We’ll be boarding this ship and sailing out of the Persian Gulf tomorrow, bound for Korea. I’ve been in and out of this narrow channel so many times in my life that it brings back a flood of memories.
There are two that stand out.
It was Christmastime in 1990, and my husband was chief mate at the time. Our ship was anchored at Fiumicino in Italy. As we had a couple of days free Capt Milo gave us time off to visit Rome, 32 km away. We bought a map, chose the places we wanted to see, plotted a route and walked to most places, covering many miles, dossing down at a pensione at night.
When we returned to the ship after two days, completely tired out, we heard the shocking news that Operation Desert Stormwas likely to be launched by US-led coalition forces on 17th January in Iraq. Ship life those days was pretty isolated and we barely knew what was going on in the outside world. As our next port of call was going to be inside the Persian Gulf Capt Milo had decided that I should sign off the ship at Dubai, just a little way into the Gulf, but far enough from Iraq-Kuwait to be safe. That was going to be around the 10th of January.
When we reached the Gulf of Oman we had another shock. There were dozens of American naval ships massed around us. War was no longer something we only heard about on the radio (those days we got television only in port) but was right here, and these ships were a part of it.
I disembarked at Dubai — along with two other crew members whose tenures had ended — and flew home.
What happened to the ship after I left? She remained anchored in the Gulf of Oman for over a week awaiting voyage orders. On the 19th she sailed into the Persian Gulf to load cargo at Ras Tanura. My husband tells me that they passed an American aircraft carrier with her attendant fleet of frigates. He saw fighter jets take off from her deck. Jets from US army bases in Saudi also flew across the night sky frequently as the bombing usually happened at night.
Another vivid memory is of the time in 1993 when our ship sailed out of the Persian Gulf loaded with crude oil from Ras Tanura in Saudi, for discharge at New Orleans in the US. What happened as we sailed out of the Gulf is something that still gives me goosebumps and I’ve written about it an earlier post.
We eventually signed off that ship in Dubai. My husband and I were amused to hear our toddler son’s excited observations about land, after having been on a VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) for four months without ever going ashore.
“So many Christmas trees!” He had only seen the tiny tree set up in the saloon at Christmas!
“So many aunties!” There had been no other women on that ship!
When we returned to India we were baffled by his homesickness for the ship, when he would cry to be taken back ‘home’, and would only be placated by watching the videos we had taken during the voyage.
I’ve been here for nearly six weeks now and it’s starting to feel like home. Actually, Kuwait City is a lot like how Bangalore used to be. Bangalore of the seventies, the city where I wish I could live more than anywhere else in the world. Paradise lost, to borrow a phrase from Milton.
Present-day Bangalore is constantly worrying about water from the Cauvery river running out, and of having to share it with Tamilnadu. There’s plenty of water here.
There are fountains dotting the city like in the Bangalore of my childhood. Not a single river flows through this desert land, but the government has set up desalination plants for citizens to get a plentiful supply.
There’s plenty of space to drive on city roads. No potholes. No jams. People don’t dare run a red light. And the best part is that there’s ample free parking everywhere, the way it used to be in Bangalore.
My husband and I go for long drives out of the city after dinner and on weekends. Going for a drive after dinner was very much a Bangalore thing to do in the seventies and eighties. The drives here have a magical quality for me, mixed as they are with nostalgia for a way of life that has been gradually stolen from me by Bangalore’s transformation into what is called an IT hub. Those days, no matter which route you took out of town to the open spaces on the outskirts of Bangalore, traffic flowed smoothly and the air smelt fresh.
We walk a lot because it’s something we love to do, but can’t do in Bangalore any more. The sidewalks are wide, with no missing slabs or uneven bits to trip you up. And well-lit too, if you want to continue walking after dark.
And no jostling crowds. Again, reminds me of home in the seventies, when I walked to friends’ houses, hobby classes, movie halls — just about everywhere.
I feel bad to say this, but I can’t help thinking of all that I encounter on a morning walk in Bangalore now: construction debris, thick black wires (snaking across the sidewalk, wrapped around trees and lampposts as ugly eyesores, or dangling from trees), packs of snarling stray dogs, garbage heaps, missing slabs, transformer enclosures. . . During peak hours people ride motorcycles on sidewalks to get past jams, so there is an added risk. Walking through a city should not be a dangerous obstacle course.
