trekking around bangalore

We’ve been driving out to some of those pleasant places situated roughly between 60 and 100 km from Bangalore on some Saturdays ever since the lockdown ended last year. Driving down the smooth highways is as much of a pleasure as reaching the destination, something unthinkable ten years ago.

We start out around 6:00 a.m. and stop for breakfast on the highway at a place that has outdoor seating, and the waiters are masked. We keep our masks on, except when we are actually eating. Most often, no other table is occupied, so we are social distanced anyway.

A plate of piping hot idli-sambar, or a masala dosa, with a tumbler of coffee, and we are on our way to a memorable visit to some nice dreamscape. The Deccan plateau is dotted with hills strewn with massive boulders, that make for a climb that is neither easy nor hard, but just right to give us a great workout and a sense of achievement. The view from the top is enough to make one send up a prayer of thanks for being a Bangalorean! And the cool breeze up there? Heavenly!

There are no crowds at any of them, especially as we arrive before 8:00 in the morning. And we are back home by late afternoon, before Bangalore’s awful traffic starts jamming up the roads, after a scrumptious lunch at a restaurant on the highway. We normally make a game of spotting a good eatery and predicting the quality of the fare on offer before pulling over. We have never been disappointed!

Here are some snapshots.

Thottikallu falls: Bangalore Urban district, 35 km south of Bangalore

This was our first outing. We made the mistake of starting out late in the morning, and the place was crowded. Entry to the falls was restricted so we walked along the river and peeked at the falls from a distance. Actually, just being out in the open after months of lockdown was itself exhilarating enough for nothing else to matter!

*******

Shivanasamudra falls: Mandya district, 133 km southwest of Bangalore

Again, beautiful but crowded place, but large enough to keep a safe distance from others who, like us, were reveling in their new freedom. Shivanasamudra is like Nandi Hills – all of us Bangaloreans treat it like our backyard and drive up whenever we feel like running away from Bangalore’s noise and air pollution.

*******

Antargange: Kolar district, 64 km east of Bangalore

We climbed up many flights of steps that led to a small temple complex. Behind the temples was a trekking trail to reach the caves that Antargange is famous for. The climb involved feeling for hand- and footholds to clamber up and around rocks. It was between easy and moderate, very satisfying.

We didn’t go into the caves to avoid getting into unventilated spaces. Local people selling water, bananas and cucumbers along the way told us there were no corona cases there, but we kept our masks on and kept our distance.

*******

Kailasagiri: Chikkaballapura district, 77 km northeast of Bangalore

We reached Kailasagiri at 8:30 a.m. We were the only people there! We thought it might be closed, as it was a public holiday for Sankranthi. We looked it up online and found it would open at half past ten.

As we sat on a low wall not sure what to do, we saw motorbikes coming out of a lane every few minutes. So we went to check out what was up the lane and ended up walking uphill for 3.5 km.

The trail opened on to a flat wide space where there was a small Anjaneya temple that housed a stone slab with a 1000-year-old carving of Anjaneya. The temple archak told us it had been dug out from under a huge anthill and consecrated. A larger temple was under construction.

From this point one could climb up the rocky hill to a fort at the top but we decided to do that another time, as the trek under an overcast sky had been fulfilling enough for one day.

*******

Haddinakallu: Tumkur district, 104 km west of Bangalore

We parked at the base of the hill and learned from locals that we had to leave our shoes in the car and go up the hill barefoot as they regarded the entire hill as holy. There was a tiny shrine right there near where we parked, and one more a little way up, apart from the temple right at the top.

Feeling the ancient rough granite underfoot was nice, actually, despite the occasional pointy little stones I sometimes stepped on. There were no trees, no shade at all, so it was a tiring climb to the top. The view was as spectacular as expected. We could see our parked car so far below that it seemed like we would never be able to get back to it again!

Coming down, the granite underfoot was scorching hot and we tippy-toed to the car as fast as we could. It was a very hot day. Even the cold water we had carried in thermoses didn’t slake our thirst. We stopped at a sugarcane juice gaadi a few km down the road and I felt this was perhaps what amrit, the nectar of the gods, tasted like!

