1. The foreigner
My visit to Bangalore is part business-trip part vacation. Traveling with me on business is a German colleague whose eyes reveal a side of the city I usually gloss over. On the first day, he is puzzled by the security measures at the hotel entrance. Our bags are scanned, the contents of our pockets verified, and we pass through a metal detector. The shopping mall attached to the Marriott has another checkpoint. Why so many security checks here, he asks, when everything seems normal outside?
It is his first visit to the country. On the afternoon he arrives, he takes an auto-rickshaw to Bangalore Palace, and later sends me a picture of the rickshaw on WhatsApp. He is curious about Indian food, but soon runs into “stomach issues due to the spice.” At the restaurant, he tries to make sense of the waiters in the scene, some flitting from table to table, others hanging around doing nothing, and a few just giving orders to others. In the evening he goes looking for mineral water — the bottles in his room are exorbitantly priced — but the nearby BigBasket outlet has no stock. In another supermarket at another mall he picks up four water bottles — it is all they have. Why do supermarkets here not stock water? he asks. I am equally puzzled.
But I am not puzzled when the security guards ignore me and wish him Good Morning. And it is no surprise to see the Crossword bookstore attendant approach him with a greeting and ask if he needs help. Why didn’t he ask you, my colleague wants to know. Because I’m not white, I tell him.
In 1978, U.S. president Jimmy Carter brokered a Middle East peace treaty between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. The deal still stands — this is why you don’t hear news about Israel and Egypt fighting over Sinai, a piece of land that had seen three major wars in thirty years before this treaty — and is among the rare instances of successful negotiations towards peace. Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright narrates the story of that historic autumn in Camp David, the thirteen days it took three leaders — Jimmy Carter, Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin, and Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat — and their teams to agree on the deal.
It’s a gripping narrative structured in chapters outlining the events of each day, bookended by a prologue that sets the context and an epilogue that outlines the consequences. Woven through the chapters are summaries of key events of the region — the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the war that followed, the 1956 Suez crisis, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 — and also the biblical underpinnings of Israel’s outlook and actions: the exodus from Egypt, David and Goliath, Samson, etc.
Historical works of this nature, where the consequences of actions described are still playing out, can leave you with a sense of despair. While the Camp David summit solved one issue — between Israel and Egypt — it left unresolved the matter of Palestine. Here’s Wright:
The War of Independence in 1948 expanded the territory that the new Jewish state claimed, including nearly 60 percent of the area designated for the still-born nation of Palestine, the remainder being taken over by Jordan. Arab refugees flooded into neighbouring countries, and Israel locked the door behind them. Instead of being digested by other Arab societies, the refugees became a destabilising presence and a source of radicalism and terror that plagued the world. Except for Jordan, the Arab states have avoided absorbing the Palestinian refugees in order to keep the conflict alive. The numerous attempts to bring this conflict to an end have failed because of the absence of political courage on both sides to accept the sacrifices that peace would entail.
The sacrifice made by Israel at Camp David was one that entailed giving up the Sinai peninsula — a territory they had captured in 1967 during the Six-Day war — and their settlements there. In return, the Israelis received peace on that front. No such sacrifice seems acceptable to Israel in the matter of Palestine — this becomes clear in the beliefs and attitudes of Begin, defined mostly by Israel’s Biblical past and the horrors Jews have suffered throughout history.
Deneuve was the first Namibian I spoke with. He was also the last. On the first occasion, he came up to me as I exited the Hosea Kutako International airport, asked if I wanted a taxi, and ushered me into his Volkswagen Jetta. He was in his late twenties, a coloured man of medium height and build, with a chin strip goatee beneath a pencil moustache. He was not a chatty driver. When I commented that his English was excellent, he smiled, and returned the compliment. On the forty-minute drive to Windhoek he answered my questions perfunctorily: his father lived in Cape Town, his mother in Windhoek; he could surely earn more with a desk job, but preferred to work outdoors and be on the move; on weekends he shopped at the mall, spent time with his girlfriend, and watched football; he was a Liverpool fan.
On the second instance, as he drove me to the airport for my flight back to Germany, he spoke of the kudu’s habit of charging at cars when caught in the headlights. Once, when he met a herd beside the road, he slowed to a crawling pace, turned off the headlights, and held his breath as he passed the antelopes. These days there were fewer animals along this stretch to the airport. A lone fox trotting across the road was our only sighting.
A fortnight and two days separated these conversations, a time I spent — with my wife P, who joined me after a brief halt in South Africa — driving in the desert and along the coast. I left Namibia with a full notebook, a camera carrying something of the vast nothingness, and sand in my ears, under my fingernails, all over my shoes.
* * *
For most travelers venturing into the interior, Windhoek is only a stopover, an entry-exit port and little more. But we had planned a couple of days here, to slow down and absorb something of the city’s character.
Come back safe! A colleague said to me, when he heard we were traveling to Istanbul. Apparently a few German journalists had been arrested recently in Turkey, and the German government had advised citizens not to visit the country. We still carry Indian passports, I said to my colleague, before reassuring him that all will be well.
Our visit revealed the disconnect between local reality and media-induced paranoia. Life in the city appeared normal. If there was any repression, it could perhaps be inferred in the absence of street protests and troops of riot policemen waiting nearby. Both were a frequent presence during our visit four years ago. But such signs — I found myself looking for them — could be misleading. Turkish flags were everywhere, and I wondered if this had something to do with the coup and the purge that followed. But a carpet seller in Grand Bazaar corrected my hasty impression: the flags had come out for display on recent national holiday.