I don’t smell air pollution while walking here in the city. Undoubtedly, there is some from vehicular exhaust, but it doesn’t envelop and assault me like a living thing, the way it does in Bangalore. There is no smog, and visibility is therefore great.
I understand that there are no polluting industries here as everything is imported, and the population is a fraction of Bangalore’s, but that doesn’t justify the kind of pollution we are exposed to in Bangalore. And there is practically no noise pollution here as people don’t toot their horns unnecessarily.
Visual pollution by way of hoardings, and wires crisscrossing the sky giving Bangalore the appearance of a giant spider web (pic below), are both absent here. The street lamps therefore look beautiful (pic above), untethered to masses of black wire as they are back home (pic below).
There’s no dearth of electricity here. Streets and buildings are well-illuminated.
I am aware that a lot of fossil fuel is being burned to generate all this electricity, going by the armies of pylons and unending lines of electric cables I’ve seen on the outskirts and along highways.
This troubles me as an earth citizen and I do wish they would think of ways to minimize wastage of electricity and fuel. But the point to note here is that the government spends its petro-dinars to give citizens basic comforts like bijli-sadak-paani (electricity-roads-water), as we say in India, and clean, safe public spaces with well-kept lawns and walkways.
There is one thing about Kuwait that I wish would change: overuse of plastic. It happens in Bangalore too, but here it is much worse. Every vegetable you buy is bagged in one thin plastic bag, then all your items are put into big, thicker plastic bags at the checkout counter. Yesterday, the bill for my grocery shopping was only 14 KD, but I came home with eight big, thick plastic bags and eleven thin ones! One big bag held just one bottle of cooking oil and another only a bottle of salad dressing and a small can of baked beans! The clerks at the checkout counter look surprised when I try to fit my shopping into fewer bags and I have to go along with them because of the language barrier.
In restaurants, layers of thin plastic sheets are spread on the table. When the table is cleared after a meal leftovers are dumped on the topmost sheet and it is rolled into a bundle and tossed into a bin. So it’s mixed waste. In some restaurants I do see waiters separate food waste from plastic, though. There is a garbage disposal problem here, too, just like in Bangalore, but it is not as visible as it is in Bangalore.
Some people are aware of this, going by an exhibit I saw at the museum at Al Shaheed park, though the message hasn’t percolated down to the man on the street yet.
As I said in an earlier post, nothing grows here without effort except date palms. Petunias were planted timed to bloom during Liberation Day weekend, and they did. All over the city.
Geraniums and Oleanders are in bloom now, all carefully irrigated.
At Al Shaheed park there is such an effort to coax Bauhinia trees to produce flowers (pic below), whereas we in Bangalore can drop a seed anywhere on our fertile soil and have it sprout a healthy little shoot and grow into a tree in no time, with practically no tending.
But what do we do? We chop off fully grown trees to make way for flyovers of highly doubtful utility.
There’s one important principle that I feel the Kuwaitis have understood and adopted: maintenance. Erecting buildings, putting up fancy lights and water features is all very well, but what a wasted effort if most of the light bulbs don’t work and the paint job develops patches after one monsoon, and the water feature becomes a cesspool for mosquitoes to breed. This is what happens in Bangalore. Nothing appears neglected here, at least in the downtown area where I stay.
However, there’s one thing Bangalore and Kuwait City have in common at present: a dedicated band of Harley-Davidson worshippers!
I hope Kuwait City continues to stay this way and I can keep coming here for a break whenever Bangalore feels too claustrophobic. This city doesn’t seem in danger of being turned into an IT hub, so it’s safe from the sort of ruinous growth that the government in Bangalore considers progress and development.
Somehow I’ve always imagined google as a supercilious, snickering Peter Pan-like young person sitting cross-legged in there, in the box-shaped computer I had twenty years back, rolling his eyes at my ignorance. From the beginning, this unconscious conceptualization of google automatically restricted what I typed in the search bar. Asking the internet to connect me to a site felt a lot like asking the operator of a landline phone to connect me to another landline number in the old days; the operator could listen in if she wanted to.