*******

Lepakshi: Anantpur district, Andhra Pradesh, 124 km north of Bangalore

Lepakshi is just across the Karnataka-AP border. There’s a temple complex built by the Vijayanagar kings in the 15th century. It is like Hampi on a much smaller scale and has the same super-peaceful Hampi vibe.

Lepakshi is where the bird Jatayu fell when Ravana attacked him in the Ramayana. Lord Rama tried to revive him saying “Get up, bird”, which is “Lepakshi” in Telugu. There’s a huge sculpture of Jatayu and a nicely maintained park around it.

On this trip there was no trekking or rock-climbing. Just walking through the ancient temple complex, then around the Jatayu Park and the nearby Nandi Park was nice. We came across unexpected little pockets of beauty: a small lotus pond, bougainvillea in every colour along the path, clever work by ancient stone masons where they had moulded the slabs to follow the contours of the hill on which the temple was built – interesting little things like that.

And there was a Hangyo ice cream kiosk selling the creamiest kulfi, most welcome on a hot Andhra day!

Achalubetta: Bangalore Rural district, 73 km southwest of Bangalore

Acchalu is a tiny hamlet, a cluster of 15-20 little houses. We asked a couple of women how to get to the top of the hill behind their village and they said, “follow the electricity lines”. Perfect directions!

We climbed up nearly to the top without meeting a single soul. It was unseasonably warm, so we decided to turn back a kilometer or so shy of the hilltop.

When we passed a flat-ish part of the trail I picked up a long straight stick and tried a ‘javelin throw’, wholly inspired by Neeraj’s Olympic gold medal! As someone who used to be a javelin thrower in high school I was thrilled to watch it trace a beautiful arc and land with its point hitting the ground. And when my kid shouted, “Ma, you threw so well!” I felt a surge of podium-level joy!

When we came down to the village the women we had met earlier asked if we had enjoyed the climb. They smiled broadly when I gave them a thumbs-up and said I’d love to buy a house in Acchalu and live there.

*******

Makalidurga: Bangalore Rural district, 58 km north of Bangalore

We asked the young couple next door if they would like to join us with their toddler. They were thrilled at the prospect of an outing where the little one could expend some of her boundless energy.

Luckily, the first part of the trek was a walking path, minimally inclined, not strenuous at all. It was fun watching the kid exclaim over everything she had been denied in her corona-controlled young life. She kept picking up mud and letting it slip out between her fingers, enjoying its texture. She ran up and down the trekking trail, then settled down on a large rock and began to seriously build cairns!

We turned back when we reached the part where we would have to negotiate rocky paths to climb uphill.

A railway track passed through Makalidurga and a pretty red train, a long one, went by, much to the little girl’s surprise and delight.

*******

Avani: Kolar district, 94 km east of Bangalore

The high point of the drive to Avani was the flame-of-the-forest trees in bloom in the near distance. We got down to take a closer look at one particularly beautiful one.

The legend of the Sita temple in Avani goes back to the days of the Ramayana. It is said to be the birthplace of Lord Rama’s sons Lava and Kusha. The many temples in the complex, as I understand it, were built in the 10th century by a Kannadiga dynasty called Nolamba that I had not heard of before.

As we were there for trekking I didn’t really take in enough of the history and architecture, something that I intend to do another time. The climb was worth it, though – good exercise, good view from the hilltop.

*******

Madhugiri: Tumkur district, 105 km northwest of Bangalore

The fort at the top of the hill was closed because of COVID. We strolled around parts of Madhugiri town near the fort and absorbed the town vibe, watching people go about their business. The feel of a town and city are so different, so it was a nice change from Bangalore.

When we came upon this crossroad a flurry of rapidly changing images rushed through my mind, of places I had been to as a child, villages I had passed through in more recent years, places I had seen in movies, scrambled with places I had imagined in History classes at school. There was a strange but pleasant sense of déjà vu.