This time we stayed on the other side of Istiklal Caddesi, in an aparthotel built three years ago in the middle of an old quarter, surrounded by a dense cluster of tenements. From the terrace, sticking its neck out among irregular rooftops, you could see the Galata tower. At dusk bursts of camera flashes from the tower dotted the darkening sky.
In the city to meet my sister, who was holidaying in Turkey, we spent most of the weekend revisiting places we had seen on our previous visit. Cukurcuma, Istiklal, Taksim, the bazaar quarter, the mosques. A excursion to Eyup, a town on the Golden Horn, did not work as planned: the ferry company had cancelled this stop. We took the Bosphorus tour instead, hopping off at unfamiliar places — Emirgan, Beylerbeyi — and walking about, catching glimpses of life in these parts. The waterfront was busy with brides and grooms posing for photos, hobbyist and serious fishermen displaying patience and generosity (some threw fish they caught back into the water), and men selling kite-shaped kites.
Tourists were fewer. On the Bosphorus tour the ferries were occupied not with European faces we’d seen last time, but Turkish families on a holiday, or perhaps Istanbulites enjoying a weekend outing. I could see myself sitting all day on these sparsely-filled boats, reading and writing and watching the riverside mansions and ships and barges float past.
Cats still roamed all over the city, people still smoked as if they drew life from those puffs, locals were warm and curious about ‘Hindistan’ as before, the ritual of drinking Turkish tea brought the familiar feeling I belonged here, and the skyline with mosques and minarets left me once again with a heartache. All this is sentimental, but it is also true, and perhaps the only other place that triggers in me such emotions is Calvino’s Venice. Istanbul, a city I’ve visited briefly only twice, fills me with longing.
(Part 3 of a series that began here. P and I have just arrived at Sacha, a lodge in the Ecuadorian rainforest; we are part of a group led by our guide Daniel.)
The room safe was locked when we checked in. Eduardo, the barman who came to unlock it, looked Indian. American Indian, not Indian Indian. The staff was mostly Indian, and while our skin tones matched theirs, P and I were the only real Indians.
Next day, on the safe’s display, 4 appeared when 1 was pressed. Summoned again, Eduardo laughed like a boy seeing the errant display. It’s the humidity, he said; use only the last column of digits — that will work! It probably would, but the reduced attack vector would also render the safe useless. This did not enter Eduardo’s calculations. The safe had a symbolic purpose: to calm down tourists used to seeing them in their rooms. We left it open.
That first afternoon, not long after we arrived, Daniel led our group (Pierre, Dominique, Julie, and us) on a short canoe ride around the lake. We spotted flycatchers, oropendolas, and hoatzins. The hoatzin, whom Daniel called a stinky turkey, flew between trees in an ungainly fashion, cawing like a sick crow. A bizarre bird with reptilian features, it looked like a prehistoric creature.
In the evening, over dinner, we learned Pierre was a retired lawyer.
I put people behind bars, he said.
Used to put, said Dominique, his daughter, a sports instructor.
Don’t challenge me, Pierre said, lifting his fork.
They lived in Zurich. Both looked French, had French names, but they spoke Swiss German. Which meant I could not understand most of what they said to each other. (Swiss German is what you get when a regular German has an upset stomach.) Earlier on this trip to Ecuador, they’d been to the Galapagos for a week.
(Part 2 of a series that began here.)
This is no beach vacation, I recall one reviewer on TripAdvisor saying. You wake up at five-thirty, breakfast at six, spend the morning canoeing or hiking in the rainforest. Back at the lodge, you break for lunch before venturing out for a late afternoon adventure. Following an early dinner there may be some night activity: walking or canoeing.
Another review detailed the journey to the lodge. From Coca, the nearest airport, you ride a motorboat for two hours, hike in the forest for twenty minutes, then ride a canoe for another twenty minutes. Keep your ponchos ready, it may rain anytime.
I carried this outline — a skeleton — with me. The rainforest infused it with life.
Flying over the Andes towards the Oriente, we landed in Coca at noon, forty minutes after taking off from Quito. The arrival lounge at Coca was a verandah facing an asphalted backyard of a house.
Is this the airport daddee? A little girl asked.
Palm trees sprung out of a green patch beside the airstrip. Beyond it a dense row of concrete houses filled the horizon. A tractor with a carriage wheeled the baggages to the verandah, where two stocky men unloaded them on a parapet.
Outside, we met Daniel. He wore a dark blue Sacha T-shirt and looked not older than thirty, but he carried the poise and presence of an older man. Our suitcase was hauled onto the back of a pick-up and we were ushered, along with others visiting Sacha, to a small bus.
Our baggage did not arrive in Quito. One suitcase did, the other was orphaned in Houston. The United Airlines agent who traced the missing piece said their policy offers no compensation for delays shorter than 48 hours. The suitcase would arrive exactly a day later, on the same flight from Houston to Quito. And United would deliver it anywhere in Ecuador.
We were leaving for the Amazon rainforest next morning. The agent, a short woman with a soft voice and reassuring manner, took down details of our lodge. Then she handed us two complimentary packets, each containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, a shaving kit, and a sachet of laundry granules.
Missing baggage isn’t much cause for worry these days. Airlines trace the items with ease, and a formal process oversees such incidents. (I can imagine a meeting of United employees, sitting around a table in a room, defining such a process. One of them proposes a complimentary toiletries pack in lieu of compensation. Another one adds: with laundry granules.) It can be inconvenient of course, but P had packed some of her clothes into my suitcase. She coped, without the granules.