all have so much in our own homes.

And so the start of the next journey draws near.  In the weeks I have remaining I hope to make some posts on the good, and the bad,  I have seen here.  Take care till then.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures

Book Reviews: Kipling Sahib

June 7, 2014 Comments off

kipling-sahib

Sorry for no blogging in a while, have had a lot of customer trips/meetings at work, and the activities for the return back westward for me and family have begun.  Less than 2 months till we are all back home, where doubtless we’ll dream of India the way we dream of Massachusetts now.  Anyway, on to this longish posting.

I daresay there is no Westerner more famously associated with India than Rudyard Kipling.  As children we saw the Jungle Book cartoon and probably read Rikki-tikki-Tavi.  As we became older we saw the Man Who Would Be King, and possibly saw and read his great novel, Kim.  Finally, there is his poetry, inescapable from anyone who took an English Lit class 40 years ago, such as this from his famous Recessional:

    God of our fathers, known of old –
    Lord of our far-flung battle line –
    Beneath whose awful hand we hold
    Dominion over palm and pine –
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget – lest we forget!

I’m afraid today neither East nor West has a great view of Kipling.  Here in India he is typically dismissed as a racist, though perhaps a congenial one.  And in the West, he is alternately lauded then excoriated as a dead white guy.

I knew some of that when I was in the bookseller’s and saw  Kipling Sahib, by Charles Allen.  But frankly my motivation to get the book was boredom – there’s not a lot to do out here and all we Salazars pass a lot of time by reading.

Kipling Sahib was a welcome surprise.  The author, Charles Allen, comes of a long-time Anglo-Indian family and his grandfather, George Allen, was founder of the newspaper The Pioneer. It was George Allen who employed Kipling as a journalist and later as associate editor, and so connected with the Kipling family, as ex-patriates were wont to do in those days, in a way that persisted over generations.

The details related here were unknown to me and fascinating.  Rudyard’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, came to India to as a member of an industrial academy, to teach Indians to make sculptures, moldings, and other architectural adornments prized by Victorian architecture.  An accomplished illustrator he created many telling portraits of Indian life, such as this:

Rudyard was himself born in Mumbai, in Dec. 1865 soon after the arrival of J.L. and his wife Alice in India.  An episode of Kipling’s early life that Allen relates near the start of the book sets the tone for all to follow:

… a story related by Alice Kipling to her son’s first biographer, of the four year old [Rudyard] walking hand in hand with a Maratha ryot or peasant cultivator over a ploughed field and calling back to his parents in the vernacular, “Goodbye, this is my brother.”

The word for brother the small Kipling must have used is bhā’ī, the same in Hindi and Marathi.  Certainly people use this for their siblings, but bhā’ī has broader meaning here, it can mean a friend you would do anything for, or one you depend on to do the same for you.  Your baṛē bhā’ī or bahut bhā’ī, your big brother, is someone who looks out for you and your family almost like a father.  In this the unknowing Rudyard was almost saying, “This is my new family.”

The life of Kipling that Allen relates has a Downton Abbey-like quality to it.  It was the Victorian era after all, and parents were comfortable with sending children thousands of miles away for schooling while they themselves strove for advancement in the far flung colonies of the Empire.  This time in England for Rudyard, age 5 to 12, and for his younger sister Trix, was to mark him forever.  It was in England while still only a boy he discovered his avocation for writing.  But it was also an episode of loneliness and abandonment that was to inform all of his work and life to come as well.

Later when Rudyard became an adult and returns to India he has his share of excitement and disappointment in the highly insular and stratified society of British India, especially at its favored summer location, the mountain city of Simla.  It is in Simla that the eccentricities of the British character conjoin with the diversity of India to create some rather amusing instances, like the 100,000 item collection of birds, eggs, and other natural artifacts that Allen Octavian Hume intended as source materials for an epic work entitled The Game Birds of India, Burma and Ceylon, but was sold off in the bazaar for kindling by a servant during one of Hume’s absences.  This same Hume later became a follower of “theosophist” Madame Blavatsky, who claimed powers as a medium; J.L. Kipling dismissed her as ‘’”one of the most interesting and unscrupulous imposters I have ever met.”  Later when Blavatsky’s deceptions were exposed and Hume withdrew his support, Kipling’s employer The Pioneer suffered greatly, as the paper had endorsed her.