*******

SRS Hills and Kootgal: Ramnagara district, 63 km southwest of Bangalore

We set out at 6 o’clock in the morning and stopped for a breakfast of thatte idli that’s famous around Bidadi. At Ramanagara we got off the highway and drove down a State road flanked by massive ancient trees. I took the wheel on this beautiful smooth winding road that took us through many, many little villages with names that seem to encapsulate a story.

Gollachennayyana doddi. Maybe this land was once owned by a cowherd/shepherd (golla) called Chennayya?

Petekurubanahalli. Was there someone from the Kuruba community who moved to the big city (pete) and prospered and was thereafter referred to as Pete-Kuruba, and then others started referring to his village by the name of its successful son?

We reached SRS hills at about quarter past eight. Like Haddinakallu, we had to climb barefoot but it was an easy climb up roughly hewn steps to the Siddeshwara temple at the top of the hill. And the trail was completely in the shade of a metal awning that extended all the way from the bottom to the top. The view was typical Ramnagara, comfortingly familiar.

As this had been an easy climb we drove another 20 km to Kootgal. In the eighties, a trekker friend and I had gone as guides with my younger sister and her friends to Thimmappanabetta near Kootgal on a night trek. We had had to put off the trek because local people told us there were bears about at night. So we had slept in the bus stand at Kootgal and walked to Thimmappanabetta in the morning.

Kootgal – 1980s

It looked exactly the way it did then! I was glad to see the immutable Kootgal rocks standing stolidly in a world where everything changes too rapidly for my comfort. From one side we got an aerial view of the neat little village of Kootgal.

Kootgal – 1980s

*******

Mandaragiri: Tumkur district, 62 km northwest of Bangalore

The Jain temple was closed due to COVID. We climbed to the top of a monolithic granite hill, an easy climb. We walked through the foliage and reached a lake where there were already a lot of people.

I saw a dog chase and catch a baby bird by its wing. The mother bird followed the dog, twittering anxiously. Without thinking, I chased the dog. The dog dropped the baby bird and dived into the undergrowth, and the baby bird flew away with its mother. Then the dog came out and hunted around for its prey and slunk away in disappointment . . . I was left with the unhappy feeling that I had intervened in something that wasn’t my business. Then I noticed that he had a collar . . .

*******

Avalabetta: Chikkaballapur district, 91 km north of Bangalore

We left home at 6:00 a.m. as usual and had breakfast on the way. Bright patches of flaming orange and yellow marigold fields flew past our windows every now and then, and we couldn’t resist pulling over once to admire them and take snaps.

At Avalabetta we parked the car in the area that has been recently cleared for parking cars and bikes because of it’s sudden popularity with trekkers. Then, on an impulse, we decided to stroll a little way down the narrow mud road leading to the next village. The surface was terrible but there was a rusty board saying the government planned to pave it . . . It really should get down to it asap. Villagers on motorbikes passed us every few minutes on our 2 km walk and it was obvious they were struggling to keep their balance, especially on the parts that were very much like scree, dangerously slippery.

There were little patches of wild flowers all along the edge, and tufts of lemon grass that had a definite citrus smell when I crushed a blade between my fingers.

After walking for 2 km we turned back and went to the beginning of the trail to climb the hill. It wasn’t very challenging as it was just a nicely paved road leading to the temples at the top. There was a Sunday crowd (that’s why we normally trek on Saturdays) so we kept our masks on and didn’t stay long.

At one point I stopped to ask a young couple coming down how much longer it would take to reach the top. It was a very short conversation (‘Where are you from?’ ‘Bangalore. And you?’ ‘Also Bangalore’) but the boy self-consciously inserted “we’re married.” I was astonished, but caught on fast enough to say, “Oh my, I’m not the moral police here!” They laughed loudly in relief but looked sheepish at the same time.

grimsby

It’s Sunday afternoon. I’ve been reading about Brexit and can’t help thinking it’s a terrible idea. How will they opt out of hundreds of agreements with the other countries in EU? What a nightmare that must be. No wonder they call it a divorce. And there’s a child too, the Irish backstop. Reading about Teresa May’s recent visit to Grimsby brought back memories of the few hours I spent there long ago.

