ulsoor lake in spring

Ulsoor lake is at its best right now. I took these pics over the last two days.

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lucky shot – a cormorant flew up just when I clicked!
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almond – the only trees that turn a beautiful rust colour in Bangalore

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yolo

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Crops.

Or us.

Planted, grow, mature, produce, decline, die leaving seeds.

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Remains returned to earth neatly packed.

Recycled.

It’s an endless pattern from the beginning of time…

IMG_1131.jpgAll grow at their own rhythm, all are at different stages of growth.

Today’s young people, tomorrow’s Boomers. Or whatever the children of today will call the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today in a couple of decades.

YOLO. Enjoy each stage. Keep traveling. Look at things. Minimise carbon footprint. Eat local. Wear local. Appreciate random acts of kindness because they keep hope alive for the human race. Tip well and warmly, where appropriate, when people help. It’s all good, don’t worry so much about things you can’t change . . .  Those were some of my thoughts while driving along these rice paddies around Hampi at the end of last year.

P.S. It just occurred to me that some of the pics may be of millet fields as they are also widely grown in this region. If you are an expert and can tell the difference, please consider the pictures purely representational 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

cairns

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Stacking stones, or building cairns, is a thing people have been doing for ages now. On hikes, cairns are used to mark a trail for people following you, to know which way you went. More recently, stacking pebbles has become a spiritual practice, sometimes called Upala Yoga. In the past, cairns have had ceremonial and decorative uses in different cultures. The word cairn itself means ‘heap of stones’ in Gaelic.

None of the above ever interested me, except to wonder how stacking pebbles could possibly be an absorbing endeavour.

We were at Hampi in the last week of 2019. If there is something spiritual about stacking stones this is where I felt it. The landscape is littered with cairns created by Nature!

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There is an extremely peaceful vibe around Hampi, the ancient ruins spread across 25 square km or so. The oldest structures are from 1st century CE, the newest are from 16th century CE! Sitting quietly inside one of the ancient stone structures on a hill, a cool, soothing breeze blowing through my hair, I could literally transport myself to the time when it was built.

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I loved the way the architecture blended with the surroundings, buildings never grabbing negative attention in the vulgar way some disproportionately large buildings on small plots of land do in Bangalore.

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It helped that I had come in that morning from the small town of Gangavathi nearby, a place where life is still simple. No malls, no high-rises, helpful people speaking a sweet version of Kannada, plenty of space on the road to drive, lots of homely idli-vada breakfast joints, crowing roosters and bleating goats, sunrise over lush green rice paddies . . . I drifted easily into the mood of Hampi from the peace of Gangavathi, after a good night’s sleep had done away with the more hurried pace I’m used to in Bangalore.

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Our walk around Hampi fell on the morning of the solar eclipse on 26th December. The strange diffuse light created a soft-focus effect, enhancing the dreamscape quality of the place.

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Diffuse sunlight – solar eclipse
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Diffuse sunlight during solar eclipse
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The bright blue crescent in the picture – is it a reflection of the eclipse on the lens of my camera?!

 

 

los angeles in spring

We are in Los Angeles and can’t stop pointing our phones at the jacarandas that are in bloom everywhere. That gorgeous, soothing purple! It’s hard to capture the exact shade every time, but sometimes when the sunlight hits the tree at a certain angle, we do.

We happened to be here for the last two weeks of Spring, but it looks like we’ve received an extra week. It’s been summery-hot only from yesterday. So lots of flowers have been at their best, even cacti.

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There are some very old, awe-inspiring, trees here that don’t fit into the frames of our little cameras. We tried anyway.

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And little creatures that inspire awe and affection in their own innocent way.

And events keep happening, drawing large crowds of excited youngsters. Randall Park and Ali Wong, the stars of Always Be My Maybe . . .

. . . and Nick Jonas and co. were at the Fox Theatre near our apartment on different occasions.

And, of course, museums.

This is one of my favorites at the Getty museum:

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And other treasures in other museums. These are from the Natural History Museum.

Los Angeles in Spring. Beautiful.

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fluke

I was taking a picture of this cloud standing at the riverfront in Phnom Penh last month.

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In the next nanosecond there was lightning inside the cloud and I just clicked again, without really thinking, and captured this! I have spent hours – even in the days of film cameras – trying to capture lightning. So getting this fluke shot was a big thrill. Some day I hope to catch a lightning bolt on camera, but for now this is enough to make me happy!

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A friend commented that there’s a little bear-face at the base of the cloud. Looks like a cuddly little kitten to me!

ancient ties

This is not a side of Cambodia that we expected to see when we planned this vacation. A congregation of kids worshiping at the altar of STEM!