There is one more thing: I have had young patients proudly tell me that they are hackers, and good at it too! And I have no reason to doubt them as they are smart graduates from the IITs. The first time someone told me this was some fifteen years ago. It destroyed my faith in passwords and encryption for good. Decoding these security measures is obviously child’s play to some.
If I need to look up a word I use a dictionary out of sheer habit, though I’ve started using google more without realizing it. I think that’s how google creeps into people’s lives and makes itself indispensable. Speaking of words, I’m fascinated by cognates, and finding them is a zigzagging path. Does chasing after me through this help google? I still rely entirely on google for things like how to pronounce Czicksentmihalee, though, and I’m willing to do that. But if google wants to know why I need this, well, it’s just curiosity, nothing more.
I often use google to look up random factoids that have puzzled me through the day, things I’ve come across in conversations or on TV. So the things I investigate using google are completely irrelevant to my life, and can’t be the basis for ads. And most of the things I look up are from a check-list of unrelated topics. I am just browsing, not doing serious research. Like browsing in a mall. Incidentally, why do mall-owners count footfalls to gauge how the businesses that operate from them are doing? What exactly does it tell them? That people browsed, or people shopped? Or do they subtract browsers from the total and decide that these are prospective buyers that they can lie in wait for and eventually entrap into buying? In how many ways are we being watched?!
Back to google. I often look up the same article many times on different days because I might need to confirm only one particular bit of information from it. When I’ve gone into ‘show full history’ to trace some lost thread of thought I’ve seen how ridiculous it looks that I’ve opened the same page a million times. What does google make of it? And if I’ve been using google on my touchscreen cellphone, don’t even ask! Every clumsy finger movement opens a site that means nothing to me, but might mean something to google if it is snooping. I also wonder, does the time lapse mean anything to google if I leave a page open for a long time while I go into the kitchen to make some coffee?
I read a lot about religion because I can’t get over how much violence it has unleashed over the millennia, when it is actually supposed to bring peace. So I’m not religious, but google might think I am.
I am a news junkie and follow politics, especially Indian politics, but I’m not interested in raising a ruckus about anything. I already know that I don’t count and what I think doesn’t make a whit of difference to the political scene. I don’t think much of politicians (except Shashi Tharoor’s speeches on Indian history), but I read about their antics anyway. So what does google think is my political affiliation? A friend of mine talks about politicians referencing the astrology site carta natal es, so I’ve been visiting that site, but that doesn’t mean an astro-reading ad will grab my eyeballs. I might search for information about weapons in relation to a novel I’m reading, and google might misunderstand my intentions. So too with suicide, a topic that I need to visit now and then for professional reasons.
So, I have no idea how the data generated by my haphazard browsing helps google.
Apparently google needs to know me well so that it can pitch appropriate ads to me. I live in Bangalore, a city whose skyline is made up entirely of ads, monstrously large billboards that I never look at, or even notice anymore. So advertisements are wasted on me. I just peep around them or scroll down reflexly and never really see them. If an ad stubbornly refuses to disappear I close the page and find the information elsewhere. I’ve also become adept at clicking on the X mark using peripheral vision to close any nonsense that pops up.
I don’t use google to look for things to buy, places to eat at, places to visit, books to read, or movies to watch. I get these from newspapers and friends. I prefer to ask friends about these things over a cup of coffee at Hatti Kaapi or A2B in Bangalore, rather than turn to google for everything. It’s much nicer. Same way, I shop at small stores because they’re more interesting, plus the idea of these hardworking, cheerful people losing their livelihood to Amazon and BigBasket makes me feel bad. Variety, rather than the sameness of chain stores, is what I’d like to preserve. A little searching and serendipitous discovery is more fun, like finding a wonderful book while browsing in a bookshop. Google and the rest are taking this away.
On top of all this, I now have the troubling knowledge that my browsing patterns are being parsed by google to understand my thought processes and influence me through its advertisements to generate revenue for itself.
Google assures us of security:
‘Encryption brings a higher level of security and privacy to our services. When you do things like send an email, share a video, visit a website, or store your photos, the data you create moves between your device, Google services, and our data centers. We protect this data with multiple layers of security, including leading encryption technology like HTTPS and Transport Layer Security.’