IMG_8146

Our ship was berthed at the port of Immingham. It was June and the weather was pleasant. My husband and I hitched a ride to the Seafarers’ Club from where we caught a bus to Grimsby, about ten miles away. It was a double-decker and we had front seats on the upper level. Oh, the countryside! This was my first time in the UK and all the imagined landscapes in English storybooks from childhood came alive.

We walked around Grimsby town, shopped for – I remember – a box of oil paints, turpentine, oil and paintbrushes, ate lunch at Wimpy’s and headed back towards the bus stop. But we couldn’t find the bus stop. So we asked people for directions. They all looked puzzled and repeated “Bus?” Finally I requested someone to wait for a moment while I found a twig and drew a bus in the sand at the edge of the road. “Oh? You mean a boos?!”

IMG_8147

We got off the bus at Immingham town and walked around for a couple of hours looking at the pretty little houses and gardens. Another short bus ride, and we were at the docks at sunset. It was one of those perfect days when you feel happy just to be alive, and don’t wish for anything to be added to your life.

IMG_8149

I can’t imagine what will happen to small towns like Grimsby that largely depend on fishing, or any other one thing that gets taken away because the world is changing.

Our ship used to visit a small village in Newfoundland called Come by Chance, where there was an oil refinery, and the lives of everyone there revolved around it. A few years ago I read that the refinery was closing down. Once, while driving through the Las Vegas/Hoover dam/Lake Mead area in the US we passed many places that began as housing for employees of manufacturing units and factories. Like, Kingman came up in the late 1800s for housing railroad workers, Henderson was settled during  WW2 as a housing area for employees of a Magnesium plant, etc. They went through crises when the reason for their formation ceased to exist, but reinvented themselves and are involved in other pursuits now. I guess that’s what could happen to Grimsby and other places that will suffer if Brexit happens.

 

 

 

 

kashmir, 1988

In November 1988 I met a little Kashmiri boy of about eight in a local bus in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir.

Unasked, he informed me in Hindi, “I’m Pakistani”.

I naïvely asked why he was visiting India.

He gave me an insolent look and said in a curious singsong voice in Hindi, “I will live in India, I will eat of India, but I will remain Pakistani!”

He surely didn’t come up with that himself. It even had a tune like a much-repeated jingle, the kind that you can’t help saying like it sounds on TV, like ‘washing powder Nirma, washing powder Nirma’.

And this was in 1988, two years before the Kashmiri Hindu genocide.

I think the whole system on which Jammu & Kashmir runs is rotten from top to bottom, from the top person in government to indoctrinated kids like this. You don’t expect a fine yield if a wheat crop is affected by blight when young shoots are emerging; the grains will be nubbins. And it looks like it’s been this way with such children in Kashmir since 1947.

This was not all. On a sightseeing trip around town our bus once got stoned by a bunch of people. Another time, when the tour operator had stopped by a shop that sold silk sarees and scarves, we saw our bus suddenly lurch out of its parking spot with some of our group trying to scramble up its steps. We were still inside the shop. Local men were chasing the bus and pelting stones as the driver increased speed. The shop-owners hustled us to the back of the shop and hastily downed shutters. Then they called for a cab (or maybe somebody’s car), peeped out furtively and sort of smuggled us out into the car. We were too dazed to even ask what happened. These people were probably average Kashmiris who were not anti-India and were protecting us – Indians from other states ­– the way the rest of India is now trying to protect Kashmiri students from angry, unhappy citizens baying for Kashmiri blood.

So you see, stone-pelting in Srinagar is nothing new. I saw it with my own eyes in 1988. Thirty years ago.

One evening there was an explosion in Lal Chowk in the city centre. Luckily, we were staying in the cantonment area in an Army guesthouse a few kilometres from downtown. We weren’t affected except for having to make a number of phone calls to our anxious parents and others who knew we were in Srinagar. I can only imagine how much anxiety families of army and CRPF men posted at Jammu & Kashmir live through.