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High School children attending the Annual STEM festival to prepare for college overseas

We were sitting in a gazebo in a park in Phnom Penh. There was a large crowd of teenagers gathered for a ‘STEM festival’ near by. Two kids came in and asked if they could use the table to eat their lunch and we got into a conversation. They were eleventh graders from a distant province. Their school had arranged transport and lunch for them to attend the event. They were looking at going to college in either New Zealand or Japan. “Not the US?” we asked, as that’s where most Indian kids want to go. They shook their heads and smiled.

IMG_5960By the way, the boy’s name was Makaran and it means January in Khmer, which is what it means in Indian languages too. Makara is the zodiac sign of Capricorn.

We knew that the Education system in Cambodia had been completely destroyed in the seventies by the Khmer Rouge, so this revival was obviously a very good thing. Everywhere, even in the small towns we passed through on our 6-hour bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we saw a steady stream of children in neatly pressed uniforms wending their way to school. Right now, there are hundreds of kids working in the tourism industry apparently selling souvenirs. But the sheer number of seedy massage parlours in tourist areas like the riverfront, with very young girls hanging around outside, hint at child sexual abuse, with tourists actively involved. Education is the only way out.

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A whole generation grew up with no exposure to the arts through the seventies and the eighties because of the Khmer Rouge. Artists and performers from the pre-Khmer Rouge era have kept their art forms alive and are teaching the younger generations what Khmer culture and Khmer glory are about. We saw a beautiful dance performance presented by Cambodian Living Arts at the National Museum one evening.

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Churning of the Ocean of Milk
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Apsara dance
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Mani Mekhala – Praying for rain
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Peacock in the rain

The churning of the ocean of milk is a story called Samudra manthan in Hindu mythology that explains how Amrita, the nectar of immortality, was made. Apsaras are celestial maidens in Hindu mythology, and Mani Mekalai is a Tamil epic poem from South India that was written around the 6th century CE.

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Though we didn’t initially know it, we happened to be at Siem Reap during one of their most important festivals, the Water Festival, when the annual boat races are held on the Siem Reap river. We were lucky to get an unobstructed view as a friendly organiser gave us ringside seats next to a group of monks!

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The entire town of Siem Reap seemed to have lined up along the river’s banks, eagerly awaiting the races.

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Brilliant reflections of colourful flags looked like Monet’s paintings of water lilies!

Those not at the races were gathered in small groups having picnics all along the length of the river.

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In the evening religious rituals were performed and flowers and lighted candles were floated down the river by hundreds of people, a little like Ganga Arti in India. The whole city was partying!

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The legend of the water festival is actually a geographical fact: when the Mekong river is in spate water backs up into the Tonlé Sap river, fills the Tonlé Sap lake, and backs up into the little Siem Reap river which therefore floods its banks. The ebbing of the water is what is celebrated.

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The Mekong river in spate
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School in floating village on the Tonle Sap lake
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Children arriving at school in boats
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The skipper let my husband take a turn at the wheel as he is a captain on sea-going vessels!
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A young girl rowed the boat through the floating forest
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Houses on stilts
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A home on stilts. Rice spread out to dry in the sun.

This is the reason why homes are built on stilts in regions along the river. This is also why floating villages exist.

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Dawn at Angkor Wat is as beautiful as the brochures say.

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Dawn breaking, Venus shining in the sky

This was my blue-and-silver sunrise, shared with a couple of hundred other folks that morning.

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Angkor Wat is a vast ruin. It’s the largest religious complex ever built in the world. Walking past ancient sculptures under a bright blue sky and a blazing sun, a magical vibe in the air, you feel transported to a distant time in the past, making the trudge through rubble and up and down uneven stone steps worthwhile.

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There’s a comfortable sense of familiarity in Angkor Wat’s layout and architecture for an Indian like me. It’s a mandala, or a microcosm of the universe.

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A model of the Angkor Wat temple at Phnom Penh

The central shikhara represents Mt Meru, the mythical abode of the gods; you pass through five doorways in five walls to reach the centre. Each wall and space symbolizes a step in the spiritual journey of man until he reaches the garbagriha, where the deity embodying the Universal Principle, or God, resides. The moat surrounding the temple complex stands for the ocean that surrounds the land, the flat earth with an edge, as people imagined it those days.