That’s why it feels like a case of the fence eating the crop, or my own security guard robbing my house. That’s why it feels like a betrayal, though google openly admits that it uses the advertising model for revenue. To me that translates into “Okay, so some ads will appear when I’m reading something? Cool.” It doesn’t convey that I’ll be watched so closely, like a hunter following his prey.
Yesterday I touched the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. I felt the water flow through the spaces between my fingers. It was like connecting with history. Our really ancient history, when we started living in civilized societies and growing our own food instead of hunting and gathering it.
We had gotten off the highway and driven directly on the sand to reach the tiny village of Bushehri by following wheel tracks made by vehicles that had used the same route. That was the only way we could reach the bank of the river we had seen in the distance from the highway.
The ‘river’ turned out to be the delta of the Shatt Al Arab, the waterway formed by the merging of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq as they flow south towards the Persian Gulf.
The Tigris and Euphrates have existed for thousands of years. They nurtured the ancient Mesopotamian civilization 5000 years ago. The fertile land between the two was part of the biblical Garden of Eden. It’s hard to believe that the bit of earth beneath the present layer of overburden* has been continuously occupied by people for so many millennia. People with families, homes and jobs. A civilization.
This land, the ‘cradle of civilization’, is now the chaos that is present-day Iraq.
On the day before yesterday I happened to watch an interview on CGTN (China Global Television Network) with John Nixon who was with the CIA until 2011. He is the author of Debriefing the President:The interrogation of Saddam Hussein. Nixon had interviewed Saddam extensively over weeks after his capture and has a good grasp of the other side of the story. He is firm in his belief that the war in 2003 should never have happened as there was enough Intel input for the US and UK governments to know that there were no WMDs in Iraq.
About Saddam, he says:
“Although he didn’t understand international politics he knew Iraq.”
“Saddam was able to govern Iraq effectively.”
“Saddam said ‘It’s not easy to govern Iraq – you’ll see.'”
Nixon says it was a family feud between Bush (whose father Saddam had tried to eliminate) and Saddam that actually led to the war! Can this possibly be true?!
Last morning’s visit to the river delta, juxtaposed with watching this interview with Mr. Nixon, has left me feeling incredibly sad. As a human being I feel strangely complicit in this, though I couldn’t possibly have done anything to prevent the war, nor could have my country’s government, nor could the UN. Other animals aren’t destroying our beautiful earth, only we are.
Iraq’s civilization goes back as many millennia as does ours, and seeing it in a shambles makes me feel hopeless for humanity’s survival. I feel it even more acutely now as I’m in Kuwait and have been so close to the Iraq border. Then I tell myself: London was bombed once. So was Dresden. So was Hiroshima. They recovered. I hope Iraq does too…
The fact that John Nixon’s book is freely available and has not been banned, nor has its writer received death threats to the best of my knowledge, speaks volumes for American democracy and freedom of speech. Thank god for people like John Nixon who are unafraid to tell the truth, and the American government for not gagging him.
*Overburden: ancient features buried under accumulated sediment and soil that archeologists have to remove to see what lies beneath.
On Friday we left Kuwait city behind and drove southwest down Route 70 towards the Saudi border. There was a sand storm, not a severe one, and the sky was reddish-brown to the east.
In some places the sand glowed golden in the ethereal light.
We reached a wide expanse of desert where there were several cars parked haphazardly. We pulled over to see what was there. All-terrain bikes (ATV) were available on hire.
People were riding them at top speed across the miles of flat sandy desert and up and down gentle slopes. We had a go too. Half an hour of riding at a good speed with no traffic (and certainly no traffic jams of the kind I’m used to in my home town Bangalore) and no kerbstones to set boundaries, was exhilarating. Liberating.
Kids were amazingly good at handling them! And they were having good, clean fun outdoors too.
We drove further to what we think is the Al Ahmadi ridge where we saw a family picnicking near their parked car, a common sight in Kuwait.
There were a couple of people walking on the escarpment, deep in conversation. Nice place to have an interesting conversation actually.
Some men had ridden the ATVs all the way up the road to the escarpment from the place where they were being hired out.
We drove back down and took Route 70 towards the border of Saudi Arabia. The storm had driven sand onto the road and it was piled on the hard shoulder.
It was a great day!
Note: No photo has been edited. This is exactly how the world looked that day.