Like most Indians I am deeply saddened by the killing of more than forty jawans by an Indian hireling of a bunch of subversive elements. Their modus operandi is simple: a psychopathic coward programs a less intelligent being to kill. Adil Ahmad Dar is described as a shy, introverted high school dropout with average intelligence. A perfect candidate for a fall guy.

Like an agent convincing a flop actor that he has hundreds of fans, his handler wooed him with dreams of success and fame, and a place in a mythical heaven. So he agreed to ram a car loaded with explosives into a convoy of his own country’s soldiers. Before doing this he recorded a little speech and put it on the internet. His fifteen minutes of fame. Poor little minion, a weak Indian kid whose diffident soul fell prey to a depraved person’s machinations.

Tourism is all that Kashmiris have. They don’t produce anything that we can’t easily get from elsewhere. For example, we get apples from Himachal Pradesh and we import California walnuts from the US. And the wool for Pashmina shawls sold in souvenir shops in Srinagar comes from Ladakh, not Kashmir. But Kashmiris get most of their daily needs from the rest of India.

A genuinely important cash crop they grow is saffron. Indian saffron is considered the best, supposedly better than Iranian and Spanish saffron. Apparently saffron crops are currently suffering because of corm rot and a lack of water. A little R&D might help the saffron farmers of Kashmir, but who will set up a lab in a place like that?

When I visited Kashmir in 1988 I was advised to avoid buying saffron because what they were selling as saffron was actually a box of hair-thin strands of cardboard dyed red! What a perfect metaphor for Adil Ahmad Dar and his ilk.

thin crust

img_7632

A few days ago I was at Trichy, a city about 350 km from Bangalore. One of the places I visited was the Rock Temple. The Ganesha temple stands on a rock that is 3.6 billion years old! This is considered one of the oldest exposed rocks in the world and belongs to Earth’s infancy, the Hadean eon. It’s only a few million years younger than the world’s oldest exposed rocks that are in Australia and Canada apparently, and a lot older than the sedimentary rocks of the Grand Canyon.

dsc00273
Sedimentary rock layers of the Grand Canyon

As I stood outside the temple at the top I felt the ancientness of India in my soul. Looking down at the town spread out below me I was overcome by the sense of transience that assails me now and then. The spot where Trichy lies has been inhabited for hundreds of years; there are references to its existence in records from 2nd century BCE. A lot is known about Trichy from the 5th century CE, when it was ruled by a string of kings from different dynasties. But two thousand years is actually not a very long time.

img_7639
Unfinished cave temple from 650 CE carved during the reign of the Pallava dynasty

When you come down to it, India is just a 100 km thick layer of crust-and-mantle floating on the Earth’s surface. It’s called the Indian plate and is half the thickness of the more robust China plate. Underneath it is viscous gunk that can liquefy anytime and send the Indian plate sliding under China! Geologists say our little chip rifted from Africa about 55 million years ago and was rapidly scooted northwards by mantle plumes deep under the ocean till it rammed into China, partially slid under China, and created the Himalayas.

The Indian tectonic plate doesn’t have deep lithospheric roots unlike the China plate. I imagine India spinning its wheels trying to find purchase, pressed against China by subterranean forces. On the surface of the earth India and China squabble over tiny bits of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. They are forced to diplomatically make the relationship work like two fifth-graders punished with detention for fighting over a desk to sit at. One day the whole of India could suddenly slide, i.e. subduct, under China and cease to exist! This is probably the wrong lens through which I should view international relations, but when I hear the things people running the world say, I  wonder if the economics of oil and weapon sales is the only lens that is approved.

Knowing that I live on this fragile little piece of the earth’s crust gives me a sense of impermanence regarding our continents with their tidily drawn lines that separate countries into independent entities, each with its own government, people and culture. We confidently declare there are 195 countries. We live like it was this way since the beginning of time. And we make nukes to ‘protect’ ourselves from our bogeymen countries, when the odds are already stacked against our little Lilliputian race of Homo sapiens.