These, together with numerous  romantic intrigues, were the doings of Simla observed by  Rudyard aged 17 or 18.  Interestingly, Allen Octavian Hume went on to become a sponsor and founder of the Indian National Congress, the party that would fight for and ultimately achieve Indian independence.

Kipling Sahib also shows us Rudyard’s history and struggles as a writer.  Kipling’s age was one where the Western world was hungry for information and novelty.  Newspapers and books of all kinds sold in great numbers, and stories of far places were especially prized.  Writers combing the countryside looking for exotic stories became commonplace, so much so that the guise of “writer” sometimes was used as a foil by blackmailers and the like, as Kipling suggests in The Man Who Would Be King:

“… here’s precious few pickings to be got out of these Central India States—even though you pretend to be correspondent of the ‘Backwoodsman.’ “

“Have you ever tried that trick?” I asked.

“Again and again, but the Residents find you out, and then you get escorted to the Border before you’ve time to get your knife into them …

“Residents” are British officers or officials, assigned to help keep order in the independent states.  And ‘Backwoodsman’ was an obvious reference to The Pioneer.

As Allen relates it, Kipling seems to have been driven both by insecurity as a writer, driven to distinguish himself in the growing ranks of travel-writers and diarists, and by a desire of truthfulness, a kind of dramatic journalism that led him to focus on the lowly and powerless and not the powerful.  His first success was the somewhat eldritch tale The Phantom Rickshaw, in which a man, Jack Pansay, has an affair with the wife of an officer, only to leave her for a younger, unmarried woman.  When the first woman dies of a broken heart, the man is haunted by her rickshaw, that pursues him when he rides with his fiancé, the spurned lover’s ghost crying,  “It’s some hideous mistake, I’m sure. Please forgive me, Jack, and let’s be friends again.”

The Phantom Rickshaw won a kind of prurient following, for affairs of this kind were a common but unspoken aspect of Anglo-India life; officers and bureaucrats were away months or years at a time, leaving wives with little to do and no companionship other than those in similar straits.  Rudyard’s father J.L. never liked the story, saying he “… hoped someone would rap [Rudyard’s] knuckles for the unwholesomeness of the Phantom Ricksha.”

Kipling would stay on the edge of knuckle-rapping his whole career.  For all that he championed British Imperialism in works such as The Recessional and The White Man’s Burden, in writings like Soldier Stories he related the perspective, and courage, of the lower-classes, both brown and white.  A typical example is The Drums of the Fore and Aft.  In this story, a regiment of new recruits has two British war-orphans for drummers, Jakin and Lew, always undisciplined, but longing for the day when they would be men and full privates in the regiment.  In a battle in Afghanistan the regiment cuts and runs, but Jakin and Lew stay, all alone playing drum and fife as they march out against the Pathans.  They are cut down, but their courage rallies the shamed regiment who drive off the enemy.  At the end of the story the Brigadier and the Colonel congratulate themselves on the action, which in fact they had little to do with. Kipling ends with these lines:

But some say, and among these be the Gurkhas who watched on the hillside, that that battle was won by Jakin and Lew, whose little bodies were borne up just in time to fit two gaps at the head of the big ditch-grave for the dead under the heights of Jagai.

Kipling is a complex figure, no doubt.  George Orwell wrote a famous piece on him, both condemning and defending.  In fact Googling about while writing this post I came across old acquaintance David Friedman’s critique of Orwell’s critique.  I rather agree with David’s point that while Kipling related many racist or oppressive scenes, what he in fact was, was a realist, who tried in his way to show the truth of many kinds of lives: of soldier’s lives, or of Indian’s lives.  These truths may not always be flattering to their subjects, or convenient to those in power, but Kipling did put them on paper.  Consider this, from the poem The Young British Soldier (from Barrack Room Ballads):

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
   An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.

I can barely imagine how such realism was received in 1895.  Even today this poem quite rightly resonates, as it was taken as inspiration by British troopers in Afghanistan, there again after a 60 years of absence.

So, should you read Kipling Sahib?  If you are the reading kind, or a Kipling completist,  or perhaps in need of distraction as I was, then certainly you should.  Otherwise, I have to say no; the book has too much biographer’s detail.