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First Hinduism, then Buddhism, came to Cambodia from India in the late BCEs and early CEs. Funnily, Hindu gods who came before Buddha are now viewed affectionately as remote ancestors: Ta Prohm = Ancestor Brahma, Ta Reach = Ancestor Vishnu. Ta means grandfather. They are still worshipped, as is Ganesha, something we were surprised to discover. Hindu beliefs have been absorbed into a seamlessly syncretic Buddhism rather than ridiculed and rejected without comprehension, the way recent converts from Hinduism to other religions do today in India.

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Ta Prohm, temple of Brahma

IMG_5357A dwarpalak, or guard, stands on either side of the first doorway. All dwarpalaks at these temples have been beheaded over the past few centuries, like most of the statues of deities and divinities. The heads are now probably displayed in museums around the world. Fortunately, many of them are housed in the Angkor museum, safe from vandals and smugglers. Angkor artifacts command a high price in the black market dealing in stolen antiques.

There are scores of empty yonis from which Shivalingas have been gouged out, possibly by the Vietnamese or the Chams long ago. Or even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

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Empty yonis from which Shivalingas have been removed

Or maybe they were removed when the temples were repurposed for Buddhist worship in the 15th century. Historically it is common for people to remove deities of another religion and replace them with their own deities: the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul was once a church, Spanish conquerors replaced the temples of Inti the Sun-god of the Incas in Peru with churches, etc. Traditionally, Hindu temples are built from scratch on carefully chosen plots of land following rules of vaasthu shastra and shilpa shastra, so any available building cannot be turned into a temple. It has to be on land where there has been no strife or bloodshed so there’s sanctity to begin with. Anyway, the guides at Angkor were unable to tell me what happened to the shivalingas, though one did mention that they were in the government’s safekeeping.

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The memorial at Choeung Ek

One day we visited one of the Killing Fields of Pol Pot at Choeung Ek, a most unhappy experience. There was a monument housing all the bones that had been unearthed from the mass graves after the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979. There were piles of victims’ clothes that had apparently floated up to the surface of the shallow graves after heavy rains turned the area into slush.

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The tree against which the heads of babies belonging to ‘arrested’ people were smashed was covered in little offerings left by visitors. I felt terrible and I could see that most people standing there were feeling awful too.

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In the museum there are many, many photographs of victims, and well-made charts telling the story of what happened in those awful years between 1975-1979. A couple of rooms in the museum are dedicated to information about the people responsible for the genocide. There’s a large photo of Kaing Guek Eav, the commandant of the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh, wearing a smart white Polo shirt, no obvious remorse on his face after being responsible for the death of nearly 10,000 innocents. In fact, he has actually said in court that he ought to be acquitted because he was only following orders! He is still alive, in jail.

IMG_7322 2The most shocking part of the story is that he worked as a mathematics teacher for twenty whole years, undetected, until a journalist exposed him. And the other thing that I find amazing is that he converted to Christianity after all this! An avowed communist who killed thousands for his atheistic cause, now seeking absolution through religion!

Another sad aspect of this saga is that the international community could have saved more than a million lives if only Gunnar Bergström of Sweden had not accepted Pol Pot’s invitation to check out the refugees’ claims of starvation, torture and massacre for himself, then got taken in by the Potemkin village scenario that was set up for his benefit. So, unfortunately, the message he carried to the western world favoured the Khmer Rouge. In 2016 Bergström said that it was the geopolitics being played out between China, the US and Russia at the time that resulted in the Cambodian genocide. The usual explanation, like how one explains the destruction of Yemen, or the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi nowadays. We never learn in spite of all the wars and genocides that have happened.

On our way back from the Killing Fields we stopped at Tuol Sleng (S-21) to see the school that had been used to imprison, interrogate and brutally torture victims before they were dispatched to the killing field in Choeung Ek. IMG_5852The metal cots, the torture paraphernalia, the barbed wires strung across the building’s façade to prevent desperate people from committing suicide by jumping off higher floors, single cells, dried blood stains and actual photographs of people being tortured have been preserved almost in the condition in which they were found in 1979. The blackboards in the classrooms are a poignant reminder that this was once an ordinary little school. Looking down from an upper storey I could imagine the excited shrieks of children running around during lunch break.

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As we were leaving Tuol Sleng we passed a very old man sitting at a table signing books. He is one of the only seven survivors from Tuol Sleng. His name is Bou Meng. He says he was treated a little better after his tormentors came to know that he was an artist and could keep painting portraits of Pol Pot for them. We bought a book and he autographed it for us.

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One morning we set out for Preah Khan, another part of the Angkor Wat complex. Just outside the archway leading to it we got out of the tuk-tuk to admire a very tall white tree. Its common name in Khmer was painted on a small board at its base. It was a Spung tree.