It took four eons to reach where we have. One eon is about a billion years. Should any of us even consider damaging the one and only beautiful, fragile blue-and-green marble we call home? Imagine if we could think of ourselves as Gondwanites, Laurentians or, even better, Pangaeans with no borders, or even merely earthlings!

 

 

 

 

 

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!

IMG_7488
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.

******************

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.

IMG_7360
Churning of the Ocean of Milk

IMG_7370
Apsara dance

IMG_7426
Mani Mekhala – Praying for rain

IMG_7448
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.

*******************

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!

IMG_5272

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

IMG_7075.jpg
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.

img_5405.jpg

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!

IMG_5291 2.jpg

 

IMG_5296.jpg

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.

IMG_5735 2
The Mekong river in spate

IMG_5241
School in floating village on the Tonle Sap lake

IMG_5242
Children arriving at school in boats

IMG_5230 3
The skipper let my husband take a turn at the wheel as he is a captain on sea-going vessels!

IMG_5248
A young girl rowed the boat through the floating forest

IMG_6036
Houses on stilts

IMG_6079
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.

********************

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

IMG_5464
Dawn breaking, Venus shining in the sky

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

IMG_7167

IMG_5503 2.jpg

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.

IMG_5088 2

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.

IMG_7285
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.

IMG_5353.jpg

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.

IMG_5126
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.

IMG_5367
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.

*********************

IMG_5839 2
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.

IMG_5844

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.

IMG_5842

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.

IMG_5858

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.

****************

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.

IMG_5330

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.

IMG_5877.jpg

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 . . .

img_5883.jpg
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.

IMG_5888

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.

img_5869.jpg

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.

IMG_5912

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!

IMG_7217 2

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. . .

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a short voyage

It was lovely being back on a nice big ship again after sixteen years.

IMG_20180426_041056
Sunrise on my first morning on the ship

My husband’s a captain on a VLCC, or very large crude carrier. It measures 330m x 60m. That’s thrice the length of a 100m sprint track and maybe as big as one of those islands that mysteriously spring up in the South China Sea overnight!

DSC03137

Here are pictures of the anchor chain, and the spare anchor stored on the main deck. The accommodation is about 200m in the distance.

I had no access to WordPress during my month-long stay aboard. But, seriously, I had nothing to write about because I mostly write when I’m riled up. I read, watched movies and enjoyed the company of the other people on board. The food was great and the best part is that I didn’t have to cook it myself!

DSC03190
The galley

The deck officers and engineers were from different countries and the crew, including kitchen staff, was Filipino. Diversity of this sort makes for interesting conversations. I love how my mind stops being preoccupied with my usual worries and frees up space for all the new information that is invariably shared, mostly at the dinner table, when everyone gathers together after work.

Igor, the chief mate, is from Dubrovnik in Croatia. Apart from the well-known collective headache caused to the people of Dubrovnik by tourists after GoT was shot there, life in his city is good. The Croatians I sailed with in 1990 had been a worried lot as Yugoslavia was in the middle of a bloody civil war at the time and was breaking up into many small states, one of them being Croatia. Igor happily told me all about his wife, kids, parents – and even in-laws! – and I got to see snaps of all of them. What a lovely, doting husband and father, and what an adorable pair of tiny twin girls!

Ante, the third mate, is from Split, Croatia. He was reserved, but as we were often the only two people having lunch in the saloon at noon he would talk to me. He told me he had worked on cruise ships before switching to tankers. Really? Did he have to talk to passengers? He answered in his characteristic grumpy style, in that European accent that sounds so innocent and childlike: “Buth I usually avoidh them. They ask the sa-ame sthoopid questions, in the sa-ame ordher – ‘whath is your name, how long you sailing, where you from…’” His brilliant blue eyes filled with disgust at the mere memory of it. “Here I don’th have to thalk to anyone!” But as he continued to talk about Split and his life there whenever we were at the lunch table together – and even smiled occasionally – I guess ‘anyone’ didn’t include me.