Instead, if you have not done, you should read Kim.  I have long known of this book – in it Kipling invented the term “the Great Game”, after all – but never read it.  I assumed it was adventuresome, like The Man Who Would Be King, so felt no great reason to read it.  But after reading Kipling Sahib, and finding many free editions of Kim on Kindle, I thought, why not?

I found this book to be wonderful.  I won’t add another review to this already too-long first review.  I will just say Kim is about discovering oneself, what is important.  I am much taken with this passage, recited by the lama who befriends the orphan Kim:

‘Long and long ago, when Devadatta was King of Benares - let all listen to the Tataka! – an elephant was captured for a time by the king’s hunters and ere he broke free, beringed with a grievous leg iron. This he strove to remove with hate and frenzy in his heart, and hurrying up and down the forests, besought his brother-elephants to wrench it asunder.

One by one, with their strong trunks, they tried and failed. At the last they gave it as their opinion that the ring was not to be broken by any bestial power. And in a thicket, new-born, wet with moisture of birth, lay a day-old calf of the herd whose mother had died. The fettered elephant, forgetting his own agony, said: “If I do not help this suckling it will perish under our feet.” So he stood above the young thing, making his legs buttresses against the uneasily moving herd; and he begged milk of a virtuous cow, and the calf throve, and the ringed elephant was the calf ’s guide and defence. Now the days of an elephant – let all listen to the Tataka!– are thirty-five years to his full strength, and through thirty-five Rains the ringed elephant befriended the younger, and all the while the fetter ate into the flesh.

‘Then one day the young elephant saw the half-buried iron, and turning to the elder said: “What is this?” “It is even my sorrow,” said he who had befriended him. Then that other put out his trunk and in the twinkling of an eyelash abolished the ring, saying: “The appointed time has come.” So the virtuous elephant who had waited temperately and done kind acts was relieved, at the appointed time, by the very calf whom he had turned aside to cherish – let all listen to the Tataka!— for the Elephant was Ananda, and the Calf that broke the ring was none other than The Lord Himself...’

 

Soon (I hope) some posts about the preparations and perspectives on returning home.  Till then …

Categories: Books, Expat life

Wildlife & Politics in Kerala

April 13, 2014 Comments off

Morgan and Kim ride Sundari the elephant

Ok, maybe not totally wild, but the “life” part still applies.

My last post on our Kerala trip starts with this pic of Kim and Morgan riding on Sundari the elephant.  Elephants are extremely important in Kerala culture, and all festivals there will feature elephants.  Our hotel was easily able to direct us to a place where they kept some festival elephants so we could see and ride on these amazing beasts.

The ride that the girls took was short but still incredibly memorable.  At one point Sundari, being led by her mahout balked at continuing the walk.  After unsuccessfully trying to cajole the beast forward, the mahout called over another of his colleagues – this fellow gently talked the elephant into proceeding, as Kim related, much as a patient parent might talk to a small child.

I like to think everything worked out well for Sundari, for after the short stroll she had a snack of 3 kgs of bananas that our driver providentially recommended we bring:

Banana time

The dexterity of the elephant trunk is amazing.  Sundari had no problem taking from our hands a single banana, or picking one up from the ground.  I’m sure she could have picked up a pencil or a coin with equal ease.  All 3 kgs of bananas – peels and all – were gone in about a minute.

Another place we visited was Ponnumthuruth Island – in English, Golden Island.  The name comes from a local legend that princesses of the Travancore Kingdom hid their golden jewelry there.  Certainly all of India is mad over gold, but the fever seems to burn hottest in Kerala – with only 3% of India’s population, Kerala nonetheless yearly acquires 20% of the country’s gold.  In 2012, the wedding of the daughter of the CEO of Muthoot Finance Co. (one of Kerala’s biggest banks) made headlines for the 5 kg of gold – over Rs. 1,47,50,000 (1.5 crore) or about $250,000 at current prices – worn by the bride.  Then in a recent headline we see smugglers attempting to bring 1.8 kg of gold into Kerala from Singapore, hidden in printer cartridges, roller-suitcase axles, and other apparently not-so-clever means.