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I was very surprised to find that the shape of the letter ‘sa’ in Khmer was similar to ‘sa’ in Kannada, my state language. I asked our tuk-tuk driver Chanda (chanda means light in Khmer, moon in many Indian languages) if he could recite the Khmer alphabet for me. Again I was surprised that it was like the alphabet of almost all Indian languages, from J&K to Kerala, from Gujarat to Bengal (excluding the northeastern states)! Our consonants go like this: ka-kha-ga-gha-nga, ch-chha-ja-jha-nja, etc. Khmer goes ka-kha-ko-kho-ngo, cha-chha-cho-chho-nho. Looking it up on the net I found a resemblance between the kannada ‘ga’, ‘ya’ and ‘ja’ and the corresponding consonants in Khmer in the written form.

At the museum in Phnom Penh there was a whole section devoted to stone inscriptions.

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The Khmer script has apparently evolved from both Sanskrit and ‘South Indian’. For example, there’s a stone slab with the first two lines in Sanskrit and the next six in Khmer . . .

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I fancied I could read this word in Khmer as sha-ta . . . ­ha-na in Kannada. Could it be shatavahana? That was one of the dynasties that was in power in South India from 1 BCE to 2CE . . . Was the next word sin-ha-la, the old name for Sri Lanka? I’m very likely totally, totally wrong but those moments of speculation were exciting . . . The Khmer script has gone through 9-10 iterations over the past 10-12 centuries, and the ancient Kannada script is so different from the current one that I can’t read it at all, so I can’t tell if they did resemble once upon a time. So, even if there had been a likeness a thousand years back, they diverged long ago. Chaos Theory applies I guess.

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However, this inscription says Aum jaiminiya swaha, a Hindu mantra. I can read the ‘jai‘ and the ‘swaha‘ here – in Kannada! Swaha is the last word in every mantra recited by pandits while performing a homa, or havan, a ritual involving fire offerings to Agni the fire-god. Swaha is the name of Agni’s consort. The same rituals were observed in Cambodia as they were in India, so far away, at one time in history! And in the same language ­–­ Sanskrit. I was overwhelmed.

A single idea can change when it is processed by another mind. Like when I use any of my mother’s recipes the dish turns out slightly different than hers, and other versions result when my sisters cook the same dish using the same recipe. So I marvel at the fact that such a massive bunch of Indian notions and beliefs were shared with a large, distant population, propagated almost intact for many centuries, modified in an organic way rather than by design, and they still remain recognizable. For example, they have a version of the Ramayana, called Reamker, in which all the names are distorted but recognizable from the context because the story remains quite faithful to the original. The names of Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughn carry a hint of their original names, but those of Luv-Kush, Rama’s twin sons, not at all.

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And the transfer of all this information was done without indoctrination, coercion or bloodshed. When another set of ideas and beliefs – Buddhism – arrived from India, the Khmer people liked them more. So they began to follow Buddha’s teachings, retaining some of the old Hindu beliefs and their own animistic ones, while also allowing room for the Chinese in their midst to indulge their rituals and religious beliefs (pic below). At least, this is the impression we got from what we saw and what we managed to glean from the language-challenged conversations we had with Cambodians we met.

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We found the Cambodians to be peaceful and patient people except for one young tuk-tuk driver, Dara, who lost his temper because we stopped to drink coconut water too many times, when all he wanted was to ride his tuk-tuk non-stop at breakneck speed. He glared at us and shouted “Youuuuuuuuu . . . youuuu . . . stop-stop-stop-stop-stop . . . WRONGGG!” and threatened to offload us on the highway!

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I can’t do justice to Cambodia in one blog post – there’s street food, clothes, Pub Street, lotuses, the markets, silk weaving, modern monuments, the riverfront, cute little babies, tree roots reclaiming land from old monuments, the longest boat in the world, loads of Apsara dance poses, lush green rice paddies, the bus trip to Phnom Penh, remains of French colonial architecture, Khmer script written by our tut-tuk driver, a young couple on a pre-wedding shoot (saw quite a few – it’s a trend now), Buddhas, homes on stilts, and the bane of cities everywhere – ugly black wires marring the beauty of the city . . . and lots more . . . So, here’s a slide show. . .

 

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paradise lost

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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 Tamil Nadu. There’s plenty of water here.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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There’s no dearth of electricity here. Streets and buildings are well-illuminated.

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Cultural Center in Kuwait City

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.

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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.

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Sunset behind an army of pylons on the road to Bubiyan island

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.

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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.

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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.

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But what do we do? We chop off fully grown trees to make way for flyovers of highly doubtful utility.

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Tabebuias in Cubbon Park, Bangalore

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!

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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.