Living in India where the population only goes up and up, I was surprised when Samuel, the second engineer, told us that the population of his country, Bulgaria, is falling! From nine million in 1985, to seven million now. Why? Because of the economic collapse after the fall of communism in 1989, and because of Bulgaria joining the EU in 2007. So where did two million Bulgarians go? To Germany, along with two million Romanians! If Germany accommodated them, plus all the refugees it’s been taking in, maybe Lady Liberty should be relocated to Germany from New York, especially with Trump’s new policies!

Dinner table conversations with Samuel and the Egyptian chief engineer, Tareq, were fun actually. I miss them. Samuel’s wide-ranging topics – from Baba Vanga and Akashic records, to movies and documentaries, to recent research in tech for studying the mind – were always engaging. Since Tareq’s communication style didn’t allow for nuance, he made some pretty interesting, but jaw-dropping, statements! Really, the way different people express things can leave you totally surprised. The electrical engineer, Kris, who is from Poland, was once telling a group of us about some scientific work on black holes. He got frustrated because he couldn’t get the name of the scientist, went bright pink with the effort, finally slouched in his chair, bent his neck to one side and proclaimed, “That guy!” Of course, it was obvious that no disrespect to Stephen Hawking was intended.

I spent forty minutes every evening with the deck cadet, Llorenç, to add a little to my meagre knowledge of Spanish. Llorenç is from Mallorca and speaks Catalan and Spanish. We wrote out conversations for translation around our own experiences. I wanted to learn to say things in preterite tense as I had only done lessons in present continuous when I attempted to learn Spanish before. This way, I could talk about things that have already happened in my long life rather than simply give a commentary in present continuous!

IMG-20180424-WA0004

Before I met LIorenç I knew nothing about Mallorca except that it’s a tourist destination and that Rafael Nadal is from there. Now I feel as though I’ve spent a few days with Llorenç and his girlfriend on their island, visited their new apartment, and seen all his favourite haunts. Mallorca is now a place that I think of warmly; it’s no longer just a smudge on a map.

I loved being a part of this little community. It was like a family. Most nights, especially moonlit nights, I used to look out of the porthole in my cabin and feel very peaceful as the ship quietly sailed along the course set for her. I knew that our conscientious young second mate, Daniel, had carefully set the course, and it had been double-checked by the captain. I knew that Ante, Daniel and Igor, during their watches, would be monitoring the radars and other instruments carefully up on the bridge through the night. I felt safe ensconced in my bunk, with the ship rocking ever so slightly. There was the slightest vibration from her engine – a comforting sensation – as she made her slow progress out of the Gulf, crossed the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, squeezed through the traffic of the Singapore straits, then sailed up north through the South China sea, to finally reach Ulsan in South Korea over twenty days.

IMG_20180429_085707
Singapore straits with heavy traffic

I loved the clarity of knowing that the ship had only one thing to do: transport tonnes of crude oil from Kuwait to Korea. Everyone worked towards this one goal in a perfectly coordinated operation.

DSC03201
Pilot boat with Ulsan in the background

When we neared Ulsan the pilot came in a pilot boat and the crew lowered the pilot ladder for him. He climbed on to the deck and went up to the bridge to guide the ship towards the SBM (single buoy mooring). The engineers down in the engine room monitored the main engine as per the commands given from the bridge control.

DSC03238
Captain, pilot, second mate and a crew member on the bridge (wheel house) as ship is entering the port

Then, two tugs made sure the ship wouldn’t ride up on to the buoy. Around then, the loading master arrived on a boat from the port.

DSC03234
Tailing tug on the stern

DSC03233
Tug assisting on the port bow

The chief mate and his crew set up the equipment for cargo transfer on the main deck, the loading master coordinated between the ship and the shore, the deck officers took turns at manning the Cargo Control Room, and the entire operation was smoothly completed over several hours.

DSC03245

DSC03248

We had a chance to go ashore by boat at Ulsan port. The ship chandler, Mr. Bak, who supplies our ship provisions, took us around in his car.

img_20180527_222404.jpg

We got to see a bit of Ulsan and try Korean food.