But we really were not interested in gold at Golden Island.  We wanted to glimpse Kerala’s famous backwaters, the intracoastal network of lakes and canals that runs all up and down the Arabian Sea coast.  Golden Island is in the middle of one such lake, and the way you get there is by boat, poled by a boatman:

IMG_1816

This is a place where the jungle habitat of Kerala expresses itself clearly.  All around are coconut palms, cashew trees, and other tropical flora.  The water of the lake is salt and in it we saw numerous jellyfish:

Kerala jungleJellyfish

On the actual island the main thing to do is visit the temples.  There are three: for Lord Ganesh, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu.  Pictures were forbidden, but we did observe a puja being made by the Brahmin for Lord Vishnu.  Also just outside the temple walls were two shrines for snake-gods, one pair of gods devoted to Lord Shiva and another pair devoted to Lord Ganesh.  A man was guiding us about these temples so I asked him, “In the north where we stay there are many temples for Lord Shiva and Lord Ganesh, but few for Lord Vishnu.  Why is that?”  He told me quite plainly: “In the north they are Aryans, light people, and here in the south we are Dravidians, dark people.  That is why.”  That I suppose is as good a capsule of the complexities of Hinduism you are likely to hear.

Then we spent another 30-40 mins just roaming the small forest of Golden Island.  As I mentioned, cashew trees are everywhere, here is a small sample that we saw:

Small cashew tree

That curved sort of bud in the center of the picture is the actual cashew.  It is inside a tough and caustic husk and, when mature, the green pod above will ripen into a large, orange-red fruit.  We tasted such a fruit growing wild there at Golden Island – the flavor was tart but not unpleasant, like cashew-flavored lemon drink.

Then it was time to return and our boatman poled us back.  On the way I managed to get a picture of a hawk or eagle-like bird:

Perching eagle

I believe this was most likely a Lesser Fish-eagle, or possibly a Brahminy Kite.

Not all of Kerala is jungle of course.  As we traveled about, mostly on small roads, we saw many colorfully painted, large bungalows, like this one I snapped as our driver barreled down the road at speed:

Bungalow in Kerala

I asked our driver, Who owns these nice houses?  His answer came quickly: Overseas money.  2.5 million or more Keralaites work overseas, primarily in Persian Gulf states like UAE, Kuwait or Qatar; in fact when we visited London over end of year holiday, one of the managers at our hotel was from Kerala.  With extremely high literacy and education rates, Kerala is in an excellent position to supply valued workers.  Remittances from these workers are estimated about 49,700 crore (about $8B !) for 2011 – this is about %30 of the entire domestic product of all Kerala.  The majority of these emigrants are Muslims.  They follow a centuries old pattern of Arabian traders moving back and forth to India – it is called the Arabian Sea, after all.  But nowadays, with laws changing both in India and abroad, emigration from Kerala seems to be on the decline.

And this brings me to politics.  I don’t have much to say on this, philosophically, but I will say politics is everywhere visible in Kerala:

Political signs in KeralaHammer and sickleUDF symbol

Political posters cover any and all exposed spaces.  Also it seems that householders allow different parties to paint or put posters on the walls surrounding their bungalow, I assume sometimes for a fee.  All of these posters include the symbols of the respective party: The hammer and sickle for CPI (Communist Party of India), the raised-hand for UDF (United Democratic Front), and – most rarely seen in our Kerala travels – the lotus blossom symbol of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the extremely conservative, Hindu-nationalistic party that is making a fair run at breaking the decades-long dominance of the leftist Congress party for rule of India

I think folks from the USA are often amazed to hear of successful communist political parties in other nations – it is part of the 20th century American narrative that we led the fight against communism, and that we won it too, making the world safe for capitalistic purveying of nifty consumer goods like smartphones and TVs which due to the self-created efficiencies of global markets are built in countries like China that just happen to be … communist?

I said I would not be philosophical … sorry, almost done.  I guess seeing all these unexpected symbols on our trip brought back to my mind that India has its own national narrative, that for modern, independent India starts with Gandhi and his vision of agrarian socialism.  The founders of this largest democracy in the world were socialists – capitalism in the form we see in India today is a relatively recent thing, dating to 1991 and the introduction of new, liberal trade policies under then finance-minister, now prime minister, Manmohan Singh.  But for all the magic powers of capitalism and markets, Kerala seems to be doing fine with socialism; they have highest literacy and education rates of any Indian state, and in 2010 a UN study ranked Kerala highest of any Indian state on its human development index, an aggregate score combining per-capita income, life expectancy, education, and income distribution.  It is little wonder Kerala has small interest in the “Modi miracle”, as BJP top candidate Narendra Modi styles his achievements in his home state of Gujarat.

Nothing deflates a discussion or a blog post so much as politics so I’ll stop all that now.  Here are some final images from Kerala: Morgan on our boat ride back from Golden Island; Kim and Morgan beneath a very large cashew tree at the elephant compound; and, fishing boats slowing working their way north along the coastline at Varkala Beach.

Boat ride from Golden IslandMorgan and Kim beneath giant cashew treeFishing boats off Varkala Beach

The world is big and there’s much to see and so I can’t say I expect to be back to any of these places.  I believe the images will stay with us.  Only time and mind will tell.

Till next time.

Categories: Pictures, Travel

Dogs & Dining in Varkala

April 5, 2014 Comments off

Sanchez the beach dogAnother beach dog

My last post told you about our trip to Papanasum Beach in Varkala, state of Kerala.  Herewith a few closing odds and ends about this most delightful trip.  I’ll begin with a dog-bites-man (almost!) story.

At Varkala Beach, like everywhere in India, there are wild dogs – though like everywhere else, there are not wild-wild, they are in a kind of symbiosis with people.  The first day on the beach one of these dogs sauntered over to where we were, gave Kim, Morgan and me a quick look, then settled in for a snooze in the shade of my chair.  This dog, in the left pic above, Morgan named “Sanchez” (sand-chaise, get it?)  Two days later a similar dog came and snuggled up next to a couple sitting close to us on the sand; same time, a whitish dog came and sat in the shade of my chair.

These dogs seemed really mild; you can pat them, scratch them, or just leave them be and they are content.  They will take food if you give it, but they don’t go rooting through your stuff looking for snacks.  Just nice dogs.

Anyway, all of us are sitting all peaceful-like with our doggy brothers and sisters when into the vicinity comes an Indian guy hawking leaflets of some kind.  There’s various such people off by the shops and restaurants, but they are not very welcome on the beach itself.  I take note of this guy, and maybe 50 yards away he offers a leaflet to someone.  Then he takes a step in our direction …

It was that instant the doggy Delta Force leapt into action.  Both my dog and the other couple’s dog tore off at top speed at this hawker, barking like Ravana himself had arrived from Sri Lanka.  The hawker scooted away and the dogs came to a stop.  Hawker gingerly steps in original direction – dogs launch themselves, nipping at his heels, very nearly getting a healthy portion of hawker-calf.  The dogs stood sentinel a few moments more then, satisfied they had properly defended what needed defending, they return back to the shade to sleep.

Not a single other person did they treat this way.  Either the dogs have a refined sense of beach propriety – no hawkers allowed! – or they know this particular guy.  As the hawker stood out of range, other people drew away from him, either having no interest in leaflets and/or not wanting to get caught in a canine crossfire.

Final tally: Beach dogs 1, hawker, 0.  Go, beach dogs!

On to other matters … next, food! Along the edge of the beach is a cliff, and at the top of this cliff is a path of 1-2 kms where there are many shops and restaurants:

Varkala North Cliff

Varkala is on the Arabian Sea, and seafood of all kinds is abundant; each night we saw many lights out to sea that seemed to be a fishing “fleet”, but my camera could not well capture them.

But there’s no difficulty in capturing the spoils of these fish hunters.  Every restaurant along the cliff displays a big table of ice and fresh seafood, intended to entice the hungry diner.  Our favorite was the Sea Queen:

Sea Queen RestaurantFresh fish

Red grouper, red and yellow snapper (but a different sort than we get in the Atlantic), dorado, crab, prawn, squid and octopus … and on other days they had some kind of sword-fish, kingfish, and one specimen a restaurant-tout assured us was barracuda – but they are salesmen and not ichthyologists, so we learned not to put too much confidence in those guys’ fish identification.

But the taste spoke for itself:

Fried squidWhole fish from the tandoor

The Kraken released, into butter/garlic.Seafood, Varkala-style

In order, fried calamari, a snapper done in the tandoor, then octopus (just barely sautéed in butter/garlic, perfect tenderness!), and last – our dinner from a different night – a platter of 2 fish, more calamari, prawns, chips and salad.  I have to say this was all the best seafood we have yet had in India.

Well, there’s more to say about our  trip, but that’s for yet-another post.  I’ll leave you with this, sunset over the Arabian Sea:

Sunset from Varkala

Till next time …

Categories: Pictures, Travel Tags: , ,

Papanasam Beach at Varkala, Kerala

March 31, 2014 1 comment

Papanasam Beach facing south Papanasam Beach facing north

Our vacation in Kerala is done and an excellent time it was.  As you can see from these pix of Papanasam Beach, where we were, there were clear skies and ample beach with soft sand … just the thing for relaxation, by Salazar tastes.  It was also a great time to see a slice of South India, in many ways the same but in other ways, quite different from the north, such as Pune in Maharashtra where we live.

For one thing, men everywhere much more are in traditional dress, specifically the lungi, or mundu, a long rectangle of cloth wrapped around the waist to make a skirt:

Man wearing lungi on the beachAt the tea stallMan wearing lungi at the airport

A pretty versatile garment, there’s several ways to go about in your lungi.  You might let it drape down, which gives a cool, slightly formal look.  Or, you might hold one corner, maybe as our airport-goer on the right is doing; this keeps the folds from binding your knees if you want to walk quickly – in fact many men sort of lightly flap their lungi with a kind of jaunty motion as they walk.  Finally, you can grab both edges, fold them up, and knot them in front, as our beach-walker is doing – this is the way for walking fast or doing work.

I thought about trying the lungi myself.  In the end, despite the clear comfort – it’s the tropics, after all – I decided against it.  I think we westerners often look comical in Indian dress, and with the possibility of wardrobe malfunction from an improperly secured lungi, I decided to hold off, perhaps till another visit.

On to the beach itself.  As I said in my previous post, Papanasam Beach is a holy place for Hindus.  They go there to make a special puja, called karkidaka vavu.  These prayers offer food for the dead, and also cleanse the sins from the living as well as the departed.  A key part of the puja is to place an offering of food, spices and other items in a banana leaf, place it on your head, then go down into the sacred water, as this man is doing:

Devotions at Papanasam

Once the water is reached, they will turn around and drop the offering behind.  Then they will rinse themselves all over with the water.

It is late in the season and by talking to some locals we understood there were few people making offerings. In January there would be 100s of supplicants, and on a special day typically in August, 1000s of people will come to the beach.  Still every morning there were 20-30 parties preparing for their prayers on the beach:

Papanasam Beach

Which brings me to one of the most interesting aspects of the whole trip.  Papanasam is indeed a holy place, but it is also a great beach, a place where tourists want to come and spend money.  We saw many Indian couples on the beach like this:

Indian beach-goers

So, there are two kinds of visitors: first the Indians coming to pray and/or relax, and then the foreigners, who come for many reasons, including praying, but also a great many non-prayerful things like drinking, shopping, swimming and sunning.  On this beach everywhere you look you see this contradiction, like here:

West and East

Western women in bikinis, and Indian men in long-sleeve shirts and lungis and Indian women in saris or kameez.  At Varkala both sides peacefully coexist, but the divide between the two worlds is as constantly glaring as the tropical sun itself.

As to the beach: Fantastic!  Not at all crowded; it is the tail-end of the season after all.  The sand was soft, and at both high and low tides there was ample gently sloping beach.  The swells of the Arabian Sea really were modest, but as in the pic on the left, some of the breakers are head-high or more and if you’re standing right at the break-line, you can get knocked over and scraped along the sand:

Surf at PapanasamAlong the beach

The waves in fact support surfing; there’s a surf school and we saw some successful surfers:

Papanasam Surf SchoolSurfer at Papanasam

The last thing I’ll say in this post is about the cliffs.  The beach is about 1.5 km south to north, and to the east is all a high cliff of about 20 meters:

North Cliff

Atop these cliffs are guest houses, shops and restaurants.  You can reach them from the beach via stairs – somewhat eroded and without rails for some places, the stairs are tricky to navigate in the dark.

Here I’ll end my first post about Varkala.  Next time: Elephants, Waterways, Communists, some of the greatest seafood we have ever ate, and the Attack of the Keralan Beach Dog!  Till then …

Categories: Pictures, Travel Tags: , ,
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