IMG-20180527-WA0002
Mr. Bak introduced us to the Korean barbecue, called gogi-gui, where you grill meat on a charcoal grill built into the table

As we were driving down a city road Mr. Bak reverently pointed to a wall that seemed to go on for ever: “Hyundai factory.” A bit further, another never-ending wall: “Hyundai port.” Eighty percent of the cars on the road were Hyundai, including the one we were riding in.

IMG-20180508-WA0014

Ulsan was preparing for Buddha’s birth anniversary on 18th May. Buddhist temples were decorated for the occasion.

IMG-20180527-WA0001
Children on a school trip at the Bulguksa Temple, a Unesco Heritage site

Just a thought as I end this nostalgia trip: One of the sentences I had written out for my Spanish class with Llorenç was ‘I couldn’t bear to get rid of it (my old moped).’ He translated it as me sabía mal tirarla. I asked why me sabía mal, not me senti mal. He thought for a moment, then placed a fist over his tummy and said, “No… it’s like… bad food…” I thought about it. There are things you feel in your gut, and not through your senses, so you can’t use sentir, I suppose.

IMG_4184Me sabía mal. This is how I felt when I walked down the gangway for the last time. As I sat down in the boat that would take me ashore to catch a flight back home, I looked out at the ship that had been my home for a month, until it disappeared from view.

Shippees maintain that friendships on ships are only up to the gangway. True. They can only rarely sustain friendships that are forged over three or four months of working together. But I will treasure the delicate threads of memory of the time spent with these guys. They are bits of colourful weft woven through the largely neutral (beige? teal? mauve?) warp of my life. For this one month, they were family, and I’ll feel the warm glow of the camaraderie I shared with them, whenever I think of them.

IMG_20180414_180524
Sunset in the Persian Gulf

 

 

sailing out of the gulf

IMG_20180409_220732

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 Storm was 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.

https://drshyamalavatsa.wordpress.com/2016/12/29/ships-that-pass-in-the-night/

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.

paradise lost

IMG_20180323_101733

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 in Kuwait City.

IMG-20180403-WA0008

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.

IMG-20180402-WA0014.jpg

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.

IMG-20180313-WA0016

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.

IMG-20180308-WA0018

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.

IMG_20180318_191305

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.

IMG-20180304-WA0001

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.

IMG-20180313-WA0027

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).

DSC02873

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

IMG-20180402-WA0015
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.

IMG-20180310-WA0003

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.

IMG-20180313-WA0009
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.

IMG-20180318-WA0016

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.

img-20180402-wa0013.jpg

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.

IMG-20180330-WA0022

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

IMG_1173
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!

IMG_20180302_140131

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.

garden of eden and its overburden

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.

IMG_20180323_115901

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.

IMG-20180324-WA0005

IMG-20180324-WA0004

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.

IMG_20180323_115847

The Tigris and Euphrates have existed for thousands of years. They nurtured the ancient Mesopotamian civilisation 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 occupations. A civilisation.

This land, the ‘cradle of civilisation’, 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 civilisation 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…

*Overburden: ancient features buried under accumulated sediment and soil that archeologists have to remove to see what lies beneath.

the desert beautiful

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.

IMG-20180317-WA0008

In some places the sand glowed golden in the ethereal light.

IMG-20180317-WA0012

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.

IMG-20180317-WA0009

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.

IMG-20180318-WA0014

Kids were amazingly good at handling them! And they were having good, clean fun outdoors too.

IMG-20180317-WA0013

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.

IMG-20180318-WA0012

There were a couple of people walking on the escarpment, deep in conversation. Nice place to have an interesting conversation actually.

IMG-20180318-WA0011

Some men had ridden the ATVs all the way up the road to the escarpment from the place where they were being hired out.

IMG-20180318-WA0009

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.

IMG-20180318-WA0007

It was a great day!

Note: No photo has been edited. This is exactly how the world looked